Is There a Military Human Spaceflight Mission on the Horizon?


An artist’s conception of the X-37B in orbit. Will this military spaceplane become the precursor of a piloted military Earth-orbital vehicle?

There has been a long mating dance between the civil and military space programs over the past few the years relative to the role of humans in space. In a succession of recent studies ranging from the Air Force Science Board’s “New World Vista” in 1995 to the Rumsfeld commission’s 2001 analysis of national security space issues, the Department of Defense (DoD) has persistently sought to find a role for humans in space. In 2012 some senior military officials remain committed to the possibilities of human military missions into space, although this is most assuredly a minority view in the DoD. At the same time, as robotic technologies have improved, the trend has been away from placing humans in harm’s way in favor of other options.

The rise of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) piloted from the remote sites in the 1990s was driven by the desire to limit crew exposure to harm while increasing loiter time over target areas. The success of UAVs in carrying out missions that had formerly required flight crews has emboldened DoD executives to advance this type of technology for all future weapons systems. In such an environment whatever desires that still exist in favor of piloted military space vehicles have less possibility of achieving this goal than even a few years earlier. At sublime level, human military pilots appear to be a twentieth century and not a twenty-first century priority.

This is especially the case because rationales supporting human spaceflight are overall quite controversial even as they are sometimes passionately held—mostly resting on arguments of national prestige rather than practical applications—there does not seem to be much possibility of this changing in the near term. Of course, one could make the observation that since the end of the Cold War many of the historic policy options, of which the assignment of the U.S. human spaceflight mission to NASA in 1958 is one, needs to be revisited.

Reassigning that mission, or a portion of it, to the DoD might become a possibility should the space agency suffer another disaster on the order of the Challenger and Columbia shuttle accidents, or if enemies pursued a human presence in space although this represents a long shot in terms of policy options.

More likely is a scenario in which military astronauts will enter space in a manner similar to what soldiers excelled at throughout the first century-and-a-half of the republic: exploring, extending, and protecting the frontier. The United States Army explored the American West, kept order on the frontier, and opened the region to colonization. The frontier army pushed the line of occupation far beyond the settlements that would have resulted otherwise. It raised crops, herded cattle, cut timber, quarried stone, built sawmills, and performed the manifold duties of pioneers in addition to its peacekeeping mission. It also restrained lawless traders, pursued fugitives, ejected squatters, maintained order, and served as the primary interface with the Native Americans. In this latter role it was more benevolent than remembered in popular conception.

All of this was largely peaceful work, with the military catalyzing the processes of territorial expansion and national development. The military outposts on the frontier also served as cash markets for early settlers and as centers of exploration, community building, and cultural development. In the past the military accomplished these tasks in the American West; in the future it might well do so in space. This is a far different approach to “military men in space” than has been argued for thus far, but once there is a true space frontier the military will be required to be there just as in the past. How far into the future this might take place is an open question, but it will undoubtedly happen if the United States continues to pursue human space exploration and development.

This would amount to as significant a role for the U.S. military in space as any other that might be envisioned. In the nineteenth century it conducted exploration, as with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and its civil engineering efforts led by the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proved remarkably significant in opening the West. In the twenty-first century the military may create a Space Corps of Engineers.

Its forces may expand to every location where humanity establishes a presence, especially on the Moon. It may serve as the peacekeepers and the law enforcers. It may preserve American interests against any who might seek to subvert them. Withal, the military presence may well help to open a frontier beyond Earth in the same way that it did on the North American continent earlier. But before those possibilities emerge, there remains only a modest likelihood of the need for military personnel in space.

At the time when the United States is reconsidering its next steps in the human exploration and development of space it bears considering this possibility for the future of military astronauts. What will take place in the near term is very much a matter of yet to be resolved. Federal entities will certainly play a key role. Will they, however, continue to dominate or are there heightened prospects for commercial activities first in low-Earth orbit and ultimately beyond? If it is the latter the prospects for military human space missions expand exponentially as a means of keeping order in this new regime.

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14 Responses to Is There a Military Human Spaceflight Mission on the Horizon?

  1. spacegary says:

    While the military may have been seen as leaders in exploration and protection of frontier outposts 150 years ago, I think few would agree with that as an assessment of their current role. Further, in 30 years the Shuttle program uncovered no real commercial opportunities for LEO spaceflight, just as no viable commercial plans have come forth for mining or otherwise settling the moon. Given these lack of imperatives, I think a military presence in space would be threatening to many Americans and to all other nations. Therefore I think this is a last ditch option, to be considered only if public Government initiatives (NASA) and similar private initiatives fail on their promises to explore space and to deliver freight and/or tourist-type passengers to low earth orbit.

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  2. rt100 says:

    I think your final paragraph is the most telling about future military prospects in space. The exploration of LEO has been completed. Now we’ve just got to get some kind of commercial presence in LEO for the military to protect. Could this be science experiments? Large-scale spacecraft manufacturing? There aren’t a whole lot of profitable reasons for humans to be in LEO at present. Now as far as settlements and creating infrastructure for future habitation, I could see this becoming a major military endeavor. But as you say, it’s on the horizon, and probably many many years from now

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  3. mike shupp says:

    Forgive my cynicism, but we’ve been sending people into space for 50 years now — which is about the length of time we spent sending people across the Great Plains and into the West back in the 19th Century. And we don’t have much to show for it, in terms of population.

    Back in the early 1970′s we might have had 3 Americans up in Skylab for a three month period, while 2 Russians were in a Salyut for up to a year, That’s a thousand days of manned flight in a year — an exceptional year. Now we’ve got 6 astronauts in the ISS pretty much year round. That’s two thousand days of manned flight in a year. Forty years, and we’ve doubled our occupation of space. Wee! Such progress!

