NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson is attired in a training version of her shuttle launch and entry suit in a 2009 training mission.

NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson is attired in a training version of her shuttle launch and entry suit in a 2009 training mission. NASA

Space Corps Is At Least ‘Three to Five Years Away,’ Its Congressional Champion Says

A bipartisan team of House lawmakers slams the Air Force for pushing back on the idea of a separate service for space operations.

The proposal for a U.S. Space Corps isn’t dead, but any action is probably at least several years away. That’s leaving the United States in a “really bad situation” as Russia and China race to put new capabilities in orbit, according to Rep. Mike Rogers, the idea’s strongest proponent on Capitol Hill.  

Starting now, it would probably take the Pentagon “three to five years” to set up a separate service for space, Rogers said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday. Currently, the Air Force manages the vast majority of the U.S. military’s efforts in space.

“I personally think three or five years is the way to get it done without being too disruptive, because we have to keep using these assets while we're in the in the process,” said Rogers, who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. The Alabama Republican spearheaded a proposal for a space corps in last year’s defense policy bill.

Rogers and ranking member Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., wanted to move more quickly. Their proposal would have given the Air Force a year to design a separate space corps and then start implementing it in 2019. They were motivated by “a sense of urgency,” Cooper said Wednesday, after several hearings in which Pentagon officials said China and Russia were at least near-peers to the U.S. in space.

But the idea didn’t make it into the final defense authorization for 2018. Senate committee members didn’t want to move as quickly, and the Air Force fought the issue. On Wednesday, Rogers and Cooper slammed the service for that opposition, saying it was impeding America’s progress in space.

“The first thing [the Air Force] could do is just to come out of denial, admit we've got a problem and then we've got to fix it, and work with us, instead of fighting us,” Rogers said. “The Air Force has spent the last year on Capitol Hill fighting Congress trying to keep us from meddling in this issue.”

Instead, Congress made some adjustments to the space management and acquisition processes, and ordered Deputy Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan to hire an independent federally funded research corporation to design what a separate space service would look like. That study could fuel the next legislative push for reform.

The law requires Shanahan to submit an interim report March 1 and a final report in December. Rogers said he has “every confidence” Shanahan will deliver it on time — unlike a similar report the Pentagon was supposed to submit last year.

“He is a corporate guy; he has our confidence,” Rogers said. “He gets it, he wants to fix it and we have been staying in regular contact with him on this and we are going to stay in regular contact with him.”

But even if the preliminary report arrives next week, this year’s defense authorization talks won’t necessarily include a renewed push for a space corps. Right now, “everything remains in the discussion stages,” said a congressional aide close to the process. “It’s too early to draw any conclusions.”

If it’s not included in the 2019 authorization, but makes it into the 2020 version, the Pentagon would need to stand up the new corps in the span of a year to hit the short side of Rogers’ mark. So “three to five years” may not just be reasonable, but optimistic. It’s time to get cracking, according to Cooper.

“We fought and won World War II in five years,” he said. “Bureaucratic changes should not be determined at our convenience but at what’s necessary.”

And what’s necessary is prioritizing space — something the Air Force has not done while privileging air combat over all else, Cooper said.

“The Air Force has had amazing budgets for a long time to do a lot of things, and then they end up being unenthusiastic about drones because they're not piloted aircraft. Give me a break — you know I like leather jackets too, but that's not the predominant characteristic” that should be guiding procurement choices, he said. “Historians will not be kind when they look back at this period.”