Future Tense

What Happens in Space Happens on Earth

Trump’s stated desire to create a Space Force has a lot to do with his terrestrial border obsession.

Map of constellations

“Hello, and welcome [to] Mars!” From a flash of blush-tinted light appears Saeed, a shimmering, trim-bearded, space-suited projection of a man, with the disconcerting proportions and awkward gestures of a 2002-era video game character. But it’s not 2002—Saeed is the first person you encounter in a virtual reality experience set in 2057, a fanciful ambassador welcoming you, virtual visitor, to your “second home” on Mars.

Saeed, and the dusty virtual landscape he guides you through, are creations of the United Arab Emirates. In the fall of 2017, the UAE released this particular VR experience to promote its plans for a mission to Mars (anticipated launch 2021) and the Mars Science City, a simulated habitation slated for construction in the Emirati desert. As your virtual vehicle glides across a CGI Martian surface, Saeed coolly references the “united government of Mars,” recounting a fictional history of treaties and protocols. “[I]f any government is to be created on another world, that government and its people are independent from Earth’s authority and influence,” Saeed says.

But futuristic fantasies are often just a glossy veneer over age-old oppressive practices. Saeed’s words may be intended to reassure people concerned to see an authoritarian government dabbling in flights of space-based fancy. Alongside the Mars mission and Mars simulation designs, for example, police in the emirate of Abu Dhabi released plans featuring a police force of Mars-based humans as well as a fleet of autonomous, robotic law enforcement vehicles. Given that one of the hallmarks of space technology development is extensive testing on Earth, prior to deployment off-world, one might wonder what the Abu Dhabi police have planned for their own area of jurisdiction here on Earth.

After all, policing without police is the present-day reality of many cities here in the United States. Increasingly, police departments use advanced technology in their work—for example, computer algorithms that attempt to predict crime, generate lineups from photo files, or use facial recognition to imply suspicion of guilt, as Cathy O’Neil has eloquently covered in her recent book Weapons of Math Destruction. These algorithms can be deeply flawed, encoding the biases of their creators, and are employed by police departments that don’t understand their basic functions, let alone their considerable limitations. But when a police department releases similar plans set on the futuristic stage of space, it is covered solely as a story about space—a wacky footnote for a distant horizon, without reckoning with the very earthly ground to be tread between here and there.

On Monday during opening remarks to a meeting of the recently reanimated National Space Council, President Trump generated lots of headlines when he (once again) announced that he wants to create a Space Force to serve as a sixth branch of the U.S. military. It created something of a distraction from the signing of Space Policy Directive-3, the central focus of the meeting. The directive is meant to provide for traffic control in space, a worthwhile effort given that the uptick in space use by everyone from the military to the commercial sector has made the immediate neighborhood of our planet a pretty cluttered place.

To be clear, there is no indication that a Space Force is actually in the works: An act of Congress is required to establish new branches of the military, and comments are not executive orders. The idea of a Space Force separate from the Air Force (which currently manages space activities) is also not new and has been met with considerable resistance as a likely bureaucratic boondoggle.

Proponents of a Space Force argue that space is too important a realm to be handled by the Air Force, whose primary attention remains within the bounds of Earth’s atmosphere—but it doesn’t require close inspection for that logic to come apart. Take those very bounds, for example: Given that there is no “Now Leaving Earth’s Atmosphere” highway sign on your way off the planet, not everyone agrees on where airspace ends and outer space begins. Moreover, on Earth, national borders provide mostly clearly delineated spheres of control over land, sea, and air. In space, however, such borders do not exist and are in fact prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which restricts ownership of space and preserves it for peaceful use (at least in theory). When Trump invokes the usual nationalistic rhetoric of “it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space,” it’s not even clear what “dominance” means or how a putative space military would enforce this foggy aim.

Although much coverage has focused on this comment about “dominance,” the introduction to Trump’s remarks is actually far more telling. In a characteristically rambling opener, the president took the opportunity to comment on immigration:

You take a look at the death and destruction that’s been caused by people coming into this country, without going through a process. We want a merit-based immigration system so that Boeing and Lockheed and all of the people—Grumman—all of the people that are here today, the heads of every company, so that you can hire people on a merit-based—you know they’re coming in—they’re people that came on merit, not based on a lottery, or not people that snuck across the border. And they could be murderers and thieves and so much else.

In this remark, Trump explicitly links the fortunes of the industry representatives present with his immigration policies, presumably including his administration’s decision to imprison children (both with and without their families). He implies that somehow, the aerospace industry has suffered from an influx of secret foreign murderers bearing subpar engineering skills. And yet, not a single one of the industry representatives challenged this remark. Given that defense contractors like Boeing, Lockheed, and Northrup Grumman typically hire very few foreign workers anyway (in 2008–13, Boeing hired only 21 H-1B visa holders), they were content to let these words wash over them, in anticipation of future gains for their respective companies.

Given the seemingly relentless pace of news, the Space Force may sound like another ridiculous distraction—but here it is, spelled out in black and white: the idea of a border enclosed not only from all sides, but from above; the suggestion of military expansion, not merely into other countries, but with such sweep as to reach entirely beyond our planet; and the proffered trade of commercial success for silence and complicity.