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The Cosmic Sandbox: An Advocated Military Role in Future Space Commerce and Exploration

Illustrations © James Vaughan, and used by permission. More of his work can be found here:

By Carl Poole and Robert A. Bettinger


Space operations will move beyond near-Earth space into the cislunar environment and even beyond by the mid to late 2020s. Reinvigorated U.S. civil and commercial initiatives will likely result in a return to the Moon, exploration and mining of asteroids, and coalesce international efforts to reach Mars. Within this setting of accelerating development in, and enhanced global focus on, the space domain, the U.S. national space enterprise comprises three groups conducting space operations: (1) civil organizations (i.e., non-military, governmental), (2) commercial entities, and (3) national security organizations such as the recently-established U.S. Space Force (USSF). This research explores the potential for an expanded USSF role in future civil and commercial space missions beyond solely supporting national defense and terrestrial military operations. The USSF is poised to continue a historical tradition of military support to commerce and scientific exploration as national space operations routinely transcend the Earth’s gravitational sphere of influence. Such a shared role would be collaborative and cooperative, and share personnel and materiel resources to realize a robust U.S. space operations footprint in the Solar System from the near- to the long-term.



Evolving Space Domain

In July 2020, the Commander of the Space Vehicles Directorate at Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Colonel Eric Felt stated that “our mission in the Space Force will become to protect…commerce, and I…talk about it in terms of protecting the “celestial lines of commerce,” or the space lines of commerce.”[1] This vision for the evolving mission set of the U.S. Space Force (USSF) is based on the 2020 Defense Space Strategy which formally states that “the DoD desires a secure, stable, and accessible space domain, whose use by the United States and our allies and partners is underpinned by comprehensive, sustained military strength.”[2] When considered together, the preceding documents lay the foundation for a potential shift in U.S. military attention beyond one exclusively limited to near-Earth orbits. The expansion of international space operations into cislunar space during the 2010s has pushed U.S. space domain awareness and space control considerations beyond its original near-Earth moorings.[3]

Not limited by cislunar space, National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA)[4] and other international space operations by China[5] and India[6] are poised to extend to Mars. Human exploration of Mars is a current plan for U.S.-based SpaceX,[7] and represents a long-term goal for human spaceflight. In addition to Martian exploration, in April 2020 the Trump administration released a Presidential Executive Order encouraging the recovery and use of natural resources in space, thereby sanctioning the commercial mining of asteroids and potentially other celestial bodies.[8] This Executive Order places a new perspective on “space lines of commerce” and expands the range of space-based commercial ventures from those associated with missions such as communications and imaging, to the establishment of off-world mining facilities and interplanetary ore transportation. However, the development of commerce beyond the Earth’s gravitational sphere of influence may create a mission that will feature an exploratory element. Within the current U.S. space operation architecture, missions beyond geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) are predominantly scientific, and any future missions to Mars or other celestial bodies will likewise have large exploration components.

This paper asserts that the USSF’s mission will likely evolve to include not only the protection of space-based commerce, but also the enablement of exploration and eventually expansion, to include off-world settlement. The paper seeks to map out future courses of action for the USSF and not to prioritize current USSF budgets – that is outside the scope of a body of analysis intended to reflect potential activities in 20-30+ years. In terms of organization, the paper first discusses the historical foundations for military support to terrestrial exploration by examining the role of the U.S. military in enabling cartographical and scientific survey missions in austere or uncharted regions during the 19th century. This historical investigation explores the civilian-military relations during such scientific expeditions with the intent of determining general lessons that apply to the space domain. Next, the paper presents both the current and historical military role in supporting Antarctic exploration, an appropriate analog for space exploration in terms of remoteness, challenging climate, and an international legal framework endeavoring to curtail militarism. Finally, the paper concludes with a discussion on how the USSF might support future space exploration and commerce in terms of logistics, space domain awareness, communication, and personnel security.

