Mahan on Space Education: A Historical Rebuke of a Modern Error

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Editorial Abstract:

The Air Force has shaped a new space-professional strategy that alters many aspects of career development for the service's space cadre. In this article, Lieutenant Ziarnick posits that the ideas of a nineteenth-century Navy officer and sea-power theorist remain relevant to the development of twenty-first-century space professionals-especially those relating to the ongoing debate of technical versus nontechnical education for officers.

IN RESPONSE TO the Report of the Commission to Assess United States National security Space Management and Organization of 2001 (Space Commission), the US Air Force has shaped a new strategy to guide the development of its space professionals. This strategy changes many elements of career development that guide the operators, scientists, engineers, and program managers who make up the Air Force's "space cadre." A number of aspects of the strategy, such as measurable certification levels and the tracking of an individual's space-related experiences, will undoubtedly prove quite valuable. One item, however, could have serious military implications.

The strategy's new plan for officer certification "desires" that all officers have a "degree relevant to space." Thus, level-one certification (one to 10 years of space experience) calls for a BA/BS degree relevant to space, and level two (10-15 years' experience) requires a relevant master's degree; the plan "highly desires" that individuals seeking level three, the apex of space certification (more than 15 years' experience), hold a space-relevant master's degree.1 According to the plan, "space relevant" concentrations "include Engineering, Systems Management, Business Administration, Computer Science, Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Space Operations. The rationale for establishing this 'desirement' is that it allows for the greatest crossflow among the space billets-[acquisitions] to [operations] and vice versa."2 One notes the absence of the humanities and liberal arts: history, philosophy, English, and political science, among others. At first glance, the plan's desires seem agreeable-even attractive. After all, how could having a technical degree hurt a space professional? As a practical matter, it probably does not. However, it is the wrong question to ask.

Such a preference for technical degrees implies that other studies are irrelevant to military space officership. Indeed, at a briefing on the space-professional strategy attended by the author, the speaker, a lieutenant colonel, explicitly stated that he didn't see how Elizabethan history had any applicability to a military space officer. Thus, one should more properly ask whether only technical study has relevance to military space activities.

Should space officers study engineering or physics to the exclusion of history, philosophy, or other nontechnical fields? An affirmative response could have far-reaching ramifications. If leadership favors technical degrees, it might convince many career-minded young officers or cadets to enter the hard sciences despite their preference for a different academic discipline-or they might discourage others from joining the space forces even though such individuals could make important contributions. Twenty years hence, the lieutenants and captains of today will become the leaders of military space forces. Presumably, if the space-professional strategy works as intended, they will have a substantial technical education but significantly less nontechnical expertise than the current leadership. By expressing a preference for space-relevant degrees and hinting that the type of degree may affect promotions, the space-professional leadership, in effect, has affirmed technical education as the only type suitable for a space officer. But is this true?

Ironically, history informs us that the debate over the merits of a technical versus non-technical education for officers is not new. At the close of the nineteenth century, another service experienced great changes and confronted the same issue that now stands before the military space force. …