    And what’s next? More of the same, it would appear. The ISS will stay up till 2020 or so, maybe til 2025. There’re no plans for enlargening it. The Chinese might put up and man a small station, maybe with 2 or 3 people sometime this decade. Sometime in the 2020′s the US might send 3 or 4 astronauts off to examine a passing asteroid, for a journey of maybe a month, Maybe. Maybe, Four years from now and maybe we’ll have a dozen humans in space year round, and we’ll have doubled our occupation once more. All going well, and the taxpayers being content.

    Does this strike you as an environment really calling for a military force? Or even a single traffic cop? It doesn’t seem so to me. What actually stands out instead is that for well over forty years the leaders of the richest and most powerful and most technologically advanced nation on earth have steadfastly refused to consider human expansion into space.

    “Been there. Done that. It’s over.” We’ve had 8 different Presidents singing that song, more or less continuously, 20 different sessions of Congress with literally thousands of Representatives and Senators, countless State Department Secretaries and OMB Directors, and other functionaries and they’ve sung the same words and the same tune. So they’re short sighted. Or they’re concealing their intentions to mollify other nations. Or they’ve great plans which just can’t be revealed to the taxpayers. Or something. Maybe. All of them.

    Or maybe the US just isn’t fated to colonize the heavens. Maybe we had our chance back in 1969 and blew it for petty partisan reasons. Or maybe the task really was beyond our means then and our will now and we’ll have to stand on the sidelines fifty or a hundred years from now and watch while bolder, richer, more advenrturesome sapacefarers from China or India or Brazil go to the planets and their descendents go out into the galaxy. I think we can leave them the task of sending soldiers to the stars.

    Apologies for raining on your parade.

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  4. mike shupp says:

    Don’t thank me for those bitter “points.” They’re just observations which in a better universe I wouldn;t be making. It strikes me now and then that the real History of Spaceflight that ought to be written would not be a traditional story of how Obstacles Were Overcome and Progress Made Until Inevitable Triumph , but a more subdued account that began with our science fictional anticipations of the early 1950′s and went on to explain how those hopes were flaunted and betrayed and abandoned over the next half century or so. It wouldn’t be a best seller, I fear, but it’d probably do a better job of explaining our culture to people 500 or a 1000 years hence than any official history or set of records. Oh well. Thanks for the opportunity to vent a bit.

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  5. launiusr says:

    Not at all, I believe in the marketplace of ideas and everyone may offer their perspectives. Over time, ideas with staying power will gain acceptance. We all have equal voice. I appreciate your thoughts veyr much.

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  6. Spacegary says:

    Mike you make some excellent points. Your comparison to opening up the West is very telling. Thank you.

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  7. Anthony Shaw says:

    Of course space and the American Frontier of the 19th century are entirely different physical and environmental realms, making comparison difficult. Yet the concept of space has been intimately tied to the concept of the frontier, in both official and cultural representations. How we conceptualize space shapes our exploration programs probably as much as the challenging environment does. One of Dr. Launius’ most intriguing points here is that the military outposts on the American frontier served as waystations and places of market exchanges that facilitated civilian colonization. There were other factors that facilitated and pushed colonization, of course, but these military outposts were important nonetheless. It is quite conceivable that military outposts could serve as the foundations of a permanent human presence in space. This permanent presence requires two things: the ability to survive in the harsh environments of space, and the willingness to survive off the earth’s surface. We have technology that allows humans to survive in space. The last requirement is where Dr. Launius’ point about locales of market exchange comes in, and I think it is very pertinent to consider that a military base, if developed in conjunction with civilian presence, will have psychological and pragmatic implications that could facilitate a permanent civilian presence in space. While I agree that there are probably no significant long-term needs for a military presence in space, the fact remains that one of the military’s historic functions in colonization of frontiers has been as an enabling force for the colonizers.

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  8. Common Sense says:

    An unbiased survey of history shows that there is simply no surviving “rationale” for continuing human spaceflight after the mid 70s: what continue to exist are emotional and metaphysical appeals.

    These are not negligible, because they have sustained human spaceflight for more than a third of a century; provided about half of a trillion (2012 dollars) and — who knows? — may continue to do so for another third of a century.

    However, what a rational person might consider doing is pump up the emotional and metaphysical “rationales” that have proven to be so successful, rather than exert oneself vainly in the pursuits of logical justifications, which simply do not exist – except perhaps in a parallel universe.

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  9. Jeff Wright says:

    Larger launchers coming out allowed for Space Based Radar and other assets that demand larger shroud diameters.

    I have no problem with automated systems that can target the surface as a sort of super-drone which needs no bullets, bases, beans, or bodies to be maintained via Cold War/WWII logistics where much of our defense money goes to upkeep. Remember Nikita Khrushchev focused on rockets and missile exactly because he did not want to match us bomber to bomber, or Blue-Water Navy to Blue-Water Navy.

    The two biggest technocrats in the USSR at the time of Sputnik were Korolev and Glushko. Here our two biggest influences were Le May and Rickover. Thus while NASA had more money in an absolute sense than Soviet space efforts, actual space advocates in the Pentagon here barely rank above the janitor. Perhaps Sequestration and/or cuts could allow deadwood to be rmoved so as to allow novel ways of war-fighting, such as Coyote Smiths limited SPSS to keep a permanent electric drone cap up at all times, or to hit targets with rods from god.

    This will spook fighter jocks and carrier groupies to be sure–which is why we need a Space Force that can belly up to the bar and fight for itself.

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  10. Laven Master says:

    I truly like following your stories! It honestly makes the afternoon.

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