Library Index » Science Encyclopedia » Space Organizations Part 2: U.S. Military, Foreign and Private - U.s. Military Space Programs, Space Agencies Around The World, Russia, Europe

Space Organizations Part 2: U.S. Military, Foreign and Private - U.s. Military Space Programs

air force satellite nasa

The United States must win and maintain the capability to control space in order to assure the progress and preeminence of the free nations.

—Air Force Chief of Staff General Thomas White, 1959.

The U.S. military had space aspirations long before spaceflight was possible. The three main branches of the military, the Army, Air Force, and Navy, began space programs following World War II. They sometimes collaborated, but more often they competed against each other to develop rockets, satellites, and manned space programs.

In 1958 President Eisenhower limited the military's role in space when he created a new civilian agency called the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). NASA was given responsibility for the nation's manned space programs. The military was allowed to pursue space projects that benefited national defense. Despite the separation, the two programs overlapped quite a bit. Even in the twenty-first century NASA is dependent on military resources to carry out human space exploration projects.

The Department of Defense also operates a number of space-related national defense projects. The Congressional Research Service estimates that the DOD spent $15.7 billion on classified and unclassified space projects during 2002 and $18.4 billion during 2003. The DOD has requested $20.4 billion for space projects in its 2004 budget.

The United States officially holds the policy that it will not develop space weapons, only defensive systems. Some critics complain that the line between the two is growing very fuzzy. For example, the Air Force is known to be working on a program called the Experimental Satellite Series (XSS). These are small, mobile satellites that can be maneuvered up to other orbiting objects and take pictures of them.

The XSS-10 was successfully tested in January 2003. Although the Pentagon denies that the XSS satellites are space weapons, it would be relatively easy to convert their photographic capabilities to firepower. Then they could seek out and destroy targets in orbit, such as the reconnaissance satellites of unfriendly countries. Development of anti-satellite weapons or ASATs is highly controversial. The Air Force plans to test a more sophisticated version of the XSS in late 2004.

World War II to 1955

The military space program began in earnest as World War II ended. In May 1945 a group of German rocket scientists led by Wernher von Braun surrendered to American forces. Under Operation Paperclip the U.S. Army signed a contract with von Braun's team and moved them to Fort Bliss, TX to work on America's rocket program. The Army also captured many German V-2 rocket parts. The von Braun team assembled the parts and launched rockets at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. On February 24, 1949, the team launched the first rocket from U.S. soil to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere and penetrate outer space. It was called BUMPER Round 5.

Meanwhile the U.S. Air Force had its own space program that included development of guided missiles and robotic aircraft at the Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo, New Mexico. As early as 1946 the Air Force was launching rockets into the upper atmosphere that carried fruit flies, fungus spores, and small mammals. An Aeromedical Field Laboratory was established at the base as part of the Air Force's "Man in Space" program. The laboratory researched the new field of space biology and conducted high-altitude balloon flights with animals and humans.

By the early 1950s the Air Force was launching rockets to test the effects of weightlessness and radiation on mice and monkeys. Some of the animals survived the flights, while others perished. According to historians at least four rhesus monkeys died when parachutes failed to open during descent of their spacecraft. In 1952 the Air Force ended its space biology program and turned toward ballistic missiles. However, by that time the Air Force had accumulated a wealth of knowledge and resources in the field of bioastronautics.

In 1950 the Army moved von Braun's rocket team from New Mexico to the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. Four years later Von Braun proposed that the Army launch an unmanned satellite into orbit using a Redstone missile as the main booster. The plan was eventually called Project Orbiter.

The Navy also pursued rocket research following World War II using captured German rockets. The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, DC, equipped V-2 rockets with atmospheric probes and other scientific instruments. The NRL had a long and distinguished history in scientific research. It had been established in the 1920s at the urging of famous inventor Thomas Edison (1847–1931). The NRL invented the modern U.S. radar system and used V-2 rockets to obtain a far-ultraviolet spectrum of the sun and to discover solar x-rays. As the supply of V-2 rockets began to run out, the NRL developed its own rockets called Vikings and Aerobees.

