Why you should care
A whole lot of cash is getting funneled to space from the Defense Department.
“We have liftoff for the NROL-65 of the National Reconnaissance Office!” a voice calls out. Moments later, a gigantic orange rocket rolls out of a hanger decorated with a massive American flag and blasts off. Accompanied by a guitar riff, the rocket sails into the sky.
The video is made by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The rocket roaring into the sky, notwithstanding the less-than-subtle advertisement, is not on the books, and the budget used to build it is secret. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the owner of the payload, is a classified U.S. intelligence agency dedicated to launching and maintaining government satellites.
But this launch is just a small part of the cloak-and-dagger world of military space. And even though it isn’t as well known as NASA, it’s big business. So much so that …
NASA officially receives just 59 percent of the U.S. space budget — and it could be far less than that.
In the annual Aeronautics and Space Report of the President of 2017, the latest available, NASA received $18.9 billion for space activities and the Department of Defense (DOD) got $10.1 billion, which mainly goes to the Air Force. Other scattered millions go to various other federal agencies, including the Education, Transportation and Agriculture departments.
But that’s not the whole picture. Significant parts of the military space budget, including the one for the NRO, are classified, and thus unknown. But a Washington Post investigation into U.S. intelligence agencies from 2013 gives us an idea. They suggest the NRO received $10.3 billion that year, with an additional $4.9 billion going to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Program. And the budget is growing: SpaceNews reported that the Pentagon has requested $12.5 billion for national security space programs in 2019, up $1.1 billion from 2018.
“Space has always been related with the military in the U.S.,” says David Baker, who worked at NASA for 25 years before joining the British Interplanetary Society and has written several books about the history of U.S. space exploration. “Before the foundation of NASA, all the expenditure on space was by the military, and the first American satellite was launched by the U.S. Army under Wernher von Braun.”
For most of U.S. space history, the DOD regularly and openly received more of the space budget than NASA. During the space race, NASA won out — and in 2013, the DOD changed the methodology for calculating its space budget, which meant NASA came out on top again. But in a year like 2003, NASA, for example, received 18 billion inflation-adjusted dollars, while the DOD got $25 billion for space-related matters.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean we have billions of dollars’ worth of weapons pointed at Earth right now. “Space has always been militarized,” says Victoria Samson, a researcher at the Secure World Foundation, where she specializes in military space. “But space probably hasn’t been weaponized so far, so we haven’t put weapons up there.” In other words, most of that military budget goes to procurement and development of reconnaissance and surveillance capacity: spy satellites.
And while this is little known, it doesn’t seem to be an exception internationally. “Although they are less transparent about their budgets, in Russia and China there is less of a distinction between military and civilian space. The military is involved in a lot of their projects,” says Baker. In Europe, the civilian-military border is largely maintained, though, and the European Space Agency identifies itself as a completely nonmilitary organization.
So what does this mean for President Donald Trump’s promised space-focused military branch, the Space Force? While it might seem more efficient to funnel the entire space budget through a single organization, Sandra Erwin, a journalist who covers military space for SpaceNews, says it’s not that simple. “There is still overhead you need to factor in. These are things like administrative cost, wages, uniforms, support staff, civilian contractors, information systems and maybe even a new building,” Erwin says. “Even if they do it under the Air Force, they would still need a lot of overhead, and that’s going to cost quite a bit of money.”
In the meantime, launches like the one shown in the United Launch Alliance’s advertisement take place regularly. “It’s funny because it’s not like these things happen in some secret underground bunker,” says Samson. “When you launch something, people are going to see it. There is a very active amateur satellite observation community who track these things. So you can question if it’s so useful for governments to keep so much of this classified.”
But until they do release the documents, it remains unclear how many funds go into military space. You don’t, however, need a spy satellite to see that it’s a lot.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the amount of the increase in the Pentagon’s requested space budget. It is $1.1 billion, not $1.1 million.