Last year, President Trump made headlines the world over with the announcement of a proposed space-specific branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. While the administration and logistics of such an endeavor remain the subject of debate, the fact that the United States has a vested interest in developing both defensive and offensive capabilities in orbit is perhaps better understood by the general public today than it has been at any time in history. With modern warfare so reliant on satellite-based technologies, the nation that dominates the skies above will always maintain the digital high ground.

While that concept is only recently seeping its way into common conversation here in the United States, it’s always been present behind closed doors at the Pentagon. The very establishment of NASA, less than a year after the launch of Sputnik and staffed in large part by scientists and researchers who had previously developed missile technologies for the U.S. military, was (at least in part) a strategic military decision dressed up in good PR. President Kennedy’s famed announcement that Americans would reach the Moon by the close of the 1960s wasn’t lofty American optimism: it was a directive rooted deeply in geopolitics and concerns about the spread of communism. The Soviet Union’s early lead in the space race was not only a black eye for America, it was seen by many as proof positive that the Soviet communist model was not only working, it was out-innovating American capitalism. Winning the space race, then, became about more than national pride. It was about the efficacy of economic ideologies in an era when global norms were at stake.

America's first Space Force: A secret DoD program had 32 military astronauts and its own mission control
The mighty Saturn V won the race to the Moon, but conflict continued in our orbital backyard. (NASA)

Even for Americans who are ready and willing to embrace the idea that national security concerns helped fuel America’s fervor for space programs in the 1950s and ’60s, most tend to think of the space race as a competition with an end date: July 20, 1969. That’s the day Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, accomplishing a feat the Soviets could not match and securing the “ultimate high ground” for American interests. The truth of the matter is, however, the Moon landing’s strategic value was largely about perceptions regarding America, the Soviet Union, and their respective economic and political ideologies. The real space race, as it pertains to military endeavors, has always been primarily about orbital assets, and that race continues to this day.

With Russian “inspector” satellites largely believed to be orbital weapons platforms, and China now beginning to field its own maneuverable, unmanned orbital platforms that can also be used to disrupt other nation’s satellite capabilities, it’s clear today the United States has fallen behind when it comes to finding ways to fight future wars in space (at least as far as non-classified programs go). Despite harsh statements made by both Russian and Chinese government officials regarding America’s burgeoning Space Force, each of those nations has already maintained space-based branches of their own for years. In fact, even America once had a secretive Department of Defense (DoD) space program complete with its own military astronauts, a $3.3 billion California-based spaceport meant for secretive space shuttle launches into polar orbit, and more.

The endeavor was called the Manned Spaceflight Engineer Program, and although it hasn’t gotten much attention in the years since, the Pentagon invested billions of dollars into it throughout the 1970s and ’80s. A secret group of 32 men was selected from the U.S. Air Force and trained as astronauts completely independently of their peers at NASA. The specialized training revolved around deploying classified payloads and conducting other secretive activities in orbit using America’s space shuttle as the primary orbital platform. In fact, at one time, the DoD intended to fly more shuttle flights per year than NASA.

America's first Space Force: A secret DoD program had 32 military astronauts and its own mission control
The SATCOM KU-2 satellite attached to a Payload Assist Module-D (PAM-D) is being released from the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Atlantis during STS-61B, the 23rd Shuttle Mission. (WikiMedia Commons)

Between these two agencies, it really was a shotgun marriage,” said retired Air Force Col. Gary Payton, who served as Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for Space Programs until his retirement in July, 2010.

“NASA thought of us as a bunch of snotty-nosed kids, outsiders, almost guests…nothing more than engineers or scientists who tended one particular satellite or experiment, and typically flew just once. We, on the other hand, thought our job was to help bridge the gulf between the military and civilian space agencies.”

At one point, the Air Force‘s Manned Spaceflight Engineer Program had 134 military officers and civilian experts assigned to it, manning the California launch complex as well as the Pentagon’s own version of mission control in Colorado. A third facility in Los Angeles housed the program’s 32 military astronauts, who entered the program through three separate astronaut classes held in 1979, 1982, and 1985.