Space force

The Story of America’s First Secret Space Force

Last year, President Trump made headlines around the world when he announced that he intended to create a new branch of the US armed forces dedicated solely to orbital and deep space defense. This new space force would be responsible for defending America’s extensive satellite infrastructure from potential attack and for strengthening the means by which America has come to rely on orbital technology in everyday life as well as for defense.


The concept was not without its critics, with some dismissing the very idea of ​​space defense as a flight of fancy and domestic competitors accusing America of militarizing an otherwise peaceful theater…but the truth is, space is a battlefield since mankind first started launching rockets at it.

The Space Race, which was in all respectable ways an extension of the Cold War that enjoyed good public relations, may have ended with the landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969 , but the race to leverage space for military purposes continued. for decades to come. In fact, one could say that reaching the moon marked only the end of the space race in front of the public, but not the end of the competition between the American and Soviet space programs.

Although it reached the Moon first, America still had pressing concerns in space. (NASA)

The race to weaponize space during the Cold War was so intense that the Department of Defense already had a kind of space force beginning in the 1970s. This secret program was large, with a California-based spaceport of 0.3 billion for secret launches of space shuttles into polar orbit, a secret group of 32 astronauts trained by the army and flight plans. more shuttles per year than NASA itself at one point.

Military astronauts weren’t really called astronauts — they were called Spaceflight Engineers, and in total the Air Force’s Manned Spaceflight Engineer program had 134 military officers and civilian experts. These men and women worked from the aforementioned California launch complex as well as the Pentagon’s own version of mission control in Colorado and a third facility in Los Angeles that housed the spaceflight engineers themselves.

Early in the program, some of the Pentagon astronauts even flew on NASA shuttle missions in hopes of increasing cooperation and training on flight methodologies.

The Story of America's First Secret Space Force
Air Force Spaceflight Engineer Major Gary Payton (rear left) with NASA crew members Loren Shriver (front left) and Ken Mattingly (front right), with Jim Buchli and Ellison Onizuka (behind). (NASA)

“Between these two agencies, it was really a forced marriage”, said Retired Air Force Col. Gary Payton, who served as the Air Force’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Space Programs until his retirement in July 2010.

“NASA thought of us as a bunch of snot-nosed kids, strangers, almost guests…nothing more than engineers or scientists who were dealing with a particular satellite or experiment, and who have typically only flown once. We, on the other hand, thought our job was to help bridge the gap between military and civilian space agencies.

The plan was for Department of Defense shuttles to launch from California and enter a polar orbit, which was more beneficial for covert Department of Defense missions than the equatorial orbit commonly attained from the launch complexes of Florida. The Pentagon’s plans called for an absolutely mind-boggling 12 to 14 launches per year. It was far more than NASA was prepared to handle, but the result would have been an extremely resilient and redundant space defense infrastructure long before any nation was ready to pose a viable threat to US interests in orbit.

The Story of America's First Secret Space Force
The Space Shuttle offered a wide variety of mission sets, but with a lot of risk. (NASA)

But in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven crew members on board. It was a blow to NASA, but it hit the Manned Spaceflight Engineer program even harder. It forced the Pentagon to acknowledge two hard truths about manned shuttle missions: When they fail, people die — and the whole world takes notice.

“By 1987, it was all gone,” said William J. Baugh, director of public affairs for the Air Force’s Second Space Wing at Falcon Air Force Base in Colorado. New York Times. “At that time, Challenger had its problem and we decided to withdraw from the shuttle business.”

The Pentagon chose to move to a mostly unmanned rocket launch system for deploying new satellites, relying on NASA and the Space Shuttle for some classified missions when payloads were too large or complex for others. rockets like the Titan IV.

“It’s disappointing,” said Major Frank M. DeArmand, a spaceflight engineer who never got to fly, in 1989. “We all had the excitement and the expectation of flying on the shuttle. But I’m not bitter. It was the right decision.”