NASA’s Space Shuttle and the Department of Defense


The launch of the Space Shuttle “Columbia” on April 12, 1981.

During the 1970s, the Space Shuttle became the “sine qua non” of NASA, intended as it was to make spaceflight routine, safe, and relatively inexpensive. Although NASA wanted the shuttle for its purposes, the Department of Defense (DOD) agreed to support the shuttle because of its perceived use as a means for military operations in space. That military mission, as it came to coalesce around the new Space Shuttle in the 1970s, took as its raison d’être the deployment of reconnaissance and other national security payloads into low-Earth orbit (LEO).

As such, the DOD and the intelligence community insisted that the shuttle’s orbiter be designed so that it had a cross-range maneuvering capability to meet requirements for lift-off and landing at the same location after only one orbit. This would enable great flexibility in deploying those space assets into orbit, while masking their trajectories from the Soviet Union. Moreover, the payload bay of the Space Shuttle, so often viewed as excessive for most mission requirements, needed its 15 (4.6 meters) x 60 (18.3 meters) feet dimensions to satisfy DOD and intelligence community planners that it would accommodate national security payloads. Without those design modifications to support the military space program, the DOD would have probably withheld monetary and political support from the project.

In essence, NASA embraced a military mission for the Space Shuttle program as a means of building a coalition in support of an approval that might not have been approved otherwise. In return, military astronauts would fly on classified missions in LEO. Most of those missions were for the purpose of deploying reconnaissance satellites but what else might have been accomplished on them is unknown in the non-classified world.

It might be easy to underestimate the national security implications of the Space Shuttle decision and the desire of some in the DOD to gain a military astronaut foothold that facilitated it. But, this goal seems to be critical to DOD support. Caspar Weinberger was the key to the movement of the Space Shuttle through the White House, and he believed the shuttle had obvious military uses and profound implications for national security. “I thought we could get substantial return” with the program, he said in a 1977 interview, “both from the point of view of national defense, and from the point of view [of] scientific advancement which would have a direct beneficial effect.” He and others also impressed on the president the shuttle’s potential for military missions.

John Erlichman, Nixon’s senior advisor for domestic affairs, even thought the Space Shuttle might be useful to capture enemy satellites, a mission that would require military astronauts in effect “lassoing” those satellites during extra-vehicular activities (EVAs) and bringing them into the shuttle payload bay for return to Earth.

After a decade of development, on April 12, 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia took-off for the first orbital test mission. It was successful and after only the fourth flight in 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared the system “operational.” In keeping with plans developed in the Carter administration of the latter 1970s, the Space Shuttle would thereafter carry all U.S. government payloads; military, scientific, and even commercial satellites could all be deployed from its payload bay.

To prepare for this, in 1979, Air Force Secretary Hans Mark created the Manned Spaceflight Engineer program to “Develop expertise in manned space flight and apply it to Department of Defense space missions.” In all, between 1979 and 1986 this organization trained 32 Navy and Air Force officers as military astronauts.

Through the middle part of the 1980s, the DOD remained committed to supporting the shuttle program for military purposes. The Air Force paid for the construction of the Discovery orbiter, and began building Space Launch Complex (SLC) 6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in 1979 (having been approved in 1974) for the launch of polar orbital flights. Furthermore, it negotiated with NASA an annual launch rate of 40 missions from the Kennedy Space Center with 20 from Vandenberg AFB. This proved a ridiculous number of launches, but it pointed up the optimism of human spaceflight program as envisioned at the dawn of the Space Shuttle program.

Any plans the DOD might have harbored for human spaceflight were dashed with the loss of Challenger during launch on January 28, 1986. One of the results of this was the removal from the shuttle of all commercial and national security payloads and the reinvigoration of the expendable launch vehicle production lines. It became another instance of the DOD seeking a military human mission that eventually went awry.

This quest for military astronauts did not end there. In 1986, the DOD established a formal Military Man-in-Space (MMIS) Program to oversee efforts to ensure that a human military presence remained in space. They then undertook several experiments aimed at demonstrating the utility of humans in orbit in observation. As only two examples of military astronaut activity, “Terra View” took place on a shuttle flight where military astronauts observed the ground and reported observations of military interest. Additionally, in Terra Scout, Astronaut LTC Jim Voss and Payload Specialist CW3 Tom Hennen, aboard STS-44 in November 1991, used the Spaceborne Direct View Optical System (SPADVOS) to view terrestrial targets. Since the beginning of the Space Shuttle flight program, the DOD has flown a myriad of payloads on the vehicle.

Artist’s concept of the X-30 aerospace plane flying through Earth’s atmosphere on its way to low-Earth orbit. the experimental concept is part of the National Aero-Space Plane Program. The X-30 is planned to demonstrate the technology for airbreathing space launch and hypersonic cruise vehicles.

