Does America Have A Secret Space Program? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Is America running secret space missions, that the general public don't know about..? And if they are, why are they doing it?? In this video, Unveiled looks at the secret history of space travel, including one-time plans to build a US moon base... multiple attempts to put American soldiers into space... and cutting edge experiments being held in space right now!

Does America Have a Secret Space Program?

For decades now, space travel has been big business watched by millions around the world. And, despite the rise of private companies building their own, new and improved rockets, government-operated space agencies are still at the frontline of the next frontier - especially NASA. But has the US ever tried to get around NASA’s obligations to the watching public?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; does America have a secret space program?

NASA has long been committed to a policy of openness; to sharing its missions and discoveries with not only American citizens, but with the entire world. Its public profile is undoubtedly important, maintained since at least the signing of the Outer Space Treaty in 1967, which limited all the world’s governments as to what they were (and weren’t) allowed to do in space. Specifically, it forbade the placement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit and said no nation can claim ownership of any part of the moon or other celestial bodies. Without it, space might’ve become a proxy battlefield for the Cold War. However, the Outer Space Treaty doesn’t completely demilitarize space, either. Countries are still allowed to place weapons up there, just as long as they’re not WMDs… and as thousands of years of human warfare have taught us, you don’t necessarily need a nuke to inflict widespread destruction. It’s a controversial pursuit but not illegal, and the US military has had a say in its fair share of space programs over the years… some more secretive than others.

One of the most famous military space programs was the Manned Spaceflight Engineer, or MSE, program, beginning in the late ‘70s. It aimed to carry out top-secret experiments and send classified payloads into space and was a joint operation between the Air Force and the Department of Defense. The DoD had always been interested in NASA’s Space Shuttle program, and many aspects of the shuttle were in fact designed to meet the DoD’s specifications – primarily that the cargo bay should be a certain size so it could fit the classified payloads inside. And so, the MSEs (the engineers themselves) effectively became the DoD’s insiders - hand-picked, military-trained astronauts - bridging between them and NASA.

But from the beginning, the MSE program was plagued by the fact that many US officials outside of NASA just weren’t that interested in space, or in understanding the many nuances of a space mission. This was shown most clearly when the DoD wanted NASA to commit to up to twelve launches per year in the ‘80s - which was an impossible feat. Across the entire Space Shuttle Program from 1981 to 2011, NASA carried out an average of only 4.5 launches per year, with the most ever being just nine launches in 1985. The Department of Defense, then, wanted something which NASA couldn’t deliver, but the DoD couldn’t understand that… and tensions between the two grew. Ultimately, of the thirty-two Manned Spaceflight Engineers who were trained, only two ever actually made it into space on missions before the program was ended in 1988. By then, unmanned space missions had become the priority for the US authorities, although classified payloads were reportedly still loaded onto NASA’s shuttles. And, while the MSE program has been partly declassified, we still don’t all the details for all those payloads.

The US military has been known to have even more ambitious plans for space than simply launching a dozen, secret shuttles every year, though. Between 1963 and 1969, at the height of the space race, there were plans to build an American space station, the “Manned Orbiting Laboratory”, or MOL. The general premise was relatively common knowledge, and we know that the Air Force sought to redesign the Gemini spacecraft as part of the initiative, that they built a completely separate launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and that they selected all the prospective astronauts. But the MOL program was ultimately cancelled too, most likely due to how expensive it quickly became; an estimated $1.5 billion was spent on the project, and it never got off the ground. What was especially secretive about MOL, though, were the intentions for it had it ever been built. It was called a “laboratory”, but what its actual purpose would’ve been remains classified… with various suggestions that it was actually a weapon installation designed to hold nuclear bombs. As the idea had been conceived before the Outer Space Treaty, the WMD ban didn’t exist at the time.

Even post-Outer Space Treaty, though, the world’s superpowers haven’t always agreed on what to use space for - with one major point of contention in later peace talks between the Soviet Union and the USA being the Strategic Defense Initiative. SDI, which was jokingly nicknamed “Star Wars”, was an initiative heavily endorsed by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Its aim was to render nuclear weapons useless by creating a defense strategy that could destroy them before they did any damage… And most methods to accomplish this started off in space, ranging from shooting down nukes with missiles to developing a particle beam or chemical laser to destroy them in the air. Though the SDI ran for a decade, from 1983 to 1993, it never worked out and never really produced anything, and was eventually shelved by the Clinton Administration. SDI wasn’t a secret in general, but it was also managed by an organization within the DoD - and much of what it did (or what it aimed to do) still isn’t known.

So, so far we have a mismanaged effort to blend the Air Force and NASA, with the MSE Program; a never-realised plan to build a space lab that might (or might not) have been used for weapons development, with the MOL Program; and a decade-long attempt to cancel out nuclear weapons via space tech that didn’t work, with the SDI… but, still, not every military-mandated space program has failed, and many actually continue to this day.

For example, the Air Force currently operates two Boeing X-37Bs, America’s so-called “secret space planes”, also called OTVs or “Orbital Test Vehicles”. There have so far been six OTV missions, the most recent launching in May 2020, and OTV-5 even spent a record-breaking 779 days in orbit, from September 2017 until October 2019. These unmanned planes are loaded, once again, with classified payloads and are designed to carry out various experiments. We do have some details, though, including that on the OTV-6 there are tests linked to electromagnetic propulsion systems and carbon nanotubes. Even so, these missions could also be the closest thing the US currently has to a secret space program - because of the classified payloads, the next-generation experiments and the involvement of the military. But the OTVs are also not the end of military-sanctioned operations in space today.

In 2019, President Donald Trump established the United States Space Force, the sixth branch of the American armed forces dedicated to space warfare. Some of its main duties involve protecting American satellites because they’re a vital part of the US infrastructure, but it has been variously suggested that the Space Force could (and would) also extend to wars actually fought in outer space. Trump also re-launched the United States Space Command, or SPACECOM, in 2019, seventeen years after its first version was deactivated in 2002.

But while much media attention has been on the US Space Force and America’s intentions, it’s not the only Space Force that exists. Russia, too, has one, a branch of the Russian Aerospace Forces which has also been shut down and reopened numerous times; operating from 1992 to 1997, then from 2001 to 2011, and finally from 2015 to the present day. And, also before Trump re-established America’s Space Force, India, an increasingly prominent space-faring nation in the twenty-first century, had established its own Defence Space Agency in 2018, after work developing anti-satellite weapons.

Indeed, the existence of anti-satellite weapons, or ASATs, is reportedly a major reason as to why the US introduced its Space Force at all. America, like many countries around the world, now relies so strongly on its satellites that they can’t allow them to be compromised. But, meanwhile, nations all across the map - including America - are developing various types of orbital weapon which are seen as a direct threat. There are now thousands of satellites and multiple space programs that need to be protected, with the US and others all striving to gain an edge.

In reality, the US has been carrying out classified space missions for as long as it has had interests in space. They, like everyone else, are guided by the outer space treaty, but that doesn’t mean that the general public is privy to all America’s space plans. Not by a long shot.