ORLANDO, Fla. — The Space Force on Dec. 12 kicked off its first national conference focused on professional development, bringing together service members, known as guardians, from across the nascent military branch.

The “Spacepower” conference — with about 2,000 people in attendance from the U.S. Space Force, allies and private industry — was organized by the Space Force Association, an advocacy non-profit that promotes the Space Force mission in the public and policy spheres. 

Since the Space Force’s inception inside the Department of the Air Force in 2019, the service’s professional development gatherings have been part of the larger Air & Space Forces Association conferences. All the military branches host conferences focused on their specific domain. The Space Force is now working to establish itself as a separate service devoted to space power, not just an offshoot of the Air Force.

Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman said in a keynote speech that it’s critical that as the service grows and matures, that it has its own national conference concentrated specifically on space power.

Saltzman said guardians, for example, need to understand how space systems support joint military forces and the role of space systems in “this new era of great power competition.” One of the goals of the conference, he said, is to promote the idea that the future of U.S. national and economic security depends on the ability to operate freely and securely in space.

“The Space Force is clearly moving beyond the establishment phase,” he said. “Our guardians are now delivering on the investment from the American people to ensure our nation remains the preeminent space power.”

Seeking its own culture

In his remarks, Saltzman touched on the need for innovation, creative thinking and empowering ideas from all ranks.

Many guardians continue to have questions about what the culture of the Space Force should be, he said. That will develop organically over time, he added, noting that the cultures of the other branches were not built overnight either. 

Saltzman wants guardians to be better informed on how the Space Force will work with military regional commands around the world and particularly with U.S. Space Command — the DoD warfighting organization that orchestrates space operations. 

“We’re integrating space and joint operations and educating other theater components on what space brings to the fight,” Saltzman said. 

He highlighted the range of professional opportunities opening up for guardians in growing career fields like satellite operations, intelligence, cybersecurity and acquisition. To attract talent, the Space Force submitted a proposal to Congress around a new personnel management system that offers more flexibility and is aligned with modern employment trends and the complexities of contemporary life.

“We need a system that provides full- and part-time positions to give our guardians more options, while still allowing the Space Force access to the capacity and expertise that has traditionally come from part-time roles,” Saltzman said.

Despite anecdotal evidence that some guardians are leaving the service due to frustration over a lack of promotion and education opportunities, Saltzman said “it’s a little too early to have all the data necessary to draw expansive conclusions on something as complicated as retention.”

Right now, “the data looks pretty good,” he added. “But I think retention is one of those central metrics that our leadership should continuously be evaluating.”

“Right now I feel like we’re doing some things right. But this is a highly talented workforce that will have lots of opportunities. And so I think it’s something that we should continuously be evaluating and monitoring and incentivizing people to stay with us.”

‘Dive in on space’

Col. Max Lantz, commander of U.S. Space Forces Europe & Africa, is based in Ramstein, Germany. During a meeting with reporters Dec. 12, Lantz  said it’s an “amazing experience to have an entire conference come together to really just dive in on space and what it means.” He called the conference a “safe space for space geeks.”

For the Space Force community, he said, “it really feels like we’re going from a pickup game to the NBA expansion League and we’re a team that gets to suit up, go to the game for part of the schedule,” Lantz added. “We have a seat at the table.”

Brig. Gen. Anthony Mastalir, head of U.S. Space Forces Indo-Pacific Command, based in Honolulu, Hawaii, said “one of the ongoing challenges that we have is an opportunity to continue to educate the service members about how space best integrates into all domains of warfighting.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...