Carter Years: 1977-1980

ASAT arms control keenly interested the Carter administration. President Jimmy Carter approached the Soviets on the subject in March 1977. While negotiating, the US continued to work on its own ASAT. DOD intended to develop the US ASAT in an orderly fashion and did not plan a crash program to get the system on-line. The Carter administration believed that even the threat of an operational US ASAT could be used as a bargaining chip to provide the Soviets incentive to negotiate. This method of arms negotiation and simultaneous ASAT R&D came to be called the Two-track Policy.(178)

On 11 May 1978, Carter signed the Presidential Decision on National Space Policy 37 which laid out the founding principles of US space policy. Carter's space policy principles included US sovereign rights over its space objects and the right of passage into and through space. A new principle was added, fueled by Soviet testing of their ASAT system--the right of self defense in space. This principle would bring about a major change in US space policy because it recognized space as a possible war-fighting medium. The presidential memorandum directed DOD to formulate plans to use civil, military, and commercial space assets in wartime or other emergencies as determined by the president. DOD was also to take actions to make US space systems survivable in the event of a conflict and to develop an operational ASAT. DOD was to create an integrated attack warning, notification, verification, and contingency reaction capability for space defense.

The US would continue to exercise restraint in the use of space weapons and recognized that negotiations on the subject of space arms control were desirable. As a result of this rethinking of the traditional roles of space systems and the reevaluation of the medium, the influence of the R&D world of Air Force Systems Command in space matters began a slow but steady decline. At the same time, the space operations world increased its power and influence as war-fighting capability (survivability, reliability, responsiveness, etc.) became the new order of business for space systems.

Military Space Systems

In October 1977, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown announced that the Soviets had an operational ASAT system. This fact was the prime consideration in the Carter administration's change in US space policy and the redirection of the US military space program. DOD initiated the Space Defense Program in 1977 to perform research into ASAT technology, satellite survivability, and improved space surveillance.(179)

Antisatellite Weapons. Ford's administration had rekindled large-scale ASAT weapon research although considerable work had been done from the early 1970s under the Missile and Space Defense Program. Research centered on the miniature homing vehicle (MHV) with nonnuclear kill capability. In September 1977, Vought contracted to build the MHV. The MHV's intercept sequence began with launch aboard a ground-launched booster or from a high-altitude aircraft. The MHV maneuvered to the calculated vicinity of the target, where its sensors locked on and tracked the target. The MHV then homed in on the target and destroyed it via collision.(180)

The Air Force dropped the ground-launched option which used a modified Minuteman III ICBM in favor of air-launch from an F-15 fighter. The air-launched booster was a Boeing short-range attack missile first stage and a Vought Altair III second stage. Air-launch provided the advantages of flexibility, mobility, and "more attacks per day." MHV's biggest advantage over the old Program 437 and 505 systems was that it did not have to wait for the target to come to it.

In May 1978, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) published a report containing a prioritized listing of potential Soviet target satellites for the MHV. At the same time, JCS directed DOD to work on another ASAT system, termed the conventional ASAT, as a low-risk alternative system using off-the-shelf technology. This system, employing pellets as its kill mechanism, was intended as a backup in case the MHV proved too difficult.(181)

Satellite Survivability. The Space Defense Program also conducted satellite survivability research. Studies showed that satellites were extremely vulnerable to countermeasures. The US ASAT system might, in time, provide some measure of defense for some satellites in a contingency situation, though that was not its intended purpose. The satellites and their command and control network needed serious attention to allow them to function in a hostile environment. Efforts to improve the battle worthiness of these systems were directed at three areas--the orbital segment, the link segment, and the ground segment.(182)

The command and control facilities were in particular need of attention. The Air Force Satellite Control Facility at Sunnyvale, California, was, and still is, an unhardened, above-ground facility located on the San Andreas Fault. (It is in serious danger in case of an earthquake.) The Air Force began construction of a modern, survivable facility east of Colorado Springs, Colorado. This facility, the Consolidated Space Operations Center, is designed to control most DOD space assets. Also, the Air Force envisioned ground-mobile satellite command and control units to ensure survivability through mobility and proliferation.(183)

Although measures to improve the survivability of US space assets made sense, the US implemented them in a piecemeal fashion. Budgetary constraints were much to blame. Payload limitations also restricted the amount of satellite redundancy and hardness. Probably the leading reason for the haphazard treatment of survivability was the low priority placed on space systems despite their unquestioned value. The low priority was the result of the lack of a single constituency advocating change.(184) There was no single unified view of space and its place in the military structure. During the Reagan administration this problem would be given major consideration.

Directed Energy Weapons. Since the late 1960s, the services and ARPA, now called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), did considerable work on directed energy weapons (DEW), which are lasers and particle beams. However, only towards the end of Ford's tenure did such exotic technologies begin to show promise as weapons. The laser blinding incidents in 1975 (previously mentioned) showed that the Soviets were moving in this direction and had the potential for building a usable system. This increased US interest in this type of system, but considerable controversy existed over the direction of any project involving DEW and the level of funding to be given to these programs.(185)

The Carter administration was skeptical of DEW programs and felt that these were not mature technologies. It viewed conventional methods for ASAT, ABM, and ground target destruction (e.g., ICBMs) as more cost effective, and all DEW efforts remained exploratory in nature.(186)

Missile Warning and the Space Surveillance Network. The Air Force constructed an advanced radar site on the remote Aleutian island of Shemya in the northern Pacific. Construction of the system, the AN/FPS-108, Cobra Dane phased array radar, started in 1973, and it became operational in August 1977. The 16th Surveillance Squadron operates the radar, conducts surveillance of foreign missile launches, provides missile warning of ICBM and SLBM attack, and supports the Air Force Space Surveillance Network.(187)

In 1978, the Air Force initiated the Spacetrack Improvement Program which led to the construction of new systems and integration of existing systems into a larger and more effective surveillance network. The Air Force created the Pacific Radar Barrier including sites at Kwajalein, Guam, and the Philippines.(188) The 17th Surveillance Squadron which was located on Luzon Island at the San Miguel Naval Communications Station, Republic of the Philippines, was a typical example of these systems. Activated in 1980, its mission was the detection and tracking of foreign missile launches and the identification of selected payloads and space debris. The 17th's AN/GPS-10 radar reached IOC in April 1983. In June 1990, the 17 SURS ceased operations and was supplanted by a new surveillance facility, Detachment 5, 18 SURS at Saipan.(189)

Another improvement was the conversion and integration of DARPA's space object identification facility on the Hawaiian island of Maui with the Air Force's planned ground-based electro-optical deep space surveillance (GEODSS) sites.(190) The GEODSS system was the successor to the Baker-Nunn camera system.(191) MIT Lincoln Lab developed and tested GEODSS at Experimental Test Site 1 at Socorro, New Mexico, near WSMR.(192) GEODSS used powerful telescopes, electro-optic cameras, and high-speed computers to gather tracking and identification data on deep space satellites.

A major improvement made to space operations command and control took into account the wartime role of space systems envisioned by Carter's space policy. Originally conceived as the NORAD Combat Operations Center, the Space Defense Operations Center (SPADOC) was to be the hub of Air Force wartime space activities. The SPADOC would consolidate all US ASAT, space surveillance, and satellite survivability operations in a single operations center. The SPADOC became operational on 1 October 1979 for limited development operations at the NORAD Cheyenne Mountain Complex.(193)

During the spacetrack network upgrades, the missile warning net received new systems as well with the introduction of PAVE PAWS, the AN/FPS-115, advanced phased array radars built by Raytheon Corporation and designed for the SLBM warning mission. PAVE PAWS provides improved radar coverage and detection capability as well as additional warning against ICBM attack as a secondary mission and space surveillance as a tertiary mission.(194)

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

The Space Shuttle Program continued to be NASA's chief area of interest when the Carter administration took office in January 1977. NASA tentatively scheduled the first orbital test flight for March 1978. In February 1977, NASA began the first of the STS approach and landing test program flight tests with the shuttle Enterprise at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB, California. A modified Boeing 747 airliner carried the shuttle piggyback. The first free-flight occurred on 12 August 1977 with astronauts Fred Haise and Gordon Fullerton aboard. The last such flight was on 26 October 1977.(195) Enterprise never went into space.

After many hours of structural testing with Enterprise, NASA declared the orbiter design structurally flightworthy in April 1979.(196) Meanwhile Columbia, the first shuttle intended to fly into space, arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in March 1979, already a year behind schedule, and sat for more than two years. The delay was caused by problems with the 30,922 tiles of the thermal protection system and the space shuttle main engines which were also two years behind schedule. NASA rescheduled the first flight for 10 April 1981.(197)