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Military and shuttle: a quest for balance. NASA vows a rounded program, not one dominated by Pentagon

By Robert C. CowenStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 6, 1986



The shuttle Columbia is scheduled to fly again this September -- atop a transport plane to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The trip is part of the Kennedy Space Center's contribution to what Vandenberg's test commander, Maj. Gen. Donald Henderson, calls ``a very strong Air Force-NASA relationship [that] has developed in the shuttle [program].''

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Kennedy launch director Gene Thomas explains that more than 200 Air Force personnel have trained on actual launches here. Also, some 50 experienced National Aeronautics and Space Administration people are permanently assigned to the West Coast site. They've done just about all they can using the nonflyable orbiter Enterprise as a shuttle stand-in. Now they need a live spacecraft. Columbia, Mr. Thomas says, ``will give them a lot of good experience.''

This sense of togetherness between the launch sites sheds more light on the Air Force role in the shuttle program than do rumors of a military ``takeover.''

It's true that a White House interagency task force recommended military preemption of shuttle missions. But that's more a statement of frustration at the present -- and temporary -- total loss of launch capacity than a viable option. James C. Fletcher has said flatly that ``while I am administrator of NASA, that will not happen.'' Most experts think he will prevail.

President Reagan may order NASA to phase out its commercial satellite launch business. But major scientific missions, such as launching the Hubble Space Telescope, retain their high priority. Shuttle system manager Arnold Aldrich has already told Congress that the first cargo when shuttles fly again will be a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS). It's a twin of the unit lost with Challenger. This ``top agency priority'' item is part of a communications net that serves civilian and military satellites as well as the shuttle.

Vandenberg's shuttle launch site is not so much a base for military missions as it is a national gateway to polar orbit. Military and civilian missions will fly out of both Kennedy and Vandenberg. But only from Vandenberg can they head out across the pole without going over inhabited land.

The Air Force does not need the shuttle to launch its polar-orbiting spy satellites. Unmanned rockets do the job well and don't need the complex, costly infrastructure that manned spaceflight requires. NASA, on the other hand, does need the shuttle for its polar payloads and needs it badly. A polar-orbiting astronaut-serviced platform with Earth-scanning instruments is a major component of NASA's planned space-station complex. The European Space Agency is especially interested in it as part of its contribution to the station program.

``A manned capability out of the West Coast will be driven . . . pretty largely by our desire to put a polar platform up in the space-station era and to have the ability to go up and service the platform,'' says Johnson Space Center director Jesse W. Moore.

Johnson is the lead agency running the shuttle program. Mr. Moore declares, ``In no way do I see the shuttle program ever becoming dominated by the military.'' On the contrary, he explains that the military is having to make significant adjustments in its attitude toward secrecy to accommodate civilian use of the western launch site.

Civilian usage must be public. Information concerning it must be freely available. This will be especially true for any missions with international partners. Moore says that NASA and the Air Force are working together to find ways to provide this open civilian access without compromising military secrecy. It's part of that ``very strong'' relationship between the two agencies that General Henderson cites.

From this viewpoint, the Air Force might well wonder about a civilian ``takeover'' at the Vandenberg launch site.

The Department of Defense (DOD) has, in fact, been a reluctant partner in the shuttle program. John M. Logdson of George Washington University explained in a recent review of shuttle history in Science magazine: ``In order to get White house and congressional permission to develop a new space transportation system, DOD had to agree to use the shuttle for its launch needs in the 1980s.'' What has emerged is the policy of using the shuttle facility to serve both DOD and NASA.

The Air Force later won the right to have its own unmanned rockets. But the national-security community still doesn't like the shotgun marriage with the shuttle. Albert Wheelon, a Hughes Aircraft executive who serves on the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, says it is ``nuts'' to run an expensive western shuttle launch site primarily for NASA. Its estimated annual operating cost is $400 million. As recently quoted in Science, he explains, ``The only reason that the Vandenberg complex will be activated is because it was promised . . . as a symbol of the military's commitment to the shuttle.''

At this writing, the Defense Department was weighing whether to mothball the Vandenberg facility for a few years. That would save money that could then be used for unmanned launches until NASA needs to fly its polar platform. Military shuttle missions that do not require polar orbit can still be flown out of Kennedy. And the DOD has the priority to make heavy, albeit not exclusive, use of the three remaining orbiters.

Whatever happens, the military has become an inseparable part of America's manned-spaceflight program. This has been done as a matter of conscious national policy. The shuttle will continue to serve two masters. The challenge will be ``to try to maintain a balanced shuttle program,'' says NASA's Moore.

Fifth of 10 articles. Next: Soviets take the long view.