There has been a long mating dance between the civil and military space programs over 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 DoD has persistently sought to find a role for humans in space.
As recently as 2006 some senior military officials remained committed to the possibility of human military missions into space, although this was definitely a minority view in the DoD. Indeed, 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 a 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 overall are a bit nebulous—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 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, 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. 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 American 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 little 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.
This may become the new future for space exploration if Congress accepts the Obama Administration’s approach. If it does the false starts of the past could be replaced by what is envisioned as “A new era of Innovation and Discovery.” This new direction and change is more than just semantics. It proposes a major shift in the way in which the U.S. government approaches human spaceflight. Simply put, it represents a paradigm shift in space exploration.
In this new approach NASA will return to its roots as a research and development organization to develop the transformational technologies while private industry will operate the systems built. Turning low-Earth orbit over to commercial entities, as in the classic 1968 feature film 2001: A Space Odyssey, will force the government out of this arena except for regulatory and other oversight roles. In this environment, there is an important place for the peacekeeping function of a frontier, a natural fit for the DoD in satisfying its quest for human spaceflight capability.
It is quite possible that the approach of the Obama administration to human spaceflight, envisioned as a “new era of innovation and discovery,” does not abandon human exploration but offers instead a sustainable space exploration plan for decades to come. After the fits and starts over many years that Americans have suffered in considering a replacement system for the Space Shuttle, this may well represent a welcome path forward.