Skip to main content

The Militarization of the American Space Program

An Historical Perspective


ISSUE:  Winter 1984

The classical era of the American space program has come to an end. After a quarter century in which peaceful and scientific activities played the major role, the space program is veering toward domination by the military. The Reagan administration has given added impetus to this development in two important ways: it has drastically shifted resources from the civilian, scientific side to the military; and it has championed combat capability in space. Planetary missions have become endangered species. But in carrying out this landmark shift, the Reagan administration was able to build on the foundation afforded by crucial decisions in the civilian space program—specifically, John F. Kennedy’s impetuous decision to send a man to the moon. The purpose of this article is to sketch the direction of the space program of the 1980’s and to analyze the historical developments that prepared the way for this ominous turn from science to a possible “star war.”

The first flight of the space shuttle Columbia, carrying a secret military cargo, was a harbinger of the 1980’s becoming the decade of American military exploitation of space. The Columbia landed gracefully at the center of a carefully staged media event on July 4, 1982, at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Military brass bands blared, and spectators waved thousands of tiny souvenir stars and stripes on cue. President Reagan helicoptered over from his ranch near Santa Barbara for the 9:15 a.m. arrival of the astronauts, who stayed up for an extra orbit so that the chief executive would not have to be awakened early (a president’s sleep is worth millions). Reagan used the occasion to deliver an important address on space policy.

Despite the attention showered on the shuttle, information about its flight was sparse. The Air Force refused to reveal the nature of the cargo, even though one suspected that it wasn’t all that secret; the Air Force has maintained a policy of refusing comment on all shuttle cargoes, even weather satellites. A live television broadcast of the crew struggling with troublesome cargo-bay doors was not permitted; instead, film had to be recorded and then cleared by military censors. And when the astronauts finished their work, they received their congratulations from an anonymous official voice.

These proceedings contrasted sharply with a quarter century of relatively open operations under the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Most early NASA missions were broadcast live; real people could be seen talking, and “no comments” were rare. NASA was established in 1958, in preference to a military-run space program, to give peaceful, scientific ventures an institutional home. The National Space Act of 1958 mandated the “widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning [NASA’s] activities and the results thereof.” The space program could not be neatly divided into civilian and military spheres, of course; space exploration had emerged from the military missile programs. The Department of Defense continued to play an important role in space but chiefly with “passive” devices such as surveillance satellites rather than weapons systems.

To Reagan, however, the prime use of space technology appears to be military. The keynote of his 1982 speech at Edwards Air Force Base was the use of space for American defense—in other words, preparation for a combat capability beyond the planet Earth. This was an attempt “to minimize the influence of policy statements extending back to the Eisenhower administration about U.S. peaceful uses of space,” noted Aviation Week & Space Technology, the weekly Bible of the aerospace industry. Reagan, it said, intended to lessen the barriers between NASA and the military to create “two separate, distinct and strongly interacting programs.”

The federal budget reflects these priorities. In 1982 military spending on space technology surpassed civilian expenditures for the first time since the early days of the program. For the next several years, the Reagan administration projects, military space spending will increase about 50 percent more than even the overall Defense Department budget. The space program will thus get an outsized chunk of what may prove to be the most critical legacy of Reagan politics: the shift of federal resources from social services to the military sector.

Planetary exploration—indeed, the scientific aspects of the space program in general—merited scant mention in the president’s address. Reagan’s lukewarm endorsement of planetary missions suggested that they would have to be squeezed out of budgetary leftovers, if any existed. The hemorrhaging in the federal budget, coupled with the hostility toward planetary programs exhibited by David Stockman and his budget office in 1981, raised widespread alarm that Reagan’s speech presaged an end to American exploration of the solar system. Eventually a planetary program survived, but in a scaled-down, low-budget version which underscored the shift of resources to military purposes.

