Kate Becker The Visible Universe
Kate Becker The Visible Universe

It's been a big month for the final frontier. First, Patrick Stewart announced that he would reprise his role as Star Trek's Captain Picard. Then, a few days later, the Department of Defense announced its plan to set up a brand new branch of the military, the United States Space Force. Are truth and fiction finally, boldly converging?

I confess: I want them to. In fact, when I'm trying to sort out my thinking about some political or scientific advance, I sometimes apply the "Star Trek test": That is, does it get us closer to a (mostly) peaceful, egalitarian world that values exploration and cultural exchange above all? Or does it take us further away?

In the case of Space Force, though, the test breaks down. On its surface, Space Force is Star Trek — but what exactly is Space Force?

According to the Defense Department's report, the Space Force will be in charge of things like global surveillance, missile tracking, launch stations on the ground, communication and control links, and developing "deterrent capability." That last one sounds pretty ominous, but even doves like me recognize that some of our "strategic competitors" are working on ways to zap the satellites that the United States relies on for surveillance, navigation, and communication. (Remember when China shot a missile at an old weather satellite, or when it proposed putting lasers in orbit ... to clean up space debris?)


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But does it make sense to relocate these tasks, most of which now belong to the Air Force, into a new branch? Even those who are hawkish on the "ultimate high ground" aren't sure. Advocates of a dedicated new branch argue that space shouldn't have to compete for resources and attention, and that we would be better served by a specialized, single-minded service. But critics say that we can achieve all our space-defense goals within the architecture of the existing branches, and that creating a new one will only add bureaucracy and spark conflict, when what we need are integration and cooperation.

Exactly how the military should organize itself is light-years beyond my pay-grade; in any case, the Space Force can't get started without funding and authority from Congress. (Look for that in next year's budget request.) But the new report outlines a few things that the Defense Department can do to get a head start. First, it can establish a new Space Development Agency. Second, it can create a new force of "joint space warfighters." Third, it can create a "U.S. Space Command" to come up with new and improved ways to use space for fighting wars. Finally, it can figure out what, exactly, the president will have to submit to Congress next year to actually make the Space Force happen.

If the details seem a little muddy, at least the branding is vivid. The Trump re-election campaign chased the report's release with an email inviting supporters to pick their favorite Space Force logo from six sleek designs. The winning logo will go on Space Force merchandise, which the campaign will be selling later on. The logos are visual riffs on space shuttles, rockets, and NASA meatballs, with one curious outlier, a sunset-colored circle stamped "Mars Awaits." The Defense Department report doesn't mention Mars at all, and it's not clear how the Space Force's military mission would dovetail with civilian planetary exploration, even in its fullest, dreamiest realization.

Which leaves us back where we started: What exactly is Space Force? The campaign email seems more instructive than the Defense Department report. It's rah-rah and pew-pew. It's division dressed up to look like unity. If you're for Space Force, you're for the president and a vision of American dominance with literally no bounds. If you're against it, you're caught up in the bureaucratic weeds, thinking small, stuck on Earth. If you're for it, you're for a winner. And if you're against it? Well, you know.

So, maybe this isn't science fiction becoming fact, but a lowlier and more familiar spin-off: reality becoming entertainment. I think I've seen that show before.

Kate Becker is a science writer living in Boston. Contact her at spacecrafty.com, or connect via facebook.com/katembecker or twitter.com/kmbecker.