Out of my orbit – lessons about the Space Force and beyond

Miles Lankford

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A large machine on mars.

NASA’s inSight lander pictured. Photo via NASA.

A few weeks ago, NASA successfully launched its inSight lander to Elysium Planitia on the surface of Mars. Impressive and important things are going on in the aerospace world, and I was lucky enough to hear a little bit more about it.

On a crisp autumn morning, instead of driving to school, I boarded a silver line train headed downtown to McPherson Square. For a moment, I felt like an astronaut being launched (albeit with with multiple station stops along the way) out of the Little City into the real world.  

The purpose of this mission was to attend a “Transformers: Space” policy summit hosted by The Washington Post at the newspaper’s Washington headquarters, where Vice President Pence provided an outline of the Trump administration’s plans for space in the coming year.  

In August, Pence announced that the administration hopes to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. military as soon as 2020. In my time away from the bubble of Falls Church, I found there was much to explore.

Escaping from the gravitational pull of George Mason was not a case of playing hooky. My interest in space exploration began many years ago, and was amplified this summer when I got to spend a week at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, as part of the Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars (VASTS) residential academy.

When a family member was invited to the Washington Post event, and was able to bring a guest, I jumped at the chance to immerse myself in a summit that was looking at the most important issues on the country’s space agenda, including the future of the International Space Station, America’s plans to return to the Moon, and the search for life in the cosmos.

A boy stands next to a Washington Post Logo

The author, Miles Lankford, stands next to a glowing sign that reads “The Washington Post”. Lankford attended a Washington Post event to learn about the future of space technology, something very important to him. Photo courtesy of Linda Becker.

Standing in line to get into the Washington Post auditorium, I felt the thrill of being surrounded by a galaxy of stars. Not far behind me was U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), Vice Ranking Member, Committee on Science, Space and Technology. A few feet ahead of me stood a quartet of current and former astronauts in their trademark NASA blue jumpsuits. In the lobby were leaders from the academic and corporate worlds, some of whom were there to be panelists and others to be part of the audience – a real life lesson in how the elite gather to mix and mingle in Washington.

I also witnessed how breaking news is made, as I watched the Washington Post reporter interviewing Vice President Pence go off-script and ask the Vice President to comment on two of the hottest issues of the moment: the killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, and the migrant caravan moving toward the U.S.-Mexico border. With the smooth, rehearsed demeanor of a seasoned politician, Pence commented on those topics before turning the focus back to discussing the Space Force.

I learned that the administration believes the Space Force is critical for the following reasons:
1) For U.S. national security as China and Russia expand their presence in space
2) For ensuring that America remains as dominant in space militarily as we are here on Earth
3) To provide security for civilian missions to put “American boots back on the moon” and eventually seeing Americans land on Mars.

While Vice President Pence spoke with a measured tone, President Trump has made the Space Force a rallying cry at his many public events. Whether or not his goal is to make this a partisan issue, there is definitely a mixed reaction among experts in the field regarding the value of establishing a Space Force. 

Rep. Beyer, who spoke at The Post event, said that many members of Congress have a “wait and see” view of the proposed Space Force.

Some military leaders have criticized the proposal as too expensive and cumbersome. The Air Force has estimated that the Space Force could cost $3billion in its first year and probably would need $13 billion in its first five years.  

Outside the beltway, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX (commercial space company) and Tesla (electric car manufacturer) thinks the idea of establishing a separate Space Force is “cool.” In an interview with the technology side Recode on November 2, Musk linked the Space Force to space exploration, an activity traditionally associated with civil agencies like NASA. “You know, it’s basically defense in space. And then I think also it could be pretty helpful for maybe expanding our civilization,” Musk said of what he thought the Space Force’s mission would be. (Space News, Nov. 3, 2018)

Others call the idea “Space Farce,” including Fred Kaplan — the national-security columnist for Slate and former Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for The Boston Globe — who argues that Space defense will be a major concern for the U.S., but Trump’s “Space Force” is not the answer.  

After hearing many perspectives during the summit, I think that at some point, it might be a good idea to create a Space Force. But there are probably many steps that need to be taken to get there.

One of the most important things that I learned from my week at NASA this summer is how important it is to work together, because the challenges that we’re facing and those that we don’t even see are going to require more than one bright mind, it’s going to require many bright minds working together from many, many disciplines.