Milspace reality vs. fantasy

After last week’s New York Times report that the US Air Force and the Bush Administration were considering policy changes that would permit the deployment of weapons in space, the issue is still reverberating among columnists. A prime example is a syndicated column by Ann McFeatters, the Washington bureau chief for two newspapers. She believes that deploying space-based weapons would cost “hundreds of billions of dollars”, although she doesn’t back up that claim with any detailed estimates. She noted that retiring acting Air Force secretary Peter Teets “did not spell out the secret projects already under way to use space to launch weapons.” (If they’re secret, how does she know how much they’ll cost?)

Ms. McFeatters also used the column to take a swipe at the Vision for Space Exploration, noting that since the president’s January 2004 announcement (which included “robotic missions on the moon in 2008″, a misreading of the his statement) “we haven’t heard much about going to Mars from the president.” Fortunately, the column includes her email address if you’d care to correct any of her misconceptions about milspace policy or the VSE.

Offering a useful reality check is Dwayne Day, who writes in The Space Review that Air Force officials have often promised unrealistic space systems without the broader support of the Air Force, but critics of such systems fail to pick up on this. All the discussion of “rods from God” and other fanciful systems, he argues, obscures the real problem with military space programs: chronic, severe cost overruns and schedule delays on programs like SBIRS that have hurt the Air Force’s credibility with Congress.

37 comments to Milspace reality vs. fantasy

  • Dwayne Day is correct that elements of the military have pushed for unrealistic space weapons for decades. At the same time, it is smug and circular to wave away criticism of these crazy proposals on the grounds that they weren’t pursued. The only reason that they weren’t pursued is that they were criticized. Some of the projects weathered all criticism — with the typical claim that the critics were “Chicken Littles” — and wasted billions of dollars.

    A notable example is missile defense. After a 20-year odyssey of politics, spending, and “research”, Bush and the Republican Congress finally gave missile defense full backing and demanded deployment. So they deployed it, but to no one’s surprise, it doesn’t work.

  • Monte Davis

    Excellent reality check, as you say. I’m still waiting for details on that terrifying Soviet ASAT laser (was it Saryshagan?) that AW&ST, Sen. Wallop, and Gen. Keegan were hyperventilating about 25 years ago.

    One angle I’d like to see more widely considered: how much additional orbital debris would be generated by the use of explosive, kinetic or directed-energy weapons against satellites (assuming the latter were used to kill rather than just blind)? How much of it would be in orbits that would take decades or centuries to decay?

    I’d hate to be hit by a musket ball from the War of Jenkins’ Ear, or a spear thrown before the walls of Troy. And I don’t think our descendants would characterize our left-over pebbles as “brilliant”…

  • Brent

    The only milspace reality Day talks about is the same reality that horse cavalry officers would have spouted about air power in 1910.

    Our current milspace reality is due to overwhelmingly poor decision making endemic in US space policy since the beginning, nothing more.

    Let people who are both space and military savvy (i.e. not NASA or the USAF) run military space and there will be a much more favorable “reality” for American space power.

    There is nothing about the space environment that makes it impossible to house worthwhile combat power there. The thing that hurts us most is space ignorant military leadership, a social predisposition to think space weapons immoral (thanks alot Eisenhower), and a pathetic NASA track record since Apollo that has convinced many that space is and will forever be inaccessible in any meaningful way.

  • Another classic example of never letting the truth interfere with a good story, especially if it doesn’t support your political agenda. No facts? no problem, just make em up.

  • Allen Thomson

    Re the Sary Shagan laser: that would be the Terra-3 facility featured in some of the Soviet Military Power pubs of the 1980s. It was large, kind of real, but of limited terrifyingness. If the original Soviet plans for it had worked out, it would have been considerably more impressive, but they didn’t.

    “A Visit to Sary Shagan and Kyshtym,” Science & Global Security, Vol. 1, Nos. 1-2 1989, p. 165.


  • Just read the first of Allen Thomson’s links:

    “As a ‘warning shot’ the Terra-3 complex was used to track the space shuttle Challenger with a low power laser. This caused malfunctions to on-board equipment and temporary blinding of the crew, leading to a US diplomatic protest.”


  • Edward Wright

    > other fanciful systems, he argues, obscures the real problem with
    > military space programs: chronic, severe cost overruns and schedule
    > delays on programs like SBIRS that have hurt the Air Force’s credibility
    > with Congress.

    Mr. Day is a stopped clock — whenever any proposal threatens the status quo, he responds with fear and loathing.

    Of course, there’s no law of nature that says space projects — even military space projects — must have chronic, severe cost overruns and schedule delays. DC-X and Clementine proved that. There are also non-space examples like the SR-71 Blackbird. Beltway analysts thought those things were “fanciful,” too, but the results show such projects can work rather well, as long as they’re kept away from beltway analysts.

  • I thought Dwayne Day’s article was excellent. But I nevertheless disagree with his ridiculing of unbuilt systems and a couple of other details.

    First, Dwayne points out the yawning gap between rhetoric and action. This is undoubtedly true. But I can imagine every technologically conservative program manager nodding and grunting in agreement to his ridicule of unbuilt systems…

    “One could assemble a pretty neat comic book containing all of these over-ambitious, unaffordable, or just plain unnecessary military space weapons systems that Air Force generals have insisted were vital to preserving democracy.”

