Saving a Civilian Space Program : Use of Private Industry Might Forestall Military Dominance

<i> David C. Webb, a Washington-based space consultant, is a member of the National Commission on Space</i>

The explosion of the Titan 34-D shortly after leaving its launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base last Friday blew away more than just one of our most sophisticated military satellites. It also finally dispelled any lingering doubts that may remain about the nation’s space program being in deep trouble.

In addition, and at a very inopportune time for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Titan explosion added fuel to the longstanding and continuing controversy regarding the role of the military and civilian space programs.

The Air Force has always held that it, not NASA, should be the nation’s primary space organization. It can now use the fact that no fallback vehicle is available for military use as an example of what happens when a civilian agency is in command and places all of the country’s eggs in one basket (the space shuttle).

There is no doubt reason for concern. The Titan 34-D has now failed twice in a row. Coupled with the earlier loss of an Atlas Centaur, the military has lost three of its replacement communication and reconnaissance satellites in succession. Even if backup satellites are available, they cannot be launched until the Air Force discovers a reason for the Titan failures. Since the Titan is the only vehicle left in the nation’s stable--and there are precious few of them at that--the country is in danger of finding itself deaf, dumb and blind in space. That is a situation much to be feared and avoided by either of the superpowers, because both rely heavily on the information obtained through the satellites to keep the peace.


Further, such a crisis could also have a devastating effect on the civilian space program. Appearing before a Senate committee last week, Air Force Secretary Edward Aldridge made it clear that, once the shuttle is back in service, the military will exercise its priority rights to launch the backlog of satellites that will then be urgently required to maintain our national security. He and Rear Adm. Richard Truly, NASA’s new associate administrator, pointed out that the probable two-year delay in shuttle launch availability will so affect the flight manifest that, presuming a replacement shuttle is available, more than two-thirds of all future flights of a four-orbiter fleet will be required for defense purposes. If a fourth orbiter is not built to replace the Challenger, the Defense Department will simply take over the existing three-orbiter fleet entirely for its own use.

Over the strong objections of the Defense Department, NASA sold the shuttle to the Administration and to Congress as the only vehicle that the nation required for access to space. Now it faces a no-win situation of its own making. On the one hand, it will lose the entire Space Transportation System to the Pentagon if the Challenger is not replaced. On the other hand, the Office of Management and Budget has made it clear that if the destroyed orbiter is replaced, the $3.2-billion cost will be taken out of the NASA budget over the next three years. The loss of $1 billion each year from an approximate $7.5-billion annual budget would decimate the agency and the civilian space program. Thus NASA is in danger of realizing its worst fears since it was established 27 years ago: the possibility that the nation may conclude that it no longer needs or can afford the separation between the military and civilian space program.

Indeed, a senior interagency group has already recommended that no further commercial payloads be carried by the shuttle.

To save the civilian space program, the Administration and Congress will now have to take determined action: first, by paying for a replacement orbiter for the Challenger out of general funds and helping the private sector develop an expendable rocket to compete with the French Ariane, and, second, by pushing the development of the aerospace plane--often referred to as the Orient Express--or at least a second-generation shuttle vehicle. Finally, in order to avoid the possible recurrence of such a critical situation as the country now faces, a policy must be formulated in which the civilian and military space programs are separated in a manner similar to that now existing between the aircraft industry and the Air Force. The military would then have its own space program, with its own launch vehicles and facilities. NASA would remain entirely separate, but its launch and other operational programs should be funneled to private industries or, if essential, to a quasi-public organization structured like Comsat.

NASA could then return to its originally mandated function of research and development. In that manner NASA space operations would be placed on a footing similar to that of its aeronautical operations: The agency would become the supplier of space-research expertise to the space industry as it is in aeronautics to the aeronautical industry. The space industry would incorporate this expertise into its spacecraft and facilities for either its military or its civilian customers--or both. Then the future operations of all space vehicles and facilities would be carried out by the private sector or, if essential, by the quasi-public agency set up for the purpose. In this way the nation would be able to get back on track once again in its efforts to explore and develop the space frontier.