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Donald Trump at National Space Council
President Donald Trump speaks at a White House meeting of the National Space Council, with Vice President Mike Pence standing beside him and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao sitting in the background. (White House / NASA via YouTube)

President Donald Trump today directed the Department of Defense to create a Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. military, alongside the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.

“We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force, separate but equal,” Trump said at a White House meeting of the National Space Council. “It is going to be something so important.”

He called on Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to carry out the assignment — and Dunford, a member of the council, accepted the job on the spot.

The idea of creating a separate Space Force to focus on national space security has been around for years, but gathered momentum after Trump took office.

In past pronouncements, Air Force and Pentagon officials have said breaking off a separate Space Force would introduce more bureaucracy without significantly enhancing space security — but Trump signaled that he was instead siding with proponents of the idea.

Creating an independent Space Force is likely to require further congressional action. Last year, the House passed a defense authorization bill that would have created a “Space Corps” under the aegis of the Air Force, but that provision was dropped from the final version of the legislation.

Today’s reaction from lawmakers to Trump’s directive was mixed on Twitter:

During today’s White House briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders noted that Trump has asked the Pentagon only to “start the process” of creating a Space Force. “We’re in the beginning stages of it, and we’re going to work with the Department of Defense and other relevant parties to put it into place,” Sanders said.

Today marked the third formal meeting of the National Space Council, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and attended by top officials from NASA, the Commerce and Transportation departments and the U.S. intelligence community.

After Trump made his introductory remarks, he signed his administration’s third space policy directive, aimed at heading off a tangle of satellites and space debris when thousands more satellites go into orbit.

Space Policy Directive 3 sets forth who’s in charge of what in realms known as space situational awareness and space traffic management.

Satellite smashups can pose long-lasting hazards, as demonstrated by the aftermath of a Chinese anti-satellite test in 2007 and a collision between U.S. and Russian telecommunications satellites in 2009.

Historically, the Department of Defense has kept track of objects in orbit and issued advisories about potential conflicts. But that job is due to get trickier in the years ahead as new waves of commercial satellites go into low Earth orbit for remote sensing and internet access.

The newly signed directive keeps the Pentagon in charge of maintaining the catalog of in-space objects, but gives the Commerce Department the primary role in making space safety data and services available to the public.

Directive signed
President Donald Trump shows off his signature on Space Policy Directive 3. (White House / NASA via YouTube)

The Commerce, Defense and Transportation departments will work together to update policies for assessing risks before the launch of new satellites. NASA will lead efforts to update the government’s standards and practices for satellite design and operation, as well as procedures for mitigating orbital debris.

Meanwhile, the State Department will lead the government’s efforts “related to international transparency, space object registry and international engagement” on space situational awareness and space traffic management, said Scott Pace, the National Space Council’s executive secretary.

“Space traffic management cuts across all departments and agencies with space-related missions, and requires all to work in concert,” Pace told reporters today during a teleconference in advance of the council meeting.

Trump said the new directive represented a much-needed modernization of “out-of-date space regulations,” but offhandedly expressed some reservations about setting up a new regulatory framework. “Don’t let it get too out of control, please?” he said, turning back to look at Pence.

Space Policy Directive 3 follows up on earlier pronouncements that set lunar operations as the near-term goal for space exploration, and laid out a plan to streamline regulations for commercial space ventures.

During the meeting, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that Kevin O’Connell, an expert on space security and intelligence, would head his department’s Office of Space Commerce. And Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said her department was on track to rework the regulatory framework for commercial space launches by next Feb. 1.

In other developments:

  • Trump spent the first few minutes of the meeting railing against Democrats over the issue of immigration and family separation, sparked by his own administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at the U.S.-Mexican border. “I say it’s very strongly the Democrats’ fault,” Trump said.
  • Among those recognized at the meeting were Apollo moonwalkers Buzz Aldrin and Harrison Schmitt, as well as retired astronaut Eileen Collins, who served as the first female commander of a space shuttle mission. Two other retired astronauts, Scott Parazynski and Terry Virts, joined Collins on a panel discussing human space exploration.
  • The president also recognized members of the council’s Users Advisory Group, including the CEOs of Boeing and Lockheed Martin as well as United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed joint venture. Trump added a dig at ULA: “I don’t love that stuff, joining those two companies. … No wonder we don’t get the pricing we want.” The advisory group, which also includes Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, is to meet Tuesday at NASA Headquarters.
  • Trump made a special call-out to recently confirmed NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, using a catchphrase that the president made famous in his former role as a reality-TV star. “You better do a good job, or I’ll say ‘You’re fired’ in two minutes,” he said.
  • Bridenstine said NASA was having “very serious conversations” with commercial ventures about taking over space operations in low Earth orbit, including management of the U.S. segment of the International Space Station, by 2025 as called for by the White House.
  • Virts, a veteran of two NASA space missions, urged the council to focus directly on surface operations on the moon rather than spending billions to first build a Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway, as is currently contemplated. “Gateway will only slow us down, taking time and precious dollars away from the goal of returning to the lunar surface and eventually flying to Mars.” Virts said.

Update for 4 p.m. PT June 18: This report was updated with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ comments.

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