Space hangs above us out of sight, a mere 100 kilometers (62 miles) away. Because of its out-of-the-way location, it’s hard to remember that the lives we lead are underpinned by space.
Satellites, layered in four distinct altitudes, provide a vast array of 21st century services, including cell phone service, navigational data for cars and airplanes, and weather data. They monitor for natural disasters and provide key information for search and rescue operations.
Satellites also give us television, which is essential for watching Fox & Friends.
Sadly, the era of open space may be coming to a close.
On June 18, 2018, President Donald Trump advocated the creation of a Space Force, the sixth branch of the military. Rather than make America great again, the plan to militarize space is one that will yield catastrophic results to our nation’s peace and prosperity
As educators, we feel that understanding of the greater universe is in itself a reward. But to put it in a way that the current administration will hopefully understand: We need to think of space as the means to maintain the viability of our economy.
If space becomes militarized, any exercise, however small, will threaten the existence of the approximately 1800 working satellites that circle our planet. These satellites have no defenses against mere accidents. They certainly have no defense against an accidental misfire of a military-grade weapon or the resulting debris. Gravity was science fiction, but an orbital cascade is a potential reality.
During the Space Race, space was dominated by government and military operations, but since then, the American government has encouraged commercialization of space for everyone. Industry has found a toehold in space, to the benefit of our economy and our education. Returning space to the military would be a retrograde activity, particularly because we are on the cusp of a change that will enable space-related commerce and commercialization to play a significant role in our GDP and our evolution as a society.
Space companies received $3.9 billion in investment in 2017; they received $1 billion in the first quarter of 2018. Companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX (valued at $25 billion) are actively working to create a space tourism industry, and the commercial space environment is beginning to create opportunities, such as mining asteroids for water and resources needed to support life extraterrestrially. This has the potential to lead to space settlement, which should be the goal of any forward-thinking administration.
Militarization of space inherently makes space a far more risky place to invest in. Escalation means every spacefaring nation will want respond in kind. Countries not yet in space will ramp up efforts to be there, not for commercial reasons, but for the ability to retaliate.
We run the risk of every launch requiring oppressive levels of national security oversight, of every satellite becoming the potential flashpoint of an international incident. Fear of space weapons will have a chilling effect on the entire industry, not to mention humanity’s potential in space. Faced with increased uncertainty and decreased opportunity, businesses will look elsewhere for investment opportunities. This would put a stop to the space industry before it has a chance to truly emerge.
But consider the alternative – if all spacefaring nations have growing industry in orbit, international cooperation becomes not just desirable but essential. Everyone stands to lose if space becomes risky, because everyone has a stake in the enormous potential for economic growth that space offers. Putting all that at risk for the sake of military posturing is not just a terrible idea, it is one with literally catastrophic potential consequences.
Former deputy chief of technology at NASA and current board member of Teachers in Space, Jim Adams says, “The recently proposed Space Force is looking backward in time and will resurrect old conflicts. I think the vision of moving further out into space is looking outward, in peace for all mankind.”
More importantly, the militarization of space will stifle the ability of students and educational institutions to develop new technology and suffocate the creativity that’s happening in the field right now. As Teachers in Space, we’ve been bringing space science education to children across America. Our high-school students are building cubesats, which are being flown on high-altitude aircraft. We are developing a generation of space citizen scientists that have begun making real contributions toward understanding the world we live in.
If Congress approves of the creation of a Space Force—and it might not happen, considering President Trump announced a directive without a plan—we would like to see something along the lines of a “Space Corps,” much like the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps brings education and economic development to countries in need. A Space Corps would continue that learning, training students to develop experiments, which can then be flown and tested. This will encourage students to acquire much-needed STEM degrees to fill those 3 million jobs that are currently unoccupied.
The debate over the purpose of a Space Force is just beginning. Teachers in Space encourages citizens to get involved in that debate with both the Administration and Congress to assure that this investment doesn’t take us back to the days of the Cold War but forward to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond.
Space is a way to maintain the viability of our economy. And it begins with keeping space safe for all of us, not just for one country. After all, we want the students of today to look up at the sky in wonder, not in fear.
Teachers in Space is a non-profit dedicated to providing space science education. For more information, contact http://teachers-in-space.com/