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The Reasons For A Space Force

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's think back to March of last year, when President Trump first spoke publicly about creating a new branch of the military, and nobody took him all that seriously.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, I was saying it the other day because 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. And I was not really serious. And then I said, what a great idea. Maybe we'll have to do that.

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JIMMY FALLON: Reporters asked Trump who should lead the Space Force. And he said, that's easy. Buzz Lightyear.

JAMES CORDEN: Let's play space force. Pew-pew-pew-pew.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Look; as long as J.J. Abrams directs and Mark Hamill has a cameo, I'm in.

GREENE: But despite the skepticism, that $738 billion defense bill that the president signed last week makes the Space Force a reality. The Air Force says 16,000 of its personnel have been reassigned to the new branch.

Terry Virts is a retired Air Force colonel and former astronaut who commanded the International Space Station, and he joins us this morning on Skype. Colonel, welcome.

TERRY VIRTS: Good morning. Merry Christmas, and happy holidays.

GREENE: Well, thank you. And the same to you. We appreciate you taking the time for us. I should say, you've written in the past about the need for a Space Force, a military force in space. I mean, what are the interests, the defense interests of the United States in space?

VIRTS: Well, I think the last time the Defense Department was reorganized was basically 1947. So we've got Harry Truman's military.

GREENE: Huh. It's been a while.

VIRTS: That's when the Air Force was created out of the Army Air Corps. And since then, the domain and military jargon of space has come into being. For the last 50 years, we've had essentially a Space Force. It's just been part of the Air Force Army and Navy. And now there's also the domain of cyber. And they're very - each one of those is very, very different. They're not air, they're not land, they're not sea.

So I think we need to remove this as much as we can - it's very hard to remove anything from politics, but if we take it out of the current, very contentious political environment and just think about what the smart way to spend that massive defense bill - like you just mentioned, $730 billion is the largest organization on the planet - we need to figure out how to do that smartly. And so I think that's why it's a good idea.

GREENE: But so I can imagine why a country would need an Air Force - I mean, to protect its territory, to fight wars. But this is, like, on Earth. Like, what - take me to space and how this might play out and why the United States would have an interest there. I mean, are we protecting planet Earth? Are we fighting wars up there?

VIRTS: So one of the things that I had to do when I was commander of the station was maneuver it to avoid some debris that our Chinese friends had caused when they did a military anti-satellite demonstration. They blew up a satellite in 2007.

GREENE: Huh.

VIRTS: And even today, the space station still needs to maneuver every year or two to avoid that debris that they caused. Earlier this year, unfortunately, our Indian friends decided to do the same thing. They blew up a satellite in low Earth orbit. And if you ever saw the movie "Gravity"...

GREENE: Yeah.

VIRTS: ...Where they have to - I mean, that's overly dramatized, where these cascading effect of satellites exploding caused this big cloud of debris. But that's a real thing. And if you think about taking out satellites in low Earth orbit, just turn your iPhone off, and turn all your mobile banking apps off. And when you go to the grocery store, have them turn their computers off.

I mean, if you lost the ability to operate in Earth orbit, it's not just a military thing. Of course, the military uses satellites for intelligence and other things, but what if you didn't know, you know, if we didn't have weather satellites or communication or GPS? So the civilian economy of the whole globe - it's not just America - really depends on that. And that's a big reason why it's very important today.

GREENE: Oh, that's interesting, so protecting things in outer space that really affect our lives. Well, I want to ask - I mean, this week, China is calling the U.S. Space Force a threat to outer space peace. I mean, how do you respond to the idea that weaponizing space could actually risk a conflict?

VIRTS: Well, I saw that article. It was pretty funny. My friend Greg Autry, who's been a big space policy person, said that, well, if China doesn't like it, it must be a good idea was his take on that. But like I just said, I had to maneuver to avoid the debris that the Chinese had created. And to say that - this is not weaponizing space. That happened back in the 1960s. We've had the Air Force, and also the Navy and Army have various arms of space forces, if you will, within them. This is just trying to make one organization out of what is currently many in the DOD.

GREENE: Terry Virts is a retired Air Force colonel who commanded the International Space Station, as he just described, talking to us about the new wing of the American military, the Space Force. Thanks so much for your time, Colonel, we appreciate it.

VIRTS: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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