1955 to 1958

In 1955 the United States decided to launch an unmanned satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) project. The IGY was to run from July 1957 to the end of 1959. Various government agencies submitted proposals to develop the satellite. These included proposals from all three service branches: the Army's Project Orbiter, based on a Redstone rocket, an Air Force proposal based on an Atlas rocket, and the Navy's Project Vanguard, based on a Viking missile. Project Vanguard was selected. The Naval Research Laboratory was delegated responsibility for developing the satellite and including a scientific experiment upon it.

The first test flights of Project Vanguard were conducted in December 1956 and May 1957. Although both tests were successful, the project proceeded slowly. In October 1957 the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1 into Earth orbit. It was the world's first artificial satellite. The United States was stunned that the Soviets had achieved this great milestone. The Department of Defense (DOD) pressured the Navy to accelerate the Vanguard schedule. In early November 1957 the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 with a dog named Laika aboard.

Meanwhile Von Braun's team at the Redstone Arsenal had developed the Jupiter ballistic missile. Throughout the mid-1950s the Army had tried to convince the DOD that a Redstone or Jupiter rocket should be used to put a satellite into orbit. After Sputnik 1 the DOD was ready to listen. In November 1957 the Army was authorized to pursue Project Explorer as a backup to Project Vanguard. A month later the first full-scale Vanguard launch attempt failed when the rocket exploded two seconds after lift-off.

On January 31, 1958, the Army successfully launched Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, into space using a Jupiter-C rocket. The satellite was nearly 7 feet long and about 6 inches in diameter. It weighed 31 pounds. The scientific payload included temperature gauges and instruments to detect cosmic rays and the impacts of micro-meteorites. The payload was developed under the direction of James Van Allen, a physics professor at the University of Iowa. Data from Explorer 1 and the later Explorer 3 satellite led to Van Allen's discovery of radiation belts around the Earth. In 1958 the existence of the belts was confirmed by the Soviet satellite Sputnik 3. (See Figure 3.1.)

On March 17, 1958, the Navy finally got its Vanguard satellite into orbit. Vanguard Test Vehicle 4 was launched at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and put the 3-pound satellite into Earth orbit. The satellite was about the size of a grapefruit. It was the first orbiting satellite to be powered by solar FIGURE 3.1
Sputnik 3
energy. Solar cells also powered its radio until the radio failed in 1964. As of February 2004 the silent Vanguard satellite continues to circle the Earth. It has remained in orbit longer than any human-made object in space.

The satellite successes of the 1950s encouraged the Air Force's space ambitions. The service began planning a manned spaceflight program called Dyna-Soar. This was to be an aircraft based on the X-15 experimental plane that could be launched into orbit by a missile, but glide back to Earth and land on an airstrip. Another project was called Man in Space Soonest (MISS). MISS called for a manned satellite to be launched by 1960, a manned laboratory to be in earth orbit by 1963, and a manned lunar landing to take place by 1965.

In June 1958 the Air Force announced a list of test pilots chosen to participate in the MISS project. These would have been the very first American astronauts. Four months later NASA was formed and took responsibility for manned spaceflights. Dyna-Soar and MISS were cancelled. Most of the would-be astronauts were given NASA assignments.

NASA Takes Over

Throughout the 1950s the Air Force had lobbied Congressional leaders to be given control of the nation's space program. The Air Force had excellent launch capabilities and extensive research and development capabilities in space science and bioastronautics.

According to historians, President Eisenhower feared that militarizing the nation's space program would accelerate the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union and build a politically powerful "military-industrial complex" in the United States. Many scientists were also opposed to military control of the space program. They feared that weapon development and manned space flights would receive priority over scientific objectives. As a compromise, several prominent U.S. scientists urged Congress to divide the space program into two parts, with manned programs operated by the military and science programs operated by NASA. In 1958 when the agency was put into operation President Eisenhower decided to allow NASA to run the nation's space program.

Over the next few years most of the military's space programs, assets, and resources were turned over to NASA. The new agency was very dependent on military scientists with expertise in space science, particularly those of the Air Force. Even after NASA was created, Air Force officials continued to lobby political leaders for control over space programs. This effort was supported by several influential people within the Kennedy administration. In 1961 President Kennedy's science advisor issued a report that was very critical of NASA. It recommended that any large manned space projects the nation pursued be controlled by the military services.

