Space Program, Military Involvement in the

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Space Program, Military Involvement in the. The U.S. space program began with military studies of instrumented Earth satellites in 1945. Ten years later, American political leaders approved and subsequently organized a space program expressly for purposes of national security. Because the “space age” began amid the superpower tensions of the 1950s, the tone, tempo, and direction of America's astronautical enterprise in the years afterward would be impressed with the near‐indelible seal of the Cold War.

The U.S. Navy, Army, and Air Force first examined the military applications of Earth satellites between 1945 and 1950. The air force continued these studies in the early 1950s, primarily through contracts with the RAND Corporation, an independent consultant organization established and funded by the service.

On 4 October 1957 the Soviet Union launched the world's first satellite, Sputnik I, and in November, its heavier companion, Sputnik II, followed. The public outcry in the United States after the launches prompted various measures from the administration. In February 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in the Department of Defense (DoD), assigning to it temporary responsibility for directing all U.S. space projects—civil and military. Early in that same month, he authorized Project CORONA, a secret reconnaissance satellite effort that might more quickly return images of the Soviet Union. Because of its national security applications, Eisenhower was inclined to assign all of America's burgeoning civil and military space programs to ARPA, but Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Eisenhower's science adviser, James R. Killian, Jr., persuaded him otherwise. On 2 April 1958, they submitted to Congress draft legislation that would establish the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Except for military space flight, for which the DoD remained responsible, the statute declared that all nonmilitary aeronautical and space endeavors would be directed by this civilian agency. The 1958 legislation divided American space activities between civilian space science and applications missions and military defense support missions, for which the air force eventually became the lead service. In 1960, after one of the U‐2 spy planes was shot down over the Soviet Union, Eisenhower completed the framing of American astronautics in a house of three wings: civil space science and applications (NASA); DoD military support missions (such as communication, navigation, and missile early warning); and reconnaissance satellites, now directed by a civilian National Reconnaissance Office in the DoD.

A few months later, on 6 March 1961, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara confirmed this division of labor when he issued Directive 5160 on the “Development of Space Systems.” If loss of the strategic reconnaissance mission had been a bitter pill for air force leaders to swallow, the directive at least offered a sugar coating: the air force was given responsibility for running all DoD space development programs. Among the most prestigious of space endeavors at that time, military or civil, was manned space flight.

The air force first sought a role in the nation's manned space flight program with a rocket bomber entrant known as “Dyna‐Soar” (for Dynamic Soaring). The winged space vehicle, carrying one man, would be mounted atop an ICBM and launched into Earth orbit. Later, after completing its mission, Dyna‐Soar would reenter the Earth's atmosphere and glide to a landing. But just what its manned mission would be remained a serious stumbling block because, in 1958–59, administration officials refused to consider weapons in orbit. The Kennedy administration in December 1963 canceled Dyna‐Soar in favor of a military space station, termed the Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL).

With Project Apollo (the manned lunar landing) well underway at NASA, the DoD sought with MOL to determine and test the military usefulness of human beings in Earth orbit. Exactly what military duties astronauts might perform, however, continued to dog the enterprise. The most likely mission appeared to be one of reconnaissance. In the years that followed, MOL's technical problems multiplied and its costs soared. A few weeks before NASA's Project Apollo landed men on the Moon, in July 1969, President Richard M. Nixon canceled MOL. His defense secretary, Melvin Laird, cited funding constraints and recent advances in the performance of instrumented military satellites that performed the same missions planned for MOL. The president's decision ended air force attempts to create a separate military manned space program.

Having lost the strategic reconnaissance mission to a civilian DoD agency in 1960, the armed services still held responsibility for the remaining defense support missions identified in the 1950s. In fact, the DoD had assigned responsibility for instrumented navigation satellites to the navy and communication satellites to the army before Secretary of Defense McNamara's 1961 dictum named the air force the lead service in space affairs. But in May 1962, McNamara canceled the army communications satellite project, known as Advent, which featured a set of satellites to be placed in geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above the equator.

In place of Advent, McNamara authorized a larger number of small communications satellites in medium‐altitude orbits of about 6,000 miles. He designated the air force responsible for procuring the launch vehicles and satellites, and the army for developing the ground terminals. Known at first as the Interim (or Initial) Defense Communications Satellite Program (IDCSP), after worldwide operations began between fixed bases, it was renamed the Defense Satellite Communications System I (DSCS I). Beginning in June 1966, clusters of seven or eight satellites were launched simultaneously; a final launch in June 1968 brought the operational system to twenty‐six DSCS I satellites.

In 1968, the DoD approved a follow‐on military strategic communications satellite program, similar in many respects to Advent and called DSCS II. These larger communication satellites began to be launched into geosynchronous orbits in 1972, and, after some early spacecraft problems, a set of four was declared operational in late 1978. More advanced DSCS III satellites followed in the 1980s, and the DoD declared this military space communications system operational in 1993. The first of four even more advanced and complex satellites, called Milstar and designed to use extremely high frequencies, was launched into geosynchronous orbit in 1994.

Meanwhile, a navy program known as Transit began to launch instrumented satellites in 1960 to improve terrestrial military navigation. When declared operational in 1964, Transit consisted of five satellites in offset polar orbits circling the Earth at an altitude of about 670 miles. By combining the calculated satellite positions, the range difference measurements between these positions as the satellite moved overhead, and information on vessels' speed, ships or submarines receiving Transit radio signals could obtain a two‐dimensional position fix accurate to about 650 feet in latitude and longitude. Although widely employed at sea, Transit proved useless for aircraft, which moved at too high a speed; nor could it determine altitude. However, the navy and the air force began investigations of an improved three‐dimensional system—one that would provide a terrestrial vehicle's position in tens of feet, its velocity at all speeds, and its altitude above the Earth's surface.

