NASA and the Department of Defense Chart a Cautious (but Far-Reaching) Course - Together

Anticipation ran high this week in advance of a stellar line up of NASA, defense, and Congressional representatives assembled for a 'town meeting' sponsored by the Space Transportation Association (STA).

Present for the event were: Sean O'Keefe, NASA Administrator; Peter Teets, Air Force Under Secretary; General Lance Lord, Commander, Air Force Space Command; Admiral James O. Ellis Commander, U.S. Strategic Command; Ron Sega, Director, Defense Research & Engineering; Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chair; and Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) House Aerospace Caucus Chair

Earlier in the day, NASA and representatives of the Department of Defense signed a Memorandum of Agreement, which significantly expanded the interactions between America's civil, and military space programs. This was done during a regular meeting of the "Space Partnership Council" that has been in place between NASA and the Department of Defense for several years.

Speculation had been circulating that a major announcement regarding the future of NASA's Space Launch Initiative (SLI) - including significant DoD participation - was going to be announced. That may still be in the offing. NASA is now looking to move management of the proposed SLI crew transport capability from NASA MSFC to NASA headquarters. It is expected that this will be managed by a team composed of Code M (Office of Space Flight) and Code R (Office of Aerospace Technology) with a PEO - Program Executive Officer - at the helm.

Alas, expectations leading up to this event did not translate into drama.

However, despite the lack of big announcements, the groundwork was laid for new modes of cooperation between America's civilian and military space programs. While these collaborative activities are still mostly in the form of generalities on briefing charts, given consolidation of space-related efforts in the DoD, a significant reworking of America's overall space activities - military and civilian - could be in the works. What also seemed to pass under everyone's radar was the fact that NASA has now firmly become a player in the strategic defense of the United States - more so than it has been since its earliest days.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher, (R-CA), House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chair, spoke first. With regard to American space policy, he said there is a need to "reignite the spark in American people. They have many things on their minds right now. We have not articulated that vision of space lately. We have got to get people back to where they support their space program. [This is] a vision we know that we can make true - and we need people in our side."

Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) House Aerospace Caucus Chair, spoke next. In noting synergies between NASA and the DoD he said "I think this is very useful and critically important to the strategic interest of our nation.' Noting that he regularly sees "NASA and DOD working together on a daily basis' at Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Weldon said, "There has been a healthy degree of separation - especially in R&D. Both entities have divergent missions. There have been attempts [in the past] to do things cooperatively. Not all were successful. Therefore, some are uneasy about [the prospect of] future of joint programs."

Looking back into history Weldon said, "I want to remind people of the X-15 program. Today we are still learning from data that this mission obtained. I want to point out that the X-15 was a NASA/DOD program. There is precedent and it has worked well in past.

Looking ahead, Weldon said, "Space from low Earth orbit outwards can be viewed as a final strategic choke point - one that is underutilized as venue of strategic importance. We have been in space for 45 years. The U.S. has not optimized its space capabilities. History is replete with nations who seize the high ground. The U.S. must stake firmly its claim to space. It is ludicrous, as space dependent as we are, not to seize strategic imperative. We need to increase access to space and, if necessary, deny access to space for nations that threaten our security."

He concluded by saying "NASA and DoD have requirement for low cost routine access to space. Clearly there is some synergy. I hope that this synergy can be exploited to enhance national security as well as provide NASA with enhanced capabilities to explore the cosmos."

Addressing a point Sean O'Keefe often likes to deflect, i.e. the development of a national space policy, Weldon said "You can count on my support in Congress as we work toward a comprehensive overarching space policy."

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe [bio] spoke next. The only 'announcement' of any sort at this meeting was acknowledgement by O'Keefe that the existing Memorandum of Agreement between NASA and the DoD had been augmented that morning to include Ron Sega's Organization, Defense Research & Engineering.

Noting that next Monday marks the 55th anniversary of Chuck Year's flight wherein he broke the sound barrier - and that last Friday we celebrated the 45th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1 - O'Keefe said "We have come a long way since then." Citing the geopolitical changes underway at that time. O'Keefe said "We demonstrated some technology prowess that would not have been possible were it not for that situation."

In describing the activities of the NASA-DoD partnership Council O'Keefe said that this was a "continuous effort to develop cooperative solutions and to leverage capabilities that we could do collectively but could not do individually." Specific examples of these continuing efforts include "propulsion and power generation advances to get anywhere outside of this planet or low Earth orbit are same technologies that national security needs. Applications may be different - but we can begin with some very similar technologies.

Peter Teets, Air Force Under Secretary, [bio] opened by saying "hopefully our activities can provide benefits to NASA and its civilian charter." He then made note of Rep. Rohrabacher's comments - specifically to "reignite a spark and the importance and excitement of our nation's space program and to get that message to the American people."

"Most recent military conflicts show how important the use of space is. Clearly communication, GPS accuracy and positioning as well as intelligence collection have been vitally important in Afghanistan - this will only increase as we go forward. It is very important that we leverage our capabilities together as a nation to make sure we have the best space program possible."