    In last week’s Space Review Eric Hedman pointed out that “Silicon Valley and the rest of the country have the corpses of dozens of failed companies for every major success“. I don’t see why the same shouldn’t be true when NASA and DOD try new things. Dismissing untried ideas as unrealistic and unnecessary was a mistake before Sputnik and is an even bigger mistake after. It doesn’t translate into our everyday experience with consumer things like computer equipment, and it’s a mistake to think that everything yet to be done in space, on the military or civil side is expensive, hard and unjustified because otherwise it would’ve been done already.

    Which brings me to SBIRS. We had a space-based infrared system that upon detection of a 1969 Soviet N1 rocket launch allegedly relayed live pictures of the subsequent launchpad explosion to a controller on the ground. If we are so many decades more advanced than everyone else in space, why are we seemingly unable to build a replacement version of a capability we had in 1969? I expect SBIRS has incremental upgrades to its features, but even so the program is showing all the cost and overrun characteristics of one of Dwayne Day’s “comic book” systems. Would people right now be ridiculing the idea of SBIRS as costly, unrealistic and unnecessary if they didn’t know it had already been done – by us?

    So why is it that every major space-related DoD program is in trouble? In part it’s to do with the contractors, but I think Dwayne puts his finger on the more fundamental problem of putting fighter pilots in charge of a space program – tantamount to putting a rocket guy with a pilot’s license in charge of the Air Force. The latter would of course be unacceptable; the former is the present norm. I think Dwayne Day’s argument is a little back to front though:

    “The loudest advocates remained the leadership in Air Force Space Command. Perhaps not surprisingly, much of this advocacy came from officers with relatively little experience in space operations, a result of the way that the Air Force treats spaceflight in its ranks. Horner, for instance, was a fighter jock who ran the Gulf War air campaign. When he was sent to Space Command he still thought in terms of weaponry, not the many complex and important support roles that space served. Others have done the same.”

    It seems to me the present space leadership from the airplane side are mostly chosen for their ‘supporting’ personalities. It’s not in the financial interest of the airplane guys to let space take on an independent strategic existence as the Air Force once did from the Army. Making space a ‘supporting’ capability dispersed between the services ensures that the intellectual and financial investments needed to make space less a house of cards and more a stable environment for economic and military development have a comparatively low priority. My understanding is that if you follow the money, the overwhelming majority of military space money is going into maintaining the increasingly unstable status quo. (aside: Money that can be construed as going into space weapons is a spit in the ocean compared to this – millions vs. billions).

    I argue that using space people to run a space organization is working well for NASA so far. Going to a car mechanic with a problem and knowing nothing about cars is an invitation to get taken for a ride, likewise the DOD needs a space leadership who know about space to keep the aerospace contractors honest and to give them solid, unchanging requirements to work towards in the first place. I think the DOD is getting screwed with SBIRS et. al. the same way my sister does when she takes her car to the local mechanic.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    Of the comments here, only Mr. Parkin’s is really substantive, so I’ll reply to that one.

    First, a correction. There were two N-1 launches and failures in 1969. The first in February, the second in July. The July one exploded on the launch pad and was detected seismically. An American reconnaissance satellite later photographed the damage to the pad. There was no American missile warning satellite in orbit at the time that was capable of detecting large thermal events. American intelligence missed the February failure. They clearly knew about the July failure. You can find my Air Force magazine article about this at:


    There were two later failures of the N-1. One of these was detected by a Defense Support Program missile warning satellite.

    Mr. Parkin asked about SBIRS, but in so doing I believe he made a false comparison to the “comic book” systems. SBIRS was not unrealistic or even nonsensical. Many of the systems I referred to were indeed unrealistic or nonsensical. Orion, a USAF lunar base, and a few others were way too ambitious. What many of these systems also had in common was a lack of a clearly-defined mission. Generals wanted them primarily because they were cool, not because they served the real needs of the military, and not because they served needs in a cost effective manner.

    However, my purpose in bringing up many of these examples was to demonstrate that just because a “warrior” claims that a weapons system is necessary does not make it so, and certainly does not mean that it will be built. For starters, there may be others in the military who disagree. General Power, for instance, was not able to convince anybody above him that Orion needed to be built. So when someone from Space Command argues for a weapons system (an ASAT is a common refrain), that call should be evaluated on its merits; one should not automatically defer to the general based upon the assumption that he knows what is best. This is where space hawks fail, by not realizing that there are other generals who may have differing views about these projects, for instance.

    My article was also intended to be a cautionary tale, a call for due diligence. Too many times people have heard a speech or looked at some Air Force study and assumed that because something is mentioned, it must therefore be an active program. It helps to take a look at the budget lines and see what is there. You won’t find “Rods from God” in the USAF space budget. They’re not developing it. So why did the NY Times bother to mention it in the same article that discussed changing the space policy?

    I brought up SBIRS to point out that people should pay attention to the _real_ programs and their problems. Isn’t it more important that something is messed up and wasting money right now than to obsess about a fictional program that has no chance of getting funded? Every American taxpayer should care about how the government spends your money.

