By the early 1980’s, NASA has semi-permanent manned lunar bases and is sending men beyond. Numerous space stations and manned platforms circle the Earth and the moon. Commercial platforms are popping up, with companies buying rides on the Space Shuttle and sometimes “renting” the entire vehicle. People are starting to seriously pursue space tourism as a paying business; the first such tourists buy seats on Shuttle flights that have been rented by commercial satellite launch firms. And now due to competition with the Soviet Union, the US is quickly getting into the business of militarizing space.
This is a major change to the way NASA has worked. NASA has been in the business of science and exploration; it is not well suited to commercial enterprise, military endeavors or construction projects. Future commercial and military plans are rapidly outpacing NASA plans and NASA capacity. While the NASA budget has settled out at about a constant 2.5% of the US Federal budget, the total number of trained astronauts is far too low even for planned commercial efforts in Earth orbit, never mind all the other programs. Additionally, NASA has focused on training “elite” astronauts, when what’s becoming needed is a construction corps of builders and get-it-done-types.
Further: NASA’s efforts and funding have gone preferentially towards the “S” in NASA (“Space”), while the first “A” (“Aeronautics”) has been virtually ignored. As a result, the American SST program, which resulted in the Boeing 2707 (first flight 1976) has stagnated with only twelve aircraft flying. The Boeing 737 and 747 remain, by the early 1980’s, the primary means of American air travel; even with the massive drop in oil prices following the collapse of OPEC, supersonic travel remains terribly expensive and beyond the financial reach of most travelers.
So, in 1982, after much wrangling, wailing and gnashing of teeth, NASA is broken up. The old National Advisory Council on Aeronautics, which formed the original backbone of NASA, is re-incorporated, focusing on aeronautical technology… aerodynamics, jet engines, materials technologies, etc. Facilities, staff and funding are now separate from the space-oriented organization that had been strangling them.
The space side of NASA is reorganized into the US Astronautics Agency. The USAA is aimed not only at continuing the “elite” efforts of NASA, the pushing-the-envelope projects, but also at the less glamorous efforts of space launch and construction. The USAA is modeled somewhat on the Works Progress Administration for the Great Depression era, but instead of hiring millions of low-skilled workers in order to prop up a faltering economy, the USAA hires and trains thousands of skilled workers to be space workers.
In order to provide direction to the USAA, the anemic National Aeronautics and Space Council (done away with by Nixon on 1973 IRL, but here it has hung on) is reformed into the more focused National Council on Astronautics. The NCA and the USAA are closely linked, in that the NCA is the political link between the USAA and the President and Congress; staffed by career bureaucrats, the NCA works to both direct political will, and to carry out political will.
The USAA is tasked with physically building the future. The former NASA research facilities, such as Marshall, Langley, Ames and so on, continue to develop advanced technologies and missions. New facilities are set up around the nation to train the vast numbers of astronauts and technicians and engineers and others that the new programs will need, as well as take advanced new technologies and turn them into standard practices. Boise, Denver, Seattle and Albuquerque, for example, see massive new facilities. New launch facilities are built offshore from Kennedy Space Center, in the Gulf of Mexico a few miles from Galveston, and south-east of the Big Island of Hawaii. Belize lobbies hard for a launch facility.
Where NASA had tried to hold itself somewhat apart from the military and seemed at best lukewarm to commercial enterprise, the USAA is formed to work hand-in-hand with both the military and private enterprise. The USAA has unique launch and space construction abilities, and is available for rent. While some in government take issue with this, calling the USAA a “mercenary perversion of NASA’s mission,” the fact remains that the income the USAA derives from both American and foreign paying customers offsets a large fraction of the total USAA budget.
The USAA is born in controversy, with many angry at the loss of NASA; but within the decade the controversy has faded in the face of unquestioned success. While Space Station II was an acknowledged failure, Space Station I was a roaring success and a half dozen clones of it have been built and put into service. Space Station III is a new concept in space station construction; plans are in place for even bigger stations and even permanent “towns” on the moon.
Of course, there are also plans to fill the heavens with weapons. By the time Reagan leaves office in 1985, the USAA is busy launching nuclear weapons platforms and directed energy systems into orbit. These remain against international treaty… but by this point, nobody really cares much. The Soviets got there first… but the Americans got there bigger. The fact that the “mass simulator” launched by the first Neptune booster was in fact a harmless mockup remains a tightly guarded secret… by simply claiming that it is, in fact, simply a mass simulator. The Soviets assume that the claim is a lie, and so continue to believe that the platform is a weapon. Ironically, over the course of the 80’s, the platform is slowly converted into an actual platform; the mass of inert aluminum structural beams that make up its bulk are removed for use in other orbital construction projects, and are replace a bit at a time with actual power systems, sensors and weapons. By the end of the 80’s the “mass simulator” is a true battle station, but by this point it’s merely one of many.
1985 sees not only a new President – Vice President Bob Dole easily defeats Mondale – but also new design competitons. The Shuttle has been flying operationally for half a dozen years… successfully, but expensively. It will need replacing by the 1990’s for passenger launch. Also, the Neptune has replaced the Saturn V, but it, too, will need supplementing by the early 1990s. Something bigger is needed…
To be continued