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Cape Canaveral
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station already are closely coordinated with each other, but that has not stopped some from seeking more cooperation, whether or not it made technical sense. (credit: NASA)

Space myths: DoD and NASA cooperation

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Periodically someone in the US government gets an absolutely brilliant idea—the same brilliant idea, over and over again. The Department of Defense and NASA should cooperate, coordinate, and even combine their activities more closely in order to save billions of dollars in taxpayer money.

The DoD, and especially the Air Force, already cooperates with NASA to a great extent. For example, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the Air Force’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station probably are the most closely coordinated two separate installations in the country.

This brilliant idea almost inevitably arises at some headquarters, and most often in the Washington DC area, as they yet again desperately try to take ten pounds of candy out of a five-pound bag. And it really is a brilliant idea: so brilliant that it was thought of and implemented as common practice almost 60 years ago, at the time that NASA was created. Even before that, the US Air Force and its predecessor organizations often cooperated closely with NASA’s processor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA). Admittedly, such cooperation had not been without its frictions.

However, the people who reinvent this idea, over and over again, first do not realize just how much cooperation already is a day-to-day fact. Second, they do not realize how challenging it is to create more cooperation. Third, they do not realize how much opposition there is to the idea.

The DoD, and especially the Air Force, already cooperates with NASA to a great extent. For example, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the Air Force’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station probably are the most closely coordinated two separate installations in the country. And the cooperation extends beyond a simple, “Can I borrow your widget when you’re not using it?” Both organizations have their own facilities, but there is not much real duplication, and none without good reason. The Air Force operates the Eastern Range for all customers. NASA has had its own instrumentation to support its activities but those capabilities are also available to other Eastern Range customers. NASA also operated the range telemetry lab for any user who needed it. The available examples of that type are many, but as it turned out, there were even greater opportunities available.

Admittedly, the degree of cooperation that occurs at the Cape is not necessarily the norm nationwide. And as a result, the US Congress requires that both NASA and the DoD review each other’s facility projects every year and certify that none are duplicative, or, at least, none duplicate the other organization’s capabilities without good reason.

Virtually all of the items typically contained in the NASA facility report are real ho-hum items, simple to analyze and dismiss. For example, a project to install new windows for the Jet Propulsion Lab is not duplicating anything in the DoD, even though some DoD building may be getting new windows as well. And refurbishing an infirmary at KSC is not duplicating any Air Force medical facilities at Cape Canaveral AFS or Patrick AFB because such medical facilities need to be very handy to the locations where the actual work is going on.

But back around 1990, an item showed up in the NASA report that was a bit different. NASA wanted to upgrade a wind tunnel at the Lewis Research Center (now NASA Glenn), with the justification given as to support “Tactical Aircraft Development.” Well, the USAF has its own wind tunnels at Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC), and aside from the “tactical aircraft” aspect, an Air Force officer with good knowledge of both installations concluded that the Lewis wind tunnel mods would duplicate capabilities already in existence at AEDC. Even so, that would not matter if the planned use schedules for both wind tunnels were incompatible with having just one.

But NASA declined to provide the schedule for the Lewis tunnel, and so the Air Force report to Congress duly noted that the planned mod at Lewis was “potentially duplicative.” And then the excrement hit the wind tunnel.

It soon became apparent that previously no one had found any duplication—and no one was supposed to. An official on the Defense Secretary’s staff then declared that, since DoD did “revelopment” and NASA did “Research,” no duplication existed, adding ominously, “And I better not hear any more about this from the Air Force.” This determination was then challenged by another DoD staff organization, who responded, “Ridiculous! The test article does not know if it’s in a Research tunnel or a Development tunnel! And it’s about time somebody started telling the truth!” The matter was then referred to a joint DoD/NASA coordinating group, which responded essentially with, “Who the hell do you think you are, questioning our wind tunnels?” and the issue apparently died there.

Then, a couple of years later, NASA administrator Dan Goldin wanted to address wind tunnels. Goldin was facing the fact that NASA’s budget could not support all of the agency’s centers. An associated problem was his belief that the country had more low speed wind tunnels than it could use and the maintenance costs on those kept us from having more supersonic wind tunnels, which were what was needed. So Goldin recommended a review of what was available versus what was needed. This almost immediately transformed into a much wider overall review of duplication between the DoD and NASA, another brilliant idea coming from DC.

Goldin recommended a review of what was available versus what was needed. This almost immediately transformed into a much wider overall review of duplication between the DoD and NASA, another brilliant idea coming from DC.

Dan Goldin may have been looking for justifications to enable him to pare down NASA’s infrastructure and manpower. Or, he may have been looking for missions he could steal from the DoD to justify a larger NASA budget. In any case, the result was an extensive study that pretty much showed that there was not much real unjustified duplication, at least in the space side of things. NASA did have its own instrumentation, but the resources either augmented the DoD’s capabilities on an as-needed basis or supported needs unique to NASA that the DoD could not support. And combining systems in order to save money would be costly since it would require a great deal of new investment to achieve what would be, in fact, less capability.

