The U.S. Space Force—the sixth military service branch, which turns two years old next month—provides resources to protect and defend America’s satellites from the likes of the Chinese and the Russians. Space Force members also operate the Global Positioning System satellite constellation, providing G.P.S. services, for free, to everyone on the planet. All extremely important stuff. Yet the Space Force is considered something of a joke—the subject of late-night gibes and Internet memes. Critics have derided it as a vanity project of President Trump, a campaign-rally applause line somehow made real. Last year, when Trump unveiled the Space Force logo, which bears a striking resemblance to “Star Trek” ’s Starfleet insignia, Twitter lit up. (“Ahem,” tweeted the original “Star Trek” cast member George Takei. “We are expecting some royalties from this . . .”) Also undercutting the serious nature of the service: the Netflix comedy series “Space Force,” which stars Steve Carell as the branch’s bullheaded leader.
If any of this bothers General John W. (Jay) Raymond, the inaugural head of the Space Force, he doesn’t let on. The memeification of the force? “To me, it means that there’s a lot of excitement about space,” he said recently, sitting in a meeting room in Columbia University’s International Affairs Building. The four-star general, who is based at the Pentagon, was visiting between rounds of the Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge, a largely virtual competition in which thirty-two student teams from across the globe made policy recommendations in reaction to a hypothetical cyber-warfare scenario. (This one began with a breach made in “U.S. space sector ground stations’ systems,” an attack apparently undertaken by “Chinese state-sponsored actors.”) The event at Columbia, a partnership with a think tank called the Atlantic Council, was organized by the Digital and Cyber Group, which is run by graduate students at the School of International and Public Affairs (sipa).
Raymond, who is fifty-nine, with a head shaved bald, pointed to a space-operations badge pinned to his jacket. He noted that the delta symbol at its center had been used by the Air Force—from which the Space Force sprung—years before “Star Trek” ’s 1966 début. Raymond explained that the branch “was not a President Trump thing” but had been under discussion for decades, and came about owing to bipartisan support in Congress. The service now has close to thirteen thousand members, known as “guardians.” “Everybody said we stole it from ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ ” Raymond said. “Well, no.” The term derives from the Air Force Space Command motto from 1983, “Guardians of the High Frontier.”
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