In search of a space culture

With the reestablishment of US Space Command in August (above) and plans for a Space Force, it’s time to consider what sort of culture is needed for a separate space service to be effective. (credit: DOD/Lisa Ferdinando)

The Space Force debate covers a wide range of topics, from “who will be in charge?” to “what color will the uniforms be?” The one topic, however, that should be paramount to all in this debate should be, “how can we create a Space Force culture supportive and worthy of a separate service?” Without such a culture, I believe, we cannot truly realize the full potential and strength of a separate service dedicated to the protection and defense as well as peaceful and prosperous utilization of space. This overarching space force culture that I propose here would be the foundation for the greater culture to be developed and honed, that of a Space Warfighter.

The foundation of this Space Force culture I propose here is based on three principles:

  1. Know and appreciate the history and heritage of US space technology, engineering, and operations.
  2. Develop and devote ourselves to a set of guiding principles of conduct that all Space Force personnel can identify with.
  3. Have an unrelenting quest for space domain comprehension, knowledge, and expertise on all the systems and capabilities we wield.

History and heritage

First, we must reach back and learn the lessons, challenges, and triumphs of past military and national space endeavors. There is considerable history about others who have been on this road we travel. Acquiring our own knowledge of this history will foster the development of a space culture in which we understand and benefit from the successes and failures of space patriots who have come before us.

For example, the US has pursued offensive space control concepts since the late 1950s. For example, Program 437 (declassified in 2010) was the Air Force’s first operational anti-satellite system (1964–1974). The F-15/ASAT test team of the 1980s leveraged lessons learned from Program 437 that contributed to success in multiple flight tests and readiness demonstrations.

There are many other historical pursuits of space control systems we can learn from. There is a treasure trove of lessons learned in rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO). The first ever RPO, accomplished in December 1965 between Gemini 6 and 7, has not only astrodynamics lessons, but also showcases a relentless determination in the face of adversity. The Air Force Experimental Satellite System (XSS)-10, XSS-11, and Automated Navigation and Guidance Experiment for Local Space (ANGELS) RPO experiments likewise gives valuable insight into the early systems and operations. If you want some “heart pounding, hands sweating” history, checkout the detailed stories of the failed DART experiment or the Progress/Mir collision. These provide insight into how not to pursue RPO objectives. Most of these past efforts are unclassified.

To further increase awareness of our heritage, I believe the nation needs to review and declassify more past programs as the benefits will go far beyond historical insight. Awareness, appreciation, and respect for the past will inform and help us in our future and motivate all future Space Force warriors in their assigned roles. General (ret.) James Mattis, an avid reader and student of history, reinforces this point as he states, “Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face nothing new under the Sun.” Others have trod the paths we today navigate; let’s learn from them.

Guiding principles

At the stand-up of the US Space Command, their culture was summarized as “combat effectiveness in, from, and through space.” This singular focus is on combat: quite an effective rallying cry. I feel there is a need for a common set of guiding principles for everyone to guide their conduct and dedication in their roles. It’s something everyone, no matter your Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) or whether you are acquisition, intelligence, operations, or some other skill, can identify with. Our human spaceflight colleagues at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) have lived by a great example of this concept. The Foundations of Mission Operations are a set of core values and guiding principles that govern everything the Flight Operations Directorate does as they plan, conduct mission control, astronaut and flight controller training, and mission planning, design and assessment tasks. Human spaceflight pioneers like Chris Kraft and Gene Kranz get well-deserved credit for establishing these foundations in the early days of US human spaceflight.

The original four tenets of the Foundations of Mission Operations are introduced to all JSC personnel as follows: To instill within ourselves these qualities essential to professional excellence: “Discipline, Confidence, Responsibility and Teamwork.” Following the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, “Toughness and Competence” were added by Gene Kranz as essential to the work they do. “Vigilance” was added after the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia as a reminder to be “always attentive to the dangers of spaceflight; never accepting success as a substitute for rigor in everything we do.”

Two additional guiding principles join the seven tenets described above; these are:

“To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences,” and

“To recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in the trying we do not give it our best effort.”

