Mixed Hopes for the Military Space Mission

Sept. 1, 1963

For those charged with the planning and execution of national space programs, both civilian and military, this has been a summer of discontent.

Money troubles, management problems, and a growing drumbeat of criticism plague the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “Blank check” is no longer the rule on Capitol Hill for NASA appropriation requests. The Department of Defense is under attack for its record of con­servatism on the military potential of space. And the Administration, which after all is the basic architect of space policy, is fighting off charges ranging from accusations of technological leaf-raking in connection with the moon program to blind ignorance of the dangers inherent in Soviet development of viable military space capabilities while US efforts concentrate on peaceful purposes.

Out of this ferment, there is at least the hope that there will emerge a reevaluation of the over­all space effort and a consequent increase in the priority of military space development. The Air Force can be expected to play a prime role in the implementation of such new policies as may de­velop, for it is the principal repository of defense aerospace research and development skill.

But it must be emphasized that, at the moment, reevaluations of military space development are still mostly in the thinking and discussion stage, that at the highest levels in the Administration they must compete with hopes for detente with the

Soviet Union (see “The Hazards of Euphoria,” “Speaking of Space,” August ’63), and that so far as can be seen from released budget figures, major funding increases have not yet materialized on the military space side. It is a time-honored rule in Washington that no program is truly alive until it is reliably read in the budget, and the military space budget is not much bigger than last year.

A major reason for the slowly increasing Ad­ministration attention to the nagging problem of military space development has been the chorus of congressional concern with the security aspects of space. A number of representatives and sena­tors have openly taken issue with the Adminis­tration’s pronouncements that “fallout” from the NASA space effort, particularly the moon pro­gram, would provide needed military space capa­bilities that could be used if the situation war­ranted. For example, a Republican “Minority Re­port” (see page 76) issued in July as an element of the House Space Committee’s NASA author­ization bill report to the full House, and signed by six Republican members, sharply criticized over­emphasis on nonmilitary space programs and called for more attention to military space plan­ning and funding.

The House Space Committee “Minority Re­port” was mild in comparison with a mid-July speech by Sen. Barry Goldwater, Republican of Arizona, who charged bluntly that “by choice of official policy, so far, we are choosing to relegate the military function of space to a secondary posi­tion.” The Arizona Senator asserted that “we have delayed and debated to the point where it must be said that the United States today has no fully defined and effective military space program at all.”

The Senator, whose utterances attain increased significance for the Administration in proportion to his current GOP presidential-nomination prom­inence, said further that “we have a flotsam and jetsam program of floating theories, scattered proj­ects, and floundering follow-throughs. We have, in fact, policy declarations stating that we will not orbit weapons of mass destruction in space unless forced to do so by the hostile action of others. In short, we say that we will not utilize the military potential of space until such time as it may be too late.”

The barrage of congressional criticism cannot be dismissed lightly as partisan. Democrats too, including Senators Thomas Dodd of Connecticut, Howard Cannon of Nevada, and John Stennis of Mississippi, have spoken out on the need for viable military space developments, as have a number of House Democrats, including, among others, Olin Teague of Texas, Emilio Daddario of Connecti­cut, and Melvin Price of Illinois, who is chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military research and development.

Against this background, the Administration may be expected in future weeks to defend the content and pace of current military space pro­grams, and collaterally to soften its old chant that the NASA moon program will provide the needed defense “fallout.” This latter change has already showed itself in the negotiation line being taken by DoD in its dealings with NASA. Where before DoD talked “fallout,” now it complains openly that NASA “inner-space” programs such as the two-man Gemini manned orbital program really won’t serve defense purposes too effectively. For example, in one of his last public statements as Special Assistant for Space to Director of Defense Research and Engineering, Dr. Laurence Kavanau was quite critical of the military utility of NASA’s Gemini two-man orbital program.

This statement by Dr. Kavanau was in startling contrast to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s earlier suggestions that the Gemini and Dyna-Soar programs might be duplicative and that perhaps the Air Force could get needed spaceflight experi­ence in Gemini, with Dyna-Soar eliminated.

The DoD tack is evident in the backing and hauling that, behind the scenes, attends NASA­-DoD negotiations on the orbital space station pro­posals, which are beginning to stand a serious chance of being funded, but probably not until fiscal year 1966. NASA has some manned space station study contracts under way, and so does DoD, through the Air Force. But a major current rub, at least from the NASA point of view, is that DoD appears to be insisting on applying the “pro­gram definitization” approach of Director of De­fense Research and Engineering Dr. Harold Brown to the space-station studies. NASA, in­creasingly interested in space stations, sees no sense in planning rigidity in the study stage. At this writing, the most that’s been achieved in ne­gotiations is willingness to exchange information between DoD and NASA.

The DoD argument that its criteria should be met by NASA in NASA’s orbital station studies is heavily based on this year’s bizarre Gemini Pro­gram Planning Board agreement which contained a crucial paragraph to the effect that neither NASA nor DoD would proceed with near-earth-­manned-orbital programs without the concurrence of the other. At the time of the agreement, it was widely believed that DoD was going to allow a sizable Air Force participation in Project Gemini and that there would be decent funding forthcom­ing from DoD. But that seems to have fizzled more than somewhat, and current thinking is that the Air Force will play a much smaller role than earlier anticipated in the Gemini program, pos­sibly limited to a few flights quite late in the Gemini operational phase. This, measured against the continuing questionable status of the Dyna­Soar program, presents rather a poor prospect that the Air Force will get the manned operational orbital experience it needs and wants through par­ticipation in ongoing programs.

