Space travel has been a tug of war between the desire of the military to maintain a tactical high ground and the needs of scientists who want to use outer space for scientific purposes. Some organizations such as Asgardia, which bills itself as the first space nation, would like to ensure that outer space is used primarily for peaceful, non-military pursuits and, thus, would be natural allies of the scientific community.
On the flip side, NASA’s astronaut corps started out as purely military test pilots and most astronauts are still either active or retired military officers. The design of the space shuttle was influenced by the military’s desire to launch spy satellites. GPS satellites was a classified U.S. Air Force project before the use of GPS was made available to the public and the Air Force still owns these satellites. Now the Pentagon has proposed the creation of a Space Corps that would operate independently of NASA’s astronaut corps.
A subcommittee of the House Armed Services has already approved this proposal in the form of legislation calling for a Space Corps within the U.S. Air Force that will be independent of NASA. This move will theoretically prevent the Air Force from diverting funding from its space operations to other projects and ongoing missions, such as operations in Afghanistan. While a set budget has not yet been set, this will lead to a reorganization that will end in the establishment of a new office for the Air Force Space Corps.
This would not be the first time that the Air Force has wanted an astronaut corps of its own. During the 1960s, the Air Force had done work on a project called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), which would have built on work done for NASA’s Gemini Project and the Air Force’s X-20 Dyna-Soar military reconnaissance plane if the MOL hadn’t been canceled. The Air Force had already selected several astronauts for the MOL project and these astronauts were folded into NASA’s astronaut corps when it became clear that the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was never going to fly.
Scientists, of course, are not thrilled at the idea that their space-based scientific projects will take a back seat to the military. Much of the work done by the military can take decades to become declassified and, thus, available for scientists to use if they wish. This proposal comes at a time when the Trump Administration is pushing to slash the budget of the NOAA, as well as make cuts to NASA’s ongoing Earth observation projects. These cuts have been criticized as part of the Trump Administration’s ongoing hostility toward climate science and especially its denial of climate change.
“These [Earth-observing satellite] assets that we have are central to protection to life, property and economic development and national security,” University Corporation for Atmospheric Research president Anthony Busalacchi said of the cuts to projects for which the operation of Earth observation satellites is critical.
However, Busalacchi believes that the problem can be compensated for by increased participation from private organizations and the development of more efficient and smaller satellites. He acknowledges that most satellites that the government sends into orbit are both bigger and more expensive than thy need to be.
“We can’t continue to put up these Battlestar Galacticas on a fixed budget,” he told Wired.
Should the Space Corps be created, and should it work with civilian space efforts on projects that benefit both? The Senate Armed Services Committee is set to advance its version of the Space Corps proposal and Congress is set to vote on it after it returns from the July 4 break. Until then, there’s still time to contact your senators to give your opinion of the proposed creation of a Space Corps.