At Space Force, Few Problems Finding Guardians of the Galaxy
When the Trump administration announced in the summer of 2018 that it planned to authorize the creation of Space Force, the first new U.S. military branch begun since just after World War II, public reaction was … skeptical.
A majority of Americans — 60% — strongly or somewhat disapproved of the creation of Space Force, according to a Pew Research Group survey in May 2019.
Late-night TV comics fired jokes at the very idea of assembling a force to protect U.S. interests in space. (Jimmy Kimmel said the branch’s logo should be “a picture of money being shredded and thrown at the moon.”) In 2019, Netflix launched a comedy series — now canceled after two indifferently received seasons — called “Space Force,” starring Steve Carell, formerly the bumbling boss Michael Scott on NBC’s “The Office.”
But it’s a different world now. A year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. This month, four unidentified flying objects drifted across North American air space and were shot down by the U.S.; the first turned out to be a Chinese surveillance balloon.
The Russia-Ukraine war, in particular, has given Space Force an opportunity to prove its mettle, according to 2nd Lt. Jovanni Lombardo, 26, a satellite engineer at Buckley Space Force Base in Aurora, Colo.
“It’s the first war that Space Force has played a role in,” Lombardo told The New Stack. “It’s demonstrated the role of Space Force as a branch.”
His work, he said, involves detecting missiles, identifying and responding to anomalies and optimizing sensor coverage. His mission, he summed up, is “making sure our satellites are performing at their peak condition.”
Above all, he said, being in the Space Force means helping the U.S. and its allies “be prepared for the threat tomorrow.”
Recruiting on a Case-by-Case Basis
Lombardo is one of Space Force’s more than 11,900 Guardians (yes, they’re called Guardians) who have joined since the branch was founded just over three years ago. More than 8,000 of that number are active-duty military personnel, the rest civilians.
Just over 83% of military Guardians have transferred from other military branches — often the Air Force, under whose jurisdiction Space Force falls, much as the Marines operate as a department of the Navy. The new branch evolved out of the Air Force Space Command, which was created in 1982.
So far, Space Force recruits just a few hundred Guardians per year. It aims to swear in 532 enlisted and 42 officers in fiscal year 2023, which ends in September.
Unlike other U.S. military branches, it is not struggling to hit its recruitment goals; in FY 2022, it hit its targets for both officers and enlisted personnel. (By contrast, the U.S. Army fell about 25% short of its goal for fiscal 2022, according to Army figures, a gap of roughly 15,000 enlistments.)
In a hearing in September before the Senate Armed Services Committee, ahead of his being confirmed as Chief of Space Operations, Gen. B. Chance Saltzman put forth the idea that, because Space Force is small, it can be both picky and flexible in choosing its personnel.
Picky in that it should seek enlistees with highly specialized technical skills. But flexible in that it can take a more holistic view of candidates who might not perfectly align with the requirements to enter other military branches.
“We can consider on a case-by-case basis precisely the right people, the right skill sets, the right diversity of thought into the Space Force, so we can optimize our capabilities,” he told the committee. “And so, by being able to consider this on a case-by-case basis, I don’t think we have to put blanket restrictions on types of people, on types of qualifications that bring you into the Space Force.”
Officially, Space Force’s requirements for entry as an enlistee are simple. Candidates must be:
- 17 to 39 years of age.
- A U.S. citizen.
- Have a high school diploma or GED with 15 college credits.
To join as an officer, candidates must also:
- Have at least a bachelor’s degree.
- Pass the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test.
- Graduate from either the U.S. Air Force Academy (and apply to join Space Force by age 23), the Reserve Officers’ Training Course or Officer Training School.
“We define ourselves as a digital service, as such, we need to bring people in who have a high level of technological literacy, who would welcome the challenge of working in a complex operational environment,” said a statement from Space Force headquarters, in response to The New Stack’s question about who is best suited to join the branch.
A commitment to upskilling is part of what Space Force seeks, the statement suggested: “We need people who are not only comfortable in the digital space, but who also recognize they must commit to continually improving themselves to avoid skill atrophy.”
The Most Highly Educated Military Branch
Space Force is by far the most highly educated branch of the U.S. military, with nearly 61% of active duty Guardians holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to figures released in December by the Department of Defense. By contrast, that same figure for the Air Force is just over 28%. For the Army, Navy and Marines together, the average runs slightly more than 21%.
Lombardo, for instance, was commissioned directly into the Space Force, a year and a half ago. “I was a college student in San Diego, working part-time jobs,” he recalled. The San Diego State University student was majoring in aerospace engineering, with a minor in Air Force leadership studies, through Air Force ROTC.