A surefire way to develop a Space Force culture is for everyone on the team to believe, without a doubt, that the “suddenly and unexpectedly” and “performance has ultimate consequences” principles are essential to the mindset needed in the present military space arena, especially the future as adversaries develop and field lethal capabilities. No matter what your role or job is, you could find yourself living the principle out in some sudden and unexpected event while on duty within Space Force. Going in with that mindset is essential. In what we face today and expect in today’s and tomorrow’s contested space arena, odds are high that you will but put to the test many times. It might be a critical acquisition decision, or a rapid intelligence assessment that will drive the “seconds count” go-ahead for employing an operational tactic. Guiding principles can be the foundation for how to respond and deliver.

We must especially embrace this “sudden, unexpectedly, and ultimate consequence” prophecy as we field agile, responsive, and lethal means to control the high ground and keep it safe. While Space Force is not NASA—the two have very different missions—we can leverage their cultural strengths to achieve our own purposes and aid us in supporting the joint and combined fight. NASA Mission Operations fostered and lived their “Foundations” that enabled a culture of highly reliable decision making and success in an extraordinarily difficult field. The Space Force of the future and today’s US Space Command likewise face an extraordinary and dangerous arena in space today.


Last but by no means least, is the issue of comprehending all that we do. There are radically new space systems and new threats out there. They will require a deeper technical understanding of what we do and how our systems work. From astrodynamics to electromagnetics to orbit engagement systems with decisive and irreversible capability, we need to set the bar higher in our expectations, education, and expertise in all of our roles. Our Navy colleagues in the nuclear submarine arena offer a great view into the past development of that cadre’s culture, which remains strong today. Theodore Rockwell, the biographer of Hyman Rickover, captures Rickover’s thoughts succinctly as he called for a unique culture among a new cadre of Navy professionals:

“Rickover’s solution went far beyond the usual on-the-job training. He was not content to teach procedures and techniques. He wanted to teach principles and fundamentals, and he wanted to create a change of mind—a whole new way of approaching the job. It was a program of unprecedented scope and depth.”

It is Rickover’s demand for understanding that enabled sailors to do the impossible because they understood their weapon systems’ capabilities far beyond the confines of a checklist or with contractors at their side. A similar level of understanding would rightfully enable the space warrior to seize and control the “sudden and unexpected” as our submariner peers have done for decades. In their call for a “Brilliant Space Force,” Owen Brown and Gordon Roessler, two Navy nuclear submarine veterans who went on to become respected space project leaders, reinforce what’s stated above. “What is needed goes beyond tactics, techniques, and procedures. Procedures and checklists may not suffice. Just as no plan stands contact with the enemy, no checklist can deal with surprise. Space warfighters must have true expertise in the physics, engineering, and operational challenges unique to space. Any new space warfighting cadre must be deeply educated, not just trained. It must be brilliant.”

We have operated in the past and still do with allegiance to procedures and techniques and the mastery of checklists, with the discipline to follow them. That has worked superbly in our ICBM past and in the maintenance and operation of military spacecraft on orbit. However, we must surpass that standard of excellence by diving deeper into “what exactly does this keystroke do?” with a new sense of curiosity and expectation to know, understand, and comprehend. Near-future systems, those that come with a keystroke or mouse-click of lethality, will be anchored in procedural discipline. However, engineers, intelligence experts, and operators will also face sudden and unexpected surprises when there simply may not be time to build slides to summarize the situation, brief them, review them, and staff the action approval process. Space and intel patriots placed at the helm may encounter “failure is not an option” situations and will be required to act immediately, fully knowing the likely consequences of their actions.

We have Rickover and the nuclear Navy culture as one example of what takes place when a whole new approach to achieving our craft is applied. But we also have historical examples within the Air Force: legendary Air Force leaders that formed culture-enhancing organizations like the Air Corps Tactical School, Weapons School, and Test Pilot School. Deep-dive comprehensive education and hands-on learning are underway in the areas of orbital engagement, RPO, and space domain awareness. These are steps in the right direction of technical rigor and understanding. Let’s honor our space patriots by having them delve deeper into their trade and the awesome capability they will wield. The result will be the unleashing of the invincible Space Force culture.

The time has arrived for us to answer the call to step up and serve with this bedrock of heritage, guiding principles, and comprehension in place. The three principles I have introduced can be the launch pad for taking a Space Force culture to the next level of greater importance: a space warfighting culture that is worthy of a separate service.

Thank you for your dedication, determination and passion to serve our great nation as space patriots.

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