Status Report

CRS Report: U.S. Space Programs: Civilian, Military, and Commercial (part 1)

By SpaceRef Editor
November 19, 2003
Filed under , ,

Updated October 6, 2003

Marcia S. Smith, Resources, Science, and Industry Division





U.S. Government Civilian Space Programs

–National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

—-Human Spaceflight and Space Launch Vehicles

—-Science Programs

–Other Civilian Government Agencies

Commercial Space Programs

Military Space Programs

Interagency Coordination

International Cooperation and Competition

NASA and DOD Space Budgets

Space Program Issues

–NASA Issues

–Military Space Issues

—-Early Warning Satellites: the SBIRS/STSS Programs

—-Space-Based Lasers and Space-Based Kinetic Energy Missile Defense

—-Antisatellite Weapons and Space Control

—-NRO, NIMA, and Imagery

—-Space-Based Radar

–Developing New Space Launch Vehicles

–Commercial Space and Trade Issues

–International Relationships


See also:

  • CRS Issue Brief IB93017, Space Stations
  • CRS Issue Brief IB93062, Space Launch Vehicles: Government Competition, and Satellite Exports
  • CRS Report RS21148, Military Space Programs: Issues STSS Programs
  • CRS Report RS21408, NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia: Congress
  • CRS Report RS21430, the National Aeronautics and Space FY2004 Budget in Brief, and Issues for Congress

U.S. Space Programs: Civilian, Military, and Commercial


The 108th Congress is addressing a broad
range of civilian, military, and commercial
space issues.

The National Aeronautics and Space
Administration (NASA) conducts the most
visible space activities. NASA’s FY2004
budget request is $15.5 billion. NASA
requested $15.0 billion for FY2003; Congress
approved $15.3 billion (adjusted for the 0.65%
across-the-board rescission, from which the
shuttle program was exempted). The loss of
the space shuttle Columbia on February 1,
2003, is dominating debate over NASA’s
future. The space shuttle’s primary mission for
the foreseeable future is taking crews and
cargo to and from the International Space
Station (ISS). The two programs are inextricably
linked, and Congress and the Administration
face many issues, both near-term and
long-term, about the shuttle and ISS.

The Department of Defense (DOD) has
a less visible but equally substantial space
program. Tracking the DOD space budget is
extremely difficult since space is not identified
as a separate line item in the budget.
DOD sometimes releases only partial
information (omitting funding for classified
programs) or will suddenly release without
explanation new figures for prior years that
are quite different from what was previously
reported. The most recent figures from DOD
show a total (classified and unclassified) space
budget of $15.7 billion for FY2002, $18.4
billion for FY2003, and a FY2004 request of
$20.4 billion. DOD space issues include
management of programs to develop new
early warning and missile tracking satellites,
and management of military and intelligence
space activities generally.

The appropriate role of the government
in facilitating commercial space businesses is
an ongoing debate. For many years, the focus
has been on commercial space launch services,
but commercial remote sensing satellites
also pose complex questions in terms of
encouraging the development of commercial
satellites that provide high quality data, while
protecting national security. President Bush
signed a new commercial remote sensing
policy on April 25, 2003 that tries to strike a
balance between those objectives.

Space launch vehicles are similar to
ballistic missiles and concerns exist about the
potential transfer of certain space technologies
to countries intending to build missiles. U.S.
linkage between space cooperation and adherence
to the Missile Technology Control Regime
was a significant factor in reaching
agreement on cooperative and commercial
space activities with Russia, and creates a
complex relationship with China depending
on the political relationship between China
and the United States.

International cooperation and competition
in space are affected by the world economic
situation and the post-Cold War political
climate. President Clinton’s 1993 decision
to merge NASA’s space station program with
Russia’s is symbolic of the dramatic changes,
and the risks.


The House passed the FY2004 VA-HUD-IA appropriations bill on July 25 (H.R. 2861,
H.Rept. 108-235), adding $71 million to the Bush Administration’s request of $15.469
billion for NASA. The House made no changes to the budget requests for the space shuttle
and related programs pending the release of the report on the investigation of space shuttle
Columbia accident. That report was released on August 26; a synopsis is available in CRS
Report RS21606. See CRS Report RS21408 for more on the accident and issues for
Congress. The Senate Appropriations Committee (S. 1584, S.Rept. 108-143) cut the request
by $130 million, including a $200 million cut for the space station program and a net
addition of $70 million for congressionally directed spending.

