Reagan Years: 1981-1988

The new president tasked NSC to review US launch vehicle needs; the adequacy of the current administration policy to meet continued US civil, commercial, and military needs; NASA/DOD space shuttle organizational responsibilities and capabilities; and potential legislation on space policy. The NSC space policy review began in August 1981. DOD performed an internal space policy study at the same time.(198)

On 4 July 1982, President Ronald W. Reagan spoke at Edwards AFB at the fourth space shuttle landing. In this, his first speech on space policy, the president called for "a more permanent presence in space" for the US and said that steps must be taken to provide "assured access to space."(199) On the same day as his speech, the White House issued National Security Decision Directive (NSDD)-42, which reiterated the principles of Carter's PD/NSC-37.

However, there were significant differences. NSDD-42 emphasized the US ASAT as a deterrent to Soviet use of their system with eventual deployment as a goal of the program. The ASAT would deny the enemy the use of space and space assets in time of war or crisis. The directive went on to say that the administration would study and consider treaties on weapons in space compatible with US national security interests. This statement was somewhat less positive than Carter's assertion that such agreements were desirable. Like PD/NSC-37, NSDD-42 also extended the principle of sovereign rights over a nation's space assets to include the right to defend those assets in space.(200)

The DOD space policy review contained "no new directions in space weaponry."(201) However, deterrence was now the primary role of the US ASAT program despite the fact that many experts said that this role was unworkable in light of the disparity in dependence and launch capacity between the US and USSR. DOD would explore technological avenues for prompt space support and projection of force in and from space and to assure free access while denying the same to the enemy.(202) As such, NSDD-42 laid the groundwork for use of space as an arena for military operations by asserting the right of self-defense, and it opened the way for development of assets to fighting in and from space.

On 23 March 1983, President Reagan made his now famous Star Wars Speech announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The president called for increased military spending to meet US military requirements and commitments. Then, to the surprise of most everyone (including members of his staff), Reagan called for defensive measures to render Soviet missiles obsolete. This call was a direct move away from the old policy of mutual assured destruction towards a policy of strategic defense as a means of deterrence. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger stated, "The defense systems the President is talking about are not designed to be partial. What we want to try to get is a system which will develop a defense that is thoroughly reliable and total." This "system" grew into a series of systems forming a layered ballistic missile defense.(203)

Two days after the speech, the Reagan White House released NSDD-85, "Eliminating the Threat from Ballistic Missiles." The NSDD directed "an intensive effort to define a long term research and development program aimed at an ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by nuclear ballistic missiles." The directive was a total commitment to a long-range R&D program for ballistic missile defense. The White House set up committees to study technological, political, and strategic considerations of such a system.(204)

Arms Negotiations

In August 1981, the US rejected a Soviet offer to discuss a draft space weapons control treaty (Draft Treaty on the Prohibition of the Stationing of Weapons of Any Kind in Outer Space), which the Soviets had presented to the UN General Assembly as a supplement to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.(205) The US offered no counterproposal and gave no indication that it was interested in talks on the subject.(206) The Soviets introduced another draft of the treaty which even went so far as to offer to dismantle the existing Soviet ASAT system. Although the draft covered many US concerns about space weapons, the US rejected it because it also prohibited the use of the space shuttle as a military system, while verification (always a sticking point) was still questionable. The US was also concerned over ground-based laser attacks (which were hard to trace to a source) and residual Soviet ASAT capability in their existing ABM systems.(207)

Considerable criticism focused on the administration's refusal to negotiate an ASAT treaty. Congress threatened to withhold funds for US ASAT development unless some legitimate justification could be provided. The administration briefed Congress on its problems with this or any such treaty: It was virtually impossible to verify; there were diverse sources of threats to US systems; and there was the threat posed by Soviet surveillance systems that could not be negated without an ASAT.(208) In the end, despite considerable lobbying, the administration did not succeed in keeping funds for ASAT testing intact.(209)

Strategic Defense Initiative and the Antiballistic Missile Treaty

From 1983 to 1987, US position on the Strategic Defense Initiative and the ABM Treaty was that Article V of the treaty limited all SDI work to research, that is, lab work and tests of subcomponents. This interpretation limited the primary debate to what constituted testing of components (which was prohibited) and what constituted testing of subcomponents (which was not). All other debates centered on what constituted research and development and employment of dual-use technologies (such as an antitactical missile or antiaircraft missile used as an ABM).

In 1988 the DOD took a different slant and employed a lawyer to look at the legal side of the question. Thereafter DOD proposed a new interpretation. First of all, Article V applied only to systems and components that were current at the time of the treaty negotiations. Agreed Statement D, which prohibited deployment but did not address testing and development, governed new technologies. The complication in all this was that the US had tried to ban futuristic technology during the original ABM negotiations, but the Soviets were unwilling to agree to such restrictions. The Reagan administration now proposed that since the Soviets had not agreed to these restrictions, the US was not bound by these restraints either. This reasoning left the US free to deploy anything it wanted in a full-scale test. Politics became the only constraint on US actions. The US did not take advantage of this new interpretation due to European and congressional protests.

Military Space Systems

The Strategic Modernization Program, revealed on 5 October 1981 by Caspar Weinberger, had many provisions for improving the US strategic posture including deployment of the B-1 bomber, MX ICBM, and Trident SLBM. Weinberger also stated that the US would "continue to pursue an operational antisatellite system."(210) Under the Reagan administration, military space programs received increased attention across the board. There was a perceived need for effective and survivable systems for early warning, communications, and attack assessment to allow the US to fight and "prevail" in modern conflicts to include nuclear war.(211)

Antisatellites. The US ASAT, by now called the prototype miniature air launched system (PMALS), was in an advanced development stage by October 1981 when Reagan announced US commitment of $418 million in contracts to Vought and Boeing. Ground testing of the missile and the MHV began in 1981 although the program was behind schedule.(212) The Air Force moved the initial operational capability date back from 1985 to 1987 due to developmental problems. The Air Force conducted the first captive flight tests with the F-15 launch aircraft in December 1982. Despite obvious progress, in January 1983 the General Accounting Office (GAO) criticized the system's complexity and price of tens of billions of dollars and called for a new assessment of other alternatives, particularly ground-based options and air- and space-based laser systems.(213) GAO also criticized the system for its apparent lack of growth potential and its inability to attack up to 70 percent of its intended targets or the Soviets' ASAT system. Other sources also attacked PMALS for its dependence on existing space surveillance networks, which had limited capabilities relative to this task and which were not very survivable. DOD countered that the target list was a wish list with no monetary constraints attached and that the system would not cost as much as GAO alleged. It would cost only $3.6 billion.(214)

As if to lend credence to the Reagan administration's assertions that the US needed an ASAT device to counter threatening Soviet activities, the USSR tested its ASAT system again in February 1981, the 18th such test, and again in March 1981. The Soviet ASAT flew yet again, for the last time, in June 1982. The last flight was apparently as part of a major Soviet strategic forces exercise in which they launched two ICBMs, two ABMs, one SLBM, and one SS-20 IRBM as well as a navigation and a reconnaissance satellite. In August 1983, in a surprising demonstration of restraint, Soviet President Yuri Andropov announced a unilateral moratorium on ASAT testing. This action came at a time when there was growing US concern over the possible use of such large Soviet boosters as the Proton to launch an attack on our geosynchronous satellites. The Soviets were reportedly even developing a 300,000- to 400,000-pound lift (to low-Earth orbit) booster that could lift a prototype laser ASAT device.(215)

In February 1984, Reagan announced that the US would study follow-ons (such as a high-altitude ASAT) to meet all objectives on the target list.(216) The MHV test program had conducted two successful point-in-space intercepts by the time Congress imposed budgetary restrictions on the program. When the congressional ban on ASAT testing of the MHV lapsed for a brief period in September 1985, the Air Force took advantage of the opportunity for a live-fire test of PMALS. On 13 September, a USAF F-15 piloted by Maj Wilbert Pearson launched an ASAT missile at the P78-1 solar observatory satellite, Solwind. The MHV struck the satellite, shattering it into 250-350 pieces. A stiffer congressional ban was imposed after the test. The Air Force could not test the US ASAT unless the Soviets tested theirs. In December 1985, Air Force SCOUT rockets launched two instrumented target vehicles from Wallops Flight Center. Both reentered before they could be used.

Missile Warning and Spacetrack Network. On 21 June 1982, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen Lew Allen, Jr., announced the impending formation of Air Force Space Command, a single Air Force command that would consolidate and coordinate all Air Force space assets and activities. There had been considerable lobbying for a change in the military space organization and creation of an operational space command within the Air Force for some time. In September 1982, Space Command established its headquarters at Colorado Springs, near the headquarters for NORAD. The establishment of Air Force Space Command was the largest of the space organizational changes during the 1980s, all of which reflected the shift in policy recognizing space as a war-fighting medium.

In June 1983, the Navy announced that it was creating US Naval Space Command, which it activated on 1 October 1983 and headquartered at Dahlgren, Virginia. Although it consolidated naval space activities, the new Navy command also was intended to ensure the Navy a role in controlling DOD space programs in a unified command at a later date.(217) On 23 September 1985 DOD activated the US Space Command (USSPACECOM) at Colorado Springs as a unified command composed of Air Force Space Command, Naval Space Command, and the newly created Army Space Agency (which later became Army Space Command). USSPACECOM has the task of consolidating all assets affecting US space activities.

The Air Force established ground based electro-optical deep space surveillance sites. MIT Lincoln Lab's Experimental Test Site 1 at Socorro, New Mexico, became Air Force property in April 1981 and reached IOC on 30 July 1982. Other GEODSS sites opened at ChoeJong San, Republic of Korea; Maui, Hawaii; and Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territories; under the Spacetrack Improvement Program.(218)

The Air Force also expanded the SLBM network. It completed two AN/FPS-121, modified PAVE PAWS systems, located in the southeastern and southwestern US. The first site is at Robins AFB, near Warner Robins, Georgia, and attained IOC in November 1986. The 9th Missile Warning Squadron (MWS) operates it.(219) The second, operated by the 8 MWS, is at Eldorado AFS, near San Angelo, Texas, and became operational on 8 May 1987.(220) These radars provide improved radar coverage and detection capability for southern approaches to the US. After activation of the new PAVE PAWS southeast radar, the Air Force deactivated the last of the old AN/FSS-7 radars operated by Detachment 1, 20 MWS, at MacDill AFB, Florida.(221) Later, the Air Force reclassified the AN/FPS-85 radar at Eglin AFB, Florida, as a space surveillance radar no longer responsible for the missile warning role.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration Shuttle Program

Two years behind schedule, the space shuttle approached its launch date of 10 April 1981. However when the day arrived, NASA canceled the flight due to a computer malfunction. The first flight finally got under way on 12 April 1981 as Columbia lifted off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, 20 years to the day after Gagarin's first manned flight. Astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen made the historic first flight and landed successfully on the runway at Edwards AFB on 14 April.(222)

Over a year later, Reagan's NSDD-42 designated the space shuttle as the primary launch system for the US national security space program. It directed DOD and NASA to develop the shuttle into a fully operational, cost-effective system. All government payloads were to be compatible with the shuttle, and DOD was given priority on shuttle launches. DOD and other government agencies were to continue to develop and use expendable launch vehicles (ELV) only until the shuttle could meet all their launch needs. This directive essentially placed all of DOD's launch eggs in one basket--the shuttle.

By making the shuttle the primary launch vehicle for all government payloads, NSDD-42 guaranteed NASA all the launch business it could handle. NASA's goal was to achieve a two-flight-per-month routine that would make satellite launches cheaper and make the shuttle a self-sustaining venture. To achieve this goal, NASA needed more shuttles. In the next four years, NASA acquired three more shuttles, Challenger which first flew on 4 April 1983, Discovery which first flew on 30 August 1984, and Atlantis which first flew on 3 October 1985. Even with all four shuttles going at once, NASA was unable to meet its schedule because of technical problems and other delays. Far from the goal of 24 flights a year, the best NASA ever managed was nine flights in 1985.

By January 1986, NASA had flown only 24 shuttle missions in 57 months. The backlog of payloads on the manifest was growing steadily. There were few, if any, ELVs available for launch because they were being phased out, and production lines had closed. The pressure on NASA to get the shuttle up when scheduled was tremendous. Then disaster struck on 28 January 1986. The shuttle Challenger exploded some 70 seconds into the 25th flight because of a solid rocket booster (SRB) failure that ruptured the main propellant tank. All seven astronauts aboard were lost as was the $100 million NASA tracking and data relay system satellite.

The effect on the US civilian and military space programs was devastating. Virtually all US launch capability was crippled. Two Titan 34D failures and a Delta 3920 failure within the same period only compounded the problem. Instead of having assured access, the US had virtually no access to space. The shuttle was down for over two years for an in-depth accident investigation and redesign of the faulty SRBs. During this time, there were virtually no ELVs available.

This dire situation continued until the return of the space shuttle in September 1988, the first flight of the Delta II medium launch vehicle in February 1989, and the successful first flight of the new Titan IV booster (originally designed to complement the shuttle) in June 1989. (More information on these and other launch systems is in chapter 4.) DOD instituted full-scale or expanded development of these ELV systems immediately after the Challenger accident and redirected almost all of its payloads to ELVs. The result has been that now there are virtually no DOD payloads scheduled for flights on the shuttle, and NASA now faces tremendous competition for US civilian and foreign payloads.