    As for what is wrong with SBIRS-High? In a phrase, bad management. It has been a poorly-run program. There have been several unclassified reports on what went wrong with SBIRS that have led to what now appear to be 300% cost overruns. (The exact overrun is unclear, but it appears that the original program was supposed to cost $4 billion and will now cost $12 billion.) One of the big problems was that not enough careful design scrubbing was performed early in the design effort. As a result, they started bending tin before they worked out all of the various issues. When they discovered problems, it required them to go back and change a lot of design features that had been finalized.

    But new revelations about why SBIRS is such a mess continue to emerge every day. At a public forum a few weeks ago one industry representative mentioned that one of their lessons learned was not to use actual flight hardware in their ground shock and thermal testing unless they had a spare. He apparently provided no details, but this comment seems to indicate that they tested something and broke it, and then had to build a new one. You would think that those kinds of lessons would have been learned after long experience building space hardware.

    However, it is wrong to consider SBIRS-High to be an incremental improvement over the Defense Support Program satellites. It is a _substantial_ technological improvement. A substantial improvement was needed and possible. They simply messed it up.

    But even though a substantial improvement was needed, this may still be a case of over-reaching. It appears as if they perhaps promised too much to too many different customers. DSP was built as a strategic system that proved so capable that it eventually had tactical and intelligence uses (such as Scud-hunting and thermal event reporting, respectively). SBIRS-High was intended to be so capable at so many different things that they had to serve a lot of customers, all of whom wanted input on the requirements.

    Changing requirements are a major problem for military systems in general, both for avoidable and unavoidable reasons. The military never wants to settle on a simple set of requirements and then let the contractor design the system. They always want to change things and doing so late in the process causes huge cost increases. This is unavoidable when the threat changes and requires a different response. It is avoidable when the threat has not changed. And one can argue that the military simply does not exert enough self-control with regards to changing requirements.

    Mr. Parkin wrote:
    “So why is it that every major space-related DoD program is in trouble?”

    Let’s be clear that we are discussing acquisition programs. Many of the current legacy and operational programs are doing fine. And DoD has built plenty of successful spacecraft in the past. But right now there are quite a few DoD space programs that are in serious trouble. SBIRS-High and the Future Imagery Architecture are both significantly over-budget. One of the clear results of that is that Congress now no longer trusts the Air Force when it comes to proposed big space programs that require substantial technology development. Both Space Radar and T-Sat (a communications satellite system relying upon lasers) have essentially had their budgets chopped in half in the early round of budgeting on Capitol Hill.

    As to why the current programs are in trouble? Please note that I did NOT blame this on the fighter jock generals. This would require a long discussion that there is no room for here, but it helps to keep in mind that the operations side and the acquisitions side of the Air Force space program are separated. There are also separations within the operations side as well that are important.

    Many of the calls for space weapons, and for very over-ambitious space systems in general, have come from the senior people on the operations side. But they don’t build the stuff, or pay for it. Quite often they are unable to persuade the people who approve and pay for new systems that their programs are necessary.

    This is where the internal Air Force culture also plays a part. For a long time Space Command was considered an end-of-career command. It was where they sent generals before retirement. And because the Air Force culture has not valued space operations people, it has been rare for somebody who spent his whole career flying satellites (or sitting in a silo) to make it into the senior leadership. The result is that people like General Horner, with no previous space experience, get into a senior space position, and then call for things that are not really possible given limited technology. They lack the broader knowledge to understand what can and cannot be done–or at least what else also needs to be done.

    To give an example, ten years ago I attended a conference on Air Force space and one of the speakers called for a “rapid replacement” capability for satellites. He wanted the ability to put replacement satellites in orbit very quickly, based upon the assumption that after the 1991 Persian Gulf War our satellites would soon become targeted by foreign ASATs (remember, this was ten years ago). He was talking in terms of days to launch a replacement.

    After his talk I discussed this with a recently-retired Air Force general who had spent much of his career in space operations. He noted that the problem with such an approach was that it currently took a long time to put satellites into operation once they were in orbit. I think he said that even the simplest satellites then in regular use, GPS navsats, took on average 30-60 days to make fully operational. If I remember correctly he said that it took something like 60 days for a DMSP weather satellite, plus 60-90 days for a DSP satellite. Prototypes took much longer. I believe that the first Milstar comsat took something like nearly a year to become fully operational. In addition, many satellites took significant prep time on the ground before launch. Finally, many satellites were made-to-order. There were not a lot of spares sitting around.

    His point was that rapid replacement was a nice concept, but that it made no sense unless you also developed a lot of spare satellites, designed them for minimal prep time, and designed them for rapid operational capability. Put another way, what good is it to be capable of launching a rocket in a day if it took two months to prepare the satellite on the ground and another month to make it operational? It still required three months before you could get that satellite doing what it needed to do, even if you had the ability to launch it in only a few days.

    This is not to say that improvements cannot be made. In fact, it points out the opposite, that they have to be made. But that these systems are complex and the leadership needs to respect that.

    I would finish by noting that on the operational side the Air Force did start taking notice of those training and professionaliztion issues several years ago. They instituted some new programs to improve training their people and to ensure that they had a good career path. I don’t know how effective that is, but they have recognized some of those problems.