The space shuttle, which NASA grasped as a lifeline in the early 1970’s, now epitomizes the growing military dominance of the program. The shuttle idea sat inert on the launching pad until NASA gained support from the Air Force by promising to make significant design modifications to enhance the spacecraft’s military utility. As costs spiraled and capabilities declined in the late 1970’s, the shuttle faced further trouble. The Air Force again rode to the rescue, but each Pentagon endorsement carried a higher price tag. Military shuttle missions, once virtually nonexistent, grew to 30 percent of total missions. Now, through 1994, such missions stand at about 50 percent of the total and may well climb more. Yet NASA paid most of the shuttle’s costs, and it offers the Pentagon a 32 percent discount from the commercial rate, which is already artificially low. NASA and the Air Force are tight-lipped about the military uses of the shuttle, although one activity may be repair and modification of U.S. satellites in orbit. And NASA has acknowledged, perhaps inadvertently, that astronauts wielding fancy wire cutters could disable twelve hostile satellites in seven days. An Air Force general runs the shuttle program; his executive assistant is an Air Force colonel. Thus the shuttle, once billed as a boon to scientific and commercial operations in space, has become a vehicle primarily for military missions.

Augmented by the shuttle, the Air Force stands on the threshold of realizing its longtime goal of controlling most space activities. In June 1982 it established a Space Command, putting space on an equal footing with the Tactical and Strategic Air Commands. This move clearly anticipates a combat capability. Gen. Lew Allen, Air Force chief of staff, expressed the hope that this new organization would absorb Navy and Army space activities in a single “unified command.” Personnel in Air Force blue infiltrate today’s NASA. The deputy administrator is Hans Mark, a former secretary of the Air Force. More than 150 Air Force officers and civilian employees are sprinkled through the Washington, Houston, and Cape Canaveral offices. Meanwhile, the Air Force is pouring more than $2 billion into its shuttle facilities, possibly in preparation for its takeover of the shuttle. Secretary of the Air Force Verne Orr remarked in 1982: “Most people in the Air Force think far enough downstream. We will probably be running the shuttle.” Even a name change has been tossed about: the Air Force may become the Aerospace Force.

Whatever its name, the Air Force objective is clear: military domination of the space program before the decade is out. Says Lt. Gen. Richard O. Henry, commander of the space division: “Space is revolutionizing warfare.” Accordingly, space is seen as today’s equivalent of the age-old military objective of the “high ground.” For now, the Pentagon emphasizes upgrading “passive” uses—communications, surveillance, navigation, and weather forecasting. The defense satellite communications system, a network of ten orbiting satellites which soon will be augmented with a new generation of satellites at $50 million apiece, handles military and government communications worldwide. An 18-satellite global positioning system about to be deployed will allow receivers anywhere—even on man-carried packs—to tell their location within l/100th of a mile. The system can also guide ballistic missiles with uncanny precision. The Reagan administration wants to spend nearly $20 billion over the next five years to expand and harden the network—much of it in space—for directing nuclear forces. These communication links assume particular importance for the newly fashionable notion of fighting a protracted nuclear war.

For the future, some politicians and Pentagon planners dream of real-life “Star Wars,” with flashing lasers, particle-beam weapons, and the like. The president raised this possibility with his “Darth Vader” speech in March 1983—a technological companion piece to his “evil empire” ideological manifesto delivered a short time earlier. Reagan apparently envisions a network of orbiting satellites equipped with lasers that could destroy Soviet missiles within a few minutes of launch. He presented this scenario in the most hopeful of terms; this deployment would rescue Americans from the scourge of nuclear weapons. The militarization of space presumably would become the path to perpetual peace.

The president was responding to the deep-seated fear of nuclear war. But his prescription feeds the dangerous illusion that there is a defense against nuclear weapons. By focusing on a technological fix, this approach distracts energies from the key problem: dealing with the nuclear weapons themselves. Far from lending stability to the nuclear equation, the Reagan net may heighten the possibility of nuclear war. Once a hostile nation’s incoming missiles were destroyed, the United States would have the option of launching its own nuclear strike undeterred by fears of retaliation. The Soviet Union would therefore have every incentive to knock the American lasers out of the sky or develop countermeasures, with all the risks such moves would entail.

But even apart from such considerations, it is doubtful that the Reagan lasers make strategic sense. Except for the Edward Teller coterie, most scientists treated the Reagan speech with skepticism or derision. They point out that the technological problems of crafting a system that would work with the necessary precision are probably insuperable. The logistical demands are formidable; perhaps 2,000 shuttle flights would be required to transport the heavy mirrors and the like into space. What is more, many scientists and arms experts, such as Harold Brown, President Carter’s secretary of defense, argue that countermeasures would be easier and cheaper. This new space arms race could fuel a spiral of ever more arcane and dangerous, but inconclusive, technology. And it would entail the expenditure of untold billions. Brown thinks that Defense Department budget limitations will eventually derail any such project. “But it is less clear,” he says, “that its enthusiasts can be prevented from spending some billions of dollars in a fruitless attempt.”

Like the bomber and missile gaps of yore, the military turn in space is being sold as a response to the Soviet Union’s transgressions. Familiar tactics, such as calculated leaks, distorted statistics, and lurid future possibilities, are prominent again. A pattern of the post-World War II arms race is repeating itself. Herbert York, onetime director of the Livermore Laboratory and the Defense Department’s chief scientist, believes the United States bears a major responsibility for the arms race. In most areas of weapons development, it has long been ahead of the Soviet Union; in those where it has been behind, the scope and pace of the American response has triggered a new round of escalation. John Foster, former director of Pentagon research and engineering, candidly observed that two forces drive American military research and development: “Either we see from the fields of science and technology some new possibilities which we think we ought to exploit, or we see threats on the horizon, possible threats, usually not something the enemy has done, but something we have thought of ourselves that he might do, and we must therefore be prepared for.” In short, the role of perception is crucial; rather than simply responding to the Soviet Union, the United States has usually held the initiative.

However alluring space as the complete battlefield may be to some enthusiasts, the United States has much to lose should space become an arena of active combat. America is ahead in military space technology, but it is more dependent on space-based systems than the Russians, who enjoy a geographically central position. The obvious alternative is a treaty that would ban antisatellite (ASAT) weapons. ASAT negotiations were sluggish in the late 1970’s and collapsed after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A group of prominent scientists and arms experts have appealed to the Reagan administration to resume negotiations on a treaty banning space weapons. The group includes men such as Lee DuBridge, former head of the California Institute of Technology and presidential science adviser, and William Pickering, the veteran director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who played a major role in forging the close relationship between science and the military during the Cold War. They warn that this is “close to the last moment” to keep space free of weapons. Once weapons are deployed there, it may prove all but impossible to remove them. If an ASAT treaty proves unattainable, Brown suggests at least trying to get two lesser goals: a declaration that “attacks on satellites are a hostile act prohibited in peacetime” and a “limitation—for example, to low altitudes—on development and deployment of antisatellite capabilities.”

The Reagan administration shows little interest, however, and recently reacted to a Soviet proposal for an ASAT treaty with indifference, if not contempt. It believes that massive military buildup is desirable in itself because of the strains such competition places on the Soviet economy. Arms control chief Kenneth Adelman stresses the problem of verification. This is a serious issue, to be sure. But the problem of verification curiously evaporates whenever the Pentagon, campaigning for new weapons systems, presents as gospel its charts and graphs of Soviet current strengths and future possibilities. As a result, in the words of the Center for Defense Information, “the race to militarize space is rapidly outpacing the modest diplomatic efforts to control it.”


