Future Tense

Keep the Space Force off the International Space Station

The ISS is home to international collaborative science. It shouldn’t also host a military ceremony.

An exterior shot of the International Space Station.
NASA

Two hundred and twenty miles above your head orbits a science laboratory called the International Space Station. This football field–sized marvel of engineering orbits Earth every 90 minutes—its six inhabitants witness 15 sunrises and 15 sunsets per day. Their view of our planet is wholly unique.

In 1984 the United States proposed building the station with other countries—Russia, Canada, the European Space Agency, China, and Japan—and soon after, an international agreement was reached. NASA had previously tried its hand at a space station with Skylab in 1973, which operated for two years in orbit, and the Russian Mir space station operated for 15 years starting in 1986. But neither of these attempts could touch the size, capacity, and goals of the International Space Station, which has now been home to humans in orbit for 20 years.

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To date more than 25 nations have helped construct, develop, and expand the ISS, making it a respite from all our human drama, wars, and pettiness. Countries that are famously on unfriendly terms signed agreements that whatever political issues they had on the ground would be set aside in space for the sole purpose of supporting scientific research.

In 1998, representatives from 15 countries signed an agreement codifying the international cooperative framework. It states:

This Agreement is a long term international co-operative framework on the basis of genuine partnership, for the detailed design, development, operation, and utilization of a permanently inhabited civil Space Station for peaceful purposes, in accordance with international law.

The space station has allowed us to come together to conduct unique scientific experiments in microgravity. We have learned more about how the human body behaves, allowing for better cancer treatment and the development of vaccines. Research conducted on the ISS has advanced our water purification technology and allowed us to better monitor the changing climate by taking ultrasounds of the Earth, among dozens of other achievements. Since its construction, the ISS has become a symbol of the best humans have to offer, of everything that’s possible when politics and nationalism are left behind.

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Many of the astronauts and cosmonauts who’ve resided on station have past and current military experience in their countries. And some traditions carried out on board originate from military service. For example, when a new crew arrives or leaves, a bell is rung to mark the moment—something the U.S. Navy has done for years. But the ISS has always been subject to civilian, not military, rule.

This is why the recent announcement by NASA of plans to hold a Space Force military ceremony in orbit is especially upsetting.

On Oct. 28, SpaceNews reported that Col. Michael “Hopper” Hopkins, the commander of the SpaceX Crew-1 headed to the space station on Nov. 14, volunteered to join the Space Force, making him the first NASA astronaut to request to join the new military branch.* As a result, NASA and the Space Force are working together to schedule a swearing-in ceremony once he gets into orbit, “if all goes well” (meaning, if the crew safely makes it to the ISS).

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The decision to conduct this ceremony in orbit was made by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, alongside Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, the chief of space operations for the Space Force.* Yet the ISS is not a Space Force base, nor is it an American outpost. So why do it?

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NASA declined to comment on the ceremony, but a U.S. Space Force spokesperson told me:

The U.S. Space Force plans to voluntarily transfer U.S. Air Force astronaut Col. Michael “Hopper” Hopkins to the U.S. Space Force once Colonel Hopkins is on board the International Space Station. General Raymond is working with Administrator Bridenstine to leverage this unique venue for the ceremony as a way to spotlight the decades-long partnership between DoD and NASA. For more than 60 years, men and women of the military services have helped fill the ranks of the astronaut corps—Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard. Space Force, as the newest military Service, is looking forward to contributing to this legacy.

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Unfortunately this isn’t even the first military-related event to happen on the ISS in 2020. On Feb. 26, 1,000 Army recruits were sworn in via video conference by Army Col. Andrew Morgan while he floated around the ISS. But this would be the first time the person being sworn in to the military, or a new branch of the armed forces, is on board the ISS.

NASA is not exempt from politics. On Earth, it’s a part of everything NASA does, from budgets and mission selection to decisions about where events will be held. And when the formation of the Space Force was formally announced earlier this year, many observers feared NASA would be affected. I just didn’t think it would be this blatant.

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The Trump administration has followed the lead of the Reagan administration, which dreamed of militarizing space. And while we don’t have a new “Star Wars” program, holding military ceremonies in an agreed-upon neutral space is another way of getting there.

Nothing can happen on the station without NASA’s support; that they have agreed to this ceremony is alarming. Surely the Trump administration thought this was a cool idea. Who doesn’t want to have a promotion while floating 220 miles above the Earth? Why wouldn’t the Department of Defense want its shiny new military branch on full display in space? But the U.S. decision to erase the boundary between our military and our international scientific collaborations raises the prospect of other countries following suit. What would happen if China or Russia decided to do the same thing? The ISS could soon become contested territory, a site for international conflict instead of collaboration.

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The integrity of the station needs to be protected because it is not only a working laboratory but a symbol of what humans can do when politics, war, and greed are set aside. It is the one place humans have built together to remove its passengers from the tangled and complicated politics of what happens on the ground.

The Space Force is the antithesis of the ISS’ mission. Beyond science, beyond collaboration, the space station remains the one place in human existence where we can strip away the worst of ourselves and together preserve a most rare and desired condition: peace.

Correction, Nov. 2, 2020: This article originally left out Col. Michael “Hopper” Hopkins’ last name and misidentified John Raymond as Jim Raymond.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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