Whether you see a stable genius or a bumbling buffoon in the White House (there seems to be no middle ground), no one should credit him as a visionary for the idea of adding the Space Force as our nation’s fourth military branch. Security and defense officials discussed the idea openly in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. In fact, if a special committee and a certain famous senator had their way, the Space Force might well have had a base right here in the North Country.
After a February 1958 interview with author and scientist Willey Ley, the Canton (Ohio) Repository wrote: “He mentioned the separate service, or ‘U.S. Space Force’ idea proposed by Mr. [Werner] Von Braun, who feels that such a service could better obtain the cooperation required from the present army, navy, and air force.” Von Braun was referring to the intense competition among the branches to develop long-range missiles and take the technological lead in a future of rocket launches and space missions.
It was only a month later that Defense Secretary Neil McElroy warned army and navy leaders that flights were the purview of the air force, and space was their next frontier. Looking beyond the U.S., General James Gavin, the army’s chief of research and development, said the ultimate goal should be “the establishment of a United Nations Space Force” to surveil the world and maintain peace.
But competition within the military continued, and for good reason: potentially billions of budget dollars were at stake. In September 1959, after intense lobbying and countless back-room meetings, the Department of Defense announced that the Air Force was America’s future Space Force.
Things progressed quickly from that point forward. In December, a Pentagon bulletin-board notice was widely published in newspapers: “The Space Force salute will begin with the open palm faced outward at waist level, and brought upward with increasing acceleration so that it snaps crisply and smartly at arm’s length above the head.” In early 1960, press releases announced the need for recruits, and in late April, the Air Force announced its first Space Force initiative: development over the next three years of a manned spacecraft, the Boeing X-20 Dynamic Soarer, dubbed the Dyna Soar. Its multiple military functions would include photographic and infra-red reconnaissance, satellite interception and inspection, and the capability to launch weapons at any target on earth. The craft would be capable of descending from orbit to “land routinely at large air bases.”
It just so happened that Plattsburgh had become home to a Strategic Air Command (SAC) Air Force Base in the mid-1950s, with a landing strip large enough that it would one day be included among emergency landing sites for the space shuttle. In June 1960, a group of planners in the Pentagon predicted replacement of the Air Defense Command, the Tactical Air Command, and the Strategic Air Command by the Space Force, “a conceptual breakthrough … a meld of offense and defense” to monitor the world from above, and strike anywhere quickly — from orbit — if needed.
An astronaut training program was established at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and all test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base in California were viewed as potential astronauts. The instructional focus was on mastering the controls of the Dyna Soar, which was scheduled to fly by 1964.
The National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), which was founded in 1958 when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, had a stated purpose of pursuing peaceful goals. But three things — rapidly developing technologies, rising tensions with Russia, and a Democrat in the White House — spurred intense Republican criticism of John F. Kennedy for maintaining NASA’s mission as non-military. In early January 1963, the San Diego Union reported on bombshell conclusions reached by the Republican Advisory Committee for Space and Aeronautics: “The Republican high command has released a report calling the Kennedy administration’s neglect of space warfare ‘perhaps the most disastrous blunder since World War II.” And you thought political division, bitterness, and hyperbole were something new!
The committee, said the Union, was led by space expert Erik Bergaust, and answered directly to “the GOP big three — National Chairman William Miller, Congressman from New York; Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., chairman of the Republican senatorial campaign committee; and Rep. Bob Wilson, R-San Diego, chairman of the Republican congressional campaign committee.”
The three most powerful Republicans in America stated that “a minimum of bureaucracy must prevail in the building of a strong U.S. military space force, which should come under the Strategic Air Command [SAC].” In interviews that followed, Goldwater reiterated that SAC must be in charge, and in the North Country, the air force SAC facility at Plattsburgh dominated the landscape.
At the time, Plattsburgh had already handled the receipt, preparation, and dispersal of Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles to a nearby network of silos, demonstrating the base’s proficiency in performing complex tasks. Coincidence or not, in the wake of criticism of America’s unpreparedness for space/military operations, PAFB’s new mission by 1964 was to develop and utilize “modern strategic warfare systems carrying a relatively long life expectancy.” That goal fell exactly in line with air force plans to rebrand itself as the Space Force.
In October 1965, Bergaust offered a glimpse at the near future: “It may still take a few years before the Air Force will change its name from USAF to USSF, but a U.S. Space Force is more than a gleam in the eyes of our Air Force leaders. They are pushing harder and harder nowadays to initiate the conversion that eventually will get under way, and which eventually will take them to the stars…. Some real reorganizing of the military services will become necessary,” he said, that would include the Space Force.
Many of the program’s plans and predictions came true, but not in the way they were first envisioned. The Dyna Soar project was abandoned, as was its replacement, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), but Skylab became a reality. The vision of an aircraft that could routinely leave orbit and land on earth became the Space Shuttle program. But the idea of a Space Force remained important to military leaders. As the shuttles were being developed by NASA in the 1970s, the Department of Defense announced plans to purchase two identical craft and develop an astronaut corps as the first steps in creating America’s Space Force.
During the Reagan years, the push continued. In 1981, Daniel Graham, former head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, called for a Space Force that could target Soviet missiles from orbit. Referencing the recent Star Wars movies, some observers scoffed, but the General Accounting Office didn’t. In early 1982, a GAO report urged the Department of Defense to develop “a constellation of laser battle stations in space … to provide a credible air and ballistic missile defense system for the United States”—and that a separate Space Force of the armed services be established.
In late 1983, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, issued a press release addressing its own recent report: “The United States was urged today to give space defense a much higher priority by creating a fourth branch of the military: a U.S. Space Force.”
If you’re old enough, you can recall the farce that developed surrounding the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), tagged derisively as Star Wars. A principal concern at the time — and relevant at any time — was launching an arms race. If one superpower took steps to outwardly militarize space, others were sure to follow. That’s why we have the Outer Space Treaty, which our current president probably should have looked into before announcing creation of the Space Force.
At any rate, the idea of adding a military branch is hardly a new one, but it’s interesting to imagine how Plattsburgh’s future (the present) might have looked if the Space Force had long ago become a reality.
Photos: President John F. Kennedy and General Curtis LeMay (This Week magazine in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 1962); headline, Huntsville (Alabama) Times, 1964; headline, Knoxville (Tennessee) News-Sentinel, 1973); headline, The Sacramento Bee, 1982.