He interned for a company that builds and designs turbochargers for cars, and he nursed a longtime passion for “anything that flies or orbits.” But an eye condition scuttled his hopes of being an Air Force pilot.
Nearly 61% of active duty Guardians hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to figures released in December by the Department of Defense. That same figure for the Air Force is just over 28%. For the Army, Navy and Marines together, the average runs slightly more than 21%.
Then he heard about Space Force, and was intrigued by its newness and potential. Now he works on the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), a sensors-and-satellites system that provides early warnings of missile activity.
While a STEM degree can help a candidate get into the highly competitive Space Force, Lombardo said, it’s not essential for all jobs. “You gotta be passionate about space,” he said. “It’s a select breed that finds this stuff interesting.”
Building a New Organizational Culture
Space Force has significant advantages over other service branches in the recruiting game — smaller enlistment quotas, desk jobs far from combat zones, six military bases (in California, Colorado and Florida) near cities, and the glamorous appeal of outer space.
The coolness factor definitely helped persuade Capt. Andrew Nicoletti, 27, to request a transfer from the Air Force to the Space Force in 2020.
Nicoletti had already put more than three years into his Air Force career, following his graduation with a supply-chain management degree from the University of Michigan, Dearborn.
But, he told The New Stack, “I just had a lifelong fascination with, with rockets, with space, with everything space and science. And once [Space Force] came out, it was a pretty easy decision for me, just knowing the type of work they do and the opportunities that were going to be available. Personally, I find rockets a little cooler than airplanes.”
In Space Force, he works as a launch mission manager at Kirtland Air Force Base, in New Mexico.
2nd Lt. Mikayla Gallagher, 22, joined Space Force last August, three months after graduating from the Air Force Academy, in 2022. “I knew I wanted to be an astro engineer,” she told The New Stack. “So it seemed like it made more sense to do astro engineering for Space Force versus Air Force.”
She’s now a satellite engineer at Buckley, where a big part of her job is working on day-to-day maintenance and troubleshooting of the SBIRS satellite constellation. She and her team also provide oversight, which puts them in contact with major contractors like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.
Gallagher also cited another draw in joining Space Force, one that other Guardians who spoke to the New Stack also mentioned: “It was just sort of exciting that it was a new force and potentially would be a pretty small force, and I would have the chance to kind of shape the early culture. That sounded really appealing to me.”
Master Sgt. Steven Rodriguez, 32, joined the Army a decade ago. In June, he transferred to Space Force from a job in the White House, where he had worked his way up to being the branch chief of its secure interface facility. He now works at Schriever Space Force Base, in Colorado Springs, as a flight chief supporting the crew members at the 1st Space Operation Squadron under Delta 9.
I wanted to be a part of history. I wanted to make sure that I helped build this branch of service that’s dedicated to a whole new mission, which I thought was super unique, super interesting and basically just really cool.
—Master Sgt. Steven Rodriguez
The father of a young daughter, Rodriguez wanted to spend more time with his family, and Space Force seemed better suited to work-life balance than the Army. But it also offered the chance to get in on the ground floor of what is essentially a startup.
“I wanted to be a part of history,” he told The New Stack. “I wanted to make sure that I helped build this branch of service that’s dedicated to a whole new mission, which I thought was super unique, super interesting. And basically just really cool.”
Specialist 3 Autumn Crawford, 19, also cited the chance to build a new organization as part of the appeal. She joined the Space Force directly, soon after graduating from her Las Vegas high school.
She’s also at Schriever, at the tail end of a year-long training program, aiming for an assignment in space systems operations, where her work will include electromagnetic warfare and space battle management. (Electromagnetic warfare means using the signals such as radio, infrared, or radar to sense, protect and communicate, and deny other parties the ability to use the same signals. Space battle management is a sort of air traffic control for all artificial objects in outer space.)
“There’s a lot of impact you can have culturally to a new branch,” Crawford told The New Stack. “And I can also grow and have much of a larger influence, joining the Space Force rather than the other established branches that have been around for many, many years.”
At Space Force, she added, “You can definitely see that the culture is not cemented, so you can grow and your ideas will definitely be heard by your leadership.”
In August, the Department of the Air Force released new diversity goals for the Air Force and Space Force, seeking to raise the percentage of women in its applicant pool to 36%. Currently, the two branches together report that just over 21% of their active duty service members are female, compared with 16% for Army, Navy and Marines combined.
