Massachusetts companies played a big role in the '60s space race to land a person on the moon. President Trump now wants to chart a new extraterrestrial course by creating a branch of the military solely focused on space — and that could be a boon for local companies.
Trump floated the idea of creating a Space Force back in April, calling space a "warfighting domain just like the land, air and sea."
"I was saying it the other day 'cause we're doing a tremendous amount of work in space. Maybe we need a new force — we'll call it the space force," Trump told troops in San Diego. "And I was not really serious. And then I said what a great idea, maybe we’ll have to do that."
The idea for a space force isn't new. It's been proposed in different ways for years. But when Trump proposed Space Force, it quickly became the butt of jokes for late-night TV hosts, like Stephen Colbert.
Laugh or not, many say Space Force is necessary to protect American assets in space, like the communications systems that help troops in Afghanistan or the GPS that helps you get around. There's also concern over Russia and China threatening U.S. satellites. Intelligence officials reported earlier this year that the two countries are pursuing "nondestructive and destructive counterspace weapons" for use during a potential future conflict.
"This is an opportunity to focus efforts and really take a long-term view of space operations," said Rockford Weitz, a serial entrepreneur and the director of the maritime studies program at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. "The technology has evolved to the extent that it is an appropriate time to really consider creating a dedicated space force."
Weitz sees Space Force as a smart organizational strategy, just like how the Air Force was created in 1947 to focus on air operations.
Right now, the military's space operations mostly fall under the Air Force. The Trump plan would bring together space experts from across the armed forces to develop cutting-edge technologies and war-fighting operations. They would be led by a four-star general, who would oversee a newly established U.S. Space Command (expected by the end of this year).
Many are concerned these efforts would open the door to weaponization in space. Among them is Laura Grego, a senior scientist with the Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists.
"We don't have weapons orbiting in space. 'Star Wars' is fiction. We don't have soldiers. And we've restrained from targeting each other's satellites destructively on purpose,” Grego said.
She says there are useful — and even essential — military operations in space, but they're dwarfed by commercial, civil and scientific activity. And that, Grego says, is where the focus should be.
"If we had extra money to spend, let's spend it on innovation, let's spend it on providing services to human beings that make their lives better, rather than by shunting this money off to defense contractors and finding different ways to wage war," Grego said.
Space As Big Business
Space is big business for companies in Massachusetts, though they tend to be tight-lipped about it. But some acknowledge that a space force could be really good for business.
Aerospace giant Boeing, which is establishing a major research center in Kendall Square, sees Space Force as an opportunity. The company's CEO Dennis Muilenburg discussed it on a recent earnings call.
"I'm very encouraged about the U.S. government leaning forward and investing in space," he said. "It's good for business. It creates growth opportunities for us. It's also a great way to develop STEM talent for the future."
Other companies say a space force may not change much. In a statement, Waltham-based Raytheon said its space business "will continue to thrive no matter how the services are structured."
The sentiment is similar over at Draper, the Cambridge company that worked on guidance systems for the Apollo moon missions.
"It wouldn't be that much different from our perspective, because we still protect the assets in space, we help them navigate places, we help communications. That would not change for us. There's still a growth," said Jennifer Jensen, the vice president of national security and space at Draper. "We're just as interested in, as everybody else is, how are they going to organize."
While efforts are underway to create the Space Force, it needs approval of Congress to become a new branch of the military. Legislation to establish that Space Force branch is expected to be included in the Pentagon's budget proposal next year.
Jensen said companies like Draper will be watching.
"Until money is moved into the Space Force and they actually put out for contracts, then it really doesn't impact this side of it," Jensen said.
If the Space Force branch is established, tech companies and defense contractors in Massachusetts stand to make millions — if not billions — in new contracts.
This segment aired on October 19, 2018.
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