What Happens to the Space Force Now?
President Biden is inheriting one of Trump’s pet projects.
The headquarters of the United States Space Command was supposed to be based in Colorado. Since then-President Donald Trump revived the command in 2018, the state had been its temporary home, and last February, when the search for a permanent location was still on, he had teased that the current arrangement could win out. “I will be making a big decision on the future of the Space Force as to where it is going to be located, and I know you want it,” Trump said at a rally in Colorado Springs last February. “You are being very strongly considered for the space command, very strongly.”
The Space Command is not the same thing as the Space Force, which was created in 2019 (and which, by the way, is not the same thing as NASA, either). The Space Force trains service members, some of whom serve under Space Command. But in Trump’s mind, they are wrapped up together, as one of his signature accomplishments. Space is cool and flashy, and who doesn’t love Mars? When Trump mentioned the Space Force at a rally, the crowd erupted in cheers. A new Space Command headquarters would, in theory, help cement part of his legacy—Trump, the president who made space great again.
Instead, Trump leaves behind a small controversy. On the day he was impeached for the second time, his administration announced that the headquarters would not stay in Colorado, but would relocate—to Alabama.
The Air Force, the department overseeing the search, had twice recommended Colorado over other sites under consideration, in late 2019 and again this year, according to a former senior defense official who served in the Trump presidency. (The Atlantic agreed to grant the official anonymity in order to speak about internal deliberations.) But when then-Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett came to the White House with that recommendation earlier this month, Trump ordered officials to go with Hunstville.
“This was a political decision by the White House,” the former defense official told me. “The service recommended Colorado, and everyone expects the new administration will reopen this.”
The decision roiled Colorado lawmakers in both parties; Democrats said out loud that Trump had prioritized politics over the command’s 1,400 military and civilian workers and their families. Florida Senator Rick Scott said in a statement to The Atlantic that he’s disappointed his state wasn’t chosen, and that he is “reviewing the decision.” Alabama Senator Richard Shelby said in a statement to The Atlantic that “it’s our understanding that Huntsville was, in fact, the recommendation of the Air Force, and for good reason.” Barrett, who no longer serves as Air Force secretary, said in a statement that the process included “insights from the national security leadership” and senior military commanders, and that “careful deliberation” went into her selection of Huntsville. An Air Force spokesperson would not comment on “pre-decisional recommendations,” but said that Trump “was informed and consulted during the decision-making process."
The Biden administration could have an easy time unwinding the headquarters decision, one of the many Trump-era policies it will likely roll back. But though the Space Force has often been treated as the butt of a bad joke, it is one Trump initiative that will last. It may not be the grand, legacy-making organization Trump imagined, but the Space Force isn’t going anywhere.
In the last year, the Space Force has slowly transformed into a real military service. The branch, which primarily oversees satellite operations, has debuted its own seal, organizational structure, and terminology. It has already deployed its first troops—not into space, but to the Middle East, where they’ll support combat operations that rely on space systems. Abolishing the force would require an act of Congress, and the legislature doesn’t seem to have an appetite for that. At Biden’s inauguration ceremony, the Space Force flag appeared on the Capitol along with the flag of the other armed forces. “Nobody’s debating whether the Space Force should exist,” Jared Zambrano-Stout, an aerospace consultant and a former chief of staff for the Trump administration’s National Space Council, told me. “They’re debating about what it should be doing.”
Which puts President Joe Biden in an interesting predicament. The Space Force has always been more boring than its name implies, amounting to some organizational reshuffling of Air Force personnel and operations. But Trump has used it to fuel his own vision of American bravado, which his supporters have adopted. On the day of the Capitol attack, some supporters in Washington, D.C., and around the country complemented their Trump regalia with Space Force flags. With Trump gone, the new administration now finds itself having to embrace a piece of government saturated with MAGA spin and disdained by the left, and make it seem as ordinary as it actually is.
The Space Force seemed like a Trump whim at the outset. “I was saying it the other day—’cause we’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space—I said, ‘Maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it the Space Force,’” he said in March 2018, speaking to an audience of Marines in California. “And I was not really serious. And then I said, ‘What a great idea. Maybe we’ll have to do that.’”
But an armed service dedicated to space operations is not a Trump invention. The concept emerged in the 1990s as the United States began relying on satellites during ground combat, and in 2001, a commission chaired by the former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld considered the suggestion. A pair of lawmakers in the House resurrected the idea of a space corps a few years ago, but it didn’t take off until Trump glommed on, and it was all hands on deck. “The vice president put us to work and said, ‘Okay, the president wants this, so we need to figure out what’s the best way for us to put it together,’” Zambrano-Stout said.
