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A Guide to Space Shuttles: How They’re Made and What Keeps Them Safe in Space

Article kindly provided by Casey Heigl (casey@heigltech.com).


Since 1981, the space shuttle has hauled more cargo, carried more passengers, and traveled practically as many miles as all other U.S. manned spacecraft’s combined. Astoundingly, it’s now been almost 50 years since President Nixon signed off on the development of the space shuttle. Since that time, the shuttle has offered the most ambitious method of transporting humans into space in over five thousand years of effort.

Although most of us are familiar with the spectacle of manned space flight, those who are younger among us may not be. At the moment of liftoff, the shuttle both created and harnessed about 6.5 million pounds of raw thrust. Its three main engines, tiny in comparison to the unleashed power of twin solid-rocket boosters, generated the equivalent output of the Hoover Dam 23 times over.

Departing the launch pad, the space shuttle was all rocket. When it cleared the tower at a relatively slow 100 miles per hour, the shuttle was a study in thunderous vibration that grew in intensity over the initial few minutes of flight until the tail-off and drop of the solid rocket boosters.

Shuttle Safety in Space


Those who designed the shuttle envisioned a rough and tumble four-wheel-drive type of spacecraft that can handle the rugged back roads of space. It would come equipped with a standard array of overtly redundant systems—as many as four deep, in some cases—to heartily defend against any possible hardware or software problems. The systems onboard were meant to be nimble enough to return the crew home safely even if up to three levels failed.

The space shuttle’s thermal protection system or TPS was comprised of thousands of thermal tiles that served as a barrier to protect the vehicle during the scalding 3,000-degree heat of reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The TPS also protected the vehicle from the extreme cold and heat of outer space while in orbit.

The shuttle, in contrast with other vehicles, such as the Apollo, was designed to stay perfectly balanced on its own wings for the duration of the long, steep return to Earth. This balance was achieved through pure force. Scientists knew there were no aerodynamic forces on the shuttle above Mach 10. However, the real problem existed between Machs 8 and 1.

Scientists even broke down the Mach numbers into tenths, throwing all of the possible parameters back into a hopper, running and rerunning scenarios over and over until they could run a thousand times or more without a problem. If there was a single failure, they went back and made corrections to the system until 1,000 runs without failure were achieved for every possible Mach number.

Engineers used 50 or more wind tunnels of various speeds to shape and hone the vehicle since theory alone could not possibly account for every complexity of a typical shuttle flight.

Over time, the design of the shuttle accumulated over 100,000 hours of time in wind tunnels, which amounted to four times the testing of both the Boeing 757 and Boeing 767 developmental programs.


The Challenger disaster came about in part due to a weakness in the tiles used to guard against the extreme heat of reentry. Later space shuttles used tiles made of ceramic fibers and a special silicone glue that bonded the tiles directly to the aluminum frame of the shuttle.

Plans Versus Budget Cuts

What the creators failed to realize, however, was that politics affects technology, which affects budgets. In practical terms, it meant there was a spending cap, and, to stay under that cap, compromises in the shuttle’s performance had to be made. Over the subsequent ten years, those budget cuts resulted in a painful hit to the program. Although painful, the compromises seemed somewhat reasonable at the time.

Although it might seem unheard of today, it’s interesting to consider even some of the elements that were included on the list of items NASA planned to include with their proposed 60 shuttle flights per year. The list included seven shuttles, three dedicated launch pads, a space station, and a fleet of “space tugboats” to pluck and place satellites in and out of Earth orbit. For some reason, not one of those “wish list” items was totally fulfilled, yet there was no change in the performance expectations of the shuttle program.

It’s a Go for Launch

In spite of all they had to go through, work on the space shuttle program continued and, eventually, the fleet began flying. Other than a couple of catastrophic events, the shuttle went on to become one of NASA’s most reliable vehicles for space launch and exploration. Indeed, its success-to-failure ratio indicated a much higher reliability than any other launch vehicle in the United States among space launch vehicles that have been in operation for more than 30 years. In comparison, Europe’s Ariane booster rocket had five failures within its initial 40 flights.

In its first ten years of operation, the space shuttle flew every week, yet it managed to launch nearly half of the entire mass of everything the United States has ever deployed into space.

The Space Shuttle Legacy

There are still other ways in which the space shuttle has stood the test of time. Its seemingly retro 1970s design template is still standard and state-of-the-art in many areas, including airframe design, automated flight control, thermal protection systems, electrical power systems, and the main propulsion system. The space shuttle’s main engines proved to be the world’s best chemical rockets, and they remain the only ones to date that can actually be throttled.

The space shuttle’s flight software is among the most advanced aerospace code on Earth, even years after the shuttle’s been retired. The space shuttle was also the only space vehicle that offered any kind of practical capability to return space cargo back to Earth. Additionally, it remains the only human-carrying vehicle type to be emulated by all other major space-faring nations.

The Future of NASA Space Travel

Who knows how history will ultimately judge the space shuttle? When the speed of sound was first broken, it was done with a research airplane. After flying a dozen times, the plane was discarded, donated to a museum, and work was initiated to create the next model with intelligence gained from that experience. The space shuttle did a tremendous job of serving both as a launch vehicle and a spacecraft which was capable of remaining in space for days or even weeks at a time. Perhaps the next generation of manned space vehicles will improve upon some of the space shuttle’s shortcomings. We are all still learning.

For the early American astronauts who pioneered high-speed flight, who worked on missions like the Apollo, and who helped turn that experience into the space shuttle, this was their goal all along.

Revisiting ‘Non-Interference’ Zones in Outer Space

Few topics in the field of space law have been as widely debated in the recent past as those of space property rights. The interest is understandable, given that talk of commercial lunar development has been going on for years. Of the several companies with plans to land on the Moon within the next year or two, some intend to eventually set up mining operations. Other companies are raising investment for asteroid mining. A number of countries, including the United States, have set up favorable legal regimes for the extraction and ownership of physical resources derived from space. The United States’ apparent pivot back to the Moon has renewed interest in establishing a long-term human presence on the lunar surface.

Despite the body of work analyzing issues such as space property rights and the notion of territorial appropriation, several outstanding questions may require practical experience to be answered, suggesting the fallibility of regulating too far in advance. The answers to others, however, can be teased out in proposals and ideas that might have future applicability. One such question is of interference in surface activities on other worlds. Can a mining activity on an asteroid or a habitat on the Moon, for example, be protected from interruption or intrusion by a competitor? How might a company ensure that it will have unfettered access to the surface location upon which it has placed hardware, or the resources which may lie within? These are critical concerns for business certainty and investor confidence, as well as continued safety of operations.It may be that many, if not all, of these plans fail to come to fruition in the timelines currently envisioned. Challenging technical, economic, and business hurdles will need to be overcome before commercial space mining or Moon bases begin in earnest. Nonetheless, these proposals are effective catalysts for the establishment of an enabling legal and regulatory environment. Indeed, it seems that policy and regulation for commercial operations on other worlds are outpacing the technologies and activities they intend to oversee.

Established space law does not help the issue. Article II of the Outer Space Treaty prohibits territorial appropriation in outer space by claims of sovereignty or means of occupation. A country cannot simply declare that a plot of land on the Moon or an asteroid is theirs in order to keep others out. By the treaty, a company has no legal right to a location in space, even if it has stationed permanent equipment there. Without a current legal foundation for non-interference in space operations, a solution to emergent issues will need to evolve through state practice and norms of behavior.

One such possible practice may be the concept of a “non-interference zone,” an area around a spacecraft or surface facility in which others may not enter or conduct their own activities. It’s an idea that’s been floated in the United States before, as a part of licensing requirements for operating a non-governmental spacecraft. Nothing about it, as proposed, overtly violates the Outer Space Treaty. Now, with commercial surface activities on the Moon seemingly imminent and the government close to reforming the regulatory regime to enable it, the non-interference zone is a concept that will likely come up again.

This brief essay explores the non-interference zone idea to frame continuing discussions on the topic. As background, it looks at the history of the concept and offers considerations for its implementation—if it is to be implemented. To that, the essay examines whether current proposals to resolve the regulatory gap for “authorization and continuing supervision” of on-orbit space activities are conducive to these zones and offers thoughts on possible developments in the future.


