The Space Force sounds like a joke thanks to pop culture. That could be a problem for an important military branch.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. The publication contributed the article to Space.com’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Wendy Whitman Cobb, Professor of Strategy and Security Studies, US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies

The U.S. Space Force has a serious role to play in the modern world. Its stated mission is to train and equip personnel to defend U.S. interests in space. Given the increasing military and economic importance of space, the USSF is likely to grow in importance.

But a quick internet search shows that for most people, the Space Force is more a meme than a military branch. It has been the subject of jokes on “Saturday Night Live,” and Netflix was working on a comedy show before the service was officially formed. None other than Captain Kirk himself, actor William Shatner, has weighed in, arguing for the use of Navy ranks over Air Force ranks in the Space Force – after all, he wasn’t Colonel Kirk.

Given this relationship between science fiction and the USSF, few people take it seriously. Modern pop culture depictions of the Space Force as a joke are distracting from the serious responsibilities the USSF is taking on. I am a space policy analyst who has studied the USSF’s relationship with science fiction, and my research shows this is creating a problem for the force.

Related: See the Space Force’s 1st small rocket launch of 2021 in these photos

Sci-fi goes in, jokes come out

There are two things to think about in the relationship between today’s pop culture and the Space Force: how existing sci-fi entertainment warps perceptions of the new military branch, and how those misconceptions lead to a comedic framing of the Space Force in culture today.

Science fiction has long had a strong influence on how people perceive space, and this has carried over to the Space Force. Social