From the moment Trump half-heartedly decided that the “US Space Force” (USSF) sounded cool, criticism of his need to make one has been widespread and varied. Someone taking a very carefully worded middle ground, however, is astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson.
In a recent interview with CNN, he said that the idea of a USSF isn’t a “fundamentally odd” notion, seeing as the Air Force was once part of the US Army before it took off all by itself as a separate branch. Thus, a natural extension could happen with regards to the US Air Force and the USSF.
“The question is, does the Air Force think that they can’t handle it under the current administrative bureaucratic structures?” If not, then it may be a good idea, he opined. If they can, then there’s no need for the USSF.
Tyson has since expanded on these comments in an interview for Politico. The USSF imagined by the Trump administration is one that probably will match up with the current concerns of the Air Force: defending American infrastructure in space from attacks or debris. Tyson adds that it should also help protect Earth from asteroids.
“I’d kind of like to see it have some way to clean up space debris. I’d kind of like to see it have a way to defend the Earth against asteroid impacts,” Tyson explained. “I bet if the dinosaurs had a space program, they’d still be here and we wouldn’t.”
Obviously, a little tongue-in-cheek, the point he is making is that the evolutionary history of the planet would have been quite different if the asteroid that delivered the coup de grâce to the dinosaurs never slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula.
It’s certainly true that spaceborne rocks of varying sizes could potentially pose a threat to Earth. Defending against such threats – a very active field of research – is certainly on NASA’s mind, and the public agrees this should be a top priority for the agency.
In the wake of the famous 2013 Chelyabinsk airburst meteor incident, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson called the event a “cosmic wake-up call,” that “drew widespread attention to what more needs to be done to detect even larger asteroids before they strike our planet.”
As NASA notes, the same day that meteor arrived, the cacophonously named United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Working Group on Near-Earth Objects made an important recommendation: that an International Asteroid Warning Network should be established. At the same time, a Space Missions Planning Advisory Group, streamlining communications between various space agencies, was also set up.
This is all parallel with the constant expansion of NASA’s Near Earth Object Observations Program. Although there’s plenty of potentially dangerous, near-Earth asteroids yet to discover, huge strides have been made in identifying tens of thousands of them.
NASA also has the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which looks for hazardous asteroids with perhaps concerning orbits.
As Tyson certainly knows, things are already being done to mitigate the problem of asteroids all over the world. If the USSF is formed to help deal with this – and satellite/spacecraft-sourced space junk, another potentially serious problem – then Tyson doesn’t see an issue.
As for what exactly they could do to help, from monitoring and detecting to actual deflecting, that remains entirely hypothetical for the time being. If, of course, this is something the Air Force can handle or help with, the USSF doesn’t really have much of a purpose.
You can read the entire Politico interview with Tyson here.