Whatever the future price of military space programs, a major cost already has been a reduction in our ability to explore the solar system. The most notable casualty has been planetary exploration—the brilliant series of missions to the terrestrial planets and beyond whose scientific returns provide perhaps the ultimate rationale for the space program. As the voracious shuttle consumed the NASA budget, important scientific missions wound up on the budget room floor, in particular the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to intercept Halley’s Comet in 1986 and the American spacecraft for the International Solar-Polar Year. At one point it appeared that David Stockman might even pull the plug on the Voyager mission enroute to Uranus and leave it to telemeter its pathbreaking data back to a deaf Earth. Other nonmilitary programs, including space applications and aircraft research, have been severely cut.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the world leader in planetary exploration, has converted to about 30 percent military funding after two decades of virtually no classified work. After retiring as Air Force chief of staff, Lew Allen became director of JPL on Oct.1, 1982. Allen, who holds a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the University of Illinois, is the first director from outside Caltech, JPL’s nominal manager. He insists that JPL will retain its planetary and scientific ethos. But the Pentagon has captured a portion of the laboratory’s activities permanently, with Caltech promising that JPL will not renege on its military contracts even if there should be a resurgence of civilian funding.

In the uproar over the 1981—82 budget cuts—”a lot of bad vibes and a lot of good dialogue”—modest signs of hope began to surface in late 1982. Planetary scientists and NASA officials mapped plans for new missions. The 1983 NASA budget proposal included the first new start since 1977, the Venus Radar Mapper. This mission is the half-price cousin of the $600-million Venus Orbiting Imaging Radar (VOIR). The arbitrary price cut significantly reduced scientific returns. Instead of 0.1-kilometer resolution over the whole planet, the new project offers 1-kilometer resolution over 70 percent of Venus. If approved during the 1983 budget cycle, Venus Radar Mapper could orbit the mysterious inner sphere by late 1988. “But whatever happens,” observed M. Mitchell Waldrop in Science, “the mission does seem to represent a good-faith effort to give the Administration what it says it wants: high-payoff science at a minimal cost.”

Even on the narrow grounds of national interest, this policy is shortsighted. As Harold Brown has pointed out: “At a time when U.S. technology is one of the few comparative advantages that this nation has, and one of the few instruments of American prestige and morale, it is foolish to let the space science and planetary exploration programs wither.” The odds are high. For, if the new cut-rate missions cannot save the scientific and planetary side, in Brown’s opinion, “it is likely that the ability to carry out such programs will be lost for the rest of this decade.”

Although the Reagan administration has made the trends to space militarization starkly clear, an historical perspective suggests that this military domination developed during the past 20 years—and is in large part due to NASA itself. The choice that set NASA on a trajectory so damaging to the civilian side was the decision to gamble most of its chips on the shuttle. That choice derived, in turn, from what might be termed the Apollo imperative: the necessity of finding a project big enough and costly enough to absorb at least some of the capacity created for Apollo.

The early years of the space program, under the Eisenhower administration, suggested an alternate approach that might have achieved many of the goals of Apollo but at less cost and with less long-term harm to the civilian space program. Established in 1958, the fledgling NASA embarked on a cautious course that tried to downplay “spectaculars” and keep science in the foreground. Heading the new agency was T. Keith Glennan, president of Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland and a former member of the Atomic Energy Commission. Glennan believed that the United States could not avoid competition with the Soviet Union in space, but he wanted to establish the terms of the competition. No “space cadet,” he thought that putting a man on the moon was worthwhile, although not “a matter of prime importance.” He favored a program with a budget of $2 billion to $2.5 billion per year that would make possible a manned lunar landing by about 1975. The preoccupation with prestige had little place among his priorities. For Glennan, American leadership involved much more than primacy in space. As he confided to his private diary: “When one starts to talk about the prestige of the United States resting on the question—”When do we get a man on the moon?”—it seems clear that all sense of perspective has gone out the window.”

NASA under Glennan started a cautious man-in-space program, known as Mercury. The first astronaut, Alan Shepard, lofted into space for a few minutes on May 5, 1961, became a national hero, although he did little more than go along for the ride. Glennan worried about the “circus” atmosphere surrounding the astronauts. Eisenhower, even more skeptical, was prepared to call for an end to the manned program in his last budget message, in January 1961. He chose less-categorical language, however, and still put science first: “Further testing and experimentation will be necessary to determine whether there are any valid scientific reasons for extending manned spaceflight beyond the Mercury program.”