"Today we had opportunity to talk about assured access. I have been interested in this topic. As Sean O'Keefe mentioned, this is an arena where we can share technology. In particular, with regard to new EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles) programs, I am pleased to see the Atlas V launch and I look forward to Delta IV launch later this year. With EELV, we will have taken a good step forward with a very capable assured access to space.”

“However, EELV is not an end all for assured space access. We need to look at the next generation. In partnership with NASA, the NAI (National Aerospace Initiative) is an important way for us to move forward and support those efforts. Ultimately, a responsive launch capability will be more important. It could be reusable or expendable - either way, it will require new technology."

With regard to telecommunications Teets said, "We had an opportunity this morning to talk about how to use the TDRSS system that NASA has developed. We also talked about NASA missions. Space-based radar for example. This is a program that DOD is considering as well."

In closing he said, "There are technologies that can be mutually beneficial to both NASA and DoD. It is important to nurture them."

Ron Sega, Director, Defense Research & Engineering (and former NASA astronaut) [bio] spoke next. According to the Office of the Defense Research & Engineering website Sega's responsibility is "the chief technical advisor to the Secretary of Defense and the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (USD-AT&L) for scientific and technical matters, basic and applied research, and advanced technology development. Dr. Sega also has management oversight for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)."

Sega described his task as being to "look across DoD, NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) and NASA - as partners. It is natural to develop common technologies together - even if, at the end of the day, we may have different requirements to put them into different systems. But we have a common need." Sega said that his office was looking at a variety of technologies being developed under the National Hypersonic Plan, the 180 day study NASA/DOD recently completed, as well as recommendations from commissions that look at future of aerospace such as the Walker Commission and "how can we bring these sorts of things together in an integrated approach."

Sega outlined three main areas he is interested in: 1. hypersonic technology, access to space, and space technology. According to testimony contained on his office's website "hypersonic technology" includes "Strategic Strike, Time Critical Targets, Strategic Stealth, Suborbital Vehicles, UCAVs, Fast Transportation, etc."; "Access to space" includes TSTO (Two Stage to Orbit): 1st - Air Breathing, 2nd - Rocket; SSTO (Single Stage to Orbit); and "Advanced Space Technologies" includes "Microsats, Multifunction Satellites, etc."

This testimony also describes a National Aerospace Initiative (NAI) approach, which starts in the near term dealing with weapons systems - "Supersonic/Hypersonic Missiles (Time-critical targets)". This leads to mid-term capabilities that move from weapons to space access: "Hypersonic Cruiser (Global Reach/Attack)"; and ends up leading to far-term space access capabilities such as "RLV (Affordable, timely access to space)"

"We need to look at how to integrate these three areas." Sega noted that it was easy to see synergies between NASA and DoD efforts in a hypersonics. He speculated that coordinated research could lead to an air-breathing first stage in a Third Generation launch system. "If you can get into space in a responsive way this may change the way we look at space architectures." Sega's team looked at the state of technology and possible opportunities these three areas with collaboration in mind across NASA, DoD, and the NRO. As part of the process they went to universities and industry as well.

"We're now coming together to make sure we have an integrated look at developing technology and identifying needs. "One of the key components needed to move ahead is both innovation and an increased number of young people engaged in those areas that will allow us to work in these areas and sustain American leadership." Sega suggested a collaborative effort might be oriented was to have a program wherein "you add a Mach number, one per year, until you reach Mach 12 by 2012.

Admiral James O. Ellis Commander, U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) [Bio] spoke next. USSTRATCOM was augmented in June 2002 with the merger of the U.S. Space Command and the U.S. Strategic Command.

According to its website USSTRATCOM is "the command and control center for U.S. strategic forces and controls military space operations, computer network operations, information operations, strategic warning and intelligence assessments as well as global strategic planning. The command is responsible for both early warning of and defense against missile attack and long-range conventional attacks. The command is charged with deterring and defending against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction." The merger of U.S. Space Command and the U.S. Strategic Command becomes effective in October 2002.

Ellis began by saying, "We met this morning for the Space Partnership Council. It is clear that we came together in cooperation." Referring to the MOA signed by the participants, Ellis said "this is a continuation of what has been underway for 5 years and is reinvigorated with the addition of Ron Sega." He went on to say that this is an opportunity for the leadership of these organizations to both "supplement and complement" each other's participation.

"Success is important. We have entered into an era where the reality of global challenges - and global capabilities - and their requirements are here to stay."

Referring to the recent merger of U.S. Space Command and the U.S. Strategic Command he said "they're both excellent in their own right. We're bringing their cultures together into a global command. As this pertains to space, we fully understand that control of space - and access to space - are critical to our nation's defense capability. Without this, our war fighting and deterrence capabilities would be significantly degraded. Controlling the high ground is critical in military operations."

