Undoing much of what President Donald Trump has done will only require a stroke of Joe Biden's pen, since it was achieved by executive order. But one of Trump's more maligned ideas will prove more complicated to address. Space Force, the sixth branch of the U.S. military, was established in 2019 to ensure "American superiority in space." True to form, Trump hyped the move as "big and important." It was certainly pricey: Space Force's yearly budget is around $15 billion.
Democrats harshly criticized Space Force. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., a retired astronaut, dismissed it as a "dumb idea," explaining that the Air Force was already effectively protecting U.S. interests in space. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., meanwhile, called for its multibillion-dollar budget to be spent on health care rather than on the militarization of the Milky Way.
Even entertainers got in on the act. Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel quipped that Space Force sounded like the title of a Michael Bay blockbuster. Netflix made an actual show lampooning it.
Yet it's unlikely that Biden will ax Space Force, as liberals are demanding. For one thing, a president has never abolished a branch of the military. For another, doing so requires a vote in Congress. And Republicans will be hard pressed to go along, wary of Trump's continued influence within their party.
But that doesn't mean Space Force cannot become a tool for promoting Biden's agenda.
Biden wants to sweep aside Trump's "America First" ethos and restore U.S. leadership of the international community. The president-elect has been clear: His victory heralds America's return "at the head of the table." And Space Force can be an integral part of that project, if Biden simply follows the lead of another Democratic president: John F. Kennedy.
When Americans think of Kennedy and the space program, they probably recall his 1962 speech pledging to put a man on the moon. For Kennedy, achieving this goal was a matter of national excellence. "We choose to go to the moon . . . not because [it's] easy, but because [it's] hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills . . . we intend to win."
And winning was key. It was the height of the Cold War, and the American-Soviet rivalry extended to a hair-raising space race. More than a year before, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had orbited the Earth, becoming the first man ever to travel to space. The ball was now in the Americans' court. Top that — or let the U.S.S.R. declare victory in the space race. That's why the Kennedy administration targeted the moon.
It also made for good politics at home. The Apollo program fit squarely with the young president's image as a swashbuckling leader. After all, Kennedy had made "the New Frontier" the slogan of his presidential campaign — and what farther frontier was there than space?
Kennedy's 1962 moon speech is one of the lasting memories of the Apollo program. And yet, it's not the most powerful — or most relevant — speech the president gave about space.
One year later, Kennedy revealed in an address to the United Nations that he had rethought the goal of America's space program. Gone from the agenda was winning. The president now told his fellow world leaders that the United States and the Soviet Union should go to the moon together. "Why . . . should man's first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition?" Instead, "the representatives of all of our countries" should be part of a joint lunar mission.
This abrupt reversal of course reflected Kennedy's ambition to "move the world to a just and lasting peace," a byproduct of the harrowing 1962 Cuban missile crisis. While Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had narrowly averted nuclear Armageddon, the sobering moment had been an awakening for the president. Kennedy emerged a changed man, looking to bury the hatchet with the Soviet adversary, understanding that brinkmanship endangered humanity.
A nuclear test ban treaty with the U.S.S.R. had been the immediate consequence. But now Kennedy wanted to ride the momentum. He called for, among other things, the creation of a world center to "warn of epidemics and the adverse effects of certain drugs," "a worldwide program of conservation" to protect the environment and curb industrial pollution and "a worldwide program of farm productivity and food distribution . . . [to] give every child the food he needs."
But it was the collective lunar mission that most powerfully symbolized Kennedy's internationalism. One need only imagine the message of unity sent to people around the globe if, at the apex of the Cold War, the flags of all the world's countries had been planted on the moon. It would be a point of pride for every human being, regardless of their country of origin. He imagined the powerful symbolism of the flags of all the world's countries being planted on the moon.
By getting Western and Eastern blocs to join forces on a common endeavor, Kennedy hoped to drastically reduce Cold War tensions. It was also his way of fostering an inclusive peace, the kind that in his words was not a "Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war," but instead "enables men and nations to grow."
That, of course, never happened. Kennedy was killed two months after his U.N. speech. Immediately thereafter, the Apollo program became indelibly associated with the slain president's legacy. Indeed, only a week after Kennedy's death, his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, renamed Cape Canaveral — where NASA launched its spacecrafts from — Cape Kennedy. Johnson also vowed to make good on his predecessor's promise to put an American on the moon.
Forgotten was Kennedy's more recent plea for a lunar expedition with the Soviets. Everyone instead remembered the speech he had given a year before which had made the nation dream.
The United States eventually reached the moon in 1969. Although it represented a giant leap for mankind, it was a decidedly American achievement.
In the 21st century, space will be once again at the heart of global affairs. The world's two richest men are already setting the trend. Elon Musk's SpaceX is planning human colonies on Mars by 2050. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin is working on massively reducing the cost of space travel. (The Amazon chief executive owns The Washington Post.) That would be a game-changer, enabling not only space tourism, but also other ventures such as asteroid mining — predicted to be a trillion-dollar industry. As Bezos says, we are "on the edge of a golden age of space exploration" that will see "a dynamic, entrepreneurial explosion in space."
But with opportunity comes risk. Another space race is underway. This time it could have grave consequences. Experts are warning it could lead to all-out war.
China plans to become an "aerospace power" and created its own space force in 2015, following Russia. Since then, Japan has also gotten itself a space force. And the United Kingdom is setting up its own, after calling Chinese and Russian actions in space "irresponsible." Other countries will soon join this explosive space race.
Now is an urgent time to revive Kennedy's vision of a partnership between nations in space. Biden could dedicate Space Force to this very ideal. Under his command, it could take the lead in promoting peacemaking missions with other space forces, as well as forging economic ties — all to build a stable space community. Doing so would fulfill Biden's goal of resuming American leadership in the world while preventing future catastrophe.
The stakes are high. Biden must ensure that in the conquest of space, as Kennedy put it, "all the world can be a winner."
Zenou is doing a Ph.D in U.S. history at Cambridge University. This piece was written for The Washington Post.