In late 2013, Bigelow Aerospace submitted a request for a payload review of a proposed lunar habitat by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). Though the company had no immediate plans for a lunar base, it sought to identify any issues that could hinder private development of the Moon. Bigelow asked AST to confirm that no future licenses would be issued that would interfere with the operations of the lunar habitat, seeking the creation of a zone of operation in which other US entities would not be able to enter.

A year after Bigelow’s request, AST issued a reply largely affirming Bigelow’s non-interference zone idea. The letter to Bigelow stated thatThe concept of this non-interference zone has parallels. AST’s licenses already stipulate that payloads not destined for rendezvous with the International Space Station may not enter a 200 kilometer “safety zone” that surrounds the station. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) allocates orbital slots in geostationary orbit to minimize frequency interference by satellites. While operators of space objects are not, by the Outer Space Treaty, required to abide by ITU’s slot allocations, or foreign governments with the space station’s safety zone, they do so in good faith to minimize risks of collision, frequency interference, and diplomatic incidents. Licensing regimes for non-governmental spacecraft have codified adherence to these non-interference zones as requirements, establishing what amounts to de facto rights to locations in space.

[w]e recognize the private sector’s need to protect its assets and personnel on the Moon or on other celestial bodies. Supporting non-interference for private sector operations will enhance safety and only add to the long history of preserving ownership interests in hardware and equipment. Per Congressional guidance, we intend to leverage the FAA’s existing launch licensing authority to encourage private sector investments in space systems by ensuring that commercial activities can be conducted on a non-interference basis.

In its fiscal year 2016 transportation, housing, and urban development appropriations bill, the House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriations also endorsed the idea, writing in page 21 of its report that,

[t]he Committee applauds actions taken by the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation confirming the FAA’s willingness to leverage its existing launch licensing authority to encourage private sector investment in lunar systems that will work in tandem with SLS and Orion, by ensuring that commercial activities can be conducted on a non-interference basis. The Committee urges the FAA to continue to add details, such as specified zones of exclusive operation on the lunar surface.

Issues of implementation

While straightforward as a concept, the non-interference zone becomes more far more complicated in implementation. The wide variety of objects and possible operations in space suggests that non-interference zones would require significant flexibility instead of being a “one-size-fits-all” standard. The proper scope of non-interference, both in physical space and acceptable activities, would likely differ from space resource to space resource and based on potential conflicting uses and users of a location. The characteristics of a zone—its size and protections offered—would be shaped by several environmental and operational factors that would need to be taken into consideration when issuing a license.

For example, the horizon on the Moon is less than 2.5 kilometers away, while the horizon on a small asteroid may be merely dozens of meters. The likelihood that an activity would interfere with another operation beyond a horizon would be small, suggesting that a non-interference zone surrounding an object would be relative to the size of the body on which its located.

However, depending on the characteristics of the location and the activities taking place on it, interference beyond the horizon may be possible. Dust and debris kicked up from the lunar regolith during excavation may fall a considerable distance from the mining activity, perhaps past the horizon. Perturbances to a small asteroid during mining on one side may affect activities on the other. There is no simple way to reconcile these challenges. Moreover, certain locations are more “valuable” than others; the lunar south pole, for example, contains significant and concentrated water-ice deposits. It will be difficult to protect an object at the pole without establishing de facto claim of rights for its operator on the entirety of the location’s vital resources.

As thought experiments alone, these are complicated issues; as questions that require answers if non-interference zones are to be realized as part of the regulatory regime, they become even more important and troublesome. There are, of course, methods by which they may begin to be tackled. For example, in its endorsement of the non-interference zone concept, AST’s advisory committee, the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, suggested that a variety of tools, such as probabilistic risk analysis, could be used as a dynamic approach for establishing reasonable zones of non-interference. However, it is likely that these zones would need to be determined on a case-by-case basis, at least in the early years.

Meanwhile, the scope and scale of missions would need to come into consideration. Early missions to the Moon or asteroids are likely to be conducted with small, simple robotic landers or rovers. Space mining or lunar development plans will unfold slowly, with years between the identification of targets, in-situ prospecting, and actual operations. Likewise, creation of a lunar base will take place over a significant span of time, probably beginning with robotic site planning, excavation, and construction before any direct human involvement. While it is surely possible that some level of “interference” could occur between operators during these early stages, it is difficult to qualify all interference as “harmful.” For example, would the operation of two resource-prospecting lunar rovers scouting mining sites at the same location really risk meaningful damage or interruptions in all but the most extreme circumstances, such as a collision? Would the transit of a rover through a static lunar base’s non-interference zone pose a real threat to that base’s operation, except in instances of gross negligence? What “phase” of an activity demarcates its need for more stringent protection in the form of a larger or more restrictive non-interference zone?

