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

Status Report From: Congressional Research Service (CRS)
Posted: Wednesday, November 19, 2003

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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