The U.S. currently has around 859 satellites in orbit, 166 of which are owned and operated by the military. Experts believe the number of satellites in orbit will increase by thousands over the next decade, helping to drive what could become an industry worth trillions of dollars.
Protecting these satellites and the commercial and scientific activities they support is a vital national interest at a time when Russia and China are expanding their offensive military capabilities in low-earth orbit. The Trump administration and Pentagon strategists are making plans to meet this challenge. There is just one problem. The American public isn’t buying the threat or the need to act.
Vice President Mike Pence recently elaborated on President Trump’s intentions to establish a Space Force to protect U.S. commercial, civil, and military assets and interests in space, echoing statements from Trump at the most recent convening of the National Space Council.
Many in Congress remain concerned that a Space Force will create additional costs and bureaucracy in an already very bureaucratic defense department, and could instigate, rather than deter, retaliatory policies from adversaries. However, top Pentagon officials who initially raised concerns regarding the establishment of a “space corps,” including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, have since walked back their stance.
Yet, while lawmakers coalesce supporters of the new policy, the American electorate remains skeptical. Recently, a series of polls have been conducted to gauge American interest in the Space Force. According to a CNN poll released on August 16, only 37 percent of respondents supported the establishment of a Space Force, while 55 percent opposed it. In a similar poll conducted by YouGov, only 29 percent of respondents agreed it was a “good idea,” with 42 percent considering the force a “bad idea.”
Respondents were split along party lines in both polls, indicating a politicization of Trump’s space agenda. In the YouGov poll, 59 percent of Republicans said Space Force was a good idea, while only 14 percent of Democrats agreed. The CNN poll had a narrow majority of 50 percent of Republicans supporting the establishment of a space force, but only 28 percent of Democrats.
A similar poll by Hill.TV and HarrisX, which also found a partisan split, had a majority of respondents indicating support for a Space Force when asked if they approve of “creating a sixth branch of the military, the Space Force, which would be designed to protect U.S. interests and assets in space.”
Public support matters because members of Congress are unlikely to get ahead of voters by funding expensive projects in space that voters do not think are needed. Last year, a similar proposal for a “Space Corps” was put forth the 2018 NDAA, but it was withheld from the final version of the bill.
The discrepancy between the administration’s space goals and the electorate extends beyond military objectives into civil and commercial space. Trump’s first Space Policy Directive) ordered NASA to “lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.” This included a return to the Moon, which would lay the groundwork for future manned missions to Mars.
In June, a Pew Research Center poll discovered that the majority of Americans, over 60 percent, consider Earth climate monitoring and asteroid defense as top priorities. Alternatively, 18 percent of respondents believed manned Mars missions should be a priority, and even fewer, 13 percent, believed that manned moon missions should be prioritized. The poll also has many respondents admitting that their knowledge of commercial space is limited, with 45 percent admitting they only know a little, and 37 percent admitting no knowledge at all. Perhaps lawmakers should look to space issues Americans have indicated as priorities when crafting new policy.
Voters may yet become convinced of the need for space defenses if the military, business, and scientific communities make a public case for why they are needed. And nobody has the ability to capture the public imagination and attention like Trump. For better or for worse, he commands (and commandeers) the daily news cycle. If the president wants a deal with Congress to fund his ambitious space policy agenda, he must start selling it to a still-skeptical American people.