Military Support to Historical Scientific Exploration

The scientific revolution and subsequent Age of Enlightenment of the early modern era led to the creation of anthropological, geographic, and scientific expeditions around the world.[9] The prospect of scientific advancement and the attainment of knowledge became linked to national prestige and evolved into a source of international competition.[10] In addition to civilian-funded efforts, many scientific expeditions were sponsored and managed by national governments, with governmental departments – such as the military – providing both personnel and materiel to enable the success of the expedition.[11]

Herein, the 18th century led to the “distinct slipperiness in the definitional boundaries between the “warlike” [martial] and “other” purposes of expeditions.”[12] The inclusion of military assets in scientific expeditions provided a form of risk acceptance and management to these endeavors, with the military often contributing means of transportation, logistical support, and personnel protection.[13] In addition to advancing the causes of scientific inquiry, the military also secured land-based and maritime lines of communication and trade.[14] This ensured the protection of national interests abroad for missions associated with commerce and mining.

Historically, military participation in scientific expeditions created a unique dynamic within civilian-military relations, with such relations spanning the full spectrum of collaborative and productive, to contentious and tenuous. This paper does not assign fault for troubled interpersonal relations in a portion of the cited expeditions, but is rather aimed at highlighting lessons learned and assess sources of conflict so that they can be better avoided in the near-future development of space.

There are many examples of how to analyze the context and relative successes of civilian-military expeditionary interaction for commercial enterprise and science before the modern era. Congress chartered the first of these expeditions, the Wilkes Expedition (1838-1842), to promote commerce and navigation in the Pacific Ocean, with “the advancement of science…considered…of secondary importance.”[15] The Wilkes Expedition, eponymously named after its commander, LT Charles Wilkes, was managed by the U.S. Navy and featured a “sloop of war” and other support vessels.[16] The expedition was wrought with interpersonal friction because Wilkes “loathed civilians” and “believed he could fill scientific positions from the officer and medical corps at less cost.”[17] Soured civilian-military relations continued even t the conclusion of the expedition, when Wilkes controlled the publication of the expedition’s scientific findings.[18] Based on his own scientific training, Wilkes “had his own ideas about scientific research and publication,” with such ideas “[conflicting] with those of the scientists.”[19]

The next expedition funded by Congress – that of Commodore Perry to Japan in 1852 – fared no better than the Wilkes Expedition in terms of civilian-military cooperation. Perry “inflexibly opposed the appointment of any civilians to the expedition at all,” and cited operations and information security as an obstacle to the inclusion of civilians with the expedition.[20] He did eventually relent and a small contingent of civilians conducted botanical and agricultural surveys.[21] With England and France vying to enter the once-closed Japanese territory, Perry sought to maintain control of all scientific information from the expedition so that the United States could publish its findings prior to those of other global competitors.[22] As a result, Perry kept a tight rein on the civilians accompanying the expedition and “attempted to make science a function of the military.”[23] However, conflicts between the civilian and military facets of mid-19th century U.S. naval expeditions were not entirely the fault of the military. Civilian scientists often viewed their naval counterparts as “novices, interlopers, and rivals” especially in securing federal grants and endowments, and ultimately public attention.[24]

Civilian-military interactions were not always contentious during the U.S. expeditions of the 19th century. The 1853 North Pacific Exploring Expedition, also known as the Ringgold/Rodgers Expedition, and the scientific expedition conducted in tandem with the construction of the trans-continental railroad both represent positive examples of civilian-military cooperation for the “cause of science.”[25] A primary difference between these expeditions and those of Wilkes and Perry is participation of the U.S. Army rather than the Navy. Army officers during the 19th century “could become…member[s] of the scientific community” based on their training in mathematics and the sciences at West Point.[26] According to Rothenberg, “Army officers could and did pursue research, publish in scientific journals, and get elected to learned societies such as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.”[27] By contrast, Navy officers primarily received their training via a shipboard apprentice system, with the Naval Academy at Annapolis not offering a four-year curriculum commensurate with that of West Point until 1850.[28] “Science was not held in high regard at [Annapolis], [and] the scientific training…was inferior to its Army counterpart.”[29] The introduction of dedicated scientific training for Navy officers likely helped to ease civilian-military cooperation during future Navy-managed expeditions. During the 1853 North Pacific Exploring Expedition, for example, the Navy worked in close collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute “in the selection of scientists to accompany the expedition, the distribution of collections, the selection of the reference library, and publication plans.”[30] The 19th century demonstrated that despite periods of tension between the civilian and military components of scientific expeditions, a high-level of cooperation was indeed possible, with the military providing substantive support in the realm of scientific investigation.

