In December 2019, Donald Trump signed the U.S. Space Force Act, peeling off an orbit-and-beyond branch of the military, much as the Air Force grew out of the Army in the 1940s.
For now, the Space Force still resides within the Air Force, but nearly 90 of this year’s approximately 1000 Air Force Academy graduates became the first officers commissioned straight into the new organization. Some of those graduates were members of an academy group called the Institute for Applied Space Policy and Strategy (IASPS). Featuring weekly speakers and formalized research projects the students hope to turn into peer-reviewed papers, the group aims to game out the policies and philosophies that could guide military space activity when they are old enough to be in charge. In particular, these young cadets are interested in whether the Space Force might someday have a military presence on the Moon, and how it might work with civilians.
That activity could put the Space Force in conflict with scientists, who typically view the cosmos as a peaceful place for inquiry. But part of the club’s mission is speculating about that interplay—between the military and civilian scientists, civil space agencies, and private companies. Cadet J. P. Byrne, who will graduate in 2021, is the group’s current president. He chatted with ScienceInsider about the institute’s work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What does IASPS hope to accomplish?
A: Our main goal is to develop space-minded cadets not just for the Air Force, but also for the Space Force. It’s really important to know how space works, and we like to think we drive the conversation for space information in an unclassified setting.
Q: What, as an Air Force Academy cadet, interests you about space?
A: I actually wanted to be a pilot originally. But going into my junior year, seeing all the developments, I started really enjoying space. You hear this idea of a “new space era” a lot. When I think about that, it reminds me of the early excitement about the powered aircraft of the early 20th century, in that we get to explore ideas that haven’t been thought of yet. A lot of people say it’s human destiny to explore space. To me, it’s more adventuring into the unknown, or at least the less known.
Q: IASPS has different research areas. What are the main project topics?
A: In Astropolitics, the members are really looking at how politics on Earth will affect our assets in space. What will it take to make space a high priority again? Will astropolitics reflect Earth politics?
In Space Resources and Debris, they look at how the United States can best mitigate space debris through space situational awareness and space traffic management, and at whether and when mining will be realistic.
In Space Deterrence, they ask questions like, “Does deterrence in space reflect deterrence on Earth?” and “If something happens to our satellite in space, does that warrant a space response or an Earth response?”
In Military on the Moon, they’re looking at whether it’s necessary or even possible to have a sustained military presence on the Moon—not weaponizing the Moon, but militarizing the Moon.
Q: What’s the answer you have so far to that Astropolitics question—will celestial politics just be terrestrial politics but farther away? Will the United States continue to collaborate in space with rival nations, like it does with Russia on the Space Station?
A: Many people see space as just supporting Earth in the air, land, and sea domains. We’re really thinking that until space moves away from this supporting domain, it will only be an extension of Earth politics.
We’re also looking at the Russia-China cooperation. China is working on their own space station. Will Russia be cooperating more with China than the U.S.? We have no solid answer right now.
Q: The IASPS website says you’re investigating how the U.S. military could work with NASA and our allies on a lunar base. What could that collaboration look like?
A: The group was really interested in finding out what future role Space Force might have on the military-on-the-Moon concept 20 years or so down the line. Intergovernmental agency cooperation is paramount to having some future lunar base. Maybe [in this scenario], Space Force would select astronaut candidates who would complete training through NASA.
On a sustained mission like this, it’s important to know about the interplay between countries. A lot of the astronauts right now are former pilots, and for few-month missions that makes sense. But on a sustained approach, international relations expertise will be important.
Q: A military Moon base sounds a lot like the TV show Space Force. Have you watched it?
A: I actually expected it to be making fun of the Space Force a lot more than it did. And don’t get me wrong—they did—but the accuracy of their ideas was really cool. I think the show encourages people to see what the Space Force can be, because even though some of their ideas are completely out there, maybe 20 or 30 years down the line, they’re not.