An example was the telemetry reception capabilities at the Eastern Range and the Kennedy Space Center. The Air Force ran TEL-4, the telemetry receiving station used by all expendable launch vehicles. TEL-4 is, by the way, located on Kennedy Space Center property. Also on KSC, NASA ran MILA, a telemetry station dedicated to Space Shuttle operations (and Apollo before that), which included the unique requirements of that vehicle, such as uplink transmissions as well as downlink reception. On the surface it looked pretty obvious that NASA and the Air Force should get rid of one installation and just combine their efforts at one site. But the problem with that approach, while simple, was also quite intractable. The shuttle launch pads were to the north, and the antennas at TEL-4 would block each other if pointed in that direction, eliminating the important ability to have two antennas pointed at the shuttle pad. MILA had the exact same problem when it came to pointing at the ELV pads at Cape Canaveral; two-antenna coverage would not work for the same reason.

So the necessary answer would be to build a new combined telemetry station capable of covering all the launch pads on the Cape and KSC. And aside from the fact that the station would need the capability to communicate with the shuttle in orbit as well as support processing and the launch activities, a new station would cost quite a lot to build. Even that would still raise the possibility of such simultaneous operations interfering with each other. It made a lot more sense to just keep both TEL-4 and MILA running.

Another often mentioned consolidation possibility was the runways at KSC and the cape. KSC had the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) while the Cape had the Skid Strip. The idea went like this, “Surely we did not need two such long runways that close together, and that handle so little air traffic as well!” But the SLF needed to be right where it was, close to shuttle processing facilities. And the Skid Strip not only supported NASA shuttle operations by hosting non-essential aircraft during shuttle launches but also was used for space booster and payload delivery. The roads between KSC and the Cape would not support moving either the shuttle or the expendable launch vehicle flight hardware flights to the other side of the Banana River. Once again, it was going to cost a lot in new investment in order to avoid only relatively minor operations and maintenance costs; the runway consolidation idea was dropped.

The first Goldin-initiated consolidation study did result in the closing of the US Navy’s wind tunnel facility at Trenton, New Jersey. The Navy did not use the Trenton facility very much anyway, and it made little sense to keep it operating in light of the available Air Force and NASA facilities. Other than that, the consolidation study did relatively little.

But that did not stop Goldin from starting another such consolidation study not long after the first one concluded. Much the same issues were revisited yet again.

While NASA kept up its end of the deal and allowed the cost savings from the consolidation to be applied to infrastructure upgrades, the Air Force instead diverted those savings to other needs and other programs.

And then, acting in apparent ignorance of the long history of cooperation with NASA as well as the two previous studies, the people at Air Force Space Command Headquarters had a brilliant idea: improved Air Force and NASA cooperation! Cited first was the obvious lack of need for a runway at both KSC and the Cape. The people at the 45th Space Wing displayed considerable exasperation as they explained that all that sort of things had been looked at and found to be either infeasible or just dumb, and the only real opportunities for consolidation would be to undertake some much larger effort—and Space Command HQ said to go ahead, have at it. As a result, the 45th Space Wing and KSC eventually agreed to consolidate their base support contracts, considered to be an obvious money-saving opportunity.

So NASA/KSC and the 45th Space Wing created a new joint program office to manage the consolidated effort, the Joint Base Operations Support Contract, and proceeded with the effort using a mixture of Air Force and NASA personnel.

The consolidation effort was a success, or by all rights should have been. It was indeed cheaper. The big problem was that the Air Force was rather cash-strapped in the ’90s, supporting not only its normal operations but cutting the size of the force while still satisfying the Clinton Administration’s surprising appetite for foreign military adventures as well. It’s a normal procedure to reprioritize operations and maintenance funds in real time, and that is just what occurred. So, while NASA kept up its end of the deal and allowed the cost savings from the consolidation to be applied to infrastructure upgrades, the Air Force instead diverted those savings to other needs and other programs. The consolidation effort itself tended to interfere with such reprioritizations, which in the Air Force especially made it rather unpopular as well.

After more than a decade the consolidated base support concept was dropped and the Air Force and NASA went back to separate contracts. Managerially it worked, financially it worked, but bureaucratically it did not.

Of course, by far the largest cooperative effort ever undertaken by NASA and the Air Force was the Space Shuttle program. And it was an unmitigated disaster (see “When ‘about time’ equals ‘too late’”, The Space Review, October 11, 2005). Billions of dollars were wasted on facilities that were never to be used. The shuttle achieved barely 10 percent of its advertised capability and cost somewhere between 25 and 114 times as much as had been promised, depending on how you count the money. The recovery from the shuttle mistake cost billions of dollars more. The opportunity lost costs literally are incalculable and have resulted in US reliance on foreign built Soviet-era rocket engines (see “The engine problem”, The Space Review, August 3, 2015).

