Get The National Aerospace Plane Off The Ground


On 21 April 1989, the Center for Security policy released a prescription for reinvigorating America’s space program. This paper, entitled "Defining a U.S. Space Policy: Getting from Here to There," placed highest priority on the development and operational fielding of the hypersonic National Aerospace Plane (NASP).

The Center’s paper — the product of a working group comprised of distinguished experts, including Dr. George A. Keyworth III, former Presidential Science Advisor, and Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, USAF-Ret., former Director of the Strategic Defense Initiative — found that:

  • This system has the potential to revolutionize America’s access to space, dramatically reducing the costs, risks and inflexibility inherent in current launch capabilities.

  • NASP also will provide tremendous technological spin-offs of virtually incalculable value to other civilian and military applications.

  • NASP can offer as well a powerful means of reestablishing U.S. preeminence in space, a leadership position that will restore popular and Congressional support for this vital area of national endeavor.


The Perils of Pauline:

Subsequently, the NASP program has encountered the bureaucratic equivalent of the perils of Pauline. Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney directed, as part of his effort to cut defense expenditures, that the Air Force’s contribution to NASP be reduced from the $427 million envisioned under the Reagan budget to a mere $100 million. This action, had it been sustained, would have effectively killed the aerospace plane. NASA was neither willing nor able to assume the technical and funding responsibilities being shirked by the Pentagon.

Fortunately, champions of the aerospace plane in the House Armed Services Committee, led by Rep. Dave McCurdy, countered by increasing the funding in the Air Force NASP line to $285 million. This sum still fell far short of even the funding-constrained (vice technology-limited) program envisioned by the Reagan Administration. Together with strong language from the Committee directing an aggressive developmental program and the $127 million in the NASA request, it would, however, have sent a crucial signal to foreign competitors and domestic industrial partners in the NASP effort: The United States is firmly committed to remaining at the cutting edge in aerospace and related technologies.

Enter the National Space Council:

Following the Armed Services Committee’s action, the National Space Council met to review the Defense Department’s decision on NASP. To its credit, the Council — which is undergoing a baptism of fire as a combattant in the budget wars that chronically wrack the U.S. space program — rejected the Secretary of Defense’s approach. If accepted by President Bush, the Council’s recommendation would require a realignment of the program, notably to require DoD and NASA to: share management responsibilities, equally divide costs; and expend a total of $254 million for Fiscal Year 1990. Perhaps most important of all, the Council will, henceforth, oversee and pass on funding for NASP, rather than such decisions being effectively the sole prerogative of the involved agencies.

Unfortunately, there are serious problems with the Space Council’s alternative, however. For one thing, the level of funding envisioned is widely — and correctly — regarded as still grossly inadequate to maintain a robust research and development program. By way of comparison, West Germany is spending approximately as much for its own work on an aerospace plane. For another, critical NASP milestones will be slipped by at least two years; it is reported that the decision to build a prototype vehicle (dubbed the X-30) will not even come up for review until 1993!

Nearly as troubling as the decision itself is the way in which it was reached. Evidently, a decisive factor in the Council’s deliberations was an exceedingly pejorative analysis produced for the Air Force by the RAND Corporation. This study incorrectly maintained that there are no prospective military missions for the NASP. It also asserted that major technical impediments to the success of this development effort have yet to be addressed.

Incredibly, U.S. industries — which have, in an unusual collaborative effort, invested roughly $700 million of their own money in NASP R&D — were given no opportunity to challenge the RAND analysis or its conclusions with actual test data. Neither was there an opportunity to contest RAND’s assessment of the inutility of NASP technology for military applications. As a result, the Council appeared not to perform its essential function as an "honest broker" in space policy-making and acted on the basis of a highly partisan and flawed study.

The Congressional Reaction:

Far from being interpreted by Congress as a sign of renewed commitment to a vigorous NASP program, the Space Council’s recommendation has thus far been seen as further evidence of disarray in — and a lack of commitment to the program on the part of — the executive branch. Notably, the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on HUD and Independent Agencies recently acted to slash the FY90 NASA contribution to NASP from $127 million to $33 million.

By so doing, the subcommittee has put the National Space Council on notice: If the executive branch so slows its pursuit of the NASP technology as to make the program simply another, excessively stretched-out R&D effort with a big price tag but little to show for the investment, Congress will strangle it in the crib. It is similarly apparent that many on Capitol Hill view as a non-starter the Council’s decision to make DoD and NASA bear the expense of NASP equally; the Subcommittee’s restoration of the original 70/30 ratio in the two agencies’ share of the FY90 funding by making draconian cuts in NASA’s contribution is an important shot across the Bush Administration’s bow.


The National Space Council meets this morning to consider, among other things, the implications of the House Appropriations subcommittee’s action. As it does so, it should become apparent that a dramatically different approach to the National Aerospace Plane from that drawn up two weeks ago is urgently needed. Among the key elements of such an approach should be:

  • The U.S. space program should give top priority to restoring the assured, advantaged access to space so essential for both civilian and military purposes.

    While the expanded exploitation of space and its exploration (together with the creation of the requisite infrastructure) should remain, respectively, the Nation’s near- to medium-term and longer-term goals, America’s preeminent requirement for the immediate future must be the reliable, cost-effective ability to get into space.


  • NASP, accordingly, must become a high profile, "national" program funded at a level determined by the maturity of the associated technology.

    This will require a commitment of funds in FY90 and beyond at least as great as that called for by the original Reagan budget.


  • As a national program — and to ensure that public and congressional support for such an aggressive program can be sustained — the National Aerospace Plane must not be pursued as a "black," or special access, program.

  • Clear and purposeful programmatic objectives and milestones must be established.

    A decision to build a useful prototype aircraft (of roughly the size of a 727 or DC-9) should be made now, not in 1993.


    With adequate funding, such a prototype should be able to fly by 1995.


    Given robust Japanese, European and Soviet interest in developing aerospace plane technologies, such a level of effort is absolutely vital if the United States is not to lose its leadership position in this and related fields.


  • The Space Council must also act to restore the confidence of U.S. industry — whose active participation and investment in this program is indispensable to its ultimate success — that the NASP enjoys the highest priority and that the technical judgments of industrial experts will be given due weight in future decisions about the aerospace plane.



President Bush’s recent commitment to pursue a "full- throttle" space program is facing an early and absolutely decisive test. If the Space Council and, ultimately, the President himself now fail to provide the leadership necessary to set the National Aerospace Plane on a sure course, it may well be permanently grounded. Should this occur, the adverse implications will not be limited to just the loss of American preeminence in space. To the contrary, U.S. competitiveness in a variety of related civilian and military technologies will be jeopardized — with untold costs for this country’s commercial and security interests down the road.

On the other hand, by adopting these recommendations, the Bush Administration can forge the kind of visionary, historic and broadly supported program that twenty years ago next week made this the only nation on earth to have sent men to the moon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *