Sustentantes bellatores de caelis: The US Space Force in Retrospect

By: William Gardner

The newly-emerged United States Space Force might, in most ways, seem like a product of the modern age. After all, what else could be the genesis of a hyper-modern, high-technology branch of the United States Military that seems to be something out of Star Trek? Yet, the origin of this newest member of the US Military dates to August 25, 1965, when then-President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the development of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (“MOL”).[1] A derivative of Project Gemini, the now-forgotten predecessor to the famed Apollo Program, the MOL represented an early attempt to establish something of a United States Air Force (“USAF”) presence in outer space.[2] The MOL had a simple purpose: militarize the space program utilizing USAF Astronauts, so as to further US intelligence capabilities through orbital reconnaissance.[3]

In 1965, Project Gemini, nearing its end, had accomplished incredible feats in preparation for the Apollo Program moon missions. Gemini’s repertoire includes “the first American spacewalk, a 14-day endurance test in orbit, [the first] space docking, and the highest-ever manned orbit at 1,369 km.”[4] Importantly, Gemini was the last of what would be sensibly called “crude” space missions. The Titan II inter-continental ballistic missile propelled the two-person capsule to space and, unlike the Space Shuttle or even the Saturn V, the Titan II was a military rocket first, and a space vehicle second, just like its Atlas and Redstone predecessors.[5]

Where, then, does the MOL fit? USAF airmen had become astronauts before, piloting the experimental X-15 rocket plane, however the X-15 served as a hypersonic testbed, not as something of a military installation—something that the MOL’s plans entailed.[6] The MOL’s proposed design suggested a series of sensors, radios, and other equipment necessary to spy on the Soviet Union from space.[7] The MOL had its own set of “astronauts”—USAF soldiers unaffiliated with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.[8] Interestingly, only a few of the MOL astronauts actually flew in space, and until 2015 their identities were classified.[9]

The Space Force, however, is certainly far removed from the MOL’s Cold War, “Spy vs. Spy” ideology. The Space Force, like the MOL, centralizes around a simple goal: handling all space-based informatics, from GPS to spy satellites, and from communications to weather.[10] The Space Force fits more in line with the US’ post Revolution in Military Affairs attitude of hyper-mobilized, hyper-efficient, information-based militarization; unlike the MOL’s antiquated, boots-on-the ground style reconnaissance, the Space Force serves as a more practical means of organizing the USAF’s orbital considerations.

Though the MOL never flew, its legacy surely lives on in another, more modern sense. Having been shed of its Cold War era predecessor’s ideological basis, the US Space Force seeks to serve a newer, bolder world rather than further entangle the world in another Space Race.

[1] John Cobb Cooper, The Manned Orbiting Laboratory: A Major Legal and Political Decision, 51 Am. Bar Assoc. J. 1137, 1137 (Dec. 1965).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Alan Taylor, Remembering Project Gemini, The Atlantic (April 4, 2012),

[5] Id.

[6] John Wenz, The proposed Space Force isn’t the first time the United States has tried to militarize space, Popular Science (June 20, 2018),

[7] Id.

[8] Al Hallonquist, The MOL-Men Come Into the Light, Air and Space (Dec. 4, 2015),

[9] Id.

[10] Merrit Kennedy, Trump Created the Space Force. Here’s What it Will Actually Do, NPR (Dec. 21, 2019, 6:29 PM),

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