That stance, made firmly by a Trump appointee, is why Trump’s remarks on Tuesday were so surprising. The president was, in his usual way, speaking in an off-the-cuff manner as he described a potential new military branch. And, as has happened before, he ended up mangling his own administration’s policies in the process.
As my colleague Russell Berman reported last summer, the concept of a military force dedicated to outer space is not new. In 2000, a military-reform commission led by Donald Rumsfeld suggested the creation of such a force, but the idea fell by the wayside after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed. Last year, the House Armed Services Committee approved a measure to create a space corps brought forward by Mike Rogers, a Republican from Alabama, and Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Tennessee.
The proposed space corps would absorb the duties of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, a unit inside the Air Force that supports most of the country’s military operations in space and employs about 36,000 people across more than 130 sites around the world. The division would collect space professionals throughout the government into one place. “The military has not done a good enough job looking after space with all its other distracting priorities,” Cooper told Berman last year. “It’s just not getting the attention it deserves.”
The measure made it into the House’s version of an annual defense bill, but the Senate’s version banned it. The Pentagon stood by in its opposition, which was carried over from the Obama administration. Congress passed their final bill in November with no mention of the space corps. Its most fervent supporters vowed momentum would return, but the idea has mostly fallen out of consideration again.
Until, of course, Trump brought it up on Tuesday. The president’s view of space as a “war-fighting domain” is in line with what multiple Air Force officials have said since he took office. But it’s not clear what—if anything—Trump’s accidental pivot means for future policy. The Pentagon told me they wouldn’t release an official statement Tuesday night and suggested calling again in the morning. The White House did not respond to a request for clarification of Trump’s comments. Rogers and Cooper, meanwhile, are pleased.
“I am so proud of President Trump’s support of this important and historic initiative to create an independent space force,” Rogers said in a statement to The Atlantic. “I look forward to working with the Trump administration to make this a reality in the near future.”
In a separate statement, Cooper said, “while I have not seen anything beyond President Trump’s comments today, his remarks seem encouraging.”
Trump’s appearance in California marks the second time in less than a week that the president’s statements about the nation’s space ambitions contradict actual policy. During a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Thursday, Trump decided to praise the work of SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, and ended up undermining a very expensive rocket program at NASA. Trump made supporters of the NASA program wince when he seemed to suggest that he’d rather have commercial companies like SpaceX paying for rocket launches than the government.