Once again, I am a Relic

A few years ago, when they shut down the 55th Mobile Command & Control Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, I became a relic of the Cold War. Later, when the last Titan rocket launched, I became a relic of the space program.

Now, again, it seems I am a relic: this time of the attempt to keep militarily critical U.S. technology in U.S. hands.

At the Defense Technology Security Administration from 2001-04, I recommended provisos for hundreds of State Department export licenses and agreements, to ensure U.S. companies didn’t reveal design methodologies or other insights into U.S. capabilities. I reviewed reams of technical data to ensure the companies didn’t go beyond the restrictions in their licenses. And I monitored dozens of face-to-face meetings between U.S. and foreign companies to ensure all parties stayed in bounds. It was often fascinating, sometimes frustrating work that was born out of the Cox Commission and the defense authorization that, among other things, had moved export authority for communications satellites from the Commerce Department to the State Department (see below).

Now we find out that, by executive fiat, our President delegated his responsibility for certifying critical space exports to the Commerce Department. It was actually done back on September 29th, via this Presidential Determination.

The responsibility is found in Section 1512 of the 1999 National Defense Authorization Act:

The President shall certify to the Congress at least 15 days in advance of any export to the People’s Republic of China of missile equipment or technology (as defined in section 74 of the
Arms Export Control Act (22 U.S.C. 2797c)) that —
(1) such export is not detrimental to the United States space launch industry; and
(2) the missile equipment or technology, including any indirect technical benefit that could be derived from such export, will not measurably improve the missile or space launch capabilities of the People’s Republic of China.

So now, rather than the President making such certifications to Congress, the Commerce Department will do so. If I recall, people complained because George W. Bush seemed to delegate things instead of tending to them himself; but according to this Washington Times article, neither he nor Bill Clinton ever delegated this particular responsibility.

Thankfully, the determination did not seem to immediately get around Section 1513 of the 1999 NDAA, which states,

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, all satellites and related items that are on the Commerce Control List of dual use items in the Export Administration Regulations (15 CFR part 730 et seq.) on the date of the enactment of this Act shall be transferred to the United States Munitions List and controlled under section 38 of the Arms Export Control Act (22 U.S.C. 2778).

But how long until that gets changed? There are a lot of rumblings in the aerospace industry about rescinding some of the current export controls, as if the reason U.S. companies have lost market share to foreign satellite makers is that they can’t tell foreign customers why U.S. satellites work so well. It’s not price, it’s not that foreign manufacturers build fine spacecraft, it’s lack of technology transfer? The notion is ridiculous, but the impulse to blame our lack of competitiveness on anything other than internal business practices runs very deep in this country — witness the U.S. auto industry. Disturbingly, this “determination” seems to indicate that the Administration is willing to entertain the idea of sacrificing national security in order to make a quick buck.

I found that attitude among representatives of some of the companies I monitored: the short-sighted notion that it didn’t matter if they transferred technology to another country, as long as the other country paid well. The possibility that a foreign company might end up as their competitor in the future, and take away their customers using adapted U.S. technology, never seemed to occur to them.

Eight months before President Obama was elected, I expressed concerns about his national (in)security rhetoric. I didn’t foresee this potential relaxation of export controls, but I can’t say I’m very surprised.

And I’m still concerned. But I would be: after all, I’m a relic.

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A Space Anniversary for the Cold Warriors

Forty-five years ago today — September 24, 1964 — a Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile launched for the first time on a test flight from Cape Canaveral.

(Blast door at the entrance to Launch Control Center Delta-01. Image from the National Park Service.)

Hats off to all my missileer friends whose alert posture kept us safe during the Cold War and beyond — and deter nuclear aggression today. It was an honor to serve with you, even if my part was just to put together emergency action messages.

If you’re planning to visit South Dakota, you might consider adding the Minuteman Missile National Historical Site to your travel itinerary.

And 10 years ago today, in 1999, an Athena rocket launched the Ikonos-2 remote sensing satellite from Vandenberg AFB. Ikonos-2 was a non-military reconnaissance satellite, and the first of a “new generation” of high-resolution (1 meter) commercial imagers.

