Space force

Space Force sounds like a joke thanks to pop culture – it could be a problem for a major military branch

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, the USSF is likely to grow in importance.

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 launched. 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 the USSF, few people take it seriously. Modern pop culture’s portrayals of the Space Force as a joke distract from the serious responsibilities the USSF bears. I’m a space policy analyst who has studied the USSF’s relationship to science fiction, and my research shows that it creates a problem for the force.

Many people have compared the US Space Force seal to Star Trek insignia.
US space force

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 carried over to 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.

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 the USSF’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 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, too — even the White House has made jokes at Space Force’s expense.

An Atlas-V rocket takes off from the launch pad.
The first space mission under the jurisdiction of the US Space Force, a communications satellite launch, was not a “Star Trek” style adventure, but it was important nonetheless.
US Air Force/Josue Conti

Problems and potential

Despite the attention all of this brings to the Space Force, if people are so deeply influenced by fiction that they find the USSF funny or absurd, it could lead to a disconnect between public expectations and what the USSF 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.

While the Space Force has nurtured these perceptions to some extent – for example, by using the name Kobayashi Maru from “Star Trek” for one of its software – there are ways in which science fiction can be helpful to 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.

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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 money from an ATM, coordinate financial transactions, or monitor things like volcanoes or earthquakes.

The reality portrayed in “Star Trek” is hundreds of years in the future. While Space Force could be a first step towards this reality; this is only the first of a long series. 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.