[FPSPACE] GPS history (was: Weapons in space)

DwayneDay zirconic1 at earthlink.net
Sat Oct 16 23:57:51 EDT 2004

-----Original Message-----
From: Allen Thomson <thomsona at flash.net>
Sent: Oct 16, 2004 9:30 PM

>> But the social aspects are also important to explore.  From what I 
> understand, GPS actually got its budget zeroed-out several times during 
> the early 1980s.  I don't know why this happened.  Was the Air Force 
> serious about killing it?  Or did GPS become what is often called a 
> "golden goose" program?

>I don't really know the answer.  But, in October 1978, I was in a group of 
people(*) who got briefed on GPS by a USAF colonel in California and 
remember being appalled(**) that he was frank about the service wanting to 
kill the program and use the money for other things.  Just how much he knew 
about policy thinking and motivations at higher levels I dinna ken, but he 
seemed quite sincere in his lack of enthusiasm for GPS.

>One might speculate that the USAF saw navigation as being more a Navy 
problem -- it would be interesting to learn the details before the 
participants pass from the scene.

(let's all get anecdotal and hope that we're not putting everybody to sleep)

One interesting aspect of the Parkinson interview is that he says that he worked for awhile on the AC-130 Spectre gunship program.  This is a modified C-130 with various machine guns and even a cannon sticking out the side of the aircraft along with a lot of sensors.  The plane goes into a shallow turn and points all its weapons down at a target in the center of the turn, delivering a lot of firepower on a specific target.  Parkinson notes that it was the most high precision weapons system at that time.  This, he felt, gave him good insight into the utility of GPS.  It also probably gave him credibility in the Pentagon, because he wasn't just some "space cadet," but was someone who had first hand experience.

Anyway, back to your musing as to why the USAF may have had it in for GPS...

Something happened in the USAF to discredit space.  Space was really big in the post-Sputnik period and the early 1960s.  The Air Force leadership really wanted to embrace space in a big way.  But they really were not allowed to.  Control was taken away from them for a time and given to ARPA, and eventually the most important part, reconnaissance, was given to NRO.  For awhile the Air Force had Dyna-Soar and then MOL, but in both cases the service spent heaping piles of money and then had the program canceled.

So by the late 1960s, space had really burned a lot of people in the Air Force.  The generals who thought space was neat in the late 1950s and early 1960s were probably all gone by the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The majors and lieutenant colonels who had been involved in space in the early 1960s didn't make general.  The whole culture of the Air Force shifted and fighter jocks soon replaced the bomber pilots in leadership positions, and so space was discredited.

That's just a theory, supported by a lot of superficial and circumstantial evidence.  It's not based upon direct research.  Somebody would have to go and interview a lot of the guys who were majors and colonels in the late 1960s and early 1970s to find out how space was viewed by then.

Back in the mid 1990s I went to a symposium on USAF in space at Andrews AFB and heard a talk by a General Dickman (he is now retired from the Air Force and working for NRO, I believe).  He gave an interesting talk where he said that the Navy had been better at integrating space into its operations than the Air Force had.  The Navy was more innovative and accomodating, and the Air Force was struggling to catch up.  So clearly there was a cultural factor at play in the Air Force.


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