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A Busy Launch Day in Space History

Two interesting launches occurred 15 years ago today — August 3, 1994.

  • From Edwards Air Force Base, California, a Pegasus rocket launched the Advanced Photovoltaic and Electronic Experiments spacecraft off the wing of NASA’s B-52 carrier aircraft. APEX was part of the USAF Space Test Program, and carried instruments to study the effects of the Van Allen radiation belt.
  • And from Cape Canaveral, what might have been an “ordinary” launch (except that in space launch there’s still no such thing) of DIRECTV-2, except that this spacecraft carried the “SpaceArc” time capsule. SpaceArc — the “space archive” — consisted of a reel of 35-mm optical tape containing essays, poems, written music and artwork: “the personal expressions of more than 47,000 people from around the world, representing 52 countries,” according to the old web site. The archive included messages from then Vice-President Al Gore and his predecessor, Dan Quayle, and is intended to remain in orbit for thousands of years after the satellite’s useful life.

And five years ago — on this date in 2004 — the Messenger probe to Mercury was launched from Cape Canaveral. Messenger is scheduled to arrive at Mercury and begin orbiting the planet in March 2011 (591 days away, if you’re counting). Read more about the Messenger mission on the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory web site.

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Space History Today: Rockets, Retrieval, and that Moon Thing

Lots of interesting July 20th space history (even though I only concentrate on anniversaries in multiples of 5 years).

(View of Earth from lunar orbit, prior to the [I]Eagle‘s landing. Click to enlarge. NASA image from the Apollo-11 Image Gallery.)[/I]

Forty-five years ago today, in 1964, the Space Electric Rocket Test (SERT-1) launched on a suborbital test flight from Wallops Island, Virginia. The vehicle tested electron bombardment ion engines. (I find this interesting because Area 1-14 at the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Lab [my first assignment in the USAF] tested electric propulsion concepts and, I believe, some ion engines. Ion thrusters are used for stationkeeping on many different spacecraft.)

And for terrestrial history with a connection to space, ten years ago today, in 1999, the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft was pulled up from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, about ninety miles northeast of Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. Astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom had flown in the Liberty Bell 7 on our country’s second manned spaceflight. (I find the retrieval particularly interesting, since my first project in the Titan System Program Office was to find and retrieve pieces of a failed Titan-IV rocket so the investigators could confirm the cause of the malfunction.)

That’s it, right?

Of course not. I’m actually pleased with the attention being paid to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo-11 landing, with dedicated sites like We Choose the Moon — and today is the day.

(Buzz Aldrin and the U.S. flag. Click to enlarge. NASA image from the Apollo-11 Image Gallery.)

Forty years ago today, in 1969, the Lunar Module Eagle landed on the moon in the first manned lunar landing. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin prepared to step out on the lunar surface, while Michael Collins orbited in the Command Module Columbia. A few hours later — at 10:56 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, which was 2:56 a.m. Greenwich Mean (Universal) Time — Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto the moon.

“One small step,” indeed.

I dream about the giant leaps.

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Space History: a Polar Explorer

(Explorer-52, or “Hawkeye-1”. Public domain image from Wikimedia.)

Thirty-five years ago today — June 3, 1974 — Explorer-52 launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, aboard a Scout rocket. Built by the University of Iowa, the satellite was also known as Hawkeye-1.

According to NASA’s National Space Science Data Center Master Catalog,

The primary mission objective was to conduct particles and fields investigations of the polar magnetosphere of the earth out to 21 earth radii. Secondary objectives were to make magnetic field and plasma distribution measurements in the solar wind, and to study Type-3 radio emissions caused by solar electron streams in the interplanetary medium.

And now you know.

Since the satellite was launched into a polar orbit, I have to believe the Thule Tracking Station — callsign POGO, which I commanded for one year of my Air Force career — downlinked at least some of the data from it. That was many years later than this launch, of course, so it’s not much of a connection … but I’ll take what I can get.

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In Recent News: Operationally Responsive Space

I was surprised to see two news items about ORS this week: the ORS demonstrator TacSat-3 launched Tuesday on a Minotaur rocket, and then ORS-1 — which would be the first operational spacecraft, and an infrared imager, no less — showed up as the third-highest item on the Air Force’s unfunded priorities list.

