Mention “Space Force” to many members of the public, and they’ll think of the Netflix series starring Steve Carrell rather than the new military service. (credit: Netflix)
by Wendy Whitman Cobb
Monday, March 29, 2021
The US Space Force has a serious role to play in the modern world. Its stated mission is to train and equip personnel to defend American interests in space. Given the growing military and economic importance of space, Space Force is likely to grow in importance.
|Modern pop culture’s depictions of the Space Force as a joke distract from the serious responsibilities the Space Force carries.|
But a quick internet search shows that for most people, the Space Force is more of a meme than a branch of the military. He was the subject of jokes on “Saturday Night Live,” and Netflix was working on a comedy show before the service was officially established. None other than Captain Kirk himself, actor William Shatner, weighed in, arguing for the use of Navy ranks over Air Force ranks in the Space Force – after all, he was not not Colonel Kirk.
Given this sci-fi relationship with Space Force, few people take it seriously. Modern pop culture’s depictions of the Space Force as a joke distract from the serious responsibilities the Space Force carries. I’m a space policy analyst who has studied Space Force’s relationship to science fiction, and my research shows that it creates a problem for the service.
Science fiction in, jokes out
There are two things to think about in the relationship between today’s pop culture and the Space Force: how existing sci-fi entertainment distorts perceptions of the new military branch, and how these misconceptions lead to a framing Space Force comedy in today’s culture.
Science fiction has long had a strong influence on how people think about space, and that has carried over to the Space Force. Social media and media coverage of Space Force often includes references to “Star Trek”, “Star Wars”, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, and “Starship Troopers”. It’s not surprising. People naturally use analogies to understand new concepts; it is easier to understand new phenomena in terms of something you already know. Because Space Force is a new service, people are turning to what they already know about fighting in space. The problem is that science fiction is far from the reality of what space missions look like today.
|The result of science fiction’s influence, therefore, is that people have absorbed misconceptions about the Space Force – for example, that it has its own astronauts or that it is building military bases on the Moon – without giving question the accuracy of these ideas.|
Much research has explored how fiction can influence people’s thoughts and opinions. Notably, this can happen through what’s called a priming effect, where exposure to an idea in one situation influences how people think about the same idea in an entirely different situation.
People can also become so cognitively and emotionally invested in a fictional story that it begins to feel subconsciously real to them. When this happens, it is much easier for fictional ideas to influence the way they think in the real world.
The result of science fiction’s influence, therefore, is that people have absorbed misconceptions about the Space Force – for example, that it has its own astronauts or that it is building military bases on the Moon – without giving question the accuracy of these ideas. This leads to the second aspect of Space Force’s relationship to pop culture today: online commentary, media coverage, and entertainment have focused on humor at the expense of substantive discussion.
Jokes about “Guardians of the Galaxy” or space camouflage abound on Twitter and make the Space Force seem inconsequential. The Netflix show “Space Force” also perpetuated myths that the Space Force sends astronauts to fight on the Moon. And that joke extends to the highest levels of government as well: even the White House has made jokes at Space Force’s expense.
Problems and potential
Despite the attention all of this brings to Space Force, if people are so deeply influenced by fiction that they find Space Force funny or absurd, it could lead to a disconnect between public expectations and what the Space Force actually does. Space Force, and ultimately, reduce public support.
While missions such as surveillance and tracking of satellites and space debris may not be as interesting as “Star Wars” stories, they are fundamental to the global economy and national security.
|If people are so deeply influenced by fiction that they find Space Force funny or absurd, it could lead to a disconnect between public expectations and what Space Force actually does and ultimately reduce support for the public.|
While the Space Force has nurtured these perceptions to some extent – for example, using the name Kobayashi Maru from “Star Trek” for one of its software – there are ways in which science fiction can be useful for the new military branch. Science fiction can be inspiring, as it was during the space race of the 1960s and is today for space leaders.
Modern pop culture’s interest in space can also be used to leverage interest in the Space Force. Although he does not engage in any kind of “Star Trek” exploration, his tasks are nevertheless important and inspiring. Without the GPS satellites that the Space Force is now responsible for, we wouldn’t be able to get cash from an ATM or coordinate financial transactions.
The reality portrayed in “Star Trek” is hundreds of years in the future. While Space Force might be a first step toward that reality, it’s only the first in a long line. As General Mark Naird says in the Netflix comedy series “Space Force,” “space is tough.” While not as glamorous as Hollywood, the hard work to advance US national interests in space matters.
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