NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine sometimes gets mistaken for the leader of a different agency. “A lot of people ask me about the Space Force,” he said today at an event called the Space Power Forum. “They say, ‘So how’s the Space Force coming along?’ and, ‘Congratulations on the Space Force.’” Bridenstine wants them to understand the big difference between his civil space agency and the military space branch led by Gen. John Raymond, who appeared virtually next to Bridenstine at the forum. But despite the different missions, Bridenstine continued, “We share a very similar—in fact, we share the same—domain.” Orbit, and beyond.
That shared focus is deepening with the announcement at the forum of a new partnership between NASA and the Space Force, an independent branch within the U.S. Air Force. The memorandum of understanding commits the two organizations to “broad collaboration in areas including human spaceflight, U.S. space policy, space transportation, standards and best practices for safe operations in space, scientific research, and planetary defense,” according to a NASA statement.
As NASA moves forward with programs like Artemis, its plan to send humans back to the Moon, it wants space to remain safe, even as the region becomes increasingly congested, contested, and competitive—the “three Cs.” This new memorandum aims to add another C to the mix: calm. “We share the desire for security in space,” Raymond said.
The agreement replaces one put in place 14 years ago by NASA and the Air Force Space Command. But blurred boundaries between the U.S. civil and military space enterprises stretch much further into the past. “The history of collaboration between NASA and the Air Force, as the predecessor service that had space capabilities, is very long and extensive and goes back basically to the beginning,” says Robin Dickey, a space policy and strategy analyst at the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded R&D center.
The first astronauts, for instance, were all military pilots. Many today still come from the service. The Space Shuttle sometimes landed not at Kennedy Space Center but at Edwards Air Force Base. NASA has launched classified payloads. “The U.S. space program, from the very beginning, has been inherently military in nature,” says Victoria Samson, Washington, D.C., office director of the Secure World Foundation, a space sustainability think tank.
Samson says a deeper or more apparent marriage between the organizations could present challenges for NASA as it pursues joint missions with other nations, if they see the space agency as too attached to the military. “The question is, does that affect others’ perceptions of NASA?” Samson says, although she notes that because the agreement builds on an existing one, “it’s not as big of a change as it might seem.”
The question is particularly relevant as NASA seeks international partners for Artemis. In fact, at today’s event, Bridenstine cited Artemis’s appeal as a diplomatic tool, a way to establish norms of good behavior in space. He noted that a recent Artemis meeting to foster collaboration drew representatives from 26 countries.
At the same time, programs like Artemis—plus increased commercial activity in space—could need an expanded military presence for protection and peacekeeping. As major stakeholders working in the same space, Samson says, they are both invested in establishing and reinforcing good behavior. “There’s obviously interest in keeping that space stable and predictable,” she says. “It makes sense you’d have a whole-government approach.”
Although NASA is a civil and scientific organization, it still can play a political role for the nation, Bridenstine said at the forum. “We are an instrument of national power,” he said. “It is soft power. It is diplomatic power. It is information power. It is economic power. But … we can’t do any of those things if space is not secure. And that’s why it was important to create the Space Force. That’s why it’s important for NASA to partner with the Space Force.”