In retrospect, the civilian space program established under the Eisenhower administration appears ideal. It put peaceful, scientific goals first; it showed a healthy skepticism about the exaggerated profits of prestige. If putting a man on the moon was worthwhile, surely Glennan’s step-by-step approach was preferable to the crash program actually undertaken. His plan allowed for a careful, evolutionary process rather than the exorbitant costs entailed by Apollo’s concurrency—the development of new technologies simultaneously rather than in sequence. His plan also avoided the creation of a large extra capacity that would establish a momentum for additional Apollos after it was finished. Above all, it recognized that, as James R. Killian, Eisenhower’s first science adviser and the president of MIT said, “the really exciting discoveries in space can better be realized by instruments than by man.”

Any loss of prestige in the race to space by the United States was partly self-inflicted. Ironically, the U.S. obsession with getting ahead of the Soviet Union offered its adversary an advantage, as Glennan realized. After leaving office in January 1961, the NASA official suggested what Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev could do—and, in fact, did: launch “a barrage of propaganda and successful spaceflights until he had the U.S. committed to a costly program”—and “then withdraw from the “race.”” Glennan’s intuition was shrewd. Although some people believe that, because of its greater resources, the United States can easily outspend the Russians, the opposite may be more accurate. America’s bountiful resources can create the illusion that all things are possible and, hence, that difficult choices need not be made. This illusion has come to haunt us since the spending sprees of the 1960’s.

The spending spree on space projects began in earnest soon after John F. Kennedy became president in early 1961. To Kennedy, the “space gap” symbolized “the nation’s lack of initiative, ingenuity, and vitality under Republican rule,” according to his confidant Theodore Sorensen. “The President was more convinced than any of his advisers that a second-rate, second-place space effort was inconsistent with this country’s security.”

Other New Frontiersmen were more cautious. David E. Bell, the former Marine and Harvard economist who served as budget director, tried to put the space program in perspective. He objected to “full-scale participation in the “weight lifting” and manned space-flight competitions.” These activities impinged on other, more worthwhile parts of the budget. He argued for a strong scientific and technological program, as well as for space applications such as meteorology and communications. These would be at least as effective in building prestige, for they were “a specific token that we are more concerned with the problems of men on earth all over the world than we are with placing men on the moon.”

Kennedy ignored these balanced assessments, however, when he faced a disastrous week in mid-April 1961. On April 12 Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. Then on April 15 the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba began, and by April 19 the White House knew the operation was a fiasco. On that day Kennedy called Vice-President Johnson into the Oval Office and told him to find a “space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win.” A few days later Johnson came back with the improvised proposal for Apollo—a program to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade at a cost close to $35 billion— a price tag the Eisenhower administration had considered outrageously wasteful. Kennedy presented the Apollo project to a receptive Congress on May 25, 1961. Invoking familiar New Frontier Cold War imagery, he called Apollo essential “if we are to win the battle that is going on around the world between freedom and tyranny.”

More than prestige was at stake. An aggressive man-in-space program enhanced American military prowess—one of the major goals of the Kennedy administration. The New Frontier fashioned what Sorensen proudly termed “the most powerful military force in human history—the largest and swiftest buildup in the country’s peacetime history.” The expansion ranged from counterinsurgency forces, such as the Green Berets, to the huge Minuteman missile fleet. NASA’s manned activities not only furthered “the peaceful conquest of space but also helped create the building blocks for the future military missions which may be required,” said Gen. Thomas S. Power, commander-in-chief of the Strategic Air Command. NASA estimated that three-fourths of the cost of Apollo went toward development of near-Earth orbital capabilities, which were essential for possible military missions, such as interception of “hostile space vehicles.” NASA also financed most of the cost of the development of large launch vehicles and complex ground facilities. All these “building blocks” would be assembled for the shuttle and its military uses in the 1980’s.

