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Identity statement

Reference code(s)
1946-1991, 1991
Level of description
collection level
Extent and medium of the unit of description (quantity, bulk, or size)
239 fiche


Name of creator(s)

The National Security Archive, from sources at US national security agencies, principal of which were the US Aerospace Defense Command; US Department of the Air Force; US Air Force Space Command; US National Security Council; US Air Force; US General Acco

Administrative / Biographical history

On 2 May 1946, the Research and Development Corporation (later RAND Corporation), a US non-partisan government policy guidance institution, produced a report commissioned by the US Air Force entitled 'Preliminary Design for an Experimental World Circling Spaceship'. It focused on the utility of a satellite for gathering scientific information on cosmic and terrestrial features. The report also identified potential military missions for a satellite: missile guidance, weapons delivery, weather reconnaissance, communications, attack assessment and observation. The RAND study was followed by further studies and, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, by the research and development of military space systems which centred on the provision of intelligence, launch detection, weather and navigation data and communications links. By 1991 the US military space program had developed distinct components: military space support systems, space weaponry, launch systems and launch centres, ground control facilities and the organisations for the formation and implementation of policy concerning military space operations. Military support systems represent the major component, both currently and historically, of US military space operations. The systems are used to support military and national security operations by the provision of data or establishment of vital communications links. Specific military space support functions include imaging, signals intelligence, ocean surveillance, missile launch detection, navigation, nuclear detonation detection, meteorology, geodesy, and communications and data relay relating to Soviet Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) fields, command, control, and communications centres, shipyards, ports, missile launch sites and military developments in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America. Satellites included the CORONA imaging satellite in 1960; the KH-11 electro-optical imaging satellite in 1976; ocean surveillance PARCAE satellites, 1976-1989; and, missile early warning Missile Defense Alarm System (MIDAS) satellites. While military support systems represent the main emphasis of the US military space program, two types of space weaponry have been under development since 1945: anti-satellite weapons and anti- missile weapons, including the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). SDI emerged under US President Ronald Wilson Reagan in 1983 and from the outset of the program, the functions of the SDI system were to identify ballistic missile launches, discriminate between warheads and decoys, track missiles, and point and fire the necessary weapons at the missiles and warheads. An element in placing military payloads in orbit is the launch system that can carry the payload and deploy it. From 1945 to 1989, the US relied on expendable launch vehicles (ELVs), and from 1990-1991 on space shuttle orbiters. US ground control consisted of inter-agency tracking and monitoring of satellite location and telemetry in ground control centres such as the Consolidated Space Test Center, Sunnyvale, CA, and the Consolidated Space Operations Center, Colorado Springs, CO. As for all areas of national security operations, the US National Security Council (NSC) was, and is, the policy making body with respect to space activity. Since 1958 it has reviewed space matters in committees and has issued policy decisions concerning military and civilian space activities. These decisions were represented by the respective Presidential, National Security Decision and National Security Directives on national space policy issued during the administrations of James Earl 'Jimmy' Carter, Jr, Ronald Wilson Reagan, and George Herbert Walker Bush. Below the NSC, organisations such as the National Reconnaissance Executive Committee were responsible for making policy decisions regarding the types of US reconnaissance satellites to be developed and their capabilities, the US Department of Defense considered matters specifically related to military space activity, and, in 1985, each of the military services formed a space organisation, under the US Space Command, to deal with space policy and operations, launch satellites, monitor foreign and US space activities and operate satellite systems.

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

The National Security Archive, Washington, DC, USA.

