Netflix comedy 'Space Force' shows real military branch's struggle to be taken seriously
By Ethan Sacks
Space Force has a gravity problem.
That there is a Netflix comedy series, “Space Force,” out Friday lampooning the newest branch of the U.S. military isn’t the best sign that the American public is taking its intended mission seriously.
Initiated with great hoopla by President Donald Trump with a June 18, 2018, executive order, the Space Force came with a grandiose vision. “It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space," Trump said at the time, "We must have American dominance in space.”
Eighteen months later, the Space Force was officially established under the Air Force with the mandate of making good on the presidential bluster. Still in the development stage, the fledgling service has since struggled with an image problem — its real marching orders are far more grounded than the sci-fi name would suggest. It didn’t help shake that perception when the official symbol unveiled in January bore a noticeable resemblance to a logo from “Star Trek.”
“The idea of a Space Force was put forward about two years ago now and there's been a lot of misunderstanding of what this is,” said Jack Burns, a professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“What it isn't is Captain Kirk in the Starship Enterprise battling Klingons, or Luke Skywalker battling Darth Vader — in fact, it's probably going to involve very few military folk in space," Burns, who served on the 2016-2017 presidential NASA transition team, said. "It's more, as I understand it, enhancing our defensive posture with better satellites dealing with hypermissiles in the atmosphere, a lot of software development, a lot of remote sensors.
“All of it, according to the experts, is behind where it needs to be given the progress that both the Russians and the Chinese have made.”
“That's a very different Space Force than the public perception.”
The first 10-episode season of “Space Force” reunites showrunner Greg Daniels with his star from “The Office,” Steve Carell, who plays four-star Gen. Mark Naird, head of the titular branch. Co-starring John Malkovich, Jimmy O. Yang, Tawny Newsome, and Jane Lynch, the series orbits the current political landscape closely — with stand-ins for Trump, Anthony Scaramucci (former White House Director of Communications), and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., as the butt of the jokes.
“POTUS wants complete space dominance,” the fictional secretary of defense says at one point during the first episode. “Boots on the moon by 2024. Actually, he said b--bs on the moon, but we believe that to be a typo.”
As close as the first half of that dialogue hews to the president’s June 2018 promise to return American astronauts to the moon, “Space Force” is not close to a documentary. The fictional Space Force was filmed without incorporating the input of the real one.
“We welcome the opportunity to discuss providing support when requested,” U.S. Air Force Maj. William Russell, a spokesman for the Space Force, said by email. “Any program that opens up a conversation about the ongoing, vital national defense mission performed by the U.S. Space Force is a worthwhile endeavor.”
Just how worthy of an endeavor the military will find the new show is a question. Beyond the job title, there is little resemblance between Carell's bumbling character and the distinguished four-star general who sits behind the real desk, Gen. John W. "Jay" Raymond. And an episode featuring a trained chimpanzee forced to make a spacewalk to fix a satellite sabotaged by the Chinese makes a monkey out of what the real Space Force is trying to accomplish.
But what exactly is the Space Force attempting to accomplish, even as it's dogged by memes, social media jokes and sitcoms?
"Our adversaries and competitors continue to threaten U.S. interests and endanger international security with new space weapons and tactics," Russell said. "In April, the Iranians launched its first military satellite into the Earth's orbit, while Russia recently performed an anti-satellite test.
"These are real-life examples on how the threats to U.S. and allied space systems are real, serious and growing."
The real message, though, isn’t helped by the hyperbole heaped on the Space Force by the president, who touted the development of a "super duper missile" during a Space Force flag ceremony earlier this month. Lost in the superlatives is that the core mission, to protect U.S. assets, including vulnerable communications and GPS satellites, has been a priority for successive administrations and tasked to the Department of Defense for decades.
Critics, though, debate whether or not it required a sixth branch of the military with startup costs likely up to $4.7 billion, according to the independent Congressional Budget Office.
"Space Force is not a partisan issue, it’s a President Trump issue,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a private organization dedicated to studying sustainability in space. “The debate about how best to organize the U.S. military for space activities has been going on for decades and it is not generally a partisan discussion.
“I think that the challenge comes in that President Trump has campaigned on this, he's made it a feature of his rallies,” Weeden said. “So he has closely tied the issue of the Space Force to his personal political success."
Weeden points to the parallels to the contentious debate over Ronald Reagan's proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an expensive space-based missile-defense system that was derisively nicknamed "Star Wars" by its detractors.
"People were really confused at the time," Burns said. "Also the technology proposed was way beyond our capability. At that point in time, there was no way you could provide a shield that could 100 percent protect from nuclear weapons."
Technology has improved by light years since; the political debate over whether or not it is worth the cost remains the same.
Which makes the current space race a final frontier for comedy writers, just as a previous generation found humor in the specter of Cold War nuclear annihilation with the 1964 satire, "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." And Daniels and the writers are careful to at least sometimes portray the fictional "Spacemen" as dedicated and competent as their 16,000 off-screen counterparts.
“Space is a happening place right now, from the entertainment industry, to popular culture, and the halls of the Pentagon,” Russell said. “Hopefully this comedy will encourage people to learn about the serious business of the real U.S. Space Force.”