The US Army Space Force appears to be going nowhere, having survived the Netflix show of the same name.
Yet the country’s youngest two-year-old service branch is still the butt of jokes and bigger questions about what it does and why it exists.
“Most people don’t have the information they need,” said Master Sergeant Phillip Shane. “When someone asks me, I try to educate them as best I can. It’s just that the information isn’t there.
As Superintendent of the Cadet Space Operations Squadron at the US Air Force Academy, Shane oversees approximately 125 cadets as they learn to manipulate objects in space. He said the squadron operates two satellites that pass over the Academy several times a day.
The job may seem exotic, involving rockets and weightlessness, but in reality, it’s a lot like a desk job in front of a few computer screens.
A handful of cadets and Shane crowd into a room no bigger than a small office as the satellites approach. As the first comes into range, a team of three cadets rush to download the experimental data from it and record any problems that have arisen since the satellite’s last pass overhead.
“It’s structured like a normal crew at a Space Force base,” Shane said. “It gives them experience of what happens in the real world and how that translates once they step into their operational unit.”
Many of the cadets he oversees will become Guardians, what the U.S. military calls Space Force members. Although the service branch is still relatively new, the majority of what it does is not.
Prior to joining the Air Force Academy, Shane was stationed at Buckley Air Force Base, where he worked in missile warning and defense. Both are now the responsibility of the Space Force.
“We’ve been doing these operations for literally three decades,” he said. “The only thing that’s really changed are the name tapes and a new branch of service.”
But this shift represents a significant shift in where the military expects to see conflict in the future.
“The Space Force stand-up is a recognition that the space realm is no longer a benign environment,” said Col. Eric Dorminey, director of information mobility with Space Operations Command. “Before, we were launching, and the only thing we had to worry about was space weather.”
Some countries see what the United States and its allies have gained from space technology and may wish to reap that benefit, said Maj. Gen. Shawn Bratton, who leads the command that trains and develops guardians.
“We are seeing electronic warfare capabilities being fielded; a spacecraft that can harm another spacecraft,” he said. “And then things from the ground that shoot into space and destroy a spacecraft. We’ve seen Russia and China test them.
If these things go beyond the testing phase, it could affect more than the military, Bratton said. One of Space Force’s responsibilities is to protect the satellites that make up the GPS constellation, which we use in our cars, on our phones, and in many other ways.
Bratton pointed out that dismantling the GPS system would be difficult, but he said it wasn’t worth the risk, especially given the amount of daily life that depends on it.
“GPS provides a timing signal that we use for money transfers, for example,” he said. “It would affect computer networks, banking systems. We use GPS in agriculture for automated farming activities. It’s on the civilian side.
Military operations also rely heavily on GPS and communications satellites.
“Our soldiers, sailors, Marines sometimes need GPS to deliver precision-guided bombs to targets,” Lt. Col. Albert Harris said. “Our airmen and sailors, when they want to communicate over the horizon, a guard helps them do so.”
Harris leads the 392nd Combat Training Squadron, which designs training exercises for the Space Force. His unit was part of the Air Force, but from stand-up they’ve been able to focus directly on the Space Force’s mission to defend military assets in space, Harris said.
“It exposed gaps that we didn’t know we had,” he said. “Threats to our nation have grown in scale and complexity over the years, especially with space.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the military will leave Earth.
“Guardians aren’t going to space, certainly not anytime soon anyway,” Bratton said.
The Space Force stand-up also means that existing service branches are moving to recognize how military technology beyond the planet’s atmosphere affects what they do.
The Air Force Academy recently revamped its labs that teach every cadet how the six branches of service complement each other. The facility includes updated flight simulators that resemble cockpit controls, new computers, and software that now also features scenarios set in space.
It’s part of how the Academy adapts to meet the needs of the Space Force, said Major Catherine Brewer, an instructor.
“We brought out a group of great pilots from the Air Force Academy,” she said. “But we also need to focus on future operations, disruptive technologies, many of which will come from the space realm.”
This is valuable information for all cadets, whether or not they want to be tutors, said Cadet Parker Ashlock. He plans to become an Air Force pilot after graduating from the Academy this year.
“Even if we go into a work that doesn’t necessarily have a space in the title, the space still touches it,” Ashlock said. “We will work with our goalkeeper counterparts wherever we are.”
For other cadets, exposure to space concepts fundamentally changed their trajectory in the military. Cadet David Jovanni Garcia oscillated between becoming a pilot or an astronautical engineer in the Space Force.
“I was lucky to have the opportunity to do both,” he said. “But I realized that I will be limited to the machine. Yes, I will be able to fly and do crazy maneuvers with it, but what can I do to try to affect the engineering process. ”
Cadet Kaitlin Roberts found herself in a similar position, choosing between being a pilot or working with satellites.
“It was an uphill battle choosing between the two,” she said. “But at the end of the day, I thought I was going to spend my flying career just waiting to get back into the space industry. Might as well stay inside and see what I can do.
This kind of enthusiasm for outer space runs through the new force.
“It’s rocket science, so we can always learn more,” said captain Perry Vanzandt.
But it’s something that has yet to enter the public consciousness, primarily because of Space Force’s age and size, Bratton said.
“It’s so small compared to other services,” he said. “There are only a handful of bases, so unless you live near one, you usually don’t run into anyone.”
The new branch is growing and looking to add hundreds more military and civilian members this year.
And while the Netflix show is no more, the satire it was built on will likely remain, Dorminey said.
“Every other service has been satirically referenced at one time or another,” he said. “I think it’s valuable to be able to laugh a little at yourself, but that doesn’t take away from the seriousness of the job we do.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.