In 1974, the DoD combined the best features of the navy and air force navigation satellite proposals, assigned the air force responsibility for the project, and identified it as the Navstar Global Positioning System (GPS). When declared operational in 1994, the GPS consisted of 24 satellites that circle the Earth every 12 hours at a height of 12,524 miles. Four satellites are located in each of six planes inclined 55 degrees to the equator, creating a satellite “bird cage” around the world. Each GPS satellite, equipped with atomic clocks, continuously transmits pseudorandom codes at two frequencies that provide synchronized time signals and data about its own position. Integrating the signals from four satellites, a vehicle equipped with a GPS receiver can determine its location, velocity, and altitude with extreme precision. Although American military leaders were slow to procure GPS receivers, the 1991 Persian Gulf War demonstrated the extraordinary advantages of this space system for military forces in navigating, mapping, and directing artillery fire.

Two other important defense support missions—early warning of missile launches and the detection of nuclear detonations—have roots in the 1950s, when these issues consumed the U.S. leadership. The first of them, called MIDAS (for Missile Detection and Alarm System), began as a part of Lockheed's reconnaissance satellite contract in 1956. The concept called for mounting infrared sensors and a telescope on an instrumented satellite that pointed them at the Earth. The instrument, turned at about 6 rpm, swept a given field of view and detected the hot exhaust flames of rockets as they ascended under power through the atmosphere. The time of a missile's launch, its location, and direction of flight would be radioed to an Earth station within moments, allowing the air force time to scramble its alert bombers before the warhead struck.

Not until the mid‐1960s did Lockheed demonstrate beyond question the performance and reliability of the MIDAS concept in space operations. At that time, the DoD put the operational system out to bid with industry. Known as the Defense Support Program (DSP), it would employ three or four satellites in geosynchronous orbits instead of the twelve or fourteen satellites in 6,000‐mile‐high polar orbits planned for MIDAS. TRW prevailed in this competition, and the air force launched the first DSP satellites in the early 1970s. The performance of these instrumented satellites exceeded expectations and the system was declared operational in the mid‐1970s. Employed in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm, DSP satellites gave Allied Coalition forces in the Persian Gulf and citizens of Israel crucial advance warning of Iraqi Scud ballistic missile launches. This allowed people to seek cover and Patriot missiles to be pointed and fired at an incoming Scud.

Back in the late 1950s, the DoD had also approved development of a second, related space system that could detect nuclear detonations on Earth and in space. A variety of national concerns promoted this project, known as Vela Hotel. In the mid‐1950s, President Eisenhower initiated negotiations with leaders of the Soviet Union and Great Britain to secure agreement on a nuclear test ban treaty. Administration leaders then demanded a space system that would police compliance with its terms.

Representatives of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union signed a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in August 1963 that prohibited testing of nuclear devices in the atmosphere, underwater, and in outer space. The air force began to launch Vela Hotel satellites before month's end. Placed in 70,000‐mile‐high elliptical orbits that rose far above the Van Allen radiation belts, and located on opposite sides of the Earth, the initial satellites provided complete coverage of outer space. Later satellites with improved optics also looked earthward to detect the flash of a nuclear explosion. Eventually, Vela instruments were carried on board other military satellites, such as DSP and GPS vehicles, and the effort was renamed the Integrated Operational Nuclear Detection System (IONDS). But however named, for over thirty years this space system detected numerous atmospheric atomic tests and verified, contrary to the fears of some, that all states party to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty had abided by its terms.

The last of the major military application satellite systems, the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, or DMSP, also began in the late 1950s. Originally, NASA was to develop a single civil‐military satellite system, one that would serve both the DoD and the Commerce Department's Weather Bureau. Because NASA's design was so complex, the DoD authorized the air force to develop a simplified, low‐altitude military weather satellite. The resulting spacecraft, first launched in 1962, proved so effective that the Weather Bureau soon advised NASA it would buy copies of the military satellite system.

Shortly after these classified military weather satellites became operational, U.S. forces began military operations in the Vietnam War. DMSP satellites in 450‐nautical‐mile polar orbits, equipped to provide day‐ and nighttime images of cloud cover, were employed to assist both air and surface military activity. The cloud cover photos, widely distributed in Southeast Asia, made DMSP an open secret by the early 1970s. In 1973, Secretary of the Air Force John McLucas publicly announced the program's existence, and DMSP images were released for civilian use.

Operation Desert Storm, the military campaign in the Persian Gulf War to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in January–February 1991, became the first major contest of arms in which all military space systems were integrated into both planning and operations. It has been called “the first space war” because communication, navigation, weather, early warning, and reconnaissance satellites provided information indispensable to combat operations. These military space assets, pre‐positioned in Earth orbit, permitted the Allied Coalition leaders to wield terrestrial forces in concert and multiplied their effects on the battlefield so enormously that without them, an enemy in the twenty‐first century has little hope of prevailing in combat.
[See also Air and Space Defense; Communications; Missiles; Satellites, Reconnaissance; Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).]


Thomas S. Moorman, Jr. , The Space Revolution, in Jacob Neufeld et al., eds., Technology and the Air Force: A Retrospective Assessment, 1997.
Curtis Peebles , High Frontier: The United States Air Force and the Military Space Program, 1997.
William E. Burrows , This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, 1998.
David N. Spires , Beyond Horizons: A Half Century of Air Force Space Leadership, 1998.
R. Cargill Hall and Jacob Neufeld, eds., The U.S. Air Force in Space, 1945 to the Twenty‐first Century, 1998.

R. Cargill Hall

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