DESPITE its strong inheritance of military DNA (much of it, somewhat counterintuitively, coming from the American navy), NASA is a civilian agency, set up that way in deliberate contrast to the military-run Soviet space programme. In practice, the distinction is not always so clear-cut: NASA has done plenty of work for the Pentagon. But America’s armed forces maintain a separate space programme of their own, largely out of the public eye. Although hard numbers are difficult to come by, it is thought that the military space budget has matched or exceeded NASA’s every year since 1982.
All the signs are that it is roaring ahead. The air force’s public space budget (as opposed to the secret part) will increase by nearly 10% next year, to $8.7 billion, with much of it going on a new generation of rockets. Bruce Carlson, director of the National Reconnaissance Office, the secretive outfit that runs America’s spy satellites, announced in 2010 that his agency was embarking on “the most aggressive launch schedule…undertaken in the last 25 years”.
Much of the money goes on satellites—spy satellites for keeping tabs on other countries, communications satellites for soldiers to talk to each other, and even the Global Positioning System satellites, designed to guide soldiers and bombs to their targets, and now expanded to aid civilian navigation.
But there are more exotic programmes. The air force runs one for anti-satellite warfare, designed to destroy or disable enemy birds. Another includes experimental aircraft, such as the X-37, a cut-down, unmanned descendant of the space shuttle. The air force will not say what the X-37 is for. One theory is that it is a spy plane, designed to catch savvy targets that know how to go to ground when spy satellites—which have predictable orbits—are overhead. Another is that it is intended to destroy satellites, or to drop bombs from orbit.
Other nations are flexing their muscles. American commanders report that China regularly fires powerful lasers into the sky, demonstrating their ability to dazzle or blind satellites. In 2007 a Chinese missile destroyed an old weather satellite, creating a huge field of orbiting debris. Afterwards, Russia spoke publicly about its anti-satellite weapons. This is one space race that is well under way.