Military Support to Antarctic Exploration

Antarctica has been referred by many as the arena that can be found on Earth, most comparable to space exploration.[31] Nineteenth century and early 20th century British Royal Navy explorations on the Antarctica continent are analogous of the early lunar exploration missions.[32] Like the early moon landings, these early Antarctic expeditions were comparatively short but identified the technologies and mission structure needed to overcome the harsh-operating environment. It is for this reason, in part, that the review of past and present civilian-military interactions during the Antarctic expeditions is critical in understanding the potential USSF involvement in future scientific endeavors in the space domain. Antarctica represents a relevant analogy for future space operations because it was and remains the last true domain for terrestrial exploration. As it will be with space exploration, “Antarctica is something humans can only do with great effort and logistical support.”[33] Thus, the guidance for international cooperation and interaction from Antarctica can serve as pre-inform how international interests of scientific exploration and cooperation with the military intersect, as humanity expands into celestial bodies.

During the late 1940s, the Navy conduct Operation High Jump, a combination of naval and aerial mapping and photography missions, sparked a renewed interest in Antarctica.[34] In 1955, Operation Deep Freeze marked the beginning of a long-duration U.S. presence on the continent with the establishment of the first permanently manned base – Naval Air Facility McMurdo, presently McMurdo Station – to serve as a launching point for future operations. Although the military constructed and operated the facility, McMurdo Station’s central mission focus has always been science and exploration.[35] Between 1957 and 1958, there were many short-term military camps constructed as waystations to assist with logistical and scientific operations on the interior: the “logistics for th[ese] operation[s] were only possible with an impressive show of manpower, air and naval support, and the construction and maintenance of a critical logistical hub located along the coast.”[36]

While military support was critical to the establishment for the operations in Antarctica, it was not required to maintain operational control on a permanent basis. In addition, even though military members were capable of performing scientific work, civilian organizations equipped for the required tasks formed the core of personnel at McMurdo Station.[37] The station operated under less direct military involvement culminating in an official transition of management to the National Science Foundation in 1998 with the military retaining a logistical support function.[38] Current station operations are supported by the Department of Defense (DoD), with U.S. Air Force aircraft flying cargo and personnel to and from the continent.[39] U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers enable resupply convoys to reach the station each year.[40] As observed during the four decades of Operation Deep Freeze, “[ice breakers] smashed through fifty miles of ice more than thirteen feet thick to enable American scientists to continue their studies.”[41]

In addition to U.S. interests in Antarctica, there is a long history of other international interest in conducting scientific and exploration operations on the continent of Antarctica. According to the Antarctic Treaty,[42] no nation can claim territory on the continent. The international cooperation developed since the 1950s has shown Antarctica to be a “political science laboratory,” and represents how international cooperation can evolve for celestial exploration.[43] There are 29 countries with science stations constructed throughout the icy landscape; most notably are those associated with Russia and China.[44] There is a similar analog in the space context, as articulated in Article XI of the Outer Space Treaty, which seeks to “promote international cooperation in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space.”[45] Such a tenet of international space law serves to emphasize the peaceful potentiality of space exploration, and forms a foundation of conduct for the growing arena of international scientific space operation.[46]

Like the United States and Great Britain, Russia’s early modern exploration was conducted by a combination of civilian and military personnel.[47] The Russian Mirnyy and Vostok stations are government installations largely civilian-managed since their founding in the mid-20th century.[48] Since the late 1950s, there have been high levels of cooperation between Vostok and McMurdo stations with the military facilitating the scientific expeditions.[49] This cooperation included a 1960s exchange program with members from each station collaborating on scientific work during the height of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union.[50]

