the Space Force, or when science fiction expands

Many I know are outraged or at least mock the new United States military branch, the Space Force. But hang on a minute. Nobody even knows what the charter of this new branch is, or who and what capabilities the “force” will require. But once humans venturing into space number in the several hundred and then thousands, some military discipline may be needed.

While humans have been going into space for sixty years, it has primarily been the United States or the Russians. The International Space Station is still primarily a venture between several nations. And recently the Chinese indicated they will venture to the Moon. It has only been in the last ten years or so, that commercial exploration and development of space has been moving from science fiction into something people now living will see. (If we do not kill ourselves from a pandemic first.)

In popular culture, for more than forty years, various incarnations of a futurist “space force”, Star Trek, and blockbuster movies about space forces – rebels versus a militarist empire (Star Wars) – have captured the world’s imagination. If you have heard or become a fan of the television series, The Expanse, now filming its 5th season, you should be at least curious how life is imitating art. Without giving plot twists and turns away for those who have not seen this series, the premise of this show begins with an alien technology discovered and then manipulated by corrupt industrialists, politicians and military leaders. As the different plots are developed, it is apparent that the future is a lot like our present.

Forgetting for a moment about alien technology, impending death, romance, betrayal, and deceit, what has motivated me to support the real-life introduction of a “Space Force” is a historical perspective. When mankind set off in sailing vessels, like the Minoans in the Mediterranean five to six thousand years ago, or the Polynesians who ventured across the Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands a thousand years ago, or to South America as some suggest, in each society, military forces developed. When the Greeks, Ottomans, Spanish, French, and British, started venturing in search of trade, territorial expansion, and so forth, fishermen and merchants were not the sole adventurers. Military forces were also there, to protect the culture’s interests.

While people may still mock the introduction of a Space Force, the militarization of space has been unavoidable. This has been a logical step since science fiction first dreamed about living on other worlds. With human motivations ranging from curiosity to power lust, an altruistic policing of space is fantasy. Missile-launched nuclear weapons are in numerous arsenals. And once someone – a terrorist, a corrupt politician, or a loose alliance of rogue “Belters” have achieved an advantage in space, who will have the resources – and the quick-response positioning to protect individual, scientific or commercial enterprise?

before Lightyear there was another Buzz

Buzz Aldrin stepping onto the Moon, 1969

The second person to set foot on the Moon, “Buzz” Aldrin, is a living icon. The late Neil Armstrong and the Command Module pilot, Michael Collins are the other two legends of Apollo 11, whose feat of landing on and returning safely from, the Moon are celebrated today. Had it not been for a clear challenge, originating between two competing ideologies, the “West” and the Soviet Union – which first successfully put a man into space, the technology we take for granted would have come around a lot later. Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z have cell phones, cable television, and solar panels today, due, in part, to the science that sent mankind into Space, filtered down to the rest of us. The motivation for Governments may have been political, but undeniably, people are dreamers, builders and adventurers, too. Mankind advanced from stone tools to building the first flying machines in 100,000 years. From barely leaving the ground to launching orbiting satellites: less than sixty years. And from orbiting rudimentary satellites to putting people on the surface of another world and returning them, safely, in less than ten. And in the last half-century? We should be. in Star Trek parlance, “beam me up. Scotty!” by now.

When a human being first set foot on the Moon fifty years ago today, I was five days short of ten years old. When I ask my children today what they scientific achievements remember from the time when they were ten, space flight is not among their first memories. Movies and television, created with the technology inspired by the science and engineering of the Space Program, they recall.

Star Trek, Star Wars, and a host of other fascinating stories involving travel to other stars have filled the human imagination with possibilities. But the first grainy images on a television set of Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin setting foot on the Moon, was the reality that people working together, around the globe, could achieve impossible dreams. We are starting to finally see private enterprise invest in next-step ventures. We have man-made objects moving through interstellar space. In the last half-century the amazing feat of people living and working in orbit, the probes that visit distant asteroids or Pluto or travel in interstellar space have garnered less attention than someone’s latest inappropriate Tweet.

We need a challenge to unite millions to travel into a new Frontier. It is time to send adventurers, dreamers, and builders out again. In the rallying cry of that Disney character, Buzz Lightyear, in the Toy Story movies,

“To infinity and beyond!!”

Home, a quarter-million miles away