At the time, NASA was engaged in Project Mercury and planning the Apollo trips to the moon. The Air Force's Space Systems Division (SSD) proposed its own post-Mercury project called Lunex that promised to put three men on the moon by 1967. The SSD estimated the cost of the project at $7.5 billion.

The Army's plan for a manned spaceflight was called Project Adam. It called for one astronaut to be sealed inside a capsule atop a ballistic missile for his ride in orbit. Although the Army had excellent launch capabilities and rocket technology, it lacked expertise in bioastronautics. Project Adam did not include any monitoring of the human during his spaceflight to gain medical knowledge. The Army also advocated a military outpost on the moon as part of Project Horizon. This ambitious plan included a dock and fueling station in orbit around Earth.

The U.S. Navy had its own plan for a manned space-flight project called the Manned Earth Reconnaissance Project or Project MER. However, the Navy's space reputation was hurt by the poor performance of the Vanguard program. Also, the Navy was dependent on the Air Force for launch facilities and bioastronautics capabilities.

NASA had its share of influential supporters, including Overton Brooks (the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics) and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, both of Texas. Neither wanted the military to control the nation's space ventures. In the end President Kennedy decided to support NASA. He increased the agency's budget and gave it responsibility for a manned lunar spaceflight.

NASA received Air Force help with many aspects of the early space programs. During the 1950s the Air Force obtained infant chimpanzees and monkeys that were trained at the Holloman base for spaceflights. Many of the animals were not named. A rhesus monkey named Sam (after the Air Force School of Aviation Medicine) flew aboard a Mercury test flight in 1959.

Another chimp was named Ham (an acronym for Holloman Aero Medical). During 1961 NASA launched Ham and another "chimponaut" named Enos into outer space to orbit the Earth. The Air Force continued to run a space chimp colony until 1997. At that time 21 chimps were turned over to a chimpanzee rescue group in Florida.

Military and Intelligence Satellites

Following the formation of NASA the U.S. military focused most of its space resources on development of ballistic missiles and satellites. Satellites were designed for a variety of purposes, including communications, navigation, weather surveillance, and reconnaissance (spying).

During the late 1950s the Air Force worked with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to develop a reconnaissance satellite capable of photographing installations on the ground in the Soviet Union from space. The project was code-named Corona. Publicly the U.S. called the satellite Discoverer and claimed that it conducted scientific research. More than 100 Corona missions were flown during the 1960s and early 1970s. The Soviet Union orbited its own spy satellites and also claimed that they were for scientific purposes.

Prior to the 1980s all satellites were launched aboard rockets called Expendable Launch Vehicles (ELVs). Once above Earth's atmosphere a satellite separated from its ELV, and the ELV burned up during reentry. During the 1970s the Air Force used a number of ELVs including the Scout, Thor, Delta, Atlas, and Titan rockets.

Development of the space shuttle opened up a new era in satellite deployment. The shuttle was reusable and included a crew of astronauts that could release, retrieve, and repair satellites as needed. The military was very excited about this prospect. During space shuttle development the DOD insisted that the vehicles be designed to carry heavy military satellites and be able to orbit the Earth along a polar path. Both requirements added substantially to the cost of the shuttle program and slowed its development.

The Air Force was given responsibility for developing a shuttle launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast. This would allow the shuttle to take off in a southerly direction toward the South Pole. The Air Force also developed a rocket for the shuttle program called the Interim Upper Stage (IUS). IUS boosters were designed to thrust satellites from the shuttle's typical orbit into higher orbits.

The first shuttle flight did not take place until April 1981. In June 1982 a shuttle carried a military satellite into orbit for the first time. Shuttles carried six subsequent DOD satellites into space during 1984 and 1985. Four of these satellites were SYNCOM communication satellites. The other two missions were classified.