Although the Apollo program sped through Congress, most scientists were skeptical because Apollo seemed likely to produce relatively little scientific data in comparison to its enormous cost and yet was presented to the public as a scientific undertaking. The elder statesman of American science, Vannevar Bush, who had run the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, pointed out that national prestige was “far more subtle” than NASA’s “immature” concepts. He preferred a different Kennedy innovation, the Peace Corps: “Having large numbers of devoted Americans working unselfishly in undeveloped countries is far more impressive than mere technical excellence,” he said. Glennan presciently noted in private that the feverish excitement attached to the Apollo program “in the long run . . .could work strongly to our detriment.”


In the short run, Apollo promised a Christmas tree laden with treats. Since the shift from bombers to missiles threatened the stability of the aircraft industry, a big space program was a godsend. A senior engineer at JPL observed that the companies argued that “our country is plagued with being too efficient in its production for its own economic good, and hence that inefficient production such [as] is generated by making planes or missiles that will in all probability never be used is essential to economic stability.” He observed sardonically of the space program: “It is certainly possible to spend large sums of money in inefficient production in this area.”

Apollo enjoyed an ardent advocate in Kennedy’s NASA administrator, James E. Webb. A dynamic capitalist Cold War warrior, Webb epitomized the post-World War II American businessman who shuttled between corporate board room and government suite. He served as President Truman’s budget director and under secretary of state, then went on to run one of Oklahoma Senator Robert Kerr’s oil companies and sit on the board of McDonnell-Douglas, the giant aerospace contractor. Webb stressed the quasi-military aspects of the space program in relation to the Cold War. He warned that “the population not adequately disciplined to carry out large-scale organized efforts, such as are required in wartime, and which are now manifest in the space program, . . .may be subject to the disintegration” that afflicted Rome. Webb skillfully forged an alliance of Sunbelt politicians and the politically potent aerospace firms. Most of the space business went to the Sunbelt. The Johnson Manned Space Center, for example, landed in Houston, the home district of Congressman Albert Thomas, who chaired the House committee controlling NASA’s budget. Webb wooed industry with a profusion of multi-billion-dollar contracts. “The result,” Fortune concluded, was “an intimate new sociology of space, a new kind of government-industrial complex in which each penetrates the other so much that sometimes it is hard to tell which is which.”

Apollo grew to dominate NASA. It took the lion’s share of the budget, and its presence distorted other aspects of the space program, particularly the scientific projects. Ranger and Surveyor, two lunar precursors of Apollo, for instance, had mainly scientific objectives. Yet when the NASA budget got tight, in the mid-1960’s, the last blocs of Ranger and Surveyor missions, which would have made possible a complete mapping of the moon, were canceled so as not to jeopardize Apollo.

The project reached its goal when Neil Armstrong took his “giant step for mankind” from the Eagle in July 1969. Apollo was an engineering landmark, as $30 billion projects tend to be, and it was not without its benefits for science. Nevertheless, the $30 billion showered on Apollo could have returned immeasurably greater scientific knowledge had it been applied to instrumented space exploration. And, ironically, the United States could not fully savor Apollo’s expected dividends for national prestige since some of the same fixations about Communist advancement that had produced Apollo also plunged the United States into Vietnam. Much of the prestige America hoped to gain on the surface of the moon had already been lost in the jungles of Southeast Asia by the summer of 1969.

Now that Apollo had reached home port safely, what next? The public might remember Neil Armstrong, but would it remember the third astronaut on the moon, or the fifth? What would NASA, and the firms it had wooed, do for an encore? The “new sociology of space” had ominous long-term implications. The huge buildup of plant capacity, the throngs of aerospace engineers who needed jobs, and the bureaucratic drives of a typical federal agency all created a momentum to find a program to fill Apollo’s shoes.