Although a late arrival in Antarctica, China has a similar foundation as the United States when it comes to establishing its presence in Antarctica by capitalizing on assistance from its military. China’s initial Antarctic expedition in 1984 was in part enabled by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), mirroring the initial setup of McMurdo Station.[51] China’s military-scientific involvement on the continent is likely more intertwined than that of the United States, wherein the mission features a greater military focus, and much of the equipment and tools are designed to be dual-purposed in the event of military need.[52] The blurring of lines between military and scientific roles makes China’s Antarctic involvement tenuous amid current international norms restricting militaristic activities in Antarctica.[53] Nevertheless, the ongoing international scientific interactions near the South Pole make it a “useful laboratory for preparing for an advanced space program.”[54]

Military Support to Space Exploration

The Early Space Age

The concept of military support to civilian operations in the space domain was seeded from the beginning of human spaceflight. The idea of interplanetary missions and orbital service stations was envisioned as being primarily crewed by experienced military members.[55] The aforementioned historical benefits and examples of military support in terms of manpower to augment civilian researchers, logistics and infrastructure development in exploration efforts in general, and in Antarctica specifically, convey the importance of this cooperation.

The DoD began its involvement in civilian space operations at the very beginning of human spaceflight with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.[56] The need for highly trained test pilots, coupled with the inherent dangers of the new technology and untested arena of space prompted NASA’s initial call for astronaut applicants to be focused solely on the DoD.[57] As the technology matured, so did the need for astronauts with diverse technological backgrounds.[58] Although subsequent applicant calls were expanded to include both military and civilians, the majority of those selected still remained military.[59] This continued emphasis on hiring and training military personnel for astronaut service was due to the scientific and engineering aptitude these applicants featured, in addition to earlier screening for and training in high-stress operating environments.[60] This key combination of proven experience and educational acumen necessitates military-crewed support structure to be relevant for future manned spaceflight.

Learning from the Past

The interactions between the DoD and NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program represent a learning point for what not to replicate in future space exploration. The separation – often in the form of classification barriers – between these agencies and departments led to program duplication which, in turn, caused increased budgetary issues in an already high-cost enterprise.[61] In 1970, the Air Force and NASA signed an agreement to establish the “Space Transportation Systems Committee” in an attempt to limit the redundancy and duplication of technical effort.[62] This agreement established a foundation for cooperation that continues today, with the DoD being responsible, in part, for maintaining space launch facilities, providing naval retrieval operations, as well as supplying personnel and materiel support to NASA.[63] Similar cooperative agreements will be the foundation for both 21st century exploration and commercialization in space.

By the end of the 20th century, the U.S. economy and society became irrevocably linked to the space domain, with the combination of commercial-DoD communication, navigation and timing (i.e., GPS), and imaging satellites yielding capabilities that have become “embedded in civil and commercial infrastructure and the social fabric of everyday life.”[64] Similar to how the Coast Guard[65] and Navy[66] protect international maritime shipping and off-shore commercial activities, two critical aspects of the U.S. economy, the USSF will need to position itself for the protection of commercial operations in the near-Earth space environment, and the commercial space endeavors stretching into the cislunar region and beyond. Space-focused corporations are pushing for a new model for human spaceflight and space tourism, human expansion outside of Earth’s gravitational sphere of influence. Such expansion will lead to an evolutionary growth in USSF missions, on par with the security and support roles currently held by its maritime service sisters focused on terrestrially.

The Way Forward

The expansion of the commercial space sector shows little sign of slowing.[67] The USSF should focus on continued cultivation of relations with and the support of space activity cohesion between the private and commercial sectors. The introduction of commercial cargo delivery,[68] heavy space lift capabilities,[69] and mega-constellation development[70] from SpaceX – coupled with the goal to transition “heavy industry” to a space-based asset by Blue Origins founder, Jeff Bezos – highlight both present and future growth.[71] Combining this vector with the recent Executive Order encouraging the recovery and use of space resources will require a proportional increase in cooperation between corporations and government agencies. Indeed, “resource extraction from space . . . [will be] critical” for the establishment of a space manufacturing market and in creating “space outposts, habitats, power sources, and propulsion.”[72] The “untapped economic opportunities” in space should result in a combination of private and commercial sectors pursuing cooperative ventures with the DoD and other governmental agencies.[73]