  • Dwayne, many thanks – that has clarified a great deal!

    Thanks also for correcting me on the N1 issue; I read about it long ago in an issue of Physics World and a quick websearch didn’t turn up much, so I was going on memory.

    Like everyone else I’m trying to understand the organizational dynamics that have allowed the SBIRS problem and others like it to grow. Over the past couple of months we’ve seen the change a space guy at the top can make to NASA. Previously there were glaring places where the right policies and programs did not exist and others were headed for the rocks.

    Now all of a sudden we see a person with a great appreciation of what is realistic and what is not, and the contrast suggests to me that a deep understanding of the industrial, policy and technical detail matters all the way to the top. It matters that the contractors know their customer understands and is able to gage their performance personally. I think it matters all the way to the top of the DOD space program too.

    It remains to be seen how this plays out at NASA, but I think everybody agrees the outlook has dramatically improved over the past couple of months. I also think that the lack of space-qualified leadership at the Air Force, while not directly responsible for the current problems, nevertheless has a key role to play in the overall problematique (interconnected set of problems) that they have.

    I’m sure Gen. Lance Lord is a good guy and smart too, so he would probably understand that comments like “Ground troops have become very comfortable with early warning provided by Airmen through AFSPC’s orbiting observers” don’t exactly inspire confidence that military space is being approached from a space point of view. After all you don’t hear space people describing aircraft as “airbreathing satellites”.

    I too hope the Space Cadre really makes a difference, but it will be a long while before those officers start to feed through to the top. But I’m concerned they used it as a smokescreen to ignore the space guys at the more senior end.

    For example, Ed Wright mentions DC-X and Clementine as examples of successful programs. Well, the general who brought us those successful programs had a lifetime of space experience and distinguished himself on both technical and policy side. Nevertheless, the Air Force stopped promoting him (that’s the military way of telling you it’s time to leave) and he retired last year. It was a senseless waste of the right stuff in my opinion. Meanwhile, Space Command has a leader who refers to satellites as ‘orbiting observers’ operated by Airmen.

  • Kevin

    Why don’t spend the money that was going to be spent on the space military programs and spend the moeny on these idiotic social welfare programs which is a bigger drain….

  • Dwayne A. Day

    If you want more information on American intelligence and the N-1, I suggest reading the two articles that I wrote with my colleague Dr. Asif Siddiqi. They appeared in Spaceflight in November 2003 and March 2004.

    If you want more information on the DSP program, I suggest Jeff RIchelson’s book Silent Sentinels.

  • A plea to all those who have so much to say. Please keep comments short, neither my mind nor my screen can handle responses that are several times longer than the original post, excellent replies excluded of course :)

  • I never expected to see a 1700-word essay in the comments section of a blog. You could even call it a filibuster.

    The original, leading point of Dwayne Day’s essay was that the media often confuses fantasy military proposals with real plans. He doesn’t acknowledge that the military might spend billions of real dollars on outright fantasies. It is more comfortable to suppose that the military’s “real plans” are at least plausible, even if they fall victim to “bad management”.

    But even Dwayne Day himself has trouble deciding where to draw the line between “space hyperbole” and “real plans”. The essay implies that the “X-20 Dyna-Soar” and the “MOL” were on the side of space hyperbole. As weapons, the X-20 and the MOL certainly were fantasies, but the money was real enough. By the time the X-20 was cancelled, the military had spent $410 million in early 1960’s dollars on it, the equivalent of more than $2 billion today. The MOL was expensive on the same scale.

    Who is to say that the Air Force is smarter about this today? If some ignorant general promotes a “comic book” program like “Rods from God”, he might be as powerful as General Powers was. Even if the money doesn’t go to “Rods from God” specifically, it might go to other, equally bad science fiction. It only makes sense for “the media” to take it seriously.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    As for the question of how SBIRS ended up the mess it has, I’m not sure that it is possible to come up with a single explanation. However, I would point out that the recent problems with SBIRS-High (defining “recent” as the last four years or so) are actually part of a long story. The reality is that you can go back to the early 1990s and find problems with the effort to build a replacement for the DSP satellites. Several different efforts were started and then canceled before the USAF arrived at SBIRS-High. These had names like FEWS (Follow-on Early Warning System) and ALARM (I forget what the letters stood for). There was even a significant controversy about this in 1994 when a person who worked for the Aerospace Corporation, Guido Aru, testified on Capitol Hill about the need for a replacement for DSP. You can find that testimony archived here:


    I wrote a three-part history of the DSP program and also the effort to develop a successor that appeared in the Jan-Mar 1996 issues of Spaceflight magazine. Although that series does not include information about SBIRS and its problems, it represents a good summary of the early problems attempting to develop a follow-on to a highly-successful program. If you want information on SBIRS-High and its problems, the best I can suggest is doing a literature search in Space News or Aviation Week. I don’t know of any good overall summaries. And of course I previously mentioned the Richelson book, although I got the name wrong. It is “America’s Space Sentinels.” Richelson recounts the story of Midas, DSP and some of the efforts to build a DSP replacement.

