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Save space for exploration, spare it from conflict

Trump Space Force-4

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis introduces Vice President Mike Pence during an event on the creation of a United States Space Force, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, at the Pentagon. Pence says the time has come to establish a new United States Space Force to ensure America's dominance in space amid heightened completion and threats from China and Russia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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Monday, August 20, 2018

Earlier this month, President Trump’s administration doubled down on his earlier proposal to create a Space Force as a new branch of the United States military. The suggestion, as before, was met with much eye-rolling and plenty of snarky remarks from the president’s critics.

We have argued before that space is a uniquely bad place to wage war. But President Trump seems serious about the idea, so perhaps it’s worth seriously weighing.

And besides, it wouldn’t be the first time that pushing the military into a new frontier drew skepticism. Military officials at the start of World War I were famously critical of the usefulness of airplanes in combat. That turned out to be a shortsighted opinion, to say the least.

Certainly, the Air Force has helped make the world a safer place. It’s possible that boosting our military capabilities in space would do the same. But there are also a lot of ways things could go wrong.

For one thing, when something blows up in the air, it falls to the ground. When something blows up in space, it turns into millions of tiny bullets that whiz around the planet faster than the speed of sound until they burn up in the atmosphere or crash to Earth, sometimes many years later.

High-speed junk in orbit makes it harder to keep satellites safe, which threatens communications, scientific research, GPS service and, of course, military technology. All of that mess in space also makes it harder for us to get off of Earth, which is important for studying our home planet — and possibly for one day traveling to a new one.

So far, we don’t know how to clean up space. So if satellites — or missiles — started smashing into each other, the chain reaction could wipe out so much crucial technology that it could plunge us into a virtual Dark Age for many years.

That’s something called the Kessler Syndrome, and it’s not entirely hypothetical. In 2007, China tested an anti-satellite technology that created at least 150,000 pieces of debris — thousands of which are large enough to be tracked from the ground — that will orbit the Earth for decades.

In other words, the less stuff we blow up in space, the better.

Besides, the United States already has significant military capabilities in space. We blew up a satellite too, in 1985, for example. And each branch of the military already has operations dedicated at least in part to space-based warfare. Even the Coast Guard plans to launch satellites this year.

Trump and his administration have been decidedly light on details of how a Space Force would be any different from current operations. Perhaps it would be prudent to combine different areas of expertise under one command. But no one has effectively articulated what’s wrong with the existing setup.

The more immediate concern is that talk about a Space Force distracts from some significantly more pressing challenges facing the United States — not the least of which is growing aggression from North Korea, Russia, Iran and other dangerous regimes that still commit or facilitate plenty of violence here on Earth.

President Trump’s Space Force proposal is less a punchline than the reaction on late-night television would suggest. In fact, it’s not necessarily a preposterous idea at all, just one that ought to be very low on the priority list.

And our ultimate goal — whether we pursue it with a Space Force, existing military efforts, treaties or some combination thereof — ought to be preserving space as a place for exploration, learning and international cooperation, not yet another frontier for destruction and conflict.

The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina

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Humans of Greenville

@HumansofGville

Local photographer Joe Pellegrino explores Greenville to create a photographic census of its people.

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