Fresh from the Space Shuttle failure, and with the general recognition that existing launch systems—including the shuttle—did not represent an acceptable future, NASA and the Air Force tried to do much the same thing all over again. They ended up creating two new joint programs, the National Launch System and the essentially identical Advanced Launch System. The resultant efforts suffered from much the same attempt to build new all-encompassing launch system that had proved to be such a challenge for the shuttle. Like the shuttle, combining the two agencies often-disparate requirements turned out to be rather unwieldy. For example, NASA insisted on adding a crewed vehicle requirement, a substantial expansion of the effort. In Congress, the program proved to be unpopular as well, not the least of which was the attitude of the Congressional committees that “the other guy” should pay for the whole program as well as the fear that the other guy would do the same thing to them. The Air Force eventually cancelled both ALS and NLS in order to use the funding to save the F-22 fighter from Congressional budget cuts.

The ALS and NLS program cancellations eventually led NASA and the Air Force to sever their joint efforts to develop a new series of space boosters in favor of two new separate programs. The Air Force came up with the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, which produced the Delta IV and Atlas V space boosters (see “EELV or never?”, The Space Review, December 4, 2006).

There is a lot more NASA/DoD cooperation than it appears on the surface. Despite that, efforts to significantly increase such cooperation are not easy to accomplish and have, at best, a checkered past.

Meanwhile, NASA proceeded with a program to develop a new reusable launch vehicle, picking up where the Strategic Defense Initiative’s Delta Clipper program left off. After destroying the Delta Clipper in a mishap on its first NASA flight, the agency began the X-33 program. X-33 was intended to be a subscale prototype of a single stage to orbit launch vehicle, leading next to the Lockheed Martin VentureStar vehicle. VentureStar was cancelled years later when NASA concluded it could not meet the very daunting performance requirements. NASA ended up buying Atlas V launches, one of the vehicles developed under the USAF EELV program. This may have been theoretically less efficient than a joint program, but on the other hand, for a change it actually produced something new that was useful to NASA and the Air Force, as well as commercial industry.

But even when NASA and Air Force cooperation is successful, that does not mean it’s popular with everyone. The Air Force and NASA collaborated and shared costs on a very important R&D mission in 1990, the Combined Release and Radiation Effects Satellite, CRRES. CRRES gathered data on the space environment and tested new space-qualified electronics in the actual space environment. Such space-qualified electronic components are vital to the health of every spacecraft, a fact emphasized in 1994 when the Clementine mission suffered an early mission failure due to the malfunction of an electronic computer component.

A short note was sent around the Pentagon telling of the successful launch of the CRRES mission. One Air Force general officer then asked for more information, specifically the cost. When told the combined Air Force/NASA mission’s cost was $350 million he reacted with rage. “$350M! We could fly a wing of F-15’s for a year for that!” The general didn’t care that it had been an efficient way for DoD and NASA to get some vitally important data; his priorities were different. As in other cases, sometimes merely saving money is not what some people really want.

The latest most visible joint Air Force NASA program is the X-37. Started as a primarily NASA program, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle version literally did not get off the ground until it was transferred to the Air Force. The lessons of EELV may not have been forgotten.

So, to reiterate, there is a lot more NASA/DoD cooperation than it appears on the surface. Despite that, efforts to significantly increase such cooperation are not easy to accomplish and have, at best, a checkered past. And there are people in both NASA and the DoD who are bound and determined to prevent any additional cooperation.

NASA and DoD may look like they are doing the same thing, but usually they are not. The military often may not care how something gets done as long as it is successful. Civilian organizations main focus may, in fact, be how something gets done. Military missions are predicated on mission completion, on one day the “war” being over. In marked contrast, civilian government organizations may well view such an ultimate outcome as horrific and seek to expand into new areas to avoid such an outcome. As one Apollo-era NASA veteran described the program in an interview, “It was the greatest thing this country has ever done. It was supposed to go on forever. And I will never forgive this country for getting rid of it!”

NASA and DoD actually have two very different views of the world as well as differing ways to approach it. Their requirements processes are entirely different. Their planning and budgeting approaches differ considerably. Their views of the types of personnel to employ and how to employ them are not the same. These are not trivial differences and typically cannot be overcome by decree. It appears that NASA and DoD can cooperate successfully in many small ways but not in terms of major programs.

We need to keep these historical facts in mind every time we invent a new joint program or otherwise conclude that the most logical way to handle a requirement is to require that NASA and the DoD get together. Such cooperation may be logical, but it may not really save any money, and in any case, success is not assured.