This poses its own challenges. Writing at length about how agencies such as FAA establish new regulatory and licensing mechanisms, Laura Montgomery, former manager of the Space Law Branch in the FAA’s Office of the Chief Council, noted that the regime “will evolve over time, but each phase will possess its own burdens.”

When regulating on a case-by-case basis, an agency that seeks to provide the industry some flexibility will try to avoid imposing the same requirements on everyone regardless of their circumstances. However, fairness and the law require that they treat operators doing similar things in the same way. They also require transparency in the administration of a regulatory regime, so operators will need and want to know what precedents have been created by an agency’s treatment of other operators like them. All these good, well-intentioned concerns slow the review process down.

Over time, the regime would mature. As operations evolve and the agency gains experience with activities involved in non-interference zones, it could,

issue regulations that it could apply generally. At the same time, however, they would set those requirements into regulations that would take years to change through rulemaking. If a private operator wanted to do something other than what a regulation required, the operator would have to prove that it qualified for a waiver. This is also a time-consuming process.

As Montgomery argues, regulating new activities in space on a case-to-case basis is a burdensome and time-consuming process, which is itself unconducive to business certainty. However, “[i]f the agency attempted to set standards for activities that had not yet happened, those standards would likely fail to account for lots of variables and unduly constrict what an operator could do.”

The broader context

The non-interference zone idea and its issues of implementation are threads in two larger stories of the United States’ evolving commercial space regulatory regime. The first is expanding that regime to encompass “non-traditional” space activities that fall outside the scope of launch and reentry, remote sensing, and telecommunications licensing. (See: “Seeking regulatory certainty for new space applications,” The Space Review, December 4, 2017.)

While AST’s letter to Bigelow endorsed the non-interference zone, it also noted that the agency did not have the necessary authority to implement it. In particular, the letter highlighted the Department of State’s concern that the commercial space regulatory regime was not equipped to enable the United States’ government to fulfill its Outer Space Treaty obligation of “authorization and continuing supervision” for activities on the Moon and other celestial bodies. To that, AST noted that it was,

committed to working within the federal government to put in place the necessary framework to support such activities and provide Bigelow with the security it seeks to conduct peaceful commercial operations on the lunar surface without fear of harmful interference by other AST licensees.

In the time since Bigelow’s payload review, policymakers have taken steps toward providing a regulatory agency the authority to authorize and supervise non-traditional space activities. One proposal, the “Mission Authorization/enhanced payload review” process offered by the Obama administration and written into legislative language in Rep. James Bridenstine’s “American Space Renaissance Act,” expands AST’s payload review to include licensing commercial on-orbit activities. The other, written into the “American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act,”(ASCFEA) gives the authority to license on-orbit activities to the Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce (OSC).

These two bills take starkly different approaches on how streamlined and permissive the regulatory environment for commercial spaceflight should be—the other story into which the non-interference zone fits. The ASCFEA is designed as a distinctly and deliberately “lighter” regulatory regime than that in the American Space Renaissance Act, which in turn is modeled off existing practices. ASCFEA’s model seeks to minimize government regulation and oversight of commercial space activities, so as to lessen the burden on commercial operators. Considering Montgomery’s review of burden and challenges posed by the rulemaking process, the impact of these different approaches on the future of the non-interference concept could be significant.

Enabling legislation(?)

To that, what do these pieces of legislation do?

Bridenstine’s bill implicitly endorses the non-interference zone. In the Mission Authorization/enhanced payload review process, approval of a license can be conditioned on a payload’s deployment not resulting “in harmful interference with approved and operating payloads and associated activities.” Presumably, if this regime is instituted, AST would proceed through the aforementioned rulemaking process to define the scope and characteristics of what “harmful interference” entails, effectively establishing non-interference zones around “operating payloads” and their “associated activities.”

