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Falcon 9 launch
Through support of technological advancements that reduce the cost of space access, like the Falcon 9 rocket (above), NASA is also strengthening national security. (credit: J. Foust)

NASA is essential for national security

A world that benefits from space will strive to deter aggression and conflict in space

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For the United States, maintaining a leadership role in space is an essential component of national security, providing the US and our allies “unprecedented advantages in national decision-making, military operations, and homeland security,” in the words of the National Security Space Strategy. National security in this sense includes US foreign relations and protection of broad national interests, in addition to national defense. NASA is essential for national security, not only because of its role in developing new space capabilities and technologies, but also because it is explicitly excluded from military activity by the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. Simply stated, NASA is uniquely positioned to facilitate international collaboration on peaceful uses of space in ways the military cannot.

The legacy of success in space and its growing strategic importance has transformed the space environment.

This essay explores the important roles of international cooperation, cost-reducing technology development and game-changing innovation, as well as NASA’s role supporting a strong commercial space industry. NASA can improve its national space security posture even during times of budget austerity.

New challenges

The United States faces a number of major challenges in space today, including:

  • Increasing congestion, conflict, and competition in space
  • Meeting 2011 national security space strategy objectives within budget realities
  • Leveraging R&D dollars in a budget constrained, risk-averse culture
  • Inspiring and mobilizing tomorrow’s aerospace workforce

The legacy of success in space and its growing strategic importance has transformed the space environment. In the early days of the space age only a handful of nations participated in space. Now, in addition to numerous commercial and academic enterprises, approximately 60 nations and government consortia own and operate in-orbit platforms. US space technological superiority is also being challenged as expertise among other nations rises and nation states are increasingly seeking means to attack and defeat space assets.

The 2011 national security space strategy seeks to address these new challenges while maintaining US leadership in space by pursuing the following objectives:

  • Strengthen safety, stability, and security in space;
  • Maintain and enhance the strategic national security advantages afforded to the US by space; and
  • Energize the space industrial base that supports US national security.

Meeting these objectives, however, is complicated by the fact that our nation’s space community—NASA, the Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community, and the private-sector aerospace industry—all face constant or declining budgets for the foreseeable future, putting pressure on the ability to conduct current missions and to invest in future capabilities.

In addition, while NASA’s research and development dollars have increased, efforts to develop and implement operational efficiencies and create game-changing innovations are challenged by a culture inclined to avoid risk and protect the budget.

Finally, many believe the luster and wonderment of the Moon and Space Shuttle missions that captured the interest of generations has begun to dim. We fear the falling popularity of STEM degrees in our schools, and subsequently tomorrow’s workforce, will have broad consequences in a world that is becoming more dependent on technology. NASA is uniquely positioned to inspire and mobilize tomorrow’s aerospace workforce.

International cooperation

US space policy highlights the importance of international cooperation in promoting the responsible, peaceful, and safe use of space. NASA has a distinct role in creating and supporting this international cooperation. For example, it can form collaborative relationships with international civil agencies that are prohibited from cooperative relationships with US national security agencies. Similarly, NASA has technical and scientific competence to support joint international projects—distinct from the State Department—to explore, research, and develop space. International projects produce value beyond national prestige and international good will. In many instances, a consortium of nations can conduct better programs than a single nation could do by itself.

NASA could enhance its contribution to national security by giving greater weight to international programs when setting priorities.

Combining resources and competencies can be sufficient justification for international efforts but, more importantly for national security, international cooperation can tie nations together in a web of trust and interdependencies. Joint international projects and data sharing in areas such as Earth observations, including weather, climate change, land use, and other environmental phenomena, benefit all participants. They can enhance many activities in both developed and developing nations, from education to economic planning to emergency response.

NASA could enhance its contribution to national security by giving greater weight to international programs when setting priorities. In particular, NASA could work to create projects that are within the capabilities of other nations with whom we want to engage in mutual dependencies. These can range from educational or environmental projects that most nations can participate in and benefit from, to planetary projects to which the newest players in space exploration can contribute.

For example, Space Situational Awareness (SSA) is one domain where there is potential for international collaboration affecting all spacefaring nations. SSA is part of the global commons, available to all nations and concerned with every element of the space environment, from active satellites to orbital debris and space weather. Today, NASA and the DoD cooperate and share responsibilities for characterizing the satellite environment to determine the extent of the space object population.

At the same time, astronomical telescopes are being used to discover and identify Earth satellites. For example, Pan-STARRS is a telescope in Hawaii being used by a consortium of ten research organizations, including NASA, from four countries. One of the many projects supported by Pan-STARRS will search for Earth satellites, other than the Moon, that might be natural. In the process, it will discover and identify many artificial satellites.

NASA could consider collecting data from this and other astronomical telescopes and integrate the results into international SSA databases. This could be particularly useful in detecting objects beyond the range of ground-based radar. NASA could also take potential SSA utility into account in designing future telescopes.

Space weather presents another challenge to the international commons in space and an opportunity for collaboration. Solar events produce magnetized plasma, high-energy particles, and electromagnetic radiation that can damage or interfere with electronic equipments in space and on Earth.

NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has the mission of providing space weather alerts and forecasts. The forecasts vary in accuracy from good for plasma to poor for radiation. They also help explain satellite anomalies. For example, a few years ago, NOAA’s GOES 11 weather satellite collected electron flux data that implicated solar activity in the loss of control suffered by the Galaxy 15 telecommunications satellite.

In an era of reduced budgets, it may be more important to conduct current missions and operations at greatly reduced lifecycle costs and greatly increased reliability than to enable new projects or missions that remain unfunded because of their expense and risk.

NASA is one of many domestic and international organizations that provide data to SWPC. For example, important data are provided by NASA’s Solar Dynamics and Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatories and the joint European Space Agency/NASA Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). NASA also conducts research missions such as THEMIS, a constellation of satellites that is studying substorms in the Earth’s magnetosphere. In addition, the Space Weather Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center conducts research on improving space weather forecasts.

NASA is well-positioned to take the lead in developing instruments that are better suited to provide data for space weather forecasting and forecasting methods that can better predict the timing, location and effects of space weather events. Such improvements would be a great aid to all satellite operators, strengthening the web of interdependencies among all nations and promoting the safe, secure and peaceful use of space.

Cost-reducing technology and game-changing innovation

NASA is distinct in that it has a mission to advance space technologies across the whole of government and throughout the national economy. This goal declares an equal interest in supporting NASA, other government agencies, the aerospace industry, and the emerging commercial space industry. It is a shift in emphasis from a NASA tradition that always put its own missions first. This tradition was illustrated in the NASA Space Technology Roadmaps and Priorities report recently produced by the National Research Council (NRC). While it acknowledged NASA’s strategic goals, including the one above, the three technology objectives established to guide the technology selection were defined exclusively in terms of NASA missions. This focus was also reflected in evaluation-criteria-weighting factors that gave alignment with NASA’s needs a weight of five, versus weights of two each for alignment with non-NASA aerospace needs and non-aerospace national goals. In the current era of reduced budgets across most agencies, it may be appropriate for the NRC and NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist to consider giving greater weight to technology developments that have the potential to support both NASA strategy and national security objectives.

Reduced budgets also suggest another shift in emphasis from the NRC report. In scoring the potential benefit of a technology development, the NRC awarded one point for a minor improvement in mission performance, or a minor improvement in mission lifecycle cost; or less than an order of magnitude increase in data or reliability of missions. The NRC awarded three points for a major improvement in mission performance, or a major improvement in mission lifecycle cost; or an order of magnitude increase in data or reliability of missions. The NRC then awarded nine points only for game-changing, transformational capabilities that would enable important new projects or missions. Missing from the nine-point scoring were any points for transformational reductions in costs or transformational increases in reliability.

In an era of reduced budgets, it may be more important to conduct current missions and operations at greatly reduced lifecycle costs and greatly increased reliability than to enable new projects or missions that remain unfunded because of their expense and risk. Beyond that, cost-reducing technologies and breakthroughs in reliability would be more likely to be useful to national security and to the national economy. NASA should give any potential breakthrough reductions in costs much higher priority than suggested by the NRC evaluation criteria.

