President Donald Trump called for a new “Space Force” to be added to the U.S. military as an armed service separate from the Pentagon’s five traditional uniformed branches.
“When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space,” Trump said Monday at a White House event on space policy. “We must have American dominance in space.”
Trump has been considering creation of a Space Force for months over resistance from the Air Force, which currently oversees military space programs. He announced his support for the idea at a White House meeting of the National Space Council as the administration presented a directive for setting a goal for a new moon landing within 10 years.
Congress would have to approve a new military service, and lawmakers have been divided on the idea.
Much of the push to formalize an off-planet branch of the U.S. armed forces is motivated by space investment by Russia and China, the latter of which is eager to establish itself as a superpower with plans for an orbiting space station and a permanent outpost on the moon.
Russia under President Vladimir Putin has become increasingly aggressive, annexing Crimea, deploying more sophisticated nuclear weapons and waging conventional warfare in eastern Ukraine and Syria. He, too, has aspirations for a military role in space.
On peaceful space exploration, the administration announced a directive setting a goal to send robotic explorers to the moon as early as next year and do another human lunar landing within 10 years.
The push could result in the first Americans stepping foot on the moon’s surface 55 years after doing so for the first time.
The directive also calls for better tracking and monitoring of space debris as commercial and civil space traffic increases.
The 1960s-era Apollo program to land U.S. astronauts on the moon was driven by President John F. Kennedy’s famous challenge and zealously funded by a Congress motivated by the Soviet Union’s perceived existential threat. That goal was achieved by the crew of Apollo 11 in 1969.
NASA’s current planning for Mars isn’t driven by any such urgency. The agency’s priorities tend to change depending on the administration: Under President George W. Bush, NASA was directed to return to the moon, while President Barack Obama set Mars as the longer-term priority. The Trump administration aims to do both, planning a lunar “gateway” orbiter and landings on the moon’s surface — with heavy assistance from commercial firms — and then using those outposts as a leaping-off point for Mars.
Bush proposed in 2004 sending robotic probes to the lunar surface by 2008, with a human mission as early as 2015, “with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods of time.”
NASA estimated in 2005 that the Bush program to return to the moon, canceled by Obama, would cost $104 billion. The Trump administration didn’t immediately provide a cost estimate.
The Trump administration’s first crewed lunar gateway mission is planned for 2023 under NASA’s current plans, with humans heading to Mars in the 2030s.