But congressional pressures for more attention to military space developments will undoubtedly have their eventual effect on DoD and the Admin­istration, and the logical focus of the effect will likely be in the orbital-space-station field. In view of the heavy involvement of NASA in the Apollo program, which, despite House and Senate cuts in the NASA authorization bills, is still a going op­eration, and, in order to answer congressional charges of neglect of the military side of space, it is probable that the Administration will decide to press ahead with a viable small (four- to eight-man crew) space station concurrent with the moon program. The manned space station project will probably emerge as a joint or cooperative DoD­NASA program, but it will most likely be a DoD-­managed affair, with the Air Force as prime agent for DoD.

It is sad that valuable time is being wasted in the round of negotiations between DoD and NASA over the crucially needed manned space station project, but that is the way of the bureau­cratic and political world. It must be said, though, that thanks to the existence of the National Aero­nautics and Space Council and a few other policy groups such as the Aeronautics and Astronautics Coordinating Board, there are at least some shops where policy can be hammered out. It is a slow and painful process, and there is no doubt that the high cost of space technology, which is be­ginning to be used as an argument against NASA programs, continues to be a negative factor in the DoD military-space decision-making process. The old DoD “fallout-from-NASA” argument re­flected this reality. But the argument didn’t sell.

In many ways, the national space effort is at a new crossroads.

In the six years that have passed since the Russians startled us with the sophistication of their “oxcart economy,” this country has made sizable advances in space technology, has ex­pended funds, that would have seemed incredible in the mid-fifties, has achieved viable demonstra­tions of man’s ability to traverse space, and of the usefulness of weather, observation, and communi­cation satellites, and, of course, has proposed to go to the moon.

Now, the question the Administration has to ask itself and answer is whether its enthusiasm for the utilization of space as a spur to science, general technology, and the economy is going to be expressed in the defense area with the same vigor.

The logical answer to the question is easy to arrive at—yes. It is the implementation that is so complex. For one thing, the sizable investment made in the buildup of NASA to date cannot be shunted aside, even if many people still argue that the buildup was ill-advised in the first place, and should have been done instead in DoD. That is all water over the dam now, and it is worth quoting on this point the comment of one highly placed space official that those who advocate ex­pansion of military space developments aren’t go­ing to achieve their purposes, right as they may be, by knocking the other fellow, i.e., NASA. This is sage counsel, not only for some Air Force people, but also in the other direction, for some NASA people too. The comment is beginning to attain significance for people in DoD too now that DoD’s at least partial acceptance of the logic of using military space potential is evolving. Now is scarcely the time for empire building—the per­ennial handmaiden of politics in the capital. Something is going to have to give here and there in the present space program, if we are to have added emphasis on military space capability. NASA will have to learn to live with that par­ticular political-budgetary reality, just as other agencies, including the Air Force, have had to learn to live with new conditions. And NASA must not look under the bed for Air Force plots every time the defense significance of space is dis­cussed publicly.

It is hard to put down with exactitude the ex­tent of the Administration’s and DoD’s current acceptance of the military utility of space. On the unmanned side, there is little doubt now that the oft-discussed communications, weather, and sur­veillance functions are considered viable and sig­nificant. From all indications the early-warning satellite concept represented by the Midas pro­gram has been downgraded. Surveillance, ap­parently, has been most fruitful, and one may register the hope that it will in no way be com­promised by optimism vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, or fears that surveillance is provocative and in­appropriate in the current international climate. It is unlikely that the Administration will give up such a valuable tool as spaceborne surveillance, especially in view of increasing interest in space surveillance as a possible instrument of arms con­trol. Such special techniques as nuclear-blast radiation detection now has attained increased impor­tance because of the partial test-ban agreement reached with the Soviets, which bars nuclear test­ing in space; there have been announcements that nuclear-test detection satellites developed in DoD’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Vela Hotel program will be orbited this year.

In all, the open acceptance of the military utility of space appears to be still confined mostly to unmanned passive satellites, while major de­cisions on the manned side are still to be taken. An important indicator of how far DoD is willing to go on the manned side will be the outcome of the current DoD-NASA manned orbiting space station negotiations discussed above. A high-priority DoD-managed, decently funded program, budgeted for in fiscal 1965, would be a strong sign that DoD is eager to press forward rapidly, and would provide the Air Force with a focus for its development of manned orbital operational ex­perience. But, as noted, the chances are that proj­ect funding will probably be delayed until fiscal year 1966, because of DoD-NASA negotiation trouble and Administration desires not to appear profligate the year before the presidential elec­tions. Having originally decided to press for a moon-landing program, the Administration, in planning for an earth-orbiting program, will have to explain to the public the purpose of additional spending for a close-orbital manned space station. The explanation will have to be in terms of de­veloping military operational capability in near space. Such a public statement by the Adminis­tration may also lay it open to propaganda attacks by the Soviets, but we have lived with that vexa­tion for eighteen years. Yet the advantages of a viable manned space station. project far outweigh its international public-relations disadvantages. Certainly the domestic political plusses that would accrue to the Administration if it did press for­ward soon with the manned space station would be sizable if the defense aspects were admitted and stressed candidly from the outset. Such statements would do much to offset congressional criticisms of overemphasis on nonmilitary space programs. For a politically minded Administration, as this one certainly is, this would be a definite plus.

The acceptance of the military mission in space is in the embryonic stage. Beyond the now-acknowledged passive, unmanned operations, no bold programs for investigating the utility of mili­tary man in space are discernible. But it is at least a hopeful sign that the idea is no longer considered laughable or subversive, and that it is beginning to stand a chance of being tested. Per­haps before the end of this decade.