A New Management Strategy: “The Guardian Ideal”
To build this new organization, Space Force has adopted a talent management approach that breaks from the way other military branches recruit and develop their personnel — practices that are still largely based on corporate-world norms from the 1980s.
In 2021, Space Force released a report called “The Guardian Ideal,” which summed up its plan. The introduction sounds remarkably like a strategy any forward-thinking 21st-century commercial enterprise might embrace: “Over time, we will increasingly free our Guardians from routine and repetitive tasks using process automation and artificial intelligence so they can accelerate innovation efforts.”
The talent-development model Space Force has adopted is based on ideas put forth in the book “Helping People Win at Work,” by Ken Blanchard and Garry Ridge, former CEO of WD-40, the chemical company.
“The Guardian Ideal” states that “to attract and retain the new workforce that comprises multiple generations, we will tailor policies and practices to create more equity, flexibility, permeability, and improve retention.
It places a high priority on flexible career paths, incentives for developing new skills, work-life balance and cooperation over competition. Through 360-degree evaluations, Guardians assess each other’s contributions to shared team missions, rather than relying only on supervisor assessments, with an eye toward reducing administrative burdens on supervisors.
The “Guardian Ideal” strategy emphasizes the creation of resilient teams and team members who can recover quickly when things go wrong.
Inclusion is a high priority in the fledgling military brand, too. “We need top talent to keep us pushing the envelope, and our force needs people from diverse personal and professional backgrounds to help us do that,” said a statement from Space Force headquarters, in response to a question from The New Stack.
“One of our primary focus areas is to ensure the Space Force reflects the nation we serve — a uniquely American blend of diverse perspectives, cultures, ethnicities and experiences.
The strategy has drawn praise. “The Space Force’s talent management and development vision should not be limited to the Space Force, but adopted as the vision for all military branches,” wrote Lt. Col. Reagan Mullin, of the Air Force, in a commentary for War on the Rocks, a publication of the Texas National Security Review, a think tank based at the University of Texas, Austin.
The small size of the fledgling Space Force, and its openness to fresh thinking, was a draw for Spc. 2 Vahe Martirosyan. A first-generation American from Armenia, who became a U.S. citizen in 2020, Martirosyan, 22, was studying computer science and cybersecurity at Glendale Community College in California when he joined Space Force in mid-2022.
“The Space Force’s talent management and development vision should not be limited to the Space Force, but adopted as the vision for all military branches.”
— Lt. Col. Reagan Mullin, in a commentary for War on the Rocks
He’s now part of the 65th Cyberspace Squadron, at Vandenberg Space Force Base, in California’s Santa Barbara County. “My job is to detect anomalies and signs of compromise in the millions of packets that are that our partners are sending and receiving every minute,” he told The New Stack. His team uses both automated rule sets to filter out potential malicious packets but also manually examines the network flow and communications.
“Our systems are also designed to provide us with graphical and text-based visuals to help us keep track of everything that is happening on the network,” he said. “So nothing goes unnoticed.”
Being part of a small force, he suggested, helps to surface innovation more quickly: “I’m very much able to bring my ideas and run them by my leadership to implement them, which helps make our work much more efficient.”
The training experience to become a Guardian varies depending on the candidate’s experience. Rodriguez, for instance, got a crash course in space over the course of seven weeks when he moved from his Army role. The training encompassed information on orbital mechanics and the electromagnetic spectrum, as well as on policy that affects activity in space.
By contrast, Crawford, who enlisted in Space Force right out of high school, has spent a year in training: First basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, then tech school for five months in satellite communications at Vandenberg. She’s now in a six-month mission-qualification training in space systems operations at Schriever.
What should someone do if they’re interested in becoming a Guardian — especially people from the tech world?
“I would say first of all, start off by looking at just the type of opportunities that Space Force offers, just some of the type of stuff that we’re involved in, because we do some incredible stuff,” Nicoletti said.
While a technical background isn’t required, it can help significantly, he added. Space Force “offers opportunities that are just not found in the private sector and not found in other branches of the military.”
Space Force, Nicoletti said, “is set up to cultivate one’s creativity. And also they enable us to be creative problem solvers. And they focus a lot on professional and personal development. I’m only able to do the type of job that I do, because I’m given the level of support that I’m given.”
Rodriguez and others echoed the notion that creativity and the ability to apply it to problems is the main qualification a recruit needs to be a Guardian.
“We need innovators because we have new problems that we’re trying to solve,” he said. “And it’s going to take innovators to do that.”