Aerospace industrial base

Today’s federal climate of austerity also threatens the health of the aerospace industrial base that provides essential support to both NASA and the national security community. The US aerospace industry is heavily dependent on government expenditures and its current commercial sales may not be enough to sustain it during a period of government reductions, threatening loss of critical expertise and essential capabilities. If the aerospace space industry loses too much capacity, it could become impossible to rebuild national security capabilities in a timely fashion if we are ever required to do so to meet new threats.

On the other hand, if sales to non-government space markets grew enough to maintain essential capacity, the industrial risk caused by budget cuts would be reduced. Growth of the US commercial space sector, therefore, is essential for national security.

NASA’s heritage and expertise in space has a unique role to play in developing the U.S. commercial space sector and shepherding it into a new age. Congress declared in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 1985 “that the general welfare of the United States requires that the Administration seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.” Combining this undertaking with NASA’s other missions and diverse capabilities creates a strategic opportunity for industrial development.

Fulfilling NASA’s potential to support national security—even by default through technological advancement—has implication for our everyday lives.

NASA is already increasing its support for commercial space development by contracting for transportation of both cargo and crew to the International Space Station. By doing this, it becomes an anchor tenant for low-cost commercial space transportation. One of its transportation vendors, SpaceX, has used this support to build a manifest of over 40 missions, more than half of which are commercial and many of which are non-US.

NASA is also providing anchor support for the new suborbital launch industry by funding scientists and engineers to do experiments that could lead to “game-changing” technologies. While only costing a few million dollars, this program both supports a new launch industry and creates possibilities for industry-building technology developments.

NASA could increase the potential value of its technology investments by consulting with commercial industry to discover which technology developments industry thinks would have the greatest strategic value to industrial growth. This consultation should extend beyond small programs like the suborbital research program to inform a significant portion of NASA’s technology investment portfolio.

Furthermore, NASA could take a more active role in developing commercial space industry by helping create public-private consortia to promote industry segments. NASA could use as a model their successful effort to revitalize the US general aviation industry. The Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiments (AGATE) consortium, operated under NASA sponsorship from 1994 through 2001, sought to reverse a decline in the US general aviation industry that saw the number of aircraft produced in the US decline from 18,000 in 1978 to less than 1,000 in 1993.

AGATE provided a structure for government agencies, state governments, companies, universities, and other organizations to share resources and risks to grow the market for the industry as a whole. They facilitated cooperation among members of the industry to develop critical technologies. They also cooperated to develop standards and certification methods for materials, aircraft, training systems, and airspace infrastructure. While AGATE focused on reviving a declining industry, its methods might apply equally to promoting a young or maturing industry.


Fulfilling NASA’s potential to support national security—even by default through technological advancement—has implication for our everyday lives. One only has to look at the numerous GPS-enabled mobile phone apps to understand that space has permeated our daily routines. Our nation must strive to maintain the ability to benefit from space, which will in turn deter aggression and conflict as well as benefit mankind in unforeseeable ways. It doesn’t, however, necessarily require large increases in funding relative to NASA’s budget to fulfill this promise.

Most of the efforts NASA could undertake to support international cooperation involve changes in priorities for future projects rather than new funding. Even where new missions might be useful, they are not necessarily expensive. For example, the cost of the five-satellite THEMIS mission was only $200 million, and it spun off the ARTEMIS lunar exploration mission as an almost cost-free bonus.

NASA’s opportunities to support national security through cost-reducing technology and game-changing innovation could also be accomplished by a shift in priorities. If the shifts in priorities succeeded in developing breakthrough reductions in mission costs, the results could actually include long-term cost savings. The same is true for NASA’s potential support of commercial space development. The cost savings offered by commercial transportation to the International Space Station will enable a long-term redirection of resources to other NASA missions. If these savings extend over time to space systems as well as space transportation, NASA might find that its support for national security was one of the best investments in its history.