    If you are interested in the issue of “space as sanctuary vs. space as battlefield,” I suggest listening to the very good interview with Dr. Stephen Johnson that aired on The Space Show a few days ago:


    Johnson notes that part of the reason that the issue is emerging now is that space has transitioned from being largely a strategic asset to a vital part of tactical operations. When it was primarily used to support strategic forces, there was a certain stability and “peace” because space assets were being used to prevent WWIII, not fight current wars. But that has changed, thus leading to calls for more weaponization. The show is 90 minutes long and about the first 45-55 minutes is spent on military space issues, and the rest on the subject of system engineering for space. Although that might sound boring, it actually has a lot of relevance to the alt-space crowd.

    As to the other poster’s comments about MOL and Dyna-Soar, he is right to note that those projects were actually funded and they did waste quite a bit of money. (A caveat: there have been a lot of space programs–and other defense programs in general–that spent a lot of money and never went anywhere.)

    However, I noted in the article that there has been an evolution in the Air Force over time. Immediately post-Sputnik the Air Force fully embraced space and advocated many ideas that made little military or budgetary sense. But they got burned on manned space systems and after MOL you see a real change at the upper levels of the service. They no longer want to hear about manned spacecraft.

    Why this happened is not totally clear. Nobody has really done the necessary research. However, there is significant anecdotal evidence, plus ancillary research on the changing culture within the Air Force leadership. For instance, the rise of the fighter generals to prominence could have had a major impact. Space systems were strategic in nature, and the bomber generals lost influence during and after the Vietnam War. So the types of things that got attention at the senior levels of the Air Force were no longer strategic systems. Also, there is the simple fact that blowing a lot of money on things like MOL tended to discredit big space systems. Finally, the romance of space had dissipated by the 1970s, both in the civilian and military fields.

    But I included MOL and Dyna-Soar in the list of other “fantasy” military space programs in part because they shared some similar characteristics. Neither one of them had clear requirements. Both started out essentially as efforts to evaluate the utility of man in space for military missions. Dyna-Soar got canceled because nobody was ever able to say what it would do that was worth all the cost. It was an extremely expensive X-plane project.

    MOL is a slightly different case. It started out as a project to evaluate the value of man in space for military purposes. But it did not progress very far. (One document that I have somewhere in my files is a rather telling declassified MOL program memo from 1964 complaining that the program had not progressed because they had not been able to clearly define their purpose. This came from _inside_ the office, and was an acknowledgement that they were drifting.)

    Around 1965 or so MOL morphed into a big reconnaissance satellite. The record from then on is still classified. However, it is clear that MOL took on a more operational reconnaissance mission. At that point it ran smack dab into the tough question of what it could do better than the robotic systems that were already in place. Unmanned reconnaissance satellites were improving constantly, and they proved far more efficient than MOL could ever be. In addition, humans are dirty, and there were apparently concerns that humans bumping around the optics and creating a dirty operating environment for the camera (the spacecraft would travel in a cloud of gas and other stuff) might detract from the quality of the pictures. MOL squeeked by a couple of senior reviews in the years before it was finally canceled. Surprisingly, some top officials in the program were unaware just how close it had come to being canceled in 1967 and 1968.

    Now it is certainly easy for us to look back with omniscient (and arrogant) hindsight and say that Dyna-Soar and MOL were stupid programs that never should have gotten as far as they did. But I think that even then the officials in charge had sufficient reason to be skeptical of those systems–and unfortunately most of them were not (some were: one former Air Force official told me about a top Air Force general coming into his office around 1967 or so and telling him “MOL is eating us alive.”). These projects cost a lot of money and they lacked clear missions, and more people should have been asking questions about them back then. Robert McNamara killed Dyna-Soar (and a bunch of similar over-ambitious Air Force projects like the XB-70 bomber). But he approved a military space station and allowed MOL to continue for many years. As one senior official once told me, MOL always seemed to be one year and one billion dollars more away from completion.

  • Dear Dwayne Day,

    Allow me to contractulate you on your various history articles for Spaceflight magazine. I have always enjoyed your (and Mr. Siddiqi’s) work, but I never made the connection between your posts and the articles until I was reading this thread.

    — Donald

  • Edward Wright

    > Now it is certainly easy for us to look back with omniscient (and arrogant)
    > hindsight and say that Dyna-Soar and MOL were stupid programs that never
    > should have gotten as far as they did.

    Yes. It’s less easy to understand why they should have gone farther. That requires insight and vision, rather than just “omniscience” and arrogance. Had those programs gone forward, the US space program might not be stuck in the expensive rut where it is today.

    > These projects cost a lot of money and they lacked clear missions,

    X-vehicles usually lack clear missions, for the same reason newborn babies lack clear missions.

    That’s something the “omniscient” policy experts don’t understand. As Will Rogers said, it’s not what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s all the things you do know that ain’t so. Such arrogance is the reason why the US is still saddled with EELVs and a quasi-“reusable” Space Shuttle after 40 years and why the real progress is now being made outside the government, while NASA prepares to reenact Project Apollo because it’s the only thing the “omniscient” know how to do.

  • Brent

    Good man, Ed. Thankfully someone tells it like it is.

