first controllable launch vehicle—Viking/Vanguard; first satellite tracking system—Minitrack; oldest orbiting satellite—Vanguard; first successful electronic intelligence reconnaissance satellite—GRAB (for Galactic Radiation and Background); first space navigation satellite—Transit; first space object tracking system—the Naval Space Surveillance System; first demonstration of on-orbit atomic clocks—Timation, which led to the current GPS constellation; first operational military broadcast satellite—the naval Fleet Satellite (FLTSAT) communications system; first American man in space; first American man to orbit Earth; first Space Shuttle crew; first American woman astronaut; and many others. The list is long and diverse; the results are a key enabler for today’s naval operations.

These and many other technical accomplishments were advanced in a larger historical environment that included the following:

  • The large U.S. space effort, urgently begun in 1958: formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (to which much of the Navy space technology capability was transferred) required Navy operational support and used Navy and Marine Corps astronauts;

  • Appreciation by the U.S. Congress of the large expense of space programs, and the push for “common user systems”—for example, weather satellites;

  • Issuance of the Department of Defense (DOD) directive (with the transfer of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) space program and the formation of the National Reconnaissance Office) giving the Secretary of the Air Force the “Executive Agent” role in 1961;2 it was rescinded in 19703 but reinstated in 2003;4

  • Dominant strategic nuclear priorities in DOD space programs, which continued to the end of the Cold War;

  • Large-scale, rapidly developing commercial space communications activity, beginning with the first commercial communications satellite (COMSAT) in 1961, exploited by the Navy beginning in the mid-1960s;

  • Experiments by the Naval Research Laboratory with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory’s Lincoln Experimental Satellite series in the mid-1960s, indicating advantages of ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) communications for Navy ships, which led to the Navy’s proposal for a UHF fleet satellite communications constellation (later called FLTSAT);


Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense. 1961. “Development of Space Systems,” DOD Directive 5160.32, Department of Defense, Washington, D.C., March 6.


David Packard, Secretary of Defense. 1970. “Development of Space Systems,” DOD Directive 5160.32 (Revised), Department of Defense, Washington, D.C., September 8.


Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense. 2003. “DOD Executive Agent for Space,” DOD Directive 5101.2, Department of Defense, Washington, D.C., June 3.

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