Cooperative and collaborative civilian-military partnerships will better enable the USSF to provide personnel and materiel assets to cover logistical surges required as manned spaceflight expands and outpost operations are established. Similar to terrestrial operations, the USSF could fill a critical role with interplanetary transportation, search and rescue, and code enforcement operations. Currently, the USSF is charged with the mission to explicitly protect U.S. commercial activities out to cislunar space, but as operations expand deeper into the Solar System the “military space forces must prepare to extend Space Security in support of . . . new U.S. interests” to include “safety of navigation.”[74] The previously outlined aspects will likely require the USSF to have much the same role as an amalgamation of the “Army Corps of Engineers, SeaBees, or Coast Guard…guid[ing] and accelerat[ing] the development of critical infrastructure” moving toward future operations.[75] With increased partnerships between civilian, governmental agencies, DoD, and international participants, the chances of friction within cooperative missions will be ever-present, with each entity having its own views on military roles in space commerce and exploration. In addition to the USSF providing logistical support roles, its involvement will also bolster several other organic space arenas.

Space Domain Awareness

Continuous domain awareness enabling space traffic management and safety is a critical function the USSF can provide to space exploration and commerce. Space domain awareness must evolve into a truly domain-level capability that embraces not only the traditional orbital region near Earth, but also reaches out into cislunar space and the interplanetary mission set on par, for example, the Navy’s focus on the strategic and operational levels.[76] A sensor network built from legacy Earth-based and new space-based and lunar-based systems will better enable an actionable understanding of spacecraft trajectories, potential conjunction events, both natural and manmade debris hazards, and likely security threats that require the when, how, why, and intent of various objective and activities in space.[77] As the boundary of human exploration and operation continues to extend beyond the Earth’s gravitational sphere of influence, the USSF could also enable confident civil and commercial space missions through the application its sensor network, “big data” algorithms, and computing resources to characterizing, tracking, and cataloguing the dynamic space frontier, which includes enhancing the planetary defense mission.[78]


Based on its history of communication satellite development and data encryption research, the USSF could also augment civil and commercial communications systems within the context of both near-Earth and interplanetary space operations. In terms of the former, USSF-operated satellites could fill communication requirements for science and commercial missions in cislunar space trajectories such as near-rectilinear halo orbits (NRHOs) to enable linkages to lunar far-side and polar outposts.[79] As an example, China operates a communications satellite, Queqiao, at the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange point in order to support operations of the Chang’e-4 far-side Moon mission.[80] Going beyond Earth, a USSF communications capability in Martian orbit could support surface missions that are geographically separated from established bases or outposts.[81] The creation of USSF interplanetary relay satellites may prove beneficial in establishing reliable communications links with commercial asteroid mining missions or exploration efforts that may encounter unfavorable eclipse/conjunction conditions that may preclude traditional line-of-sight communications.

Personnel Support and Security

“An increasing U.S. presence within an expanded cislunar economy will require [both] security and a stabilizing military presence.”[82]

Military organizations train personnel and seek to instill necessary discipline to function in high-stress, high-demanding, and austere environments.[83] This training and experience have advantaged military personnel to participate in scientific expeditions such as 19th century Antarctica missions and the early 20th century space race. Whether serving as ship pilots, crewmembers, medical support, or security, military personnel provide a foundational level of administrative and operational support that has enabled their civilian counterparts to focus on the pursuance of scientific study and analysis. Military officers had conducted scientific surveys during given expeditions such as that of British Royal Navy Captain James Cook[84] or the one of U.S. Navy LT Charles Wilkes. However, the core group of military participants has served in supportive roles rather than principal investigators. In terms of the general support functions afforded by the military, the role of security must be addressed when considering the inclusion of military personnel into scientific expeditions and commerce in space.

The use of military force in space is generally discouraged through international agreements and diplomatic discourse.[85] However, the realities of geopolitical crises will likely require the inclusion of military security forces to ensure the sovereign operation of outposts, bases, or even settlements due to the likelihood of terrestrial conflict extending into space or antagonism in space sparking armed hostilities in space. The science mission can remain separate from the exigencies of heightened military tensions as exemplified in the interactions of American and Russian personnel in Antarctica not only during the Cold War, but also decades later on the International Space Station.[86] However, there is no guarantee that future geopolitical conditions on Earth or in space will not lead to conflict between spacefaring nations on off-world outposts or stations. While there may not be a need for doctrine and associated campaigns of offensive-minded militarism, there is also a need for pursuance of defensive systems and measures to buttress civil and commercial space operations architectures. Introducing defensive military systems into space might be construed as offensive militaristic overtures, thereby potentially necessitating an in-kind military response to the perceived threat.


Looking back to the history of civilian-military interactions with exploration, the lessons learned during the 19th century by the Army and Navy regarding education will prove invaluable as the USSF evolves its mission posture. Even though the Air Force has imbued the USSF with a rich heritage of science and technology focused training and education, it will be crucial for the USSF to continue and enrich such educational opportunities for its members. The pursuance of advanced degrees and professional training is recommended for curricula related, but not limited to astrodynamics, spacecraft control and navigation, space systems engineering, and space policy, law, and doctrine.[87] Although USSF operations are currently focused on conventional satellite missions, the prospect of manned missions beyond Earth, to the Lunar Gateway, lunar surface outposts, and beyond necessitates the creation of bioastronautics programs to support the requirements associated with USSF astronauts. Overall, the continuation and expansion of science and technical-focused learning within the USSF will foster positive relations and mutual confidence in civilian-military interactions for exploration and commerce.

Space 2060

“National spacepower requires explorers, diplomats, entrepreneurs, scientists, developers, and warfighters.”[88]

“We’re building a Space Force not just for today, but for 100 years from now,” he said. “We have to build a service that not only can do what it needs to do today, but also has the vision of where it might go.”[89]

– General Jay Raymond, Chief of Space Operations, USSF, 2020

The USSF will service near-Earth operations and, as discussed, have the potential to support interplanetary exploration and commerce in the same manner that the Navy, Coast Guard, and Air Force currently support terrestrial operations. Although the future remains unknown, The Future of Space 2060 and Implications for U.S. Strategy report provides a notional fixed point for scientific conjecture.[90] In line with one of the “Positive Futures” contained in this report, the USSF by the year 2060 has helped to establish a number of U.S. coalition-led outposts in the Hesperia Planum region on Mars.[91] Similar to Antarctic exploration in the early 20th century and the plans on the Moon in the 2030s, the establishment of key waystations,[92] depots, and servicing stations has been set, tested, and proven capable to the task of enabling the first permanent human presence on the Martian surface. The crews for the manned stations are a mix of civilian and military personnel, with much of the supplies and building materials for the first science station forward-deployed and awaiting the construction crews. In orbit waiting for final crew compliment to arrive from Earth are two transport ships commanded by a coalition of USSF and allied personnel who will assist with the sub-orbital transportation of the scientific exploration crew and the initial setup for the new station. Once the station crew is safely settled, the crews of these transport ships will then be the first members of a continuously operated interplanetary logistics system between Earth and Mars.

Diagram of the Sun-Earth Lagrange Points

Elsewhere, a USSF space station located at the L4 Sun-Earth Lagrange point receives a distress signal from a commercial mining operation conducting a surveying mission of the asteroids Mathilde (253) and Nereus (4660).[93] Unfortunately, the signal was only a partial message. Similar to Coast Guard operations in U.S. littoral waters and along international sea lines of communication, the USSF personnel aboard the station try to estimate the orbit of the mining craft in preparation for a search and rescue operation in response to the distress call. Based on the current locations of the asteroids and the potential trajectories for the mining craft, the station alerts the Lunar Gateway to dispatch a rescue craft due to its assessed closer location to the distress call. Other requests for assistance are disseminated throughout the interplanetary communication network in an effort to re-direct spacecraft associated with other mining operations near asteroid Unitas (306) to assist with the rescue due to uncertainties in the nature of the emergency aboard the potentially imperiled mining craft.

