A “Coast Guard” For Space

As previously discussed, on the eve of the half-century anniversary of the Kennedy speech that set us off on such a wrong course, Jim Bennett has a piece at The New Atlantis on a proposal for a much-needed restructuring of federal space policy and players.

[Update a few minutes later]

A sample, highly relevant to tomorrow’s anniversary:

Space activity in the United States was almost entirely military in origin: During the early years, most space launches were military — initially reconnaissance satellites, and later weather and communications support systems — and until the early 1980s, even non-military payloads were mostly sent into space on rockets based on military missiles. The civilian space agency, NASA (initially standing for National Aeronautics and Space Agency), was created in 1958 by vastly expanding the existing National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a small research organization that supported the aviation industry. When NASA was started by the Eisenhower administration, it was envisioned primarily as an overtly civilian shell that would take selected spinoffs of military programs and operate them as a visible civilian program for prestige and demonstration purposes. Meanwhile, the real space program, run by the United States military, would continue to operate in secret as it had since its 1954 authorization. Since NASA’s expected role was minimal, the old administrative structure left over from NACA was deemed adequate — even though the organization had almost no significant experience with large systems management.

In 1961-62, NASA (renamed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to reflect its upgrade) was repurposed by the Kennedy administration to take on a massive development task: creating the Apollo system for manned lunar exploration. The agency also began conducting unmanned planetary exploration, prototyping satellite communications and other commercial activities, launching privately-funded commercial satellites on legacy military-derived launch vehicles, and a variety of ancillary aeronautical and space functions. More or less by default, NASA became a space transportation utility, a de facto regulator, and the de facto American interlocutor in any international space activity.

Apollo-era NASA was effectively an emergency governmental mass-mobilization effort, comparable to Germany’s wartime V-2 program and the Cold War “missile race.” (Indeed, veterans of those undertakings played prominent roles in the Apollo program.) In the case of Apollo, as in the other instances, the head of state was committed to the project, time was more of a constraint than was cost, and the effects of success or failure were quickly felt. However, as NASA moved from the era of Apollo to the era of the space shuttle, the agency’s mode of operation changed dramatically. The primary driver for NASA’s work became institutional self-preservation. Political pressure from Congress and the White House made job preservation a priority. Resource constraints consistently trumped schedule and performance. Shifting goals and pressures made clear accountability difficult to attain.

The cumulative legacy of these transformations — from NACA to NASA, followed by the turn to Apollo, followed by the switch to the space shuttle — is an agency that dominates its sphere in a manner unlike any other in the executive branch. The agency also has unusual lacunae in its management capabilities, with a span of responsibilities always outmatching its span of attention and control; ultimately, these lacunae have harmed the agency’s technical capabilities as well. The agency’s bureaucracy is characterized by very powerful entrenched internal fiefdoms with their own external political patrons giving them effective vetoes over administrative decisions, and a strong sense of privileged authority over large areas of national space activity.

Read the whole thing, though it’s appropriately long.

14 thoughts on “A “Coast Guard” For Space”

  1. Yet space activities at orbital altitudes and beyond have more in common with maritime activities than with aeronautical activities. Aviation has no unique destinations: no aircraft reaches a destination that cannot also be accessed by land or sea. The advantage of flight is in getting to its destinations more quickly and sometimes more directly. Economically, air travel exists to connect two destinations that already exist.

    I take it this guy has never been to somewhere like Alaska where airplanes are the only practical way to reach many places for much of the year. You could spend days to weeks trying to slog across the frozen tundra and may even survive, or you could make the same trip in an hour or so in a bush plane.

  2. One of my cousins was an Alaskan bush pilot for many years. Nothing about the Alaskan situation (or Siberia, or New Guinea, etc.) invalidates what I said. The towns connected in Alaska by bush aviation already existed before aviation; it’s just that aviation made them more economical and allowed them to grow. The main point was that the economic characteristics of aviation, particularly the requirements that drove the evolution of the technology and the structure of the organizations that operate aviation, are unlike the economics of space flight. If suborbital vehicles begin to be used for point-to-point express travel, as they may in coming decades, that may import some of the characteristics of the aviation market to parts of space transportation. But until now, that hasn’t been the case.

  3. I was unmoved. I agree that NASA needs to step back, but I don’t think we should be creating space police when anyone we put in orbit these days has already undergone a Russian background check. The other thing I didn’t like is that it seems to move us from private risk takers and entrepreneurs willing to build and ride rockets, to a world of “Enlist In the Space Guard Today!” posters.

    Going forward, the rule of thumb would be that operations (manned and unmanned) to Earth orbit would become Space Guard functions; operations beyond would be deemed “exploration” and would remain NASA functions until they are reduced to routine. Such a division would be consistent with the Obama administration’s policy mandate that operations in low-Earth orbit, including crewed missions, be primarily contracted from commercial operators. The astronaut corps and its training would become a Space Guard operation, but NASA would retain a Test Astronaut Office and training facilities for testing experimental vehicles, as well as crews for deep-space exploration.

    That strikes me as the wrong approach. Not only does it seem to rule out a private company venturing to Mars, it seems to imply that only NASA trained personnel (civilian) would go at first, but once routine only Spaceguard enlistees could make the trip – or something. It also gives NASA an institutional turf reason to make sure such trips never become routine.

    I think part of the maritime analogy fails because although both environments are hostile, we have hundreds of thousands of people on oceans – whose barely predictable storms can strike with incredible fury, along with a vast array of craft (from aircraft carriers and oil tankers to surf boards) and bad actors (drunks, pirates, smugglers, and morons).

    Space, however, presents an environment that is highly predictable (no tsunamis, category 5 hurricanes, etc), and access remains so expensive that the commercial operators or private companies have a huge incentive to make sure their vehicles are engineered properly and operated safely.

    From my reading of the article, which was interesting, it looked like an attempt to rearrange a vast, bewildering, bureaucratic agency into a vast, bewildering, bureaucratic agency with a more efficient structure, broader powers, and more ominous name.

  4. “I was unmoved. I agree that NASA needs to step back, but I don’t think we should be creating space police when anyone we put in orbit these days has already undergone a Russian background check. The other thing I didn’t like is that it seems to move us from private risk takers and entrepreneurs willing to build and ride rockets, to a world of “Enlist In the Space Guard Today!” posters.”

    I couldn’t read it, too boring. But putting military in charge of the universe doesn’t seem like a good idea.
    I do think if NASA could somehow do it’s job and explore space, the US military should became more involved- should establish a military branch that is space based- has military assets in space for space.
    I have no clue what this would be. Hmm.
    The military already has a interest in space rocks, perhaps an expansion of this role. Such as being in charge of avoiding any kind of collision- whether natural rocks or human spacecraft.
    Oh, I thought of something. I think the military should be charge with task of moving space rocks. And if private sector is moving space rocks near earth, the military should be involved [in some way??].
    Space rocks can be thought of as weapons similar to nukes- only more destructive than nukes.
    But still haven’t thought of any reason the military needs a presence in space. Oh, the moon could good place to safely store information, it also good place to store lot’s of thing- radioactive waste, or gold reserves, whatever. That could a reason to have some military presence in space.

  5. The idea that the FAA/AST’s role may violate Posse Comitatus is something which hadn’t occurred to me before, but if it turns out to be so then legally something has to change. As for the space-related functions of the USAF and NOAA, most of the public probably thinks NASA does those things. I can see the USAF retaining certain military space applications (satellite knockout capability has been demonstrated, is suborbital troop deployment in the cards for the future?) but indeed much of the USAF space work has nothing to do with warmaking (i.e. breaking stuff).

    I’ve said many times before that the organizational culture at NASA has to change, and divesting NASA of the mundane would help.

    The new entity might not be a Space Guard at first, with the law enforcement powers of a Coast Guard. It would probably be the Space Service at first and only become the Space Guard later.

  6. G’day,

    The Space Guard proposal is one of the better ideas I have heard for some time. NASA’s budget is about $19B. DOD’s space budget is about the same , maybe a bit more. So the US government spends about $40B a year on space. Considering the budgetary problems this can not continue. The axe will fall.

    In a severally fiscally restrained environment the Space Guard makes sense. It would be the main organisation to do the practical , non war fighting, things in space which governments must do. NASA could concentrate on what they are good at, R&D and space science.

    While we are discussing major organisation restructuring, have a read of Harrison Schmitt’s proposal to chop up NASA some of it makes sense but a space exploration agency because of a new cold war with China? Its been a couple of years since they have launched a crew in space.




  7. There was a large group of us who wrote a book (two actually)for the National Defense University in 2007 for the purpose of developing a new U.S. Space Power theory, along the lines of Clauswitz’s land power and Mitchell’s air power theory.

    The book was buried after Rumsfeld left as SecDef but the ideas in that book are very sound. I am going to retool my chapter and publish it as an ebook.

  8. 1. The “military” space program in the US runs to about 55 billion bucks per annum, about 3X NASAS’s cost. Much if not most of this is from the Natural Security Agency.

    2. We’ll get a “Space Guard” about 30 years after Hell freezes over, or maybe 30 generations.

    (a) The US has had the experience of carving a service branch (the USAF) out of the flesh of another (the Army) back in the late 1940’s; this didn’t save money and it didn’t keep the services from continuing to squabble among themselves and play Congress for preferences. I can’t believe the White House and Budget Bureau– any White House, any Budget Bureau — is eager to repeat the experience.
    (b) There’s a 50 year old international tradition now that Military Men Qua Military Men Do Not Go Into Space. Granted, the US considered something different once upon a time, but it’s been 40 years since MOL was cancelled. It would be a Really Big Deal at this point to put soldiers or quasi-soldiers into space on a routine basis, and I don’t think the US government would do so without a great deal of thought and consultation and international politicking. We would hit the roof in this country, at least our politicians would, if the Chinese announced plans to put units of the People’s Liberation Army into space on a constant basis to deal with this or that “routine” matter which might affect us or our satellites; we should expect the Chinese and Indians and French and Indonesians and Brazillians to react as strongly if we propose to put a spatial “Coast Guard” into orbit. (c) It should be obvious that many of the potential functions of a paramilitary space organization — destroying Earth-threatening giant meteors, inspecting satellites to detect camouflaged weapons, sweeping up orbiting “debris” — are not being performed at present. True, it’s difficult to consider handing such activities over to an organization as poorly organized for such tasks as NASA is at present. But we might assume that given funding, or even the promise of funding, that NASA could transform itself into a lean mean space-fighting machine. This hasn’t happened, not because of NASA inflexibility, but for the simple reason that the US government DOESN’T WANT to spend money on destroying meteors, inspecting satellites, and cleaning up orbital debris. We’re broke; those are luxuries. Worse, we’re so broke that those aren’t luxuries but daydreams, quite beyond our affording them for decades to come.

  9. The ‘Space Guard’ model is incredibly attractive, and I think many of the comments here are missing the point.

    The primary reason for establishing a ‘Space Guard’ is to maintain stability in the space environment. There are two principle ‘threats’ that need to be countered.

    The first is aggressive actors in space. Post-cold war, there is no balance of power that favors space stability. Rogue actors have plenty of incentive to destroy satellites and create debris. This would be a complete disaster for space access.

    While the US Air Force probably is the right organization to counter threats in general, there still needs to be an international framework to deter rogue actors. This framework would also serve to prevent incidents such as the Cosmos/Iridium collision.

    Essentially, this is international SSA data sharing. It has been argued very successfully that neither purely civil nor purely military organiztions could properly manage this task of meaningful data sharing combined with enforcement.

    The Coast Guard presents an attractive model. Take a list of its activities and consider the analogous functions in the space environment. What you have is an agency that centralizes government activities in space – while also establishing meaningful standards for space activity.

    It is true that there aren’t hundreds or thousands of actors in the space environment. The cost may go down with the risk-mitigating effects of standards. This is less a matter of government ‘owning’ space, and more one of government properly protecting the property of its citizens.

    It’s more than likely that we would need a ‘Space Guard’ before significant activity can begin in space. This isn’t 1600 where starving peasants will sail into who knows what for half a shilling.

    In the end: 1) With the real threat of collisions and debris in orbit, 2) With the stability that comes from a central set of standards and an agency capable of enforcing them domestically and internationally, and 3) With the benefits of consolidating all US Government launch and low-orbit activities into one organization – including opening the door to new activities a la FAA for orbital activities – it really does seem like the idea of a ‘Space Guard’ is past due.

    I would call it the ‘United States Orbital Guard’, as space is rather big, and limit its activities to launch activities and LEO in particular.

  10. For what it’s worth, out-orbit locations like Luna and Lagrange would receive nominal attention from the USAF etc. literally for the defense of continental US. Meanwhile, organizations that operate there can form their own independent charters that might someday evolve into functional state or state-like entities. Something like the Republics of Texas or California.

    This would completely circumvent the UN space laws, as these new entities would have no reason to subscribe to them, and could quite legitimately claim possession of territory. Who owns the moon? Those who live and work there, who travelled there.

    This is sort of a pre-emptive Monroe Doctrine for space. But it would never be acceptible if Earth-bound nations aren’t first prepared to provide for their own defense via stability of the space environment internationally. I.e.: the Republic of Tranquilia’s independence is predicated upon the honoring of those international standards for space transit/activity.

    I’m arguing, essentially, that although such visions are far removed from the current reality, the path towards them is simple: institutions. Liberty in the anglo-american tradition came through the rule of law.

    That’s the best argument for a Space Guard. Right now space is worse than the wild west. There are plenty of intrepid people willing to brave that environment. But there’s no institutional capital brave enough. Define boundaries, and standards. Space Guard.

  11. Revisiting this topic, I think I know how NASA and the Air Force would defend their turf from this plan. They’d bring up the creation of a new service academy in the Space Guard proposal and suggest it be located in Nancy Pelosi’s district, perhaps at the Presidio. Then they’ll label it “Star Fleet Academy”, snicker, and the whole idea will instantly die in the halls of Congress.

Comments are closed.