Conversely, the authorization and supervision regime in ASCFEA presumes approval of a certificate application without condition. This is unless the Secretary of Commerce, determines, with clear and convincing evidence, that the proposed operation of a space object under an application for certification under this chapter is a violation of an international obligation of the United States pertaining to a nongovernmental entity of the United States under the Outer Space Treaty.

If the Secretary does make this determination, they may “condition the proposed operation covered by the certification only to the extent necessary to prevent a violation of such international obligation.” However, the bill stipulates that the

“Federal Government shall interpret and fulfill its international obligations under the Outer Space Treaty in a manner that minimizes regulations and limitations on the freedom of United States nongovernmental entities to explore and use space.” Moreover, the Secretary of Commerce may not “deny an application for a certification under this section in order to protect an existing certification holder from competition.”

Toward the future

As evidenced by its language, the ASCFEA is not nearly as receptive to the notion of non-interference zones as the American Space Renaissance Act. Indeed, at face value, it appears to prohibit or at least significantly curtail their establishment. Consider that a non-interference zone would likely be a condition placed on an approved certificate: for example, “you may carry out this operation, so long as you remain X meters away from operator Y” or “you may carry out this operation, but you may not carry it out at location X.” The language of the ASCFEA is relatively clear in minimizing limitations such as this, as well as sharply restricting when conditions may be placed. Of course, implementation will come down to how the Department of Commerce interprets and executes the language in statute. It is conceivable—indeed, probable—that a regulatory or legal expert more astute than this author will find a justifiable argument for how a non-interference zone, or something similar, would be possible within the bounds of ASCFEA’s provisions.

As of today, only ASCFEA is up for consideration and potential adoption, as the American Space Renaissance Act has not been reintroduced in the current Congress. ASCFEA passed favorably out of the House of Representative’s space subcommittee in June of 2017, though it has not yet been taken up for a vote on the House floor nor does it have a companion Senate bill.

And so, the idea of a non-interference zone remains simply that, with several outstanding questions still to be answered. Yet, as noted by Mike Gold, who at the time of Bigelow’s proposal was working as the company’s head of DC affairs, “[t]his is the beginning of a process, not the end… this response represents a first step by the AST to use what authority it has to create a safe and attractive environment for commercial lunar development. The first step is always the most challenging…”

As seen, the future of the non-interference zone will depend on the regulatory regime that is ultimately instituted in the United States. It will be informed and shaped by the practice of operating on the surface of other worlds. Its many outstanding questions simply reflect the challenge of regulating—or thinking about regulating—too far in advance. However, as noted at the beginning of this piece, proposals and ideas such as the non-interference zone may have future applicability and can shape thought and discussion for when the time is right to reconsider them.

To that, though this essay focused particularly on issues and context of implementation, there is much more to be said of the non-interference zone idea. For example, it could, if implemented, serve as a framework to minimize interference between international operations on other worlds. It is premature at this stage to delve deeper into the idea, though others have lent their thoughts.

Whatever the future may hold for the idea, it will surely come up again in discussions of how to protect business and investment on other worlds. Considering the progress being made in the development of ever-more ambitious commercial capabilities and plans, those discussions may not be too far away.

Reorganizing National Security Space for the “Contested, Congested, and Competitive” Domain


Outer space is today a critical domain for the United States’ military. Across all levels of operations, from the strategic to the tactical, national security space assets support the American warfighting effort. They fulfill functions that include, but are not limited to, communications; Earth imaging; missile warning; positioning, navigation, and timing; and intelligence information. The United States’ military has become reliant upon these space-enabled functions for its global power projection and rapidity and unity of effort.

Recognizing the utility of these systems and cognizant of the United States’ military’s dependence on them, near-peer adversaries are investing significantly in counter- and anti-space weapons and capabilities, including jammers, “spoofers,” and kinetic hit-to-kill missiles, that can effectively deny the United States use of its space assets. Foreign counter-space capabilities, particularly China’s and Russia’s, are becoming progressively more sophisticated and capable and fit into their “anti-access/area denial” doctrines.[1] No longer a “sanctuary,” outer space is now perceived by senior DOD leadership as a future theater of war and as “contested, congested, and competitive.”[2],[3]

