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U.S. Space Force: The Sixth Branch of the U.S. Armed Forces

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The following is a guest post by Heather Flynn, an intern/volunteer with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She recently completed her master’s in museum studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Today marks the third anniversary of the establishment of the United States Space Force. The Space Force current has approximately 16,000 military and civilian personnel. This branch of the Armed Forces has six locations: Buckley, Colorado; Los Angeles, California; Patrick, Florida; Peterson, Colorado; Schriever, Colorado; and Vandenberg, California.

A rounded light stream over a barren landscape with structure on right side.
A Falcon 9 rocket launches on Jan. 6, 2020, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The rocket, carrying an installment of Starlink satellites, was the first official launch of the United States Space Force. Photo by Zoe Thacker.

Origins of U.S. Space Force

The United States has had an eye to space since at least 1915 when the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was founded to catch up with the European airplane technology. NACA was incorporated into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. The Space Force is unique to U.S. history, however, as it is the first independent service within the U.S. military, though it frequently collaborates with NASA and private industries like SpaceX.

The U.S. Space Force was established on December 20, 2019, with the passage of Public Law 116-92, for Fiscal Year 2020. The Space Force is the sixth military service branch of the Department of Defense and functions under the umbrella of the U.S. Air Force.

The U.S. Space Force is not the first space defense organization established by the U.S. government. As space exploration and technology advanced in the 1960s and 70s, space systems technologies were adopted by the Department of Defense’s weather, communications, navigation, surveillance, and early warning missions. Many of these new responsibilities were performed by various groups within the U.S Air Force until the early 80’s when the Air Force established the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) to carry out these responsibilities. Initially, the AFSPC focused on space operations during the Cold War, which included duties related to “missile warning, launch operations, satellite control, space surveillance and command.”

The U.S. Space Force absorbed AFSPC and gained the authority and responsibilities outlined in 10 USC 101 and 10 USC Chapter 908. It took over the Air Force’s role of organizing, training, and equipping space operators who fly GPS satellites, track space debris, oversee satellite communications, and more.


Logo of U.S. Space Force: view of Earth from space in lower left corner, triangular logo in center, and satellite on lower right. Barely visible in the middle is the motto: semper supra.
Space Force activates Space Training and Readiness Command, Space Force News. Photo by James Richardson Jr.

U.S. Space Force in a Global Context

The United States is not the first country to create a military branch devoted to space. China and Russia also have aerospace and strategic forces overseeing their military activities in space. Russia had a separate branch of the military called Russian Space Force, but as of 2015, they merged Russian Space Force, Russian Air Force, and Missile Defense Forces into a single branch called Aerospace Forces. Similarly, in 2015, China’s People’s Liberation Army established a new branch of the military called the Strategic Support Force that oversees space capabilities, cyberspace, and electronic warfare operations. Many countries and regions have developed space agencies.

How different countries operate in space has been a key concern since space exploration began. The United Nations has had an Office for Outer Space Affairs that addresses space law since 1958. On January 27, 1967, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the former Soviet Union drafted the Outer Space Treaty which formed the basis for international space law. Since then, 110 countries have joined the treaty. The Outer Space Treaty provides the basic framework for international space law and outlines principles detailing each nations’ freedom to explore, use, and access outer space and its celestial bodies. According to Article IV of the Treaty, that freedom granted to countries is not without restrictions, and does not allow nations “to place in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.”

White rocket launching with blue sky background. White clouds under rocket and green plants with small warning sign. The U.S. Space Force Cape Canaveral Space Force Station with logo sign is in the foreground.
A Falcon 9 rocket carrying a GPS III-5 satellite into orbit launches from LC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., June 17, 2021. Photo by Samuel Becker.

For more information on International Space law, check out other In Custodia Legis posts:

And see our Global Legal Monitor articles about space too!

Happy third birthday, Space Force!

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Comments (5)

  1. The symbol for the U.S. Space Force looks like something from Star Trek!

  2. our youngest grandson has been accepted in the Space Force. he will be leaving for basic training on january 10th 2023. To say we are extremely proud of him is an understatement. We told him he was going to “Soar with Eagles”

  3. Thanks for the great article!

  4. The Army has “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” as their anthem, the Navy has “Anchors Aweigh”, the Marines have the “Marines’ Hymn”, the Air Force has “Wild Blue Yonder”, and the Coast Guard has “Semper Paratus”. What does or will the Space Force have as their anthem?

  5. Thank you, Jennifer, for a detailed, informative and fun explanation of our 6th branch of the US Armed Services, though perhaps the most important going forward into the future. We read what China plans for outer-space, so we must be as proactive and diligent in our efforts to be a strong defender of Democracy even above sea-to-shining sea.

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