Content & structure

Scope and content

US Military Uses of Space, 1946-1991 is a themed microfilm collection which presents an integrated record of US military space organisations, operations, and policy from 1945 to 1991. Included are memoranda, messages, presidential decision documents, program management directives, histories, organisational manuals, reports, and studies. Documents concern four basic areas of US space military activity: military support systems (communications, meteorology, reconnaissance and other satellites), space weaponry (anti-satellite weapons and the Strategic Defense Initiative), policy, and organisation. Material concerning military support systems includes papers relating to the establishment of a US photographic reconnaissance satellite program, 1956; US Air Force contracts to Lockheed Missile Systems Division to develop the WS-117L air reconnaissance satellite, 1956-57; the development of the US Air Force reconnaissance satellite, codenamed SENTRY and then SAMOS, 1958; the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) research and development of an imaging satellite, codenamed CORONA, 1958; launching of CORONA satellite, 18 Aug 1960; the development and launch of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites designed to provide nuclear explosion detection data relevant to military intelligence collection, treaty verification (Limited Test Ban Treaty, Threshold Ban Treaty, Non-Proliferation Treaty, and Outer Space Treaty), and damage assessment, 1963-1970; development and launch of signals intelligence (SIGINT) satellites, including the RHYOLITE communications satellite, 1970; the launch of the KH-11 electro-optical 'pixel' imaging satellite, Dec 1976; development and launch of ocean surveillance PARCAE satellites, 1976-1989; communications intelligence (COMINT) satellite including the VORTEX and MAGNUM satellites, 1978-1985; the launch of synthetic aperture radar system LACROSSE satellites, 1988-1991; the development and launch of early warning satellites including the Missile Defense Alarm System (MIDAS) to monitor the missile launches from the Eurasian land mass and Submarine- Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs); papers relating to launch systems, including expendable launch vehicles (ELVs), such as modified Martin SM-68 Titan Inter- Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Material concerning space weaponry includes Massachusetts Institute of Technology report to US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, introducing theoretical and scientific concepts for a laser weapons missile defence program, 1984; reports from the US Department of Defense, Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, to the US Congress relating to the costs of a laser and kinetic energy anti-ballistic missile program and its proposed compliance with the 26 May 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, 1984-1990; report from the US Department of Defense, Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, to the US Congress outlining the goals, objectives, and costs of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), 1985; reports from the US General Accounting Office relating to the SDI concept change from laser and kinetic energy weapons to 'Brilliant Pebbles' weaponry, in which several thousand satellite interceptors would orbit the earth having the capability to destroy missile targets, 1990-1991. Documents relating to US military space policy include reports from the US National Security Council outlining the significance of space with respect to US national security, 1958-1985; memoranda from the US Department of Defense urging military priorities for space research, 1959-1977. Material relating to the organisational command of the military space program includes function manuals and inter-agency memoranda detailing the structure and role of specific organisations such as US Aerospace Command, the US Department of Defense, US Air Force Space Command, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, the US Army Space Agency, and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

System of arrangement

Material is arranged alphabetically according to subject and then chronologically therein.

Conditions of access & use

Conditions governing access

Open, subject to signature of Reader's undertaking form, and appropriate provision of two forms of identification, to include one photographic ID.

Conditions governing reproduction

Copies, subject to the condition of the original, may be provided for research use only. Enquiries concerning the copyright of the original material should be addressed to The National Security Archive, 1755 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Suite 500, Washington, DC, 20036, USA

Language/scripts of material


Finding aids

This Summary Guide, and in hard copy in the Centre's reading room, Thomas S Blanton, Malcolm Byrne, Margarita S Studemeister, and Lisa Thompson (eds.), US Military Uses of Space (The National Security Archive and Chadwyck-Healey Inc, Washington, DC, 1991).

Allied materials

Existence and location of originals

US National Archives; federal agency libraries; armed service libraries.



Compiled Jul 1999

Description control

Rules or conventions

Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal Place and Corporate Names 1997.

This catalogue is made available under the Open Data Commons Attribution License. This catalogue may be updated from time to time in order to reflect additional material and/or new understandings of the material.

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This catalogue may contain links to external data sources as part of the W3C Semantic Web initiative.


  • Aerial photographs
  • Aeronautics
  • Aerospace engineering
  • Air defence
  • Armed forces
  • Arms control
  • Artificial satellites
  • Central government
  • Defence
  • Disarmament
  • East West relations
  • Electronic equipment
  • Government
  • Government departments
  • International relations
  • Lasers
  • Military engineering
  • Military equipment
  • Military organizations
  • Missiles
  • Nuclear weapons
  • Organizations
  • Peace
  • Photographs
  • Public administration
  • Scientific facilities
  • Space communication
  • Space technology
  • Spacecraft
  • State security
  • Telecommunications
  • Visual materials
  • Warfare
  • Weapons

Corporate names

  • US Armed forces
  • US Department of Defense

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