Which puts President Joe Biden in an interesting predicament. The Space Force has always been more boring than its name implies, amounting to some organizational reshuffling of Air Force personnel and operations. But Trump has used it to fuel his own vision of American bravado, which his supporters have adopted. On the day of the Capitol attack, some supporters in Washington, D.C., and around the country complemented their Trump regalia with Space Force flags. With Trump gone, the new administration now finds itself having to embrace a piece of government saturated with MAGA spin and disdained by the left, and make it seem as ordinary as it actually is.
The Space Force seemed like a Trump whim at the outset. “I was saying it the other day—’cause we’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space—I said, ‘Maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it the Space Force,’” he said in March 2018, speaking to an audience of marines in California. “And I was not really serious. And then I said, ‘What a great idea. Maybe we’ll have to do that.’”
But an armed service dedicated to space operations is not a Trump invention. The concept emerged in the 1990s as the United States began relying on satellites during ground combat, and in 2001, a commission chaired by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld considered the suggestion. A pair of lawmakers in the House resurrected the idea of a space corps a few years ago, but it didn’t take off until Trump glommed on, and then it was all hands on deck. “The vice president put us to work and said, ‘Okay, the president wants this, so we need to figure out what’s the best way for us to put it together,’” Zambrano-Stout said.
Read: Trump’s space ambitions are too big for one president
The country had last established a new military branch 70 years ago, and the Space Force’s circumstances were very different. Most of America’s forces were founded with the country itself, except the Air Force, which emerged after a world war. The national-security community had been debating the value of standing up a space force of some kind eventually, but Trump jumped the gun, providing a new rationale: It sounded good to him. “He only asks me about the Space Force every week,” then–Vice President Mike Pence joked as staff worked to formulate the plans.
By late 2019, a defense bill arrived on Trump’s desk that included, among other things, the go-ahead from Congress to establish the sixth branch of the American armed forces. Despite Trump’s sweeping rhetoric, which conjured images of space cadets battling enemies in orbit, the organization was mostly a shiny rebrand. In public, Trump avoided the full truth of the final product—that the Space Force would operate within the Department of the Air Force rather than stand alone, that Congress stipulated that its workforce must be built from existing Air Force personnel. But for a salesman like Trump, the appearance of the thing was more important than its substance.