    I haven’t heard from you, Mr. Day, why Dyna-Soar (not exaclty the same as X-20, eh?) and MOL wouldn’t have worked. You assume that since they weren’t built they were obviously unnecessary and wasteful. I disagree with that assumption. I believe that Mr. Wright has a serious and important point. If they had gone farther and people like Powers’ vision had taken shape with military hardware we might not be dependent on Russians to ferry astronauts to the ISS, might have a coherent and robust space power doctrine, and not have a public that thinks NASA is the only game in town.

    The problem in milspace right now is that we are so mission driven and shortsighted in space hardware we built satellites that have one mission and are incapable of becoming more. GPS sats cannot become anything more than nav beepers. However, F-16’s can evolve from a cheap air superiority fighter to a front line light bomber. Space harware is inherently inflexible becasue we think we know everything we need now and refuse to look for needs we don’t yet know we have, and don’t build exploratory and adaptable space equipment. That would be too expensive.

    Satellites are the hot air baloons of space power. But hot air balloons did not an air force make. Perhaps General Power’s was right and the other generals didn’t agree with him not because they were smarter, but because they were too busy fanning themselves in their prop wash. You must admit, if Orions turned into Orion class battleships, we really wouldn’t have to worry about building a new architecture to the moon (and sadly LEO) would we?

  • One final comment: Dwayne touches upon the rise of fighter generals. This is of concern to me as these days the military believes they are all “warfighters” conducting this narrow, linear activity called “warfighting”.

    What about the rest of the military principles accumulated, tested, retested, lost, and bloodily rediscovered over literally thousands years? Do they no longer hold true? Between peace and battle there is a whole world of strategy to accomplish ideals such as winning without fighting (Sun Tzu), not incurring outright hatred (Machiavelli), operating against the will of an opponent to conduct an aggressive act (Clausewitz).

    This may be the era of 4th generation warfare but these principles are still very much in effect. Space has an important role to play in the wider military picture of things, but not in its present militarily unstable form.

  • Tom Clancy gave a little speech at the rollout of the ill-fated Roton rocket. Referring to Americans generally, he said, “We are the guys who don’t know or don’t care what the word ‘impossible’ means.”

    Dyna-Soar and MOL were run by Clancy’s kind of “Americans”. There also seem to be some “Americans” in this thread.

  • Brent


    Feel free at any time to give us your credentials and why you feel Dyna-Soar and MOL were impossible. Dyna-Soar can be considered the father of the space shuttle and MOL was essentially Skylab.

    And being called an American isn’t really an insult to me.

    Mr Parkin, space weaponization proponents like myself are more grounded in military history than space sanctuary advocates. Space weapons are meant to win without fighting. They can be used as a deterrent or, if properly pursued, make the barriers to entry in space weaponization so high that it would be foolish for anyone else to try. The outright haterd thing is already a fait accompli for the US. If everyone hates us already (like they do) we might as well get the benefit of doing what we want since the damage is already done. And operating against the will of an opponent can only be done from a position of strength, morally or physically. Americans are too quick to concede the moral high ground (though we almost always really have it) so we might as well have the physical means.

  • Cecil Trotter

    Bravo Brent!

  • Actually, although Clancy didn’t realize it, his comment was an insult to a lot of Americans.

  • Edward Wright

    > Actually, although Clancy didn’t realize it, his comment was an insult
    > to a lot of Americans.

    Which Americans are those, Greg? Americans who whine and accomplish nothing, because they are afraid to try anything?

    There’s a much larger group of Americans who you regularly insult. The Americans who rolled up their sleeves to build this country and defend it, so that there might be a place where even you might speak freely, secure in the knowledge that no one will come to take you away in the middle of the night, while enjoying a standard of living that is the envy of the world.

  • Edward Wright

    > Greg,

    > Feel free at any time to give us your credentials and why you
    > feel Dyna-Soar and MOL were impossible.


    He’s a math professor at UC Davis, who deals with abstractions rather than the real world. He knows things are impossible because no one in the math department knows how to do them. :-)

  • I couldn’t find the text of Clancy’s speech, but your excerpt certainly doesn’t look insulting. Perhaps by “a lot” you mean one?

  • sarek

    I have worked in DOD and am familier with some of the current programs considered by some to be impossible or a waste. While there are some programs that likely have marginal utility, this is not true accross the board.

    The main point I wanted to make is that my experience is that any successful program has a core of maybe 5% of the engineers/scientists/managers who actually know how to build and create an operational system that actually works, these are probably the “Americans” mentioned above. The other 95% just get in the way and spend a lot of time and dollars talking and going to meetings and creating reams of documents to make it appear that some sort of process is being followed, to give the illusion to the incompetant management that they are in control. That is if you are lucky and on a successful program. The unsuccessful ones drive the 5% away early on in the program with their idiocy.

    I would also agree with Dwayne that the two biggest problems on many programs are mismanagement, and endless requirements creep.

  • I’m not the only American who knows and cares what the word “impossible” means. The people who carefully learn what is and is not possible are the ones who look like they can do the impossible. People who consciously try to do the impossible fail (of course); then they claim bad luck and bad management.

  • sarek

    Greg, I agree about the impossible and that the good engineer/scientist knows what can and can’t be done, and focuses on the former.

    I know I have spent too much time putting out the fires caused by management, or sales types claiming that the impossible can be done. And by impossible I mean, not hasn’t been done before, but violates the known laws of physics. Those fires have to be put out right away because they are program killers.

