A Space Force captain traveling with his wife stood stunned at the Spirit Airlines ticket counter last October in hopes of taking advantage of the company’s waived baggage fees for active duty members.
But there was a problem: the Spirit employee didn’t believe the Space Force existed.
The officer showed a military-issued ID, checked the official website on his phone, and explained recent Space Force history. The front desk clerk believed the service member was no longer active in the Air Force, could not understand the existence of the new branch, and was unwilling to give the discount.
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“At the time, I was flabbergasted,” said the officer, who spoke to Military.com on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from Space Force superiors. “We tried to approach him methodically and convince him that Space Force was real.”
It wasn’t until a Spirit supervisor got involved that the Guardian finally received the discount and the couple continued on without paying the baggage fee. A few days later, the Space Force officer received an emailed apology from the airline, which was reviewed by Military.com.
The incident illustrated what many Guardians have found all too familiar: an audience that either doesn’t understand the new American military branch or believes it’s just a lukewarm Netflix series.
It’s been two years since former President Donald Trump signed a defense policy bill and created the United States Space Force, a separate service branch that reports to the Air Force Department. But the Guardians took to social media and told Military.com how bewildered civilians seem at the concept of the new branch.
And although the Space Force’s mission – to protect and defend America’s huge fleet of satellites – is crucial in everything from the nation’s reliance on GPS to detecting anomalies in Earth’s orbit, many members of the general public did not understand it.
Conor William Deans, a Space Force ROTC cadet at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, is the first student at the historic military college to accept a commission for the branch.
One day he was sitting in a burger joint with his fellow cadets when a customer stopped by the table and asked them what branch of the military they were planning to join.
Deans proudly told the man he was joining the Space Force.
“‘Space Force? Is this real?'” Deans recalls the man’s question. “I tried to explain to him what it was, but he seemed even more confused.”
Deans said he was encouraged to join the Space Force in 2019 when then-Air Force General John Raymond came to campus to talk about his military career. When Raymond became the first head of space operations, the Citadel cadet said he wanted to be a part of history.
But he said the public has been slow to understand the role of the new branch.
“In many ways it’s still lumped in with the Air Force,” Deans said. “It’s still new and hasn’t developed its own culture yet, but I think that will grow and change.”
Some recent comments from senior military officials have clouded relations between the Air Force and the Space Force.
Earlier this month, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall spoke about the relationship between the branches during a virtual Center for a New American Security event Jan. 19.
“We want Space Force to be an independent, separate service,” Kendall said. “But we also want it to remain as closely tied to the Air Force and the Department of the Air Force as necessary for it to be a success.”
Some Guardians complained about Kendall’s comment on social media and said they wanted Space Force senior leadership to help shape a separate identity for service to the general public.
Raymond, speaking at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event also on Jan. 19, said Space Force cannot simply become a carbon copy of Air Force.
“If we get into this and walk our way and become nothing more than an air force, change a little bit here and there, we’ve missed a huge opportunity,” Raymond said.
Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies, said many Americans don’t know what the military does, let alone the semantics of service branches.
But he added that there must be a concerted effort by Space Force leaders to make their mission explicitly clear to the public.
“Space Force needs to create an internal culture that is distinct from Air Force,” Harrison said. “They need to separate themselves from NASA and the Netflix parody and communicate, ‘This is what we do.'”
Space Force Col. Matthew Morand, an officer who leads the branch’s ROTC program at the Citadel, said many of his friends and family were also confused when he transferred from the Army. air.
“People asked me as I stood there in my military uniform, ‘Is Space Force a real thing?'” Morand said. “A lot of people don’t understand what we do, and there aren’t many of us. We’re tiny.”
The Space Force currently has approximately 6,800 Guardians and 6,700 civilian employees. By comparison, the Air Force has about 650,000 personnel.
The service began transferring members of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, after focusing the first year on Air Force transfers.
“We’re going to be tied at the hip with the Air Force for a while,” Morand said. “But culture takes time, and we’re working on that culture.”
Chief Staff Sgt. Roger Towberman, the Space Force’s top non-commissioned officer, told Military.com in an interview that while many in the public sphere may not know what the branch does, he believes the mission is important and hope that over time this will change.
“I would say the awareness is growing all the time, and that makes me really happy,” Towberman said. “What I see in Space Force, in particular, is this slow evolution of this really special thing that we’re trying to do.”
— Thomas Novelly can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.
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