It’s not true that you have only one chance to make a first impression. You often get several, and it is to the shame of the U.S. Space Force, established by former President Donald Trump in 2018, that it has blown every one of its many efforts to introduce itself to the American public.
The latest wasted opportunity came Tuesday when the Space Force debuted its anthem at a conference in suburban Washington. The anthem, “Semper Supra,” (that’s “Always Above” if you never took Latin, and also the branch’s motto) grates like a rejected song from The Music Man. At least it’s only 43 seconds long. Check out the overwrought lyrics:
We’re the mighty watchful eye,
Guardians beyond the blue,
The invisible front line,
Warfighters brave and true.
Boldly reaching into space,
There’s no limit to our sky.
Standing guard both night and day,
We’re the Space Force from on high.
“Semper Supra” reads like a list of mottos, as POLITICO’s Steve Heuser tweeted. Military.com served the definitive verdict on the anthem: “It’s not a banger.” But the anthem isn’t the most risible Space Force miscue. Earlier, the force’s overdone uniforms were compared to something out of the Battlestar Galactica wardrobe. The branch’s “delta” emblem and flag were (unfairly) denounced as Star Trek rip-offs (turns out the Starfleet Command’s insignia was inspired by historic military marks, not the other way around). The name applied to Space Force members, “Guardians,” was mocked from all corners when then-Vice President Mike Pence announced it, especially from Guardians of the Galaxy fans. “Pence might as well have just gone ahead and made the Space Force motto “I Am Groot,” wrote The Wrap’s Andrea Towers. The name could have been even worse, as POLITICO’s report on the rejected ones proves.
The marching green at Space Force headquarters must be booby-trapped with thousands of lawn rakes because the branch’s decision-makers seem to step on one every six months. The idea of a space-oriented military branch isn’t inherently stupid, so why has the organization’s rollout resembled a mash-up of Groundhog Day and the New Coke rollout?
Some of the onus can be laid on Trump, who tainted the brand with his soiled image when his announcement midwifed into existence a military organization whose founding had been in the works for some time. Trump concedes that the first time he proposed the Space Force to his White House staff, he was joking. Soon, he decided the force should be for real, but it was met with titters from almost everybody because of its Trump associations. It didn’t help Space Force’s branding that Trump bragged about it as if it were the equivalent of a space-based Ivanka, talked it up in his fund-raising letters, and sold unofficial Space Force merch to his supporters in the 2020 campaign.
But not everything can be blamed on our beleaguered ex-president. Thanks to a century of science fiction movies, space comes pre-branded as a fantastical place where fictional Wookiees, pointy-eared humanoids and star-munching monsters reside. For every kid who can identify Neil Armstrong, there are a thousand who can tell you who James Kirk is and how he grew up. That’s one reason why Jeff Bezos’ flaming phallus has become an object of ridicule, something Elon Musk had to endure until his Falcon 9 became a remarkably reliable space-freight hauler. Even so, folks still laugh at Musk every time he discusses a manned mission to Mars, which despite his successes and NASA’s, we still regard as a venue for fiction and strange creatures and not a place for real people.
Space, when not wrapped in the NASA sheath or viewed through a telescope, begins as a punchline. That’s why Steve Carell’s Netflix series Space Force was greenlighted. People start laughing the minute you say the words “Space Force,” so why not build it out into a sitcom? Mel Brooks was the first to appreciate the hilarity of space with Spaceballs, his 1987 sendup of Star Wars. Space is a found joke.
The Space Force command seems to have come to an understanding that it resides on a thin line between laughingstock and gravitas, and that anything it says or does can be jeered at. That's why when the Pentagon proposed that Space Force assume responsibility for monitoring UFOs (or UAPs in modern parlance), the branch ducked, knowing that it would be taken less seriously if they were assigned the flying saucer watch.
What, if anything, can the Space Force do to fight its status as a standing gag? Are they fighting an unwinnable war? Many people take it seriously, according to recruitment figures, with more than 42,000 people inquiring about 500 open positions. Maybe nothing can be done. The Space Force finds itself in a place similar to that of Sen. William Scott (R-Va.) who, in 1974, was named in a New Times cover story by then-correspondent Nina Totenberg as the dumbest member of Congress. He foolishly called a press conference to fight back, but that only resulted in this Washington Post headline: “Scott Denies He’s ‘Dumbest.’”
Instead of directly combating the derision, the Space Force would be wiser to embrace its role as the jester of the branches and then overdo it. There’s nothing less funny than the guy who demands that you laugh at his jokes. Suggested new motto: “Space Force: We’re Funny as Shit.”
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