One idea was to apply Apollo technology and scale to the planetary program. NASA promoted Voyager, a giant orbiter-lander combination larger than any planetary spacecraft designed to date, for a mission to Mars in 1973. The weight of the spacecraft would be almost enough to accommodate a manned mission to the red planet—a not-so-secret wish of some space enthusiasts. The Voyager project would cost at least $2 billion and would allow NASA to boost the cost of the planetary program from the range of $50 million to $500 million annually. That high cost was Voyager’s chief recommendation, for it would keep cash flowing through the Apollo political pipeline. Some second-level NASA managers doubted Voyager’s technical feasibility. Most scientists disputed its merit. Only one American spacecraft had visited Mars, Mariner 4 in 1964. Gambling everything on one big Voyager in 1973, NASA wanted to pass up opportunities to launch smaller missions in 1966, 1969, and 1971. NASA had gotten the mission backwards. James Van Allen, chairman of the space science board of the National Academy of Sciences, expressed his panel’s opposition in colorful, if sexist, language: we should send “a number of well-equipped scouting parties to the several planets before we send out the wagon train with all of our women and children and a full set of household furnishings.” Lacking a make-believe Mars race but facing a real war, NASA could not sell Voyager to Congress.


Until now science had been tailored to technology. With the demise of Voyager, it was possible to make technology serve science. When the future of the space agency was being debated in the late 1960’s, physicist Ralph E. Lapp proposed a scientifically oriented space program with a budget of $1.5 billion to $2 billion per year. The planetary program that actually emerged, at first under the shadow of the manned side and then on its own in the 1970’s, stands as a model of how the space program might be conducted.

The highlights of this program were the planetary missions run by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, starting with the United States’ first successful planetary mission, the Mariner flight to Venus in 1962. JPL launched seven successful Mariners, which were designed to make flybys of planets— two to Venus, four to Mars, and one which used a dramatic gravity-assist technique to visit Venus and then Mercury three times. In 1976 the Viking orbiter-lander, much smaller than that proposed for Voyager, carried the eagerly awaited life-detection experiments to the Martian surface. And in 1981 a completely reoriented and scaled down Voyager sailed beyond the terrestrial planets to Jupiter and Saturn and then headed for a rendezvous with Uranus in 1986. These missions were augmented by the small Pioneer missions, which made preliminary reconnaissance visits to the planets.

The planetary missions were relatively inexpensive. The Mariners actually declined in cost, despite the stiff inflation of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The 1969 Mariner cost $127 million, Mariner 1971, $133.5 million, but Mariner 1973, $98 million. With the Mariners, NASA first imposed cost as a discipline. Previously, two senior officials noted, NASA “stressed technical performance and schedule requirements over cost as a discipline.” This was, of course, an indirect admission that NASA had been willing to pay pretty much whatever it cost in order to attain high technical standards under tight schedules. Mariners had the advantage of being evolutionary; these spacecraft were for the most part developed in sequence instead of concurrently, as in the Apollo program. Each mission also made greater use of designs from previous missions, which greatly reduced costs. Even Viking, which posed new problems because it had both an orbiter and a lander equipped for complex biological experiments, cost less than $1 billion, despite inflation.

Still, with a relatively small expenditure of money, the planetary program made possible an intellectual revolution in our understanding of the solar system. The planets were realms of mystery before the space age. Now many of the surface and atmospheric features are well known: the multihued rings of Saturn, the volcanoes of lo, turbulent Jupiter, the red deserts of Mars, and the furious temperatures and intense atmospheric pressure which make Venus a “hellhole of a planet.”

