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Trump's Space Force: Everything you need to know

The Trump administration wants to be ready for conflict in space, and Netflix has already taken notice.

NASA/Getty Images

From the start, the name Space Force sounded like a punchline. It carried echoes of juvenile name-calling and Hollywood laugh lines. Space cadet. Spaceballs. Marvin the Martian's Q-36 explosive space modulator.

But despite the plans getting blasted by Twitter snark and inspiring a new Netflix comedy starring Steve Carell that just started filming, President Donald Trump's Space Force is serious business.

The basic concept is a call to arms for a new way of dealing with military matters in Earth's orbit. The Trump administration hopes to have a United States Space Force up and running by as soon as 2020, but politics could stand in the way of meeting that goal.

The midterm elections of 2018 and resulting shift of power in the House of Representatives from Republican to Democratic control make it unlikely a whole new branch of the military will be created as Trump initially proposed. At least not until the next election.

In the meantime, Trump formally reestablished the United States Space Command as a division within the Department of Defense on Aug. 29. Space Command is one of 11 unified combatant commands that oversee a certain geographical or functional area: United States European Command and Cyber Command are a few other examples of existing combatant commands.

"Space Force All The Way" text over a view of Earth from space.

In August, President Trump tweeted "Space Force All The Way" in support of his proposed new military service. Could it serve as a motto for the branch?

NASA/NOAA image with text by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Space Command isn't new; it was established in 1985 by President Reagan and went away when it was merged with US Strategic Command in 2002 following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Trump said that reviving the command is a step towards creating his Space Force as a sixth military branch.

Another idea from the White House is to create a Space Force that exists within the structure of the Air Force. On Feb. 19, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 4 calling for the creation of a Space Force Department that will be under the purview of the Secretary of the Air Force. The directive specifically maintains the goal of eventually converting the new department into its own, sixth military branch. 

Even as a department within the Air Force, the new Space Force will still need to have its funding approved by Congress in an upcoming budget. 

Still, in just a few years, military recruiters could be looking to sign up America's best and brightest for a brand new military duty that no one was talking about a year ago.

Here are some key things to know about what exactly a Space Force might do and how this vision might turn into reality. 

How did this Space Force talk get started?

The idea for a cosmic military branch seems to have begun as an aside by President Trump, who first used the term "space force" in public during an address to Marines in March 2018.

"We're doing a tremendous amount of work in space, and I said, 'Maybe we need a new force. We'll call it the Space Force," Trump said during the speech. "I was not really serious, and then I said, What a great idea. Maybe we'll have to do that."

Three months later, Trump made it clear he was serious. At a meeting of the National Space Council, he directed the Department of Defense to begin the process of forming a sixth branch of the military.

"It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space," Trump said. "We must have American dominance in space."

The president doesn't have the authority to create a military service on his own. That's a job for Congress, which last did so in 1947 when, with President Harry Truman's signature, it spun the Air Force out of the Army. But Trump has been moving forward with the Pentagon and the National Space Council, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, to develop and talk up a plan that includes both executive actions and a legislative proposal. 

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In October 2018, the Space Council approved six recommendations to send to the president, which became part of Trump's fourth Space Policy Directive. The recommendations lay the groundwork for the Space Force by establishing a new, unified space command as well as a new space technology procurement agency, and by initiating an interagency review of space capabilities. 

In addition, Pence said during his speech announcing the plan, the Space Council would work with the National Security Council to "remove red tape" around the rules of engagement in space, which could be construed as looking for a way around the insistence by the international Outer Space Treaty that all activities in space be peaceful. 

So what exactly is a Space Force? 

This is one of the foggier parts of the proposal. While it's envisioned as a service branch like the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy that people could enlist and serve in, it's not completely clear what those enlistees would be doing. It seems unlikely that the Space Force will be sending troops to space on a regular basis, if at all. 

Instead, it appears a Space Force would be much more focused on imposing military influence on current space traffic, which is mostly unmanned spacecraft (satellites, by and large), and also consolidating the way items in space are used to guide and assist military operations on the surface of the planet.

Isn't our military already doing things in and about space?

Yes. The US military has been actively involved in space activities for decades. In the 1960s, at the same time that NASA was working toward a moon landing, the Air Force even had a parallel manned space program with its own astronauts, although none of them ever launched, as far as we know.

Today, a significant portion of US military activities tied to space resides in the Air Force Space Command, headquartered in Colorado, with over 30,000 people worldwide and launch facilities in Florida and California. The command handles missions that include satellite communications, missile warning systems, global positioning systems, surveillance of space, and other projects like the secretive X-37B space plane

A Pentagon memo obtained by Defense One indicates that the Trump administration's original proposal for a sixth military branch had the Space Force absorbing the Naval Satellite Operations Center, the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, parts of Air Force Space Command and the Army's 1st Space Brigade, which was specifically created for "enabling the delivery of decisive combat power" and includes two astronauts who are basically on loan to NASA.

Why do we need this? 

Pence has made the argument that space is a "war-fighting domain" and that other global powers like Russia and China are already treating it as such. That phrase echoes what some in the Air Force have been saying for months.

The stakes are high. Much of our 21st-century economy and lifestyle -- from bank transactions to weather forecasting to television service to the GPS directions guiding you on your vacation road trip -- depends on satellites functioning round the clock and without interruption. The military depends on them too.

But space right now is a bit like the Wild West, with a wide-ranging mix of government and commercial satellites, all of them sitting ducks.

We've even seen an instance of target practice: In 2007, China shot down one of its own satellites -- mission accomplished in its own right, it also littered orbit with potentially destructive space debris. Many saw the operation as a veiled display of military power.

Is everyone on board with the idea?

Definitely not. Since Trump's aside in March of 2018, the notion of a Space Force has been a constant target of ridicule on social media, talk shows and sometimes even on CNET.

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More seriously, some analysts say the creation of a new military branch would weaken some of the other branches and lead to internal squabbling within the military. 

"When you create a new bureaucracy, that bureaucracy tends to focus on its own ends. That's where the problems happen," Dan Grazier, military fellow at the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight, told SpaceNews.

Trump's own Air Force secretary, Heather Wilson, has been less than enthusiastic about the idea. Wilson signed a memo that estimated starting up a Space Force would cost $13 billion over five years, a figure dismissed by Pence and other Space Force boosters. Grazier argues that the cost could be significantly higher.

But what was once a "not really serious" idea soon gained serious momentum, and even Wilson has since said publicly that she's in "complete alignment" with the plan.

But for a now a full-blown Space Force remains grounded on the doorstep of Congress.

Originally published Oct. 27, 2018 and will be updated as news hits.