Is There a Military Human Spaceflight Mission on the Horizon?


The space battle sequence from the James Bond film, Moonraker (1979). Is this the future of the military in space?

The space battle sequence from the James Bond film, Moonraker (1979). Is this the future of the military in space?

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.

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

  1. Doug Lassiter says:

    I think the answer to your title is a resounding “NO!” But yes, the military, especially emboldened with huge successes in UAVs, and reconaissance satellites as well, sees little use for astronauts to protect the nation. Astronauts were historically, of course, just fighter pilots repurposed. Remember the fight about windows in the Mercury capsule? Those were the days when a hand on the stick an eye on the window and courage in the heart were the only ways to fly anything fast or high. But fighter pilots are not as important as they used to be. Now, that’s exactly right that the survival of human spaceflight will depend upon clear rationale, and the best rationale it has going for it right now is that it makes us look like we’re skillful and brave. You know, like fighter pilots (which, as I said, aren’t as important as they used to be).

    I do wonder about the role of the military in “exploring, extending, and protecting the frontier”. As we know, the western U.S was a frontier for which settlers desperately needed protection. But the space frontier isn’t like that of the west. Unless we run into armies of aliens intent on protecting their planets. There are no forces massing in opposition, and we have abundant diplomatic tools to confront those who might.

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    • launiusr says:

      Thanks for your comment. Good thoughts. In answer to one point you raise, however, I don’t believe space aliens are the primary threats in the space frontier. Likewise, Native Americans were not the primary threats in the American West. The frontier of North America was a region highly coveted and fought over by rivals for more than 200 years before the United States was even stalbished.

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  2. mike shupp says:

    I’m going to be skeptical as well about a manned military presence in space, for two reasons.

    The first is trivial but … After the Air Force clawed its way out of the US Army in the late 1940’s, defence spending costs rose considerably, in large part because of rivalries between the 3 major service branches. I think the lesson learned in Washington from this is that a 4th service branch, a US Space Force say, carved from the USAF, would soon bump up DoD spending 30% or more. And I don’t think either Republicans or Democrats want to go down that path, no matter how useful a separate space force might appear.

    Secondly, even if they’re not fighting, soldiers and sailors are representative of a nation and it’s willingness to fight to hold territory. Granted, soldiers in the American West wouldn’t have been serious obstacles to Mexican or Canadian or Russian agression most of the later 19th Century, but they were willing to slug it out with Indians some times and provide a pugnacious image at others with the Indians in the background, to encourage timid settlers. This purpose is completely lacking in outer space, as long as everybody on Earth maintains fidelity to The Outer Space Act or the Moon Treaty. And I suspect the very formation, or even the idea of forming, a manned space military force would gve rise to much angry debate in the UN, and possibly inspire other nations to take similar steps — surely something the US would not wish.

    I can imagine two possible exceptions. The US might form an exceptionally small and carefully delineated organization, a la the National Heath Service, to handle specific tasks which other nations are willing to delegate to it. Cleaning up debris in Earth orbit, for example. And the US might provide forces to some multinational task force, likely operating under aegis of the UN, to tackle some suitable objective, such as initial construction of a lunar base for international scientists. The support provided by various military units to Antarctic bases might be an example.

    So alas, we’ll never hear Taps sounded against the backdrop of a lunar base while the sun slowly sinks beneath a dusty horizon. But then there’s not much to hear in a vacuum.

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