The country had last established a new military branch 70 years ago, and the Space Force’s circumstances were very different. Most of America’s forces were founded with the country itself, except the Air Force, which emerged after a world war. The national-security community had been debating the value of standing up a space force of some kind eventually, but Trump jumped the gun, providing a new rationale: It sounded good to him. “He only asks me about the Space Force every week,” then-Vice President Mike Pence joked as staff worked to formulate the plans.
By late 2019, a defense bill arrived on Trump’s desk that included, among other things, the go-ahead from Congress to establish the sixth branch of the American armed forces. Despite Trump’s sweeping rhetoric, which conjured images of space cadets battling enemies in orbit, the organization was mostly a shiny rebrand. In public, Trump avoided the full truth of the final product—that the Space Force would operate within the Department of the Air Force rather than stand alone, that Congress stipulated that its workforce must be built from existing Air Force personnel. But for a salesman like Trump, the appearance of the thing was more important than its substance.
In true Trump fashion, the Space Force’s public image became an exercise in exaggeration. Recruitment ads beckoned prospective guardians—as Space Force members are called—to consider that “maybe your purpose on this planet isn’t on this planet,” painting an entirely unrealistic picture of the work. “Let’s face it: If you’re a Space Force person, you’re going to be in a room monitoring satellites,” says Victoria Samson, a military-space expert at the Secure World Foundation, which has briefed the Biden team on national space issues. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s definitely not as sexy as Starship Troopers going into space.” Even staffers working in the Trump administration wished that he wouldn’t mention the Space Force at his rallies, worried that politicizing the effort would invite only more ridicule.
In 2021, officials will hammer down the service’s objectives and priorities. Right now, the nation’s space operations are spread across military branches. Which systems will be consolidated into the Space Force, and which will remain in the domain of the Air Force, the Navy, and others? Within the space-focused parts of the military, the Space Force is already seen as a desirable assignment: A survey of Army officers who work on space operations found that nearly all of them want to transfer to the Space Force.
Outside the military, the Space Force is still sometimes treated as a farce. Netflix is already at work on the second season of an eponymous show premised on that idea. One episode drew from a White House meeting in which Trump suggested to military leaders that the first lady should help design the Space Force uniforms “because of her impeccable fashion sense,” according to Time magazine. On the show, Space Force staffers end up modeling the designs, some adorned with glitter, and reporting back to the White House. “There is a concern that there’ll be a knee-jerk reflex of people who aren’t familiar with space issues to be like, ‘That was a Trump program; let’s get rid of it,’” Samson told me. But those calls will likely come from people who believe the Space Force is a Trumpian vanity project, not people within the Biden administration itself, who likely know differently.
Biden has not publicly commented on the future of the Space Force under his watch. (A spokesperson for the new administration did not respond to a request for comment.) The topic is unlikely to come up during his speeches soon, as he prioritizes the economic and health crisis caused by the coronavirus. But when that moment comes, several space-policy experts have told me, it might not hurt for the president to offer some kind of reset, to remind Americans that the Space Force is not a political prop, but a group of hardworking military professionals. “We are a spacefaring nation, and we live in an era that will be defined by rapid, worldwide growth in space,” John Raymond, the four-star general who leads the Space Force, said in a statement to The Atlantic. “The mission of the United States Space Force is to protect the national security interests of the United States."
Raymond previously served as the head of the Space Command, the unit at the center of the recent debacle. In 2019, the Air Force considered several locations in Colorado, California, and Alabama for the command’s permanent home, judging the candidates on multiple factors, and by the end of the year was prepared to recommend Colorado Springs. But the service restarted the search the following spring, in part because some lawmakers had complained about the process, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at a Senate hearing at the time. A final decision would not come until after the November election, but electoral politics had nothing to do with it, Esper said. When a new list of contenders was later announced, Florida, whose lawmakers had expressed frustration to the White House about the Air Force’s selection criteria, had made the list. Texas, New Mexico, and Nebraska had also made the cut, but California was dropped.
In an alternate timeline, in which Trump hadn’t encouraged his supporters to go to the Capitol and still had a Twitter account, he probably would have tweeted enthusiastically about the Space Command news. Now that his administration has ended, the Space Force has its first opportunity to develop an image independent of its original benefactor. “We don’t think about the Truman Air Force. When we think about NASA, we don’t think about Eisenhower,” James Vedda, a senior policy analyst at the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy, told me, by way of comparison. Someday, it might not be the Trump Space Force, either.