NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine didn’t mention his support for the Space Force proposal in a speech last week at the Johnson Space Center, but has done so in a number of other recent talks and interviews. (credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)
by Jeff Foust
The hot topic in American space policy this summer has not been NASA’s plans to return to the Moon, or progress on commercial crew vehicles, or the uncertain long-term future of the International Space Station, but instead a military space issue: the proposed Space Force. President Trump announced his intent to establish a separate military branch devoted to space at the latest public meeting of the National Space Council in June at the White House, upstaging an announcement of a new space traffic management policy. Vice President Mike Pence reiterated those plans—which will ultimately require the approval of Congress—in a speech at the Pentagon earlier this month, tied to the release of a congressionally mandated report on the issue.
The topic is a controversial one, with plenty of supporters and skeptics alike. That includes in the Defense Department itself, where many officials were opposed last year to congressional proposals to establish a “Space Corps” within the US Air Force, only to find their commander-in-chief formally endorsing an even more radical idea—a separate military service—this year.
It’s interesting, then, that the most vocal supporter in government outside of the president and vice president for establishing a Space Force has been not any top Pentagon official but instead NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. In recent weeks, Bridenstine has rarely missed an opportunity, in speeches and in interviews, to advocate for the creation of a Space Force.
“As a member of the House of Representatives, I have voted on it three times,” Bridenstine said in a speech last Monday at Arizona State University. He was referring to votes in last year’s House version of a defense authorization bill—both by the full House and, earlier, by the House Armed Services Committee and its strategic forces subcommittee—that sought to create a Space Corps.
“The president took it up a notch” by seeking a Space Force as a separate military branch, he added after a digression on the roles of military services and combatant commands, “and I think correctly.”
That speech was hardly the first time that Bridenstine had talked about a Space Force. Interviewed on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program a little more than a week earlier, he reiterated his support for a Space Force. “We need a separate force that can focus exclusively on space given how important it is to the American way of life and ultimately how it is becoming more contested every day,” he said.
He cited the country’s dependence on space services, from navigation to communications to weather forecasting. “Without GPS, there is no banking in this country. The power grid in this country requires timing from GPS to regulate the flows of electricity,” he said. “The question is, does that represent a vulnerability, and do we need to protect it? The answer is yes and yes.”
Bridenstine has spoken enough on these issues that he uses the same talking points repeatedly. “Every banking transaction requires a timing signal from GPS. In other words, if there is no GPS, there is no banking in the United States. Everything shuts down,” he said in a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, which focused on his Space Force advocacy. “Electricity flows on the power grid are regulated by a GPS timing signal as well.”
Bridenstine can sometimes speak for extended periods on the importance of a Space Force. At an event in July marking NASA’s 60th anniversary, a panel discussion featuring Bridenstine and two of his predecessors, he spoke for about six minutes about the Space Force, only reluctantly wrapping up his comments. “In my opinion it’s well past due to have a standalone force capable of preparing the workforce to ultimately protect our assets in space,” he said there (see “NASA at 60-something”, The Space Review, July 30, 2018.)
But why does Bridenstine spend so much time talking about a topic that is outside of his jurisdiction as the head of the nation’s civil space agency? Whether in his speeches, or asked about it in interviews, he usually makes sure to point out that NASA and the Space Force are, or will be, separate entities.
“Let me tell you this, because I get this question all the time: what does this have to do with NASA? Well, it doesn’t,” he said in his speech last week at Arizona State after his digression on the Space Force. “But I will also tell you that we have a high need for space security, and to the extent that some kind of kinetic war extends into space, friends, it’s our astronauts who are on the line, plus hundreds of billions of dollars worth of taxpayer investment.”
“NASA has hundreds of billions of dollars worth of assets in orbit right now, plus we’ve got our American astronauts in orbit,” he said on C-SPAN when asked about the Space Force’s potential relevance to NASA. “We are dependent on space being safe and accessible.”
“As NASA administrator, I think it’s important for me to talk about how space has transformed the human condition for the good because of a trail that was blazed by NASA,” he said later in the show. “And if I can communicate that and let folks know these capabilities are worth protecting, then I think that’s a big piece of my job as the NASA administrator.”
Bridenstine doesn’t always talk about the Space Force in his speeches and interviews. Speaking last Thursday at the Johnson Space Center, he offered more general praise for the administration. “I want to be clear about how good we have it with this administration, and how good they are to NASA,” he said.
Bridenstine was introducing Vice President Pence, who did bring up the Space Force in a speech that was billed as a discussion of the nation’s space exploration efforts. “The United States Space Force, we believe, is an idea whose time has come,” Pence said. “The United States Department of Space Force will be a reality by the year 2020.”
A few in the space community have speculated that Bridenstine’s advocacy of a Space Force might be part of an effort to look to his next job after NASA. Should Congress approve the creation of a Space Force—certainly no earlier than, rather than by, 2020—some speculate that Bridenstine might be in line to be the first Secretary of the Space Force or other civilian position within the Defense Department that would oversee it.
However, an alternative explanation is that Bridenstine is more closely attuned to the big picture of space policy than many of his predecessors. While in the House, he was active on civil, commercial and national security space policy to a degree unlike almost any other member, and introduced legislation called the American Space Renaissance Act that offered sweeping policy changes in all three areas. (The bill never passed, but some provisions were enacted in other legislation.)
It was rare to hear other recent NASA administrators, be they former astronauts like Charlie Bolden or engineers and managers like Dan Goldin and Mike Griffin, talk much about overarching space policy outside of NASA, in particular national security space issues. But Bridenstine seems to go to great lengths to try and put NASA into the bigger space policy picture, even on issues whose relevance to the space agency is limited, at best.
That broader interest comes, though, as the current administration seeks to centralize space policy to a degree not seen in decades. The National Space Council has worked to implement a series of space policy directives, both directly and indirectly affecting NASA. But rather than stay in his lane of, say, space exploration policy, Bridenstine has been promoting the Space Force and other issues, like commercial space regulatory reform and a new space traffic management policy.
That might appear to lead to a clash with the administration, but Bridenstine, in his remarks at JSC last week, was clear to praise Pence and Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the National Space Council, for their work. Bridenstine noted that he and Pace talked on the flight to Houston on Air Force Two about “future space policy directives that we anticipate initiating and that we anticipate the president signing.”
For now, with the Space Force debate likely to continue for many months as Congress weighs whether to approve a separate military branch, Bridenstine seems likely to continue to be one of the leading advocates for it, even as he manages his own, very different, space agency.