Also, in the 1980s, DOD began work, along with NASA, on a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) vehicle for military purposes. If there is a “holy grail” of spaceflight it is the desire for reusable SSTO technology, essentially a vehicle that can take-off, fly into orbit, perform its mission, and return to Earth landing like an airplane. This is an exceptionally difficult flight regime with a myriad of challenges relating to propulsion, materials, aerodynamics, guidance, and control. Fueled by the realization the Space Shuttle could not deliver on its early expectations, DOD leaders pressed for the development of a hypersonic space plane. With the beginning of the administration of Ronald Reagan, and its associated military buildup, Tony DuPont, head of DuPont Aerospace, offered an unsolicited proposal to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to design a hypersonic vehicle powered by a hybrid integrated engine of scramjets and rockets. DARPA program manager Bob Williams liked the idea, and funded it as a “black” program code-named “Copper Canyon” between 1983 and 1985. The Reagan administration later unveiled it as the National Aerospace Plane (NASP), designated the X-30. Reagan called it “a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take-off from Dulles Airport and accelerate up to twenty-five times the speed of sound, attaining low earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours.”

The NASP program initially proposed to build two research craft, at least one of which should achieve orbit by flying in a single stage through the atmosphere at speeds up to Mach 25. The X-30 would use a multicycle engine that shifted from jet to ramjet and to scramjet speeds as the vehicle ascended burning liquid hydrogen fuel with oxygen scooped and frozen from the atmosphere. After billions spent, NASP never progressed to flight stage. It finally ended in 1994, trapped as it was in bureaucratic politics and seemingly endless technological difficulties.

Yet, elements of the DOD remain committed to this mission to the present. Throughout the 1990s, a succession of studies argued for the potential of military personnel in space. One 1992 study affirmed:

It is absolutely essential for the well being of today’s space forces as well as the future space forces of 2025, that DOD develop manned advanced technology space systems in lieu of or in addition to unmanned systems to effectively utilize military man’s compelling and aggressive warfighting abilities to accomplish the critical wartime mission elements of space control and force application. National space policy, military space doctrine and common sense all dictate they should do so if space superiority during future, inevitable conflict with enemy space forces is the paramount objective. Deploying military man in space will provide that space superiority and he will finally become the “center of gravity” of the U.S. space program.

Another analysis found 37 reasons why military personnel in space would be required in the future, ranging from problem-solving and decision-making, to manipulation of sensors and other systems. It concluded that “A military space plane could play a key role in helping the United States Air Force transform itself from an air force into an aerospace force.” Yet another study found: “Our National Security Strategy must take full advantage of the full political, economic, and military power of this nation to be successful. That means soldiers, sailors, and airmen able to operate in every region of the world critical to national security, whether it is on land, at sea, in the air, or in space. A strategy built on anything less is incomplete and shortsighted.”

The rationale for a military astronaut rests largely on the human flexibility of offering judgment, experience, and decision-making capabilities not present with machines. “There is no way that a price tag can be placed on such characteristics as flexibility or serendipity because the essence of these attributes is the ability to capitalize on the unanticipated or unknown,” concluded one study.

Notwithstanding these conclusions, it is obvious the decision made initially by President Eisenhower in the latter 1950s to split the civil and military space programs and to assign the human mission to the civil side remains controversial. It represents one instance, among many, in which a continuum between cooperation and competition has taken place in the interrelationships between the civil, military, and national reconnaissance space programs.

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4 Responses to NASA’s Space Shuttle and the Department of Defense

  1. Anthony Shaw says:

    Totally fascinating! The Shuttle program’s relationship with the DOD is something that hasn’t been mentioned much in the recent hoopla surrounding the Shuttles’ retirement. I think that will change as time goes by and more records become available through declassification and FOIA requests. I agree with your use of the “cooperation and competition” trope; it’s something I saw when comparing the Shuttle to the Soviet Union’s Buran orbiter and Intercosmos program of the 1970s and 80s, and I explore it more fully in an upcoming article for Quest: History of Spaceflight Quarterly.

  2. I’m not sure that many Americans realize how the Shuttle’s design was compromised by the influence of the DoD in exchange for their support. Your article is an excellent summation of the military requirements on the Shuttle program. I wonder how the design of the Shuttle Transportation System would have been different if NASA had been able to have it funded as a totally civilian operation. Would we have had the use of the flawed SRBs which led to the Challenger tragedy? Somewhere in an alternate universe they know the answer. Thanks for the informative article!

  3. Pingback: Do you miss the space shuttle yet? | Nathan Battaglia

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