  • Edward Wright

    > I’m not the only American who knows and cares what the word “impossible” means.

    No, you are not the only American who thinks it’s impossible to do anything that changes the status quo.

    The fact that two or more people agree does not prove you are right.

    You very much resemble the reporter who thought Nixon couldn’t have won the election because no one she knew voted for Nixon.

    Many people have patiently explained to you why things you think “impossible” are, in fact, quite possible — to no avail. Economics, engineering, even basic physics seem to roll off you like water off a duck’s back.

  • sarek

    When I mention impossible, I mean really impossible, like an IR sensor seeing through a cloud in a band where the cloud is opaque. Or getting information faster than speed of light and comm delays allow.

    I tend to be on the side of those who want to build things they know are possible within the laws of physics, but are beset by critics who only know it cant be done because they personally cant figure out how to do it, or because it hasn’t been done before.

    I’ve worked systems, where we did build things that worked, and constantly had to fight with the opponents saying it couldn’t be done, because their company/program hadn’t been able to do it.

    Which is quite frustrating when you have the proof in hand and the naysayer continues to deny the reality of it.

  • David Bush

    A very minor point, but it happens so often, I feel compelled to try to point it out:

    “There have been several unclassified reports on what went wrong with SBIRS that have led to what now appear to be 300% cost overruns. (The exact overrun is unclear, but it appears that the original program was supposed to cost $4 billion and will now cost $12 billion.)”

    A 100% cost overrun would drive $4 billion up to $8 billion. 100% increase, in other words, means it costs twice as much.
    Therefore 4 to 12 is a 200% overrun, not 300%. 200% increase = 3x as much. That’s still unacceptably high, of course.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    [I thought I would use my late lunch break to add a little more information–out of the belief that information is something sadly lacking in many web discussions, this one included.]

    Mr. Bush is correct–I should have written 200%, not 300%. Alternatively, if I had simply said that it is now expected to cost “three times” as much, that would have been correct. I will ask Dr. Foust to correct my mistake.

    However, this is probably one of those cases where I could be more accurate by being more vague, because precise information is contradictory and confusing. Finding out the original cost estimate for SBIRS-High is not easy. A recent Aviation Week article stated that the original estimate was for $4 billion and that it was now expected to exceed $11 billion. However, a November 18, 1996 Aviation Week article (“New Sensors Drive Winning SBIRS Bid,” p. 23) indicates that the initial contract for five geostationary satellites (one as spare) and sensors for two other satellites in Molniya orbits was “valued at around $2 billion.” That would mean that the current cost is now estimated at six times the original cost. However, I don’t find that $2 billion estimate to be believable for a brand new, highly sophisticated satellite system. It would have meant per-satellite costs at under $400 million apiece, which doesn’t happen in the DoD space world.

    On another note, National Public Radio picked up on the space weaponization story on their program “Talk of the Nation.” You can listen to that segment here:


    One of the guests is the NY Times reporter, Tim Weiner, who first broke this story–and botched it in the process. Weiner is actually a business reporter for the Times. (I assume that the Times has a dedicated military/Pentagon reporter. I don’t know why the story was not assigned to him. Probably because Weiner got the initial tip about plans to update the DoD space policy.)

    It is clear that Weiner actually read my piece, because he mentions previous unrealistic Air Force space proposals like military bases on the moon and the Orion rocket, and then makes a clear distinction between the rhetoric of the Air Force space program and actual funded programs. Let’s hope that he can turn his attention to current problems, like SBIRS-High’s travails, and that the next time he decides to write about space weaponization he does a little more research first.

    Overall, the discussion on the program was pretty good (helped by the fact that Weiner started by noting the gap between rhetoric and reality which was missing in his original article). Theresa Hitchens, of the Center for Defense Information, made an excellent observation that developing space weapons does nothing to protect American space assets. To be fair, many US military leaders have made the same point numerous times. They ephasize that because the United States has so much to lose in space, it is more important to develop defensive and redundant systems than it is to develop weapons. Hitchens is probably the most well-read person on the “anti-space weaponization” side. As I noted in my article, the “peace and justice” groups (I use the quotes on purpose) have long demonstrated a poor grasp of facts on this subject. Hitchens is a major improvement on that side of the debate.

    [An aside: in the 1970s and 1980s, the United States chose to develop the F-15 ASAT weapon precisely to serve as a deterrent to the Soviets. In other words, that was a case where a US space weapon was intended to defend American space assets. However, that situation is changed. It is unlikely that something like an ASAT could deter North Korea from attacking American satellites. It would require some other form of deterrent to do that.]

    The program also featured Everett Dolman, professor at the Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. Dolman argued more on the theoretical side than the practical one, about the United States “preserving the commons” of space for the rest of the world. The problem is that this theory does not extend to practical solutions very well. It is simply too expensive to field a global constellation of space weapons to preserve this commons.