I posted blurbs about both items in a dedicated thread in the “Space Tactics, Techniques, & Procedures” section of the Space Warfare Forum. I’d love to be convinced that my original misgivings about ORS — which I developed while still in the service, based on the briefings and articles I saw — have been overcome.

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Bouncing Signals Off the Moon, a Half Century Ago

Today in space history — 50 years ago, in fact — an intercontinental radio transmission was made using the moon as a relay station. The signal went from Jodrell Bank, England to the Air Force Cambridge Research Center in Bedford, MA.

(Click to enlarge.)

It was a neat idea, and perfectly reasonable in the age before long-lived, reliable communications satellites had been built. This book chapter details the Jodrell Bank work, and this page discusses an earlier U.S. Navy program to use the moon as a communications relay.

(Image from Flickr, by longhorndave, Creative Commons licensed.)

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A Lifting Body and a 'Misty' Launch

Two space history anniversaries today:

Forty years ago today — May 9, 1969 — John A. Manke flew the HL-10 lifting body in its first supersonic flight at the Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards Air Force Base.

(HL-10 on the Edwards AFB lakebed, with B-52 flyover. NASA photo ECN-2203. Click to enlarge.)

And fifteen years ago — May 9, 1994 — a Scout rocket launched from Vandenberg AFB carrying the second Miniature Sensor Technology Integration spacecraft: MSTI-2, pronounced “Misty-two.” I was stationed at Vandy at the time, though I confess I don’t remember that particular launch.

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Hindsight and Outrage — Much Ado about Not Much

So, one of the VC-25 Presidential airlift aircraft (it’s not “Air Force One” unless the President is on board) flew over Manhattan the other day, with F-16 chase planes carrying combat photographers to update photos of the aircraft with the Statue of Liberty in the background. The mission was conceived and authorized by the White House Military Office, according to reports; at least, the WHMO director has done the right thing and taken responsibility for it.

For reasons unknown to me, the mission was not announced ahead of time; however, I can guess one reason had to do with security. If announced ahead of time, crackpots (or worse than crackpots) could have stationed themselves with weapons to damage or destroy the aircraft — it would be an enticing target for anyone wanting to demonstrate their contempt for the United States.*

With hindsight, many people have said that, had they known about the planned flight, they would have predicted the reactions of people working around Ground Zero — but some of that is undoubtedly political grandstanding. I don’t think they would have predicted it. Many of these same people believe the Terror War is only an overseas contingency, and not a fundamental campaign for the safety and security of free people in the face of bellicose extremists. Why, then, would they have predicted panic among civilians if we are only engaged in overseas contingency operations? The reactions of New Yorkers show that the contingency is not just overseas — at least not in the minds of ordinary citizens.

But along with this hindsight, we also hear expressions of outrage, not just over the training mission that had cameras on it but the cost of the training mission. Ridiculous.

Many of the people complaining about the cost, and trying to label it an extravagance in an age that demands austerity, would — until January 20th of this year — have cheered any flight by that glorious symbol with “United States of America” emblazoned on its side. Their complaint is not that the VC-25 costs a lot to operate, but because this President’s VC-25 costs a lot to operate. Ladies and gentlemen, the cost has not changed with the new administration. It is what it is.

And here’s the kicker: that training flight was going to be flown somewhere. Flight crews have to maintain proficiency, new crewmembers have to be trained, and even these special aircraft must be put through their paces. I used to see the VC-25 flying into and out of Andrews Air Force Base from time to time, and I bet few of those times were actual AF-1 missions. If the photo mission had been flown over the open ocean, or over the great plains, or even high over Manhattan, you wouldn’t even have known about it — nor would you have cared, about the mission or the cost.

So now it’s much ado about not much: time for accusations and posturing and apologies, and possibly even for resignations. And that’s a shame, because we have many more serious things to think about and work on.

Please, save your outrage for something that really matters.

*It may have been possible to balance OPSEC — operational security — with public awareness by announcing the flight just an hour or so ahead. We’ll never know.

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