But perhaps the greatest legacy of the planetary explorations was a more subtle one—a gradually shifting view of the theory of the origins of the planets “from a cold birth to a hot one.” Older notions held that the planets had accumulated while cold and that they were homogeneous, becoming differentiated later. Now it is believed that the planets accumulated while hot and that their differentiation occurred during the accretion period. Moreover, Earth’s geological history, once studied in isolation, now stands in a new relationship with the other planets of the inner solar system. As scientists Bruce Murray, Michael Malin, and Ronald Greely said: “New insights are developing that link the Earth, including the very atoms that compose its sentient beings, with the origin and evolution of those other four planets . . .in a common planetary environmental history.” This intellectual revolution represented the most profound achievement of the space program and provided its most cogent rationale.

This model of NASA—devoted to scientific and planetary missions plus some traditional activities such as aircraft research—probably could have maintained its balanced, relatively low-budget program for some time. The agency’s appropriations totaled about $3 billion in the early 1970’s, compared to almost $6 billion in fiscal year 1966, the peak of Apollo funding. But NASA, and the depression-ridden aerospace industry, sought a return to large-scale projects. Thomas O. Paine, NASA administrator from 1968 to 1970, wanted to “swashbuckle,” as he put it to his intimates. NASA faced, though, a crisis of legitimacy with Congress and with Nixon’s budget bureau, and Paine’s grandiose plans got nowhere.

Paine’s successor, James C. Fletcher, who headed NASA from 1971 to 1977, found the key to rebuilding his budget and re invigorating the alliance with industry and the military through the space shuttle. Besides keeping alive the glamour of man in space, the shuttle was sold on the grounds of economy and practicality. The shuttle was supposed to be economical because it is a reusable vehicle. Its practicality came from its multipurpose nature: not only scientific and military missions could use it but commercial ventures as well for such activities as manufacturing precision objects in the more favorable environment of space. The shuttle’s success was contingent on an economical, relatively trouble-free development.

Just the opposite occurred. Its development took longer and cost much more than anticipated; the number of missions that appeared to be feasible declined. The shuttle’s turnaround time was slower than anticipated. Whipsawed between high development costs and reduced future prospects, the shuttle is falling far short of its original projections for commercial and scientific use. In their stead military domination looms.

The price for the shuttle was more than money. “NASA mortgaged nearly everything—science, space exploration, the development of new technologies—to build the space shuttle on what was a shoestring budget, as big Government projects go,” said John Noble Wilford, the New York Times science writer. The planetary budget, adjusted for inflation, was slashed by a factor of four from 1974, when Viking expenditures topped out, to 1977. From then through 1982 the planetary slice floated between $200 million and $300 million annually (in 1982 dollars). That sum had to carry all the planetary activities, including Voyager, the Pioneer Venus mission, Galileo development, and the Deep Space Network. There were no scraps for new missions. Faced with the Reagan budget cuts of 1981 and 1982, NASA chose what Wilford termed “bureaucratic triage.” It saved the shuttle “by killing off most other projects.” Columbia rose into orbit “from the ruins of the nation’s civilian space program.”

Some NASA officials argued, to be sure, that the shuttle would eventually benefit planetary exploration. But William Pickering, like most people involved in space science, was dubious. He preferred launching from “a good, solid launching site in Florida” to blasting off from “a moving platform in space.” So long as spacecraft continue to weigh about a ton, existing technology is adequate to reach even the comets and asteroids, whose “primitive, undisturbed material” possesses great importance for understanding not only the origins of the solar system but all stars. As JPL scientist Arden Albee put it: planetary science’s coexistence with the shuttle is like “being in a lifeboat with an elephant.”

Planetary exploration and space science generally face a decade of tenuous existence as the militarization of the American space program gathers force. The emerging space program of the 1980’s contrasts sharply with the program’s first quarter century. During this classical era, exploration and scientific inquiry predominated over military considerations. Space became a new peaceful theater of intellectual experience as man gained a sense of unity with the solar system in which he lives. But space, once touted as an escape from or sublimation of Earth’s quarrels, now looms as an extension of terrestrial hatreds. As 1984 begins, choices are being made that threaten to open a dangerous, expensive, and new phase of the arms race in the once peaceful vastness of space.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading