Thursday, June 21, 2018
If President Donald Trump's Space Force idea actually comes to fruition, it won't be the first military force aiming for space. Not by a long shot. In fact, the idea of installing a military presence in space is as old as the space age, and the United States came close to establishing its own space force in the 1960s.
Let's get this out of the way: there are Department of Defense satellites in space. The Boeing X-37B, an uncrewed space shuttle, has flown a series of classified missions in the last decade-plus, all with a lot of secrecy as to what it's doing. Strategic Command keeps track of what's in space, and the Air Force has a brand new satellite and space junk tracking "space fence" expected to go online next year. Lots of astronauts began their career in the military. So in some ways, there's a sizeable military presence in space.
In the 1960s, the USAF was working in earnest to carve out its own place in space. They technically launched a prototype space station into space, but never quite got boots on the ground ... or into microgravity, more accurately.
There were also many attempts to establish space-ready military vehicles in the 1950s and 1960s. The Air Force worked with Bell Labs in the 1940s to create the X-1 experimental plane, which utilized rocket engines. The X-1 was also the first aircraft in the X-Plane program, a loose grouping of experimental aircraft tested and operated by some variance of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), its successor NASA, and the Air Force. Subsequent X-planes all worked on technologies that could be applied towards space exploration or other related high-altitude flight. Notably, the X-13 tried to create vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) technology that sounds a little like our re-landed rockets in the private space industry today, and the X-8, X-11 and X-12, which were literally missile rockets.
Then came the X-15. Most early X-planes had high altitude ambitions, but the X-15 was meant to specifically be a military space plane. It was designed by North American Aviation in cooperation with NASA and the US Air Force. Its first flight was in 1959, but in 1962, the flights began to aim higher than ever before.
In 1960, the Air Force launched -- or attempted to launch -- the SAMOS E-5 satellite into orbit.
But the Air Force was also ramping up for another project at this time. Known as the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), it would have been the first space station. The MOL was "dominated" by the Air Force, Michael Neufeld of the National Air and Space Museum says, but it actually involved members of other branches of the military, including the Army and Navy.
McDowell says that the last real effort of the military involved a group of "Manned Spaceflight Engineers," military trained personnel meant to handle highly classified payloads aboard space shuttle flights.
So even if there aren't Space Force astronauts up there, there still could be a whole lot of confusion in the course of establishing a Space Force, and a lot of unanswered questions. At some point, perhaps, there will be a more concrete plan as to what it actually looks like -- but there's a history as old as NASA's spaceflight program to look back to when it comes to a military presence in space.
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