Ellis then referred to the Rumsfeld Commission ("Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization") and its recommendations with regard to the use of space. Ellis quoted one specific recommendation from the report:

"After examining a variety of organizational approaches, the Commission concluded that a number of disparate space activities should promptly be merged, chains of command adjusted, lines of communication opened and policies modified to achieve greater responsibility and accountability. Only then can the necessary trade-offs be made, the appropriate priorities be established and the opportunities for improving U.S. military and intelligence capabilities be realized. Only with senior-level leadership, when properly managed and with the right priorities will U.S. space programs both deserve and attract the funding that is required." [Executive Summary page 9]

"That is what we are about" Ellis said. "This new command will have capabilities and responsibilities never before imagined. This will be most significant change in DOD since its inception." he concluded by saying "this is a great opportunity and we will strive to get it right. Innovation in operation concepts - many centered in space. This is the evolving nature of warfare and it is ours to capture."

General Lance Lord, Commander, Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) [bio] spoke next. According to its wbesite "The Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) is a major command headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. AFSPC defends America through its space and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) operations, vital force elements in projecting global reach and global power."

Lord opened by saying "up until 1969, when we walked on the moon, our vision of space was close to Earth. Now our vision and interest in space has expanded. The [NASA-DoD] partnership has established a great foundation for that [expanded interest]".

He continued “The goal that Mr. Teets and I have is that we been tasked to create space cadre and space culture in the USAF so as to ignite the vision that Rep. Rohrabacher talked about. We need to be inclusive of whole community - Army and Navy and other services - such that they are involved in space to help ignite that vision."

Lord referred to a plan he and his staff has created to address these issues. It is scheduled to be presented to Teets in December 2002 and then, after that, to the Secretary of Defense. Lord said that his organization will seek to reach out to the people at NASA since they represent part of the "space culture". He noted that there is a USAF office at NASA MSFC and that it works with NASA on a day-to-day basis.

O'Keefe and Sega were then asked if, as part of these new modes of collaboration between DoD and NASA, developmental responsibilities would be reduced and/or shifted from one agency to another - or whether in house capabilities will be left in place and channeled to work together. There has been much speculation that significant portions of developmental responsibility for SLI will depart MSFC for NASA HQ - or elsewhere.

O'Keefe said that he'd be "surprised if Teets did not share his view - that the first major objective is to look at what current capabilities are in place and then look at how to build on this existing capacity. O'Keefe referred to Ron Sega's "Synergy Office" as looking at applications in the NAI as a means to "leverage respective talents, technology, and prowess to yield an outcome that would not be possible if we [individual organizations] took the trips alone. He spoke of these efforts as "yielding a tremendous dividend down the road."

Ron Sega said "we're looking at a way to integrate and coordinate efforts in developing technology. As an example: during May to July 2002, there was testing of a system NASA Langley Research Center: HyFly." According to its website, HyFly is a DARPA/Navy-sponsored program whose goal is "to demonstrate a vehicle range of 600 nautical miles with an average speed above Mach 4, maximum sustainable cruise speed in excess of Mach 6, and the ability to dispense a simulated or surrogate submunition."

Sega said "tests were conducted every day. In essence we have a service and agency in the DoD working jointly on a ram/scramjet system at a NASA lab with industry participation. We are looking at ways to bring the best and brightest folks where infrastructure and facilities make sense. We hope to replicate these sorts of programs in future."

Lance Lord added "I think the real issue is not who builds things but how we integrate requirements and derive the best from these systems.

When asked if a concrete plan for partnership that came out of meeting - and what sort of funding profile might be expected, no one was specific on numbers. O'Keefe said "the details of this cooperation will appear in the President's FY 2004 budget which will be available in February 2003. We are now working on plans to prepare for that.

Editor's commentary: As this event wore on, repeated reference was made to the new strategic realities that the U.S. now faces - challenges alloyed and enhanced by 9-11. Later, during question and answer time, what seems to have slipped right past most of the audience (one made up of a cross section of who's who in space and defense community in Washington) - was the explicit linkage of NASA to America's national security.

Moreover, NASA is now being viewed by the Administration (O'Keefe was the only person present who reports directly to the President) as a component of a larger capability and responsibility - one that both focuses on NASA's capabilities - and transcends them at the same time.

With several exceptions, there was not a peep from the audience. This is rather surprising given that the room was filled to capacity.

It is hard to explain this, I suppose. Are people scared to ask questions - or are they still waiting for some general overall theme to be presented to them so as to serve as a guide to Sean O'Keefe's NASA? More the latter than the former, I suppose.

Based upon what I have been able to glean from the crumbs that Sean O'Keefe has dropped there is a plan at work here - one that currently seems somewhat tentative - and scattered.- yet one that is methodically coming into focus. If you follow O'Keefe's avowed modus operandi he is using a process that finds the best answer as it moves along - not one that assumes one at the onset of the process.

NASA is being reinvented - not just internally, but from an external perspective as well. And it is happening in plain view - albeit in slow motion - if you just take the time to look for the telltale signs.

Curiously, this is happening a decade after the previous Administration proclaimed the "reinvention of government" with grand flourish - with NASA as one of its first experiments. All that came from that misadventure was a demoralized workforce, a series of fad management ideas hoisted on the agency by a capricious Administrator, the further erosion of human capital, and diminished respect on Capitol Hill for the agency's ability to manage itself.

It would seem that the FY 2004 budget is the "make it or break it" point for Sean O'Keefe's plan to steer the agency back on course. Only time will tell if NASA - and its larger community - wants to be steered.


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