    Either Dolman or a phone-in questioner chided Hitchens and her side for an apparent flaw in their argument, saying that they cannot simultaneously argue that space weapons are impractical and expensive, and yet also claim that if the United States builds them it will cause others to follow suit. Although this is somewhat true, it also demonstrates the limits of viewing this subject in terms of left/right and pro/con debating tactics. The reality is that the United States _could_ waste a lot of money on an impractical weapons system that ultimately does not work, and yet still prompt other countries to develop their own weapons that ultimately work to our disadvantage. For instance, if the USAF chose to develop an orbital bombardment weapon (the so-called “Rods from God” proposal), it could prompt other countries to develop anti-satellite weapons that they might otherwise not develop. The end result could be that the US abandons its initial program, but now finds that one or several other countries have developed ASATs that risk our space assets.

    The program is about 25 minutes long and worth listening to if you want to educate yourself on the subject.

  • Brent

    Mr. Day,

    Hitchins didn’t “observe” anything. She is of the opinion that space weapons will not defend systems. This has never been observed. And your dismissal of Dolman’s arguments as theoretical rather than practical is entirely based on one’s point of view. At least “theoretical” means logical thought applied in a rigorous system of hypotheses and theories. “Practical” is far lazier because you get to start with an opinion (space weapons are bad) and work your way down. Space weapons won’t work. If they do work, they’re too expensive. If they aren’t too expensive, they’re destabilizing. If they aren’t destabilizing, they’re immoral. Ad infinitum. You yourself even proved that “practical” means lazy adherence to a foregone proposition. Its simply too expensive to protect the global commons? You can’t know that because its never been tried! Many can agree that it would not be cheap, but value judgements are not a monopoly granted only to you.

    Also, space weapons are not meant solely to protect our space assets. Orbital bombardment would be used for rapid attack, not as a deterrent against assault on GPS. ASATS are space superiority weapons, perhaps to threaten hostile nations or commercial operators to stop selling sat imagery or comm bandwidth to Al Quaeda, North Korea, etc.. Only space based BMD could really be used to protect our systems. Yet this is again a favorite tactic of those opposed to space weapons. The naysayers focus only on one proposition they think they can beat and paint a broad stroke. Sorry, Hitchens, strategic thinking is somewhat more rigorous than that.

  • Edward Wright

    > ASATS are space superiority weapons, perhaps to threaten hostile nations or
    > commercial operators to stop selling sat imagery or comm bandwidth to Al
    > Quaeda, North Korea, etc..

    ASATs are a poor choice of weapon for that purpose. Like bombing an Air France office because we didn’t like something they did, it’s unlikely to be politically supportable. This really falls under the heading of space control. A technician with a pair of wirecutters can disable a satellite without destroying it permanently. That’s one reason why the left is so opposed to the US military developing any manned space capabilities.

  • > Feel free at any time to give us your
    > credentials and why you feel Dyna-Soar and MOL
    > were impossible.

    Impossible? No, but both projects would most likely have been useless to the military since they had very few opeational capabilities to begin with. The Space Shuttle seemed more useful as an operational system, since it could carry large military payloads into orbit on a regular basis. Or that was the idea, anyway…

    Of course, MOL and Dyna-Soar would have been cheaper but they were nonetheless essentially experimental programs without any operational capabilities to speak of. The argument in 1969 was, why spend $2 billion on a manned can in orbit when unmanned spy satellites can do the same job? Or, if the military needs a Dyna Soar type manned shuttle, it clearly cannot be launched by existing boosters such as Titan which are too small, too expensive and cannot be turned around quickly enough (remember: the Shuttle was supposed to be launched 40-60 times a year…)

    I do think a fairly strong argument could be made for gradually upgrading the X-15 and XB-70 into a small rapid-response access-to-space system … maybe we would have something resembling cheap(er) access to orbit in that case. But it is difficult to see why MOL or Dyna-Soar would be any more useful than the Shuttle, Hermes, HL-20, NASA’s recently aborted “AeroSpace Plane” mini-shuttle plans or similar systems.


  • Edward Wright

    > The argument in 1969 was, why spend $2 billion on a manned can in orbit when unmanned spy satellites can do the same job?

    That’s not an argument, it’s a question. The obvious answer was, we don’t know — we won’t knw until we fly it to find out. No one knew that unmanned spy satellites would be useful until the government had built and tested a few satellites. So, I guess you think those satellites should never have been built?

    > Or, if the military needs a Dyna Soar type manned shuttle, it clearly cannot be launched by existing
    > boosters such as Titan which are too small, too expensive and cannot be turned around quickly enough

    You assume Dyna Soar would have been the last manned spacecraft the aircraft built, rather than the first, and that no one would ever develop a new booster.

    Do you think it was a mistake for the Army to buy a Wright flyer, since it was too small to be useful?

    > remember: the Shuttle was supposed to be launched 40-60 times a year…

    Marcus, Marcus. You never change, do you? :-) Because the Space Shuttle failed, every spacecraft must fail?

    The first jet airliner built by the British suffered catastrophic failure of the pressure hull. Does that mean all airliners will suffer similar failures?

    > But it is difficult to see why MOL or Dyna-Soar would be any more useful than the Shuttle, Hermes,
    > HL-20, NASA’s recently aborted “AeroSpace Plane” mini-shuttle plans or similar systems.

    You never could see any value in experimental systems.

    If the British had built an experimental airplane to study large pressurized airframes, prior to building the Comet, would you consider that a waste of money?