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STS-134 launch
NASA’s human spaceflight program, from the beginning of the Space Age through the Space Shuttle program, has had a national security value, althoguh one not often appreciated. (credit: J. Foust)

An enduring value proposition for NASA human spaceflight (part 3)

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A military legacy

NASA’s history, particularly the myths around the inception of human spaceflight (HSF), have been chronicled exhaustively, most recently (and perhaps best) illustrated de facto in John Logsdon’s history of the Kennedy Administration and NASA1 . That work makes clear that, as Joan Johnson-Freese earlier summed it up, “Apollo was a government program, and programs are activities funded to support policies.”2 Once the policy that Apollo served had been executed, it was effectively extinct. Indeed, Logsdon points out that NASA’s funding for human spaceflight activities was already being cut by the time Neil Armstrong took his famous “small step”. However, NASA’s own engineers and scientists believed that they were at the agency to explore. This disconnect between the policy agenda and the internal agenda has led to an agency whose technical and operational brilliance has been matched by the absence of sustained political savvy (with a couple of exceptions)—although given Congress’s decades-long history of inability to sustain attention, it is unclear savvy would’ve done much good.

As made clear by Logsdon and others, NASA’s original HSF goals were not about exploration. The agency appropriated ICBMs as the foundation for launch systems, employed military test pilots for Mercury 7 and subsequent programs, relied upon defense contractors for design and development, and developed Mission Control capabilities alongside the Air Force. Its mandate was directly in service to national security. In the struggle for global dominance between the US and the USSR, the goal was to beat the Russians. Going to the Moon was the means by which NASA HSF delivered national security value to the nation—not its end. The technology that was developed to achieve this was available to the DoD; in effect both agencies benefitted from technology development on “somebody else’s dime”.

As made clear by Logsdon and others, NASA’s original HSF goals were not about exploration. Its mandate was directly in service to national security.

A close relationship between NASA and the DoD continued into the Space Shuttle era, with input from the DoD in the vehicle’s design so as to assure appropriate sizing of the payload bay for carrying military payloads. The DoD remained a “customer”, deploying satellites from the shuttle cargo bay up through 1992, when declining launch rates both prior and subsequent to the Challenger accident effectively closed the book on the future of military shuttle use. Nonetheless, 95 percent of space technology today is considered dual use, with NASA contributing to national security through development and/or through a keep-alive role for capabilities and technology.

NASA’s soft power

The executive

Over the decades between the 1960s and the present the United States has been able to leverage the success and symbols NASA’s human spaceflight programs toward the enhancement of national prestige and economic competitiveness. America’s technical achievements in the space program and in the DoD provided it with distinct competitive advantage. Equally as important, among nations the American achievement in going to the Moon bestowed upon this country an international stature of near-mythic proportions. Americans, it was said, could do anything.

Unfortunately, enhancement of US prestige and the impact that this has in advancing American interests and protecting American security is little understood outside diplomatic or military circles. Nonetheless, executives and policy makers were identified early on as important NASA stakeholders:

“Presidents have traditionally used NASA for both diplomatic and military purposes. During the Eisenhower administration the President’s advisors wrote that ‘The novel nature of space exploration offers opportunities for international cooperation in its peaceful aspects.’ Nixon did not hesitate to use the success of the Apollo Moon mission to enhance America’s global position, the Astronauts traveled around the world as living symbols of U.S. technological superiority. Bill Clinton sought to cement a positive relationship with post communist Russia by giving them a role in the Space Station project.”3

So it continues today. A highly controversial outreach initiative undertaken by the Obama Administration to utilize NASA as a diplomatic tool via travels by the NASA administrator—General Charles Bolden, himself an astronaut—is aimed at improving relations with moderate Muslim countries, among others. In so doing, the President is cashing in on precisely the same “currency” enjoyed by his predecessors. Such is the symbolic power of NASA HSF.

Leadership in space, among nations

The positive impact of our human spaceflight programs upon US international prestige and position has been observed by other nations for over 40 years. To many of those that can, our example has taught them that leveraging some portion of their national resources—money, time, training and education, infrastructure, technology development, etc.—to development of spaceflight capabilities is a wise investment “worthy of a great nation”. Investment spaceflight coupled with demonstrable progress toward safe launch, flight, and return buys a seat at the table of influential nations.

Before July of this year, three nations—exactly three—had the capability to launch a human into space. Now there are only two, and we are not one of them.