When the shuttle was first proposed, NASA promised that it would fly frequently and routinely into Earth orbit and would meet the military's scheduling demands for satellite launches. It soon became apparent that this was not the case. The shuttle program was plagued by problems and flew only a few times each year. The DOD decided it could not rely completely on shuttles for the nation's military missions. In 1984 Air Force officials convinced Congress to fund development of a fleet of new ELVs for military missions. NASA protested strongly against this action, but was overruled.

The initiative turned out to be a good one. The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger shortly after liftoff in 1986 forced NASA to make drastic changes in the shuttle program. This had profound effects upon the military's space ambitions. The Challenger explosion happened only months before the first planned launch of a shuttle from the Air Force from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The base's shuttle launch facilities were dismantled. Most of the related equipment was turned over to NASA. The DOD focused more resources on developing ELVs.

In September 1988 the space shuttle resumed flying. Between 1988 and 1992 shuttles carried less than 10 military payloads into space. These were satellites that could not be launched aboard ELVs for some reason.

Star Wars

On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced a new military space venture for the United States. He called it the Space Defense Initiative or SDI. Basically the plan called for the placement of a satellite shield in space that would protect the United States from incoming Soviet nuclear missiles. Reagan said that SDI would make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete."

Earlier that month Reagan had denounced the Soviet Union as the "focus of evil in the modern world." The Soviet news agency TASS responded that Reagan was full of "bellicose lunatic anti-communism." Reagan's SDI proposal heightened tensions between the two countries. The Soviets warned that it would set off a new and more dangerous arms race. Later that year the U.S.S.R. broke off nuclear arms negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland.

The media nicknamed the SDI proposal the "Star Wars" program. (Star Wars had been a hit 1977 movie featuring elaborate space weapons.) Many scientists publicly questioned whether SDI was technically feasible given the technologies of the times. Major newspapers openly ridiculed the idea. Politicians complained about the potential costs. Discovering whether SDI was even possible was expected to be immensely expensive. Even high-ranking government officials feared that SDI would start an arms race in space.

In March 1984 the DOD established a Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO). Later that year the Army successfully tested an interceptor missile as part of SDIO operations. The missile was launched from the Kwajalein Missile Range in the Marshall Islands. It flew above the atmosphere and then located and tracked a reentry missile that had been launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The interceptor missile homed in on the target using onboard sensors and computer targeting. It crashed into the target and destroyed it.

Reagan met with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev for private talks during 1985 and 1986. Both times they argued about SDI. In a 1986 meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, Premier Gorbachev offered to cut Soviet missile stocks if the United States would cease development of the SDI project. Reagan refused. By this time the military had developed a working concept for the space shield that included numerous small, computerized satellites. The concept was called "Brilliant Pebbles."

In 1989 President George Bush assumed office. He supported the SDI project, and research and development continued on it. Two years later, the United States entered the Gulf War against Iraq. By this time the Soviet Union had dissolved into a number of independent republics. The Cold War was over. Soon after Bill Clinton became president in 1993, the SDIO was redesignated the Ballistic Defense Missile Organization (BDMO). The new threat was considered to be limited-range missiles in the hands of unfriendly dictators and terrorists.

In January 2002 President George W. Bush converted the BDMO into the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The goal of the MDA is to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles along their flight path. Preferably this would be done outside of Earth's atmosphere so that nuclear or biological warheads would be destroyed during reentry.

As of July 2004 the MDA continues development and testing of interceptor missiles and tracking systems. One of these systems is called the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS). This is a series of satellites in low Earth orbit that would detect and track ballistic missiles launched anywhere on the planet. Eventually the system will include space-based infrared sensors that will be able to distinguish missile warheads from other nearby objects (such as decoys, rocket casings, or space debris). The first launch of an STSS satellite is planned for 2007.

The missile defense systems under development have met with severe criticism from the scientific community. On the eve of the deployment in Alaska and California of the first ten interceptor missiles, which are scheduled to be in place by September 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization of independent scientists who provide research and analysis of such policy issues as the environment and missile development, issued a report titled "Technical Realities: An Analysis of the 2004 Deployment of a U.S. National Missile Defense System" ([Online] [accessed July 26, 2004]) which stated:

The ballistic missile defense system that the United States will deploy later this year will have no demonstrated defensive capability and will be ineffective against a real attack by long-range ballistic missiles. The administration's claims that the system will be reliable and highly effective are irresponsible exaggerations. There is no technical justification for deployment of the system, nor are there sound reasons to procure and deploy additional interceptors.