In anticipation of outer space becoming an active theater of conflict and to counter the threat posed by anti-satellite systems against high-value, high-complexity space assets, DOD leadership has spoken of the need to make the national security space architecture more resilient.[4] Steps proposed to accomplish this include increased purchases of commercial “off-the-shelf” space capabilities, quick acquisition of systems with current-gen technology that satisfy needed functions, and development of satellite constellations that can be easily reconstituted. Leadership has identified DOD’s culture of acquiring complex “pristine” satellites as disadvantageous for the realities faced by current-day space threats; such systems may have been advantageous when outer space was relatively stable and non-contested, but their vulnerability to attack and destruction poses a liability now that outer space is replete with threats.[5]

Despite DOD’s recognition of the need for more resilient space architecture, serious challenges, particularly in acquisition and fragmentation of oversight and management, continue to plague its space force.[6] Decades of studies, commissions, and reports have identified persistent DOD resistance to changes in space acquisition approaches and fragmented acquisition responsibilities and redundant oversight bureaucracy.[7] While these challenges are symptomatic of broader issues in DOD systems acquisition practices and organization, their adverse impact is especially magnified in space programs. Because of delays in acquisition of space technologies, deployed space systems are frequently over-budget and obsolete by the time they are fielded.[8] Until the organizational arrangements that contribute to space acquisition inefficiencies are resolved, the DOD will continue to face challenges in adjusting its space force to meet the threats of today.

Cognizant of these issues, the DOD and Congress have undertaken significant reorganization of the national security space acquisition, oversight, and management structure over the last few years. Steps include establishing a “Principal Defense Space Advisor” responsible for unifying stakeholders in the space enterprise and serving as the focal advocate for DOD space issues, as well as standing up an Air Force A-11 space office to elevate space issues at Air Force headquarters. However, government auditors and policymakers in Congress have not been convinced that this is enough to resolve longstanding issues in DOD’s space organization. The FY18 NDAA mandates significant restructuring of DOD space acquisition, management, and oversight authorities and structure. While rejecting some proposed solutions, such as extricating DOD’s space responsibilities and management from the Air Force into a newly stood up “Space Corps,” this suggests that resolving these issues is a top legislative priority and commands the attention of leaders in the national security arena.[9]

Considering its growing importance to the United States’ continued military supremacy, a review and analysis of the topic is warranted. This paper explores the issues of fragmented DOD management, acquisition, and oversight leadership for its space force. It reviews and analyzes recent organizational restructuring and the FY18 NDAA’s proposals. From these, it offers suggestions, recommendations, and comments on the DOD’s management of its space force.

DOD’s Space Force Management

The DOD spends up to $11 billion a year on non-intelligence space-related efforts, 90 percent of which is managed by the Air Force.[10] The Army and Navy own the remaining 10 percent of space systems. DOD space acquisitions, management, and oversight are fragmented across approximately 60 stakeholders throughout the DOD, the Executive Office of the President, the intelligence community, and the civilian community.[11]

Eight organizations have key acquisition management responsibilities. Within the Air Force, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition) serves as the Service Acquisition Executive for Air Force space and non-space acquisitions. The Space and Missile Systems Center is the acquisition center that develops, acquires, fields, and sustains military space systems. Within the Department of the Army, the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command conducts space and missile defense operations while the PEO for Missiles and Space provides guidance for the development and acquisition of Army space systems. Within the Department of the Navy, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition serves as the Navy Acquisition Executive and carries out all navy space acquisitions. The Navy PEO Space Systems acquires, develops, and provides supports for some DOD space systems, while the Office of Naval Research directs science and technology research initiatives that include a space portfolio. Finally, the NRO develops, fields, and operates space programs for the intelligence community and participates in joint acquisitions with the Air Force and Strategic Missile Command.

