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US Space Force: What you need to know

The Trump administration wants to be ready for conflict in space.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off March 26, 2020.

In the first official launch for the US Space Force, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 26, carrying a military communications satellite.

United Launch Alliance

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

Despite getting blasted by Twitter snark and inspiring a Netflix comedy starring Steve Carell, the US Space Force championed by President Donald Trump is serious business.

The basic concept is a call to arms for a new way of dealing with military matters in Earth's orbit. No, that doesn't mean sky-soldiers zooming around with laser blasters, Moonraker-style. It has a lot more to do with using and protecting the satellites that are essential to modern warfare, especially for high-tech countries like the US and some of its potential adversaries.

The Space Force is already looking to sign up America's best and brightest for duty that's nowhere near as sci-fi as it might have seemed just a few years ago. Its first recruitment video dropped on May 6, and officials say there's already been an "avalanche of applicants."

Here are some key things to know about what's up with Space Force and how this vision is turning into reality.

What exactly is Space Force?

Space Force was established on Dec. 20, 2019, and will be put into operation -- or "stood up," in Pentagon-speak -- over 18 months, so by mid-2021. Its responsibilities, according to the new branch's fact sheet, include "developing military space professionals, acquiring military space systems [and] maturing the military doctrine for space power."  The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act provided $40 million to get things going.

At the helm is Gen. John "Jay" Raymond, the country's first chief of space operations -- and the very first member of Space Force.

US Space Force logo on a United Launch Alliance rocket

The logo for the US Space Force, as seen on the side of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 25.

United Launch Alliance

It's the sixth branch of the US military, so in that sense it's equivalent to the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. There is some bureaucratic nuance to that: Space Force falls under the Secretary of the Air Force, similar to how the Marines come under the Secretary of the Navy.

In this initial phase, it's leaning heavily on that sibling. What's now the Space Force was the existing Air Force Space Command, and space-related Air Force personnel will be transferring over in the coming months. Eventually the new branch will consolidate space missions from across the US armed forces. (The Army and Navy currently have their own operations).

What has Space Force accomplished so far?

It got off to a bit of an awkward start in January when Trump revealed the Space Force logo, which took a lot of social media grief for its striking resemblance to the Starfleet Command logo from the Star Trek series. There was also the ribbing that ensued when Space Force offered a peek at the quite earthy camouflage design of its uniforms. "USSF is utilizing current Army/Air Force uniforms, saving costs of designing/producing a new one," Space Force said. "Members will look like their joint counterparts they'll be working with, on the ground."

More to the point of what the new branch is all about: On March 26, Space Force carried out what it called its first national security space launch, sending into orbit a military communications satellite, built by Lockheed Martin, that's part of a six-satellite network of encrypted, jam-proof systems.

On May 17, Space Force launched the secretive X-37B space plane into orbit. It's carrying experiments for NASA and the military, including one studying the effects of radiation on seeds and another looking at transforming solar energy into radio frequencies that can be transmitted to the Earth's surface.

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In April, the US Air Force Academy's graduating class of 2020 included, for the first time, officers being commissioned directly into the Space Force. Of the more than 960 graduates, 86 will become Space Force's first company-grade officers. Though approximately 16,000 military members and civilians from the Air Force Space Command have been designated for the new branch, Raymond told the officers, "you are numbers 3 through 88."

As of May 1, Air Force members already on active duty could volunteer for transfer to the Space Force, with those transfers expected to begin around the start of September. Those eligible to transfer include officers and enlisted members in fields including space operations, cyberspace operations, geospatial intelligence, signals intelligence and targeting analysis.

"This is an historic time to be in the space business," Raymond said in a statement.

How did Space Force get started?

The idea for a cosmic military branch captured widespread attention after an aside by 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, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, the Department of Defense was directed 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.

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

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

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This didn't come out of nowhere, right?

Right. Before Space Force, there was a US Space Command established in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan, who had some controversial ideas about space-based defenses. Space Command merged with US Strategic Command in 2002 following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In February 2019, Trump signed Space Policy Directive 4, calling for the creation of a Space Force Department that would be under the purview of the Secretary of the Air Force. The directive, though, specified the goal of eventually converting the new department into an independent military branch. 

In August 2019, Trump formally reestablished the US Space Command as a division within the Department of Defense. It was one of 11 unified combatant commands, each of which oversees a certain geographical or functional area -- for instance, there is the European Command and the Cyber Command. That revival, the president said, was a step toward creating the Space Force as a new military branch.

So what exactly has the military been up to? 

The US military has been involved in space-related projects 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.

More recently, the Air Force, Navy and Army had their own units focused on elements of operations in space. A Pentagon memo obtained by Defense One indicated 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.

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, surveillance of space activities and projects like the secretive X-37B space plane.

The Air Force even oversees the Global Positioning System -- that is, the machinery behind the GPS that maps out the routes you drive every day.

Why do we need this? 

Officials in the Trump administration make 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 a number of years.

The stakes are high. Much of our 21st century economy and lifestyle -- from bank transactions and weather forecasting to television service and GPS -- 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 -- and littered orbit with potentially destructive space debris. Many saw that 2007 operation as a veiled display of military power.

Is everyone on board with Space Force?

Definitely not. Since Trump's aside in March 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 said the creation of a new military branch would weaken other branches and lead to internal squabbling in 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 in 2018.

Trump's former Air Force secretary, Heather Wilson, was less than enthusiastic about the idea when it first was aired. 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 argued that the cost could be significantly higher.

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