Further out in the Solar System beyond the orbit of Mars, a USSF spacecraft is conducting a mapping mission of the asteroid belt to expand Earth’s space domain awareness, and support both scientific and commercial operations with the ultimate goal of establishing a permanent human presence in the asteroid belt. This mission is reminiscent of the early era of U.S. exploration in Antarctica and mapping operations of Operation High Jump prior to the establishment of a permanent presence on that final terrestrial frontier. With the continued missions of exploration reaching ever deeper into the Solar System, and the USSF settling into its multifaceted role of supporting space commerce and exploration, the future of humanity will be poised to finally have found its place among the stars.


The early modern era marked the formalization of the “expedition” as a vehicle in which to explore the uncharted, to bring certainty to the uncertain, and to expand the knowledge and reach of human civilization. Although the mission of expeditions has varied based on the nature of the territory and domain to explored, a commonality among many expeditions is the role of the military to provide personnel and/or materiel support. Whether piloting blue and brown water naval vessels,[94] managing cross-terrain supply trains, constructing outposts in austere locations, facilitating personnel administrative support, or even providing personnel security, the military has served an integral role in both land- and sea-based exploration. The onset of the Space Age in the 1950s introduced a new domain for civilian-military cooperation, one that has largely focused on space operations in near-Earth orbit. As with historical cases of military support to exploration, the endeavor of early human spaceflight and space operations was not without its periods of friction between NASA and the DoD.

Now, starting the third decade of the twenty-first century, the landscape of organizational participation in the space domain has subtly changed with the reorganization of once subordinate and/or subordinate space missions into an independent military service, the USSF. In addition to facing geopolitical threats that seek to compete with and contest the United States and its access to and use of space, the USSF must navigate an increasingly congested space environment with an emergent commercial space sector. It must also reconcile its place within a national space enterprise poised to establish permanent operations at the far-reaches of and beyond the Earth’s gravitational sphere of influence. As space operations extend deeper into space, the USSF must formulate doctrine that will address the realities of conducting crew, support, and security operations both near and far from the Earth to enable the execution of space exploration, as well as the safety of commercial ventures on the fringes of human space frontier. The development and acquisition of new technologies, the potential for constrained budgets, and the expanding roster of emerging space-faring nations represent only a few of the challenges for the USSF as it embarks on securing U.S. space interests and fostering civilian-military cooperation in the near-Earth, cislunar, and eventually interplanetary “cosmic sandbox.”

Captain Carl Poole, USSF, is a graduate student in space systems at the Air Force Institute of Technology. Major Robert Bettinger, Ph.D., USAF, is an Assistant Professor of Astronautical Engineering, the Deputy Director for the Center for Space Research and Assurance, and the Curriculum Chair for the Graduate Astronautical Engineering degree program in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Air Force Institute of Technology.

This paper represents solely the authors’ views and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of any Department or Agency of the U.S. Government. If you have a different perspective, we’d like to hear from you.



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  11. Ibid.
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  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Strauss, Patrick W., “Preparing the Wilkes Expedition: A Study in Disorganization,” Pacific Historical Review, 1959;28(3):223. doi:10.2307/3636467
  16. Ibid. 221
  17. Buerge, David M., “The Wilkes Exploring Expedition in the Pacific Northwest,” Columbia Magazine, 1987;1(1):19.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Rothenberg, Marc, “‘In Behalf of the Science of the Country’: The Smithsonian and the U.S. Navy in the North Pacific in the 1850s,” Pacific Science, 1998;52(4):302.
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  21. Ibid. 34
  22. Ibid. 36
  23. Ibid. 37
  24. Smith, Jason W., To Master the Boundless Sea: The U.S. Navy, the Marine Environment, and the Cartography of Empire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
  25. Rothenberg, Marc, “‘In Behalf of the Science of the Country’: The Smithsonian and the U.S. Navy in the North Pacific in the 1850s,” Pacific Science, 1998;52(4):302.
  26. Ibid. 301-303.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid. 303.
  30. Ibid. 305.
  31. Demidov, N. E., Lukin V. V., “Antarctica as a Testing Ground for Manned Missions to the Moon and Mars,” Solar System Research, 2017:51(2):104-120.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Davis, Georgina A., “A History of McMurdo Station through its Architecture,” Polar Record, 2017;53(2):167. doi:10.1017/S0032247416000747
  34. Ibid. 171
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid.
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  38. Ibid. 177
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