Forty-two years after we landed on the Moon, that lesson has not been lost—on them. Considering the paltry investment Congress has accorded the agency over the past three decades and setting aside all other benefits that have come from the HSF programs, NASA is one heck of a bargain. Furthermore, NASA still engenders unfettered good will in many corners of the globe.

Monetizing NASA soft power: a thought experiment

As a point of comparison regarding the value NASA HSF brings to national security through enhancement of our global prestige, the US Congress appropriates significant funds every year to promote democracy and other American values (such as human rights, free markets, etc.) and to positively influence international perception toward the US. Though currently facing major cutbacks from a Congress focused on deficit reduction, it is reasonable to assume that at least some of these efforts will survive. The State Department is the agency primarily charged with implementation of foreign policy but, as pointed out before, is one of several government agencies and programs contributing to national security. In fact, as Secretary of State and Secretary of the Department of Defense, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Robert Gates integrated some of the national security goals allocated to soft power into a coherent approach that emphasizes “civilian power”: the training and deployment of experts into theaters of conflict as well as into other arenas for the purposes of humanitarian assistance, community building, and infrastructure development. 4

As a “thought experiment”—nothing more—I decided it might be interesting to take the budget of the just-ended Space Shuttle Program and find matching allocations specifically dedicated to soft power. Here are a few such items managed out of the State Department, as appropriated in the final budget of 2010:5

Broadcasting Board of Governors (State)$749.4M
Education and Cultural Exchange Programs$635M
Contributions to International Organizations$1.6825B
Asia Foundation$19M
U.S. Institute of Peace$49.2M
East-West Center$23M
National Endowment for Democracy$118M
TOTAL:~ $3.271B

The final appropriations for the entire Space Shuttle Program were $3.171 billion in 2010.6

This completely apples-to-oranges comparison was set down purely for illustrative purposes. Congress funds specific items for the express purpose of delivering a value proposition (VP): advancing US leadership and influence. The State Department is funded to carry out that mission explicitly, among others. NASA was also funded for an explicit mission: flying the Space Shuttle. In other words, Congress explicitly places a value on soft power in the mission of the State Department and others, but gets it “in the bargain” from NASA as it flies humans back and forth into space.

That state of affairs may contribute to the apparent inability of Congress to manage NASA to its soft power VP. As shown by the example, failure to do so results in billions of dollars of loss, as benchmarked against a few programs in another agency. The real losses may be incalculable.

What would it mean to NASA and its future if NASA HSF was managed to the national security value proposition?

One final determinant of value in the marketplace is the uniqueness of the offer. Before July of this year, three nations—exactly three—had the capability to launch a human into space. Now there are only two, and we are not one of them. The value of the Russian and Chinese space programs as symbols of leadership on the international stage will go up. Ours will go down. Can’t beat the math.

Congressional squandering of national power

Historically, there were many missed opportunities to formulate a coherent national human spaceflight policy—to align it with national goals and to make use of its value in national security. The Obama Administration is now trying again. However, in the mind of this author the most egregious and sustained failure is the inability or unwillingness of successive Congresses to recognize the contributions of NASA to national security and step up to their collective responsibility to protect the NASA HSF VP. The matter is not open to debate: In addition to technical contributions to national security, NASA’s “soft power” has been acknowledged by experts in space policy, within other agencies, among our international partners, allies and enemies, and at the level of the executive in a sustained and consistent manner.

It is the constitutionally-mandated responsibility of Congress to ensure the national defense. Yet, the institution seems unable to grasp the implications of its inaction. Within the agency and above it the national asset known as NASA HSF has been mismanaged for decades and the blame must be laid squarely at the feet of Congress. What would it mean to NASA and its future if NASA HSF was managed to the national security value proposition?


1Logsdon, J. M. (2010). John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon. New York: Palgrave MacMillan

2Johnson-Freese, J. (2007). Space as a Strategic Asset. New York: Columbia University Press (p. 56)

3Dinerman, T. (2011) “How the end of NASA affects US national security.”

4Christian Science Monitor (Dec. 15, 2010). “Hillary Clinton’s vision for foreign policy on a tight budget”.

5From Congressional Research Service (CRS): State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs: FY2011 Budget and Appropriations. All numbers are for the total enacted appropriation for FY 2010.

6H.R. 2388, Consolidated Appropriations Act. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.