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Trump's Space Force is moving forward. Here's what you need to know

The Trump administration sees space as a war-fighting domain, and it wants the US to be ready.

NASA/Getty Images
"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

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 Donald Trump's Space Force is serious business.

Right now it's largely rhetorical, a call to arms for a new way of dealing with military matters in Earth's orbit. But the Trump administration hopes to have a United States Space Force up and running by as soon as 2020.

In other words, in just a few years, military recruiters could be looking to sign up America's best and brightest for a brand-new branch of the military that no one was talking about just eight months ago.

So now seems like a good time to try to get a handle on what exactly a Space Force might do and how this vision might turn into reality.

Here are some key things to know about where the idea of a Space Force came from and where it's heading.

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 San Diego in March.

"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. 

Now playing: Watch this: The US is getting a Space Force
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On Tuesday, the Space Council approved six recommendations to send to the president. They'll become part of Trump's fourth Space Policy Directive, according to SpaceNews. 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 Tuesday, 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. 

The recommendations also cover a legislative and funding proposal for the actual creation of a new military branch. That proposal would be sent on to Congress. Pence said the hope is to include the creation of a federal Department of the Space Force in the next Defense Reauthorization Act and to call for funds for the branch in the 2020 budget. 

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 proposal has 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, 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 that 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 has gained serious momentum over the past few months, and even Wilson has said publicly that she's in "complete alignment" with the plan.

Still, the final word on whether the Space Force ever gets off the ground and into orbit belongs to Congress. We'll have to see what the mood there is after next month's midterm elections.

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