According to an article published by Reuters ([Online] [accessed July 26, 2004]) "[e]ven unsophisticated 'counter measures'" such as decoy balloons with the same infrared "signature" (appearance on a detection and tracking instrument) as a ballistic missile remain a major—and complex—problem with the system. Although one of the report's authors is Philip Coyle, who was the Department of Defense's chief weapons tester under the Clinton Administration, from 1994 to 2001, the Pentagon dismissed the report, arguing that it would be "irresponsible" not to make even the limited defense capacities of the system available to protect Americans. The Pentagon estimates that it will require $53 billion over the 2004–2009 time span to fully install the various air-, sea-, land- and space-based components of the proposed missile defense system.

U.S. Strategic Command

In 1985 the Reagan Administration established the U.S. Space Command to oversee military space operations. Its commander was also in charge of the North American Aerospace Defense command (NORAD). NORAD protects the air space of the United States and Canada. In 1992 President George Bush established the U.S. Strategic Command (StratCom) to oversee the nation's nuclear arsenal.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush abolished U.S. Space Command and assigned its responsibilities to StratCom. Strat-Com is headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. It is the command and control center for U.S. strategic forces, controls military space operations, and is responsible for early warning and defense against missile attacks.

StratCom has four space-related missions:

  • Satellite launches and operations including telemetry, tracking, and command. Satellite launches take place at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
  • Armed forces support via use of communication, navigation, weather, missile warning, and intelligence satellites
  • Protecting U.S. access to space and denying access to enemies
  • Researching and developing space assets that can engage enemies from space. Such projects cannot presently be implemented due to long-standing U.S. policy against deploying orbiting weapons.


Much of StratCom's space operations are carried out by the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base (AFB) in Colorado. The AFSPC has facilities at three other Colorado locations (Cheyenne Mountain Air Station, Schriever AFB, and Buckley AFB) and in Alaska, California, Florida, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, New Hampshire, and Greenland. AFSPC is supported by around 25,000 active-duty military personnel and civilians and 14,000 contractor employees.

The AFSPC operates the Global Positioning System and launches and operates satellites that provide weather, communications, intelligence, navigation, and missile warning capabilities. The Command also provides services, facilities, and aerospace control for NASA operations.

The AFSPC's Space Control Center maintains a database of approximately 9,000 objects known to be in Earth orbit. These include operating and inoperative satellites, pieces of rockets, and other objects. The AFSPC estimates that only about 7 percent of the objects that it monitors are operational satellites. Another 15 percent are believed to be rocket bodies. The remainder is general space debris. The agency tracks objects as small as ten centimeters in diameter, roughly the size of a baseball.

When a space shuttle mission is taking place, the Center tracks the shuttle's path and establishes a 25-mile-long safety zone around the vehicle as shown in Figure 3.2. If the Center determines that an object is on a collision path with the shuttle, the Center notifies NASA so that evasive maneuvers can be performed.

Orbiter safety zone

DOD Manned Space Flight Support Office

In 1958 the U.S. government established the DOD Manned Space Flight Support Office (DDMS) to support NASA's manned space flight programs. The DDMS provided medical support and communications, tracking, and data capabilities, and recovered astronauts and space capsules after splashdown for all manned programs from Mercury (1959–1963) through Skylab (1973–1974).

When the space shuttle program began in the 1980s the DDMS assumed responsibility for astronaut rescue and recovery, payload security, and a variety of contingency services in the event of an emergency. Near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida the DDMS has at its disposal a number of Air Force and Navy resources including helicopters, tanker aircraft, ships, air traffic control facilities, and medical and search-and-rescue personnel. The DDMS also supports potential emergency landing sites in Spain, Morocco, and Gambia.

Space Organizations Part 2: U.S. Military, Foreign and Private - Space Agencies Around The World [next]

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or