Space Force’s first official portrait is aspirational sci-fi

"High Ground Intercept" depicts Space Force carrying out an action it currently cannot do.
Nicholas Slayton Avatar
"High Ground Intercept," by artist Rick Herter, is the first official Space Force painting. (Photo by John Ayre/courtesy Space Force)

The American military’s youngest branch, Space Force, has had a bumpy start. It was quickly parodied with a sitcom from the team behind The Office. It has unveiled an official song, but has also had trouble nailing down a mission and a uniform that fits properly. This past week the service hit another first, releasing its first official portrait.

The painting depicts something that Space Force currently cannot do.

The painting, “High Ground Intercept,” by Rick Herter was unveiled last week. The painting depicts a futuristic space plane in the course of capturing an enemy satellite. The space plane is opening its cargo doors, flying toward the orbiting satellite. Herter’s style has a retrofuturistic touch, recalling the science-fiction novel covers of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s the first official painting specifically for Space Operations Command, the part of Space Force that oversees intelligence and defense capabilities in orbit. 

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By Space Force’s own admission, the actions depicted in the painting are “futuristic” and not something it currently is capable of doing. Space Force is in charge of space operations for the United States military, but it is not currently flying spacecraft on intercept missions. Space Force’s Guardians are terrestrial, they’re not doing commando raids in orbit or crewing large space stations. Consider the painting aspirational. 

Space Force is taking action to build out its capabilities in space. The service has been ordering more satellites, under the purview of the Space Development Agency, and plans to expand its network of sensors and communications arrays in orbit. It recently launched a unit focused on targeting enemy satellites as well. Space Force has also been working on its ability to quickly launch new satellites should the need arise. Last month it was able to set a new record for a quick launch, getting a rocket to take off only 27 hours after receiving the order. 

For the work, Herter also had to rely on limited details. He drew on an older model of an American space plane, the X-20 Dyna-Soar, which provides the delta shape for the plane in the model. The United States military keeps a tight lid on its space planes and their capabilities — the X-20 is not new, the program ran from 1957-1963. Last fall, the X-37B space plane set a record for spending more than 900 days in orbit. 

“It was not an easy task, but Rick was able to fuse where we’ve been as a force with where we are going,” Christopher Rumley, command historian, said at the unveiling event.

The military commissions many paintings for the different service branches. Some depict moments of action, such as raids or intercepts, while others show more mundane elements of military life, such as a Porta John. “High Ground Intercept” is closer to the former, although still theoretical. 

So for now the capabilities in “High Ground Intercept” are science fictional, but Space Force is trying to make them a reality. And for the Star Wars fans, yes, Space Force wants to have the high ground.

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