DOD is requesting $20.4 billion for space programs (classified and unclassified) for
FY2004, compared with its FY2003 appropriation of $18.4 billion. The House and Senate
passed their respective versions of the FY2004 DOD authorization bill on May 22 (H.R.
1588/S. 1050). The FY2004 DOD appropriations act was signed into law September 30
(P.L. 108-87).


U.S. Government Civilian Space Programs

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

The establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in
the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (P.L. 85-568, the “NASA Act”) symbolized
the entrance of the United States into the space age. The Soviet Union had successfully
orbited the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957, lending the U.S. space
program a new urgency. The first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1 (developed and launched by the
Army), was orbited on January 31, 1958 after several failures of the Naval Research
Laboratory’s Vanguard rocket. President Eisenhower’s desire to separate military and
civilian space activities led to the “NASA Act” and the creation of the civilian NASA on
October 1, 1958, with the Department of Defense (DOD) retaining control over military
space programs.

Human Spaceflight and Space Launch Vehicles. The Soviets achieved another
space “first” on April 12, 1961, when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth.
The United States responded by launching Alan Shepard into space on May 5 (though he
made only a suborbital flight; the first American to orbit the earth was John Glenn in
February 1962). Following Shepard’s flight, President Kennedy announced that the United
States intended to put a man on the Moon within a decade, a goal accomplished on July 20,
1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon (a total of six 2-man crews
walked on the Moon through 1972). Apollo was followed by the Skylab space station (to
which 3 crews were sent in 1973-1974) and the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in which
a U.S. Apollo spacecraft with 3 astronauts and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft with 2 cosmonauts
docked for 2 days of joint experiments.

In 1972, President Nixon approved NASA’s space shuttle program to develop a reusable
spacecraft for taking crews and cargo into Earth orbit. The first shuttle flight occurred in
1981 and the system was declared operational in 1982. The Challenger tragedy in January
1986 suspended shuttle operations for 32 months. Flights resumed in 1988, but on February
1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia was lost during its return to Earth. An investigation
board concluded that it was caused by both technical and organizational failures and made
29 recommendations (see CRS Report RS21408 and CRS Report RS21606). The space
shuttle is currently grounded. NASA hopes to resume flights in March/April 2004 but that
is a planning timeframe only. The space shuttle is NASA’s sole means of launching humans
into space. NASA, sometimes with DOD, has been attempting since the 1980s to develop
a replacement for it, expecting to phase out the shuttle in 2012. Those programs were not
successful, however, and in November 2002, NASA announced that it would keep the
shuttle operational at least until 2015, and perhaps until 2020 or longer. What impact the
Columbia tragedy will have on that decision is not yet known.

In 1984, President Reagan directed NASA to build a permanently occupied space
station “within a decade.” The space station has been very controversial since it began.
Twenty-two attempts in Congress since 1991 to terminate the program in NASA funding
bills have failed. In 1988, Europe, Canada and Japan agreed to be partners with the United
States in building the space station. Redesigned and rescheduled repeatedly, President
Clinton called for yet another redesign in 1993 and later that year merged NASA’s space
station program with Russia’s. That program, the International Space Station (ISS), is
currently underway (see CRS Issue Brief IB93017). Six major modules and other hardware
are in orbit, and the station has been permanently occupied since November 2000. From then
until May 2003, three-person crews rotated on 4-6 month shifts. Following the Columbia
accident, crew size has been reduced to two in order to reduce resupply requirements while
the shuttle fleet is grounded. Crews and cargo can be taken to the space station by Russian
Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, respectively. The Russian Soyuz spacecraft remain docked
to the station as “lifeboats,” and must be replaced every 6 months. Thus, the two-person
crews are being rotated at 6-month intervals. Although returning the shuttle to flight status
is the focus of attention currently, once it resumes service, issues surrounding the space
station’s future remain to be addressed. For example, in 2001, cost growth led the Bush
Administration to decide to truncate construction of ISS at a phase it calls “core complete.”
If that decision is maintained, ISS crew size could not increase to seven as planned, affecting
how much scientific research can be conducted there, as well reducing the number of
opportunities for astronauts from all partners in the program to be members of ISS crews.
How much of the space station to build, and how to ensure that all the partners can make full
use of it, remains to be resolved.

