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Spies and Shuttles: NASA’s Secret Relationship with the DoD and CIA

Spies and Shuttles: NASA’s Secret Relationship with the DoD and CIA by James E. David. University Press of Florida, 2015, 370 pp.

In response to the surprising and successful launch of the Soviet Union’s first satellites, Sputnik I and Sputnik II, a year earlier, the US Congress passed legislation establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. Although this legislation mandated that NASA’s space program carry out research in a peaceful, scientific, and open manner—separate from the US national security and intelligence agencies—according to James David’s Spies and Shuttles, NASA “could not and did not always follow” (p. 3) its own guiding principles. Instead, the lines of separation between NASA and the covert and military operations of the Department of Defense (DOD) and intelligence community were blurred from the beginning despite NASA’s well-managed public appearance as an exclusively civilian space-exploration agency.

With clarity and detail, Spies and Shuttles lays out the Cold War dynamics that challenged NASA’s status as a separate civilian agency, arguing that in order to accomplish their missions, both sides needed each other’s hardware and personnel and heavily depended on each other for data and expertise on foreign spacefaring nations’ programs. Organized in chronological order, the book traces the evolution of the strategic partnership among these strange bedfellows—one that has forced NASA to both veer from its guiding principles and at times operate under severe restrictions imposed by the defense and intelligence agencies. While much of the previous literature on NASA has covered the open, unclassified relationship between civilian and national security space agencies, David’s book represents the most careful and comprehensive attempt to demonstrate that their interactions were far more complex, hidden, and classified than previously thought. Despite what its title suggests, this book is not exclusively about their cooperation on the space shuttle program. Rather, by reviewing newly declassified records, David offers a remarkable overview of NASA’s history as well as its consumption and criticism of CIA intelligence reports on the USSR’s space programs—particularly the national intelligence estimates. The estimates concluded that the Soviets were not engaging in a manned lunar landing program that could compete with Apollo—a determination that did not prove useful during efforts to convince the White House that budgets needed increasing. Over the years, NASA also participated actively in classified and covert activities, including providing the U-2 cover story until the capture of Gary Powers and testing the CIA’s A-12 reconnaissance aircraft. David brings to light the contentious discussions and strained interactions regarding limitations imposed on NASA (due to national security concerns), from the first restrictions on Tiros—NASA’s first low-Earth-orbital weather satellite and space-based Earth-imaging program—to its systematic land remote-sensing programs. Spies and Shuttles also documents the growth and dramatic expansion of NASA during the Apollo era (1961–1972) and its continued role as a consumer and critic of the CIA’s reports. David maintains that the space shuttle program was the culmination of the partnership and further “sacrificed its guiding principles” (p. 189). Despite the slow start, outrageous price tag, and the absence of flights until April 1981, the shuttle program contributed tremendously to growth of the interaction among civilian and national security agencies until STS-53—the last dedicated DOD mission in late 1992.

Although the subject might be interesting to the wider air and space community, this book is highly recommended to readers seeking to understand the evolution of the US space strategy and integration of space power into global military and intelligence operations. Missing, however, are some critical reflections on how the international security environment affects and challenges NASA’s guiding principles. As a curator in the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, David is fully committed to writing a comprehensive history of the common interests and activities of NASA and national security space programs, but his study includes little interpretation and analysis of that relationship. The account entirely relies on unclassified documents to tell a story since it offers no firsthand individual accounts and interviews that potentially would have added, or perhaps even demanded, a closer critical engagement with the data presented. Moreover, Spies and Shuttles neither raises questions for the future nor elicits a debate about the future of NASA’s support of the DOD’s operations. Perhaps the most significant contribution of this book is that it might generate new research such as studying threat perceptions, the effects of adversary decision makers on American policy makers and agencies, and even wider government deterrence efforts to learn why these agencies engaged in the way they did. None of these shortcomings detracts from the book’s exhaustive, insightful, and admirable contribution to our better understanding of the extent and terms of engagement between NASA and national security agencies. We just need a bit more analytical and critical engagement to fully explore the unknown.

Lana Obradovic, PhD
University of Nebraska–Omaha

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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