Science Programs. NASA has launched many spacecraft for space and earth
science. Robotic probes served as pathfinders to the Moon for astronauts, and have visited
all the planets in the solar system except Pluto; a mission to Pluto is expected to be launched
in 2006. Many of the probes have been quite successful, but there were failures, too. In
1999, for example, two NASA Mars missions failed, at a combined cost of $328.5 million.
They reflected NASA’s “faster, better, cheaper” (FBC) approach to scientific spacecraft,
replacing large, complex spacecraft that can acquire more information, but take longer and
cost more to build. The FBC approach was subsequently scrutinized and NASA
restructured its Mars exploration program significantly. Instead of launching orbiter-lander
pairs in 2001 and 2003 and a sample-return mission in 2005, NASA launched an orbiter in 2001 (Mars Odyssey), which is now orbiting that planet together with another NASA probe
(Mars Global Surveyor) launched in 1996. Twin landers were launched in 2003 and are
expected to arrive in January 2004. NASA plans to launch an orbiter in 2005 and additional
spacecraft through the remainder of the decade. Plans for a sample-return mission have been
terminated. NASA also has sent, or plans to send, spacecraft to other planets, comets, and
asteroids, including Cassini, which is enroute to Saturn (arrival expected in July 2004).

Space-based observatories in Earth orbit have studied the universe since the 1960s,
creating new fields of astronomy since space-borne telescopes can intercept wavelengths
(such as x-rays and gamma rays) that cannot penetrate Earth’s atmosphere. In the 1980s,
NASA embarked upon building four “Great Observatories” for studies in different parts of
the electromagnetic spectrum. All four have been launched: Hubble Space Telescope,
launched April 1990 (primarily for the visible wavelengths); Compton Gamma Ray
Observatory, launched April 1991, deorbited June 2000; Chandra X-Ray Observatory,
launched July 1999; and Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF), launched August 2003.

NASA also has solar-terrestrial physics programs that study the interaction between the
Sun and the Earth. In FY2001, NASA began the Living with a Star program that envisions
the launch of many spacecraft over the next decade to obtain more accurate information on
how the Earth and society are affected by what has come to be known as “space weather” –
including, for example, negative effects of solar activity on telecommunications.

The 1960s witnessed the development of communications and meteorological satellites
by NASA, and in the 1970s, land and ocean remote sensing satellites. NASA’s role in this
aspect of space utilization traditionally is R&D. Once the technology is proven, operational
responsibility is transferred to other agencies or the private sector. NASA continues to
perform research in many of these areas. NASA’s major environmental satellite research
program today is the Earth Observing System (see Environment).

NASA also has an Office for Biological and Physical Research (OBPR) that conducts
research related to ensuring that humans can live and work safely and effectively in space,
and for fundamental research that can be conducted in microgravity environments. The
space shuttle Columbia’s final mission (STS-107) was devoted in large part to OBPR
experiments. The loss of much of the data acquired during Columbia’s 16-day mission, and
the impact of that tragedy on scientific use of the space station while the shuttle fleet is
grounded, are challenges currently facing OBPR.

Other Civilian Government Agencies

Beginning in the 1960s, other civilian agencies became involved in space. At that time,
operation of weather satellites was transferred to what is now the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Department of Commerce. The Landsat land
remote sensing satellite system was transferred to NOAA in 1979. (Later, NOAA oversaw
private sector operation of the system, but in 1992, Congress moved the program back into
the government; see below). The Department of Commerce is involved in space issues due
to its role in trade policy and export of items on the Commerce Control List, and has an
Office of Space Commercialization to facilitate commercial space businesses. In 1983, the
Department of Transportation (DOT) was given responsibility for facilitating and regulating
commercial launch services companies. This function is performed through the Federal Aviation Administration. DOT and DOD co-chair a group that oversees use of DOD’s
Global Positioning System of navigation satellites. DOT represents civilian users and has
programs to augment the system’s utility to the civilian community. Other government
agencies involved in space include the Department of Energy, which develops nuclear power
sources for satellites; the U.S. Geological Survey in the Department of Interior which
operates the Landsat satellites; the Departments of Agriculture and other departments that
use satellite data for crop forecasting and map making, for example; and the Department of
State, which develops international space policy and determines whether to grant export
licenses for items on the Munitions List (including some types of spacecraft and launch
vehicles). The National Security Council, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and
the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, also are involved.

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SpaceRef staff editor.