Eleven organizations have space oversight responsibilities. For the Air Force, oversight is centralized with the Principal DOD Space Advisor (PDSA). The PDSA, formerly the Executive Agent for Space, was established by the Deputy Secretary of Defense in 2015 to unify diffuse and competing voices in defense space programs. The Secretary of the Air Force performs PDSA duties, which include reviewing all space budgets for conformity with national security space policy and giving independent assessments and recommendations to top DOD officials. The Defense Space Council, chaired by the PDSA, serves as the principal advisory forum on all national security space matters. Its purpose is to inform, coordinate, and resolve defense space issues and provide unified strategic guidance for defense space programs. As an advisory body, it has no enforcement authority. 7 organizations within the Office of the Secretary of Defense have oversight responsibilities. USD(AT&L) serves as the OSD focal point in coordination with other OSD stakeholders who have space programs and capabilities. USD(I) exercises planning, policy, and strategic oversight of all intelligence-related space matters. USD(P) formulates national security and defense policy including space policy. DOD CIO provides oversight and drafts policy and guidance for position, navigation, and timing programs. CAPE oversees conduct of Analysis of Alternatives for space programs. The Director of Operational Test and Evaluation provides independent assessments of space program systems to the Secretary of Defense and USD(AT&L). USD©/CFO directs the formulation and execution of DOD’s budgets, including the space budget. Finally, the Office of Management and Budget engages in space program reviews, where it analyzes major defense space programs and suggests changes.

Six DOD organizations are involved in requirement setting for space programs. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), along with STRATCOM, generates requirements specifying the capabilities needed for the space mission. The Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command is responsible for developing Army space requirements. The Chief of Naval Operations provides requirements for Navy space systems and space-related strategies and operations. The Marine Corps, as primarily an end-user of space systems, is involved in the acquisition process by the Commandant of the Marine Corps generating requirements for the systems the Corps utilizes. STRATCOM, as the primary command supported by defense space capabilities, generates most space mission requirements. JCS is involved reviewing operational requirements, including the effects those requirements will have on joint military-intelligence operations, and validates the requirements through the JCIDS and/or ICCR processes.

Emergent Issues

Because of this fragmentation, there is no single, coordinated structure for defining space requirements within the DOD; several experts have remarked that “no one is in charge for space acquisitions.”[12] Without a strong, central leadership for space systems, long-term planning and architectures for space are done in a mission area-focused manner and not at an enterprise level. Acquisition is coordinated through, but not controlled by, the Secretary of the Air Force. The organizations charged with oversight are not in control of, or able to set the direction and build the overarching strategy for, U.S. space capabilities. Aside from the office of the Secretary of the Air Force, the Air Force Space Command, and the Space and Missile Systems Center, the organizations that shape and govern the focus and acquisition of U.S. space assets are outside the Air Force’s command-and-control structure.[13]

This presents significant challenges for the United States’ military to establish a space architecture that is resilient on the enterprise level. While, in 2011, the DOD and Office of the Director of National Intelligence published a National Security Space Strategy which gave guidance on an integrated path for space capabilities, it did not establish clear lines of authority for space acquisition and architecture management nor delineate architectural priorities. Throughout 2015 and 2016, the Commander of Air Force Space Command, in coordination with the Director of NRO, developed a “Space Enterprise Vision” aimed at coordinating planning for space systems across the DOD’s stakeholders.[14] However, the document is classified at high levels, limiting its visibility for lower-level organizations with acquisition and requirements-setting authorities; questions also exist of the enforceability of the Space Enterprise Vision at levels above the AFSPC.[15] The PDSA’s office planned to conduct DOD-wide architecture planning, but lacks the sufficient resources to carry out the task and authorities to effectively execute large planning decisions at the OSD level.[16]

Due to fragmented leadership, redundant oversight bureaucracy, and difficulty coordinating among numerous and diverse stakeholders, DOD space acquisitions generally take too long. Officials have noted that it can take a minimum of 3 years to develop an acquisition strategy, issue a RFP, conduct source selection, and award a contract – a timeline that doesn’t include system development, testing, and fielding.[17] Oversight entities are reluctant to waive or change acquisition steps and practices out of fear that they will be blamed later.[18]

DOD’s oversight review bureaucracy contributes to acquisition inefficiencies which are especially pronounced for the space force. DOD program managers believe they are not sufficiently empowered to execute their programs and that, because much remains outside their control, cannot be held accountable.[19] Studies by the Defense Science Board and Defense Business Board highlighted the challenge of redundant reviews, noting that the DOD has a “checkers checking checkers” system which contributes to inefficiencies in space system ac1uaition. Acquisition decisions are made in separate “stovepipes”: requirements, acquisition, and budgets. Each of these is a multi-layered, heavily bureaucratic series of oftentimes uncoordinated processes which do not operate on the same timelines, do not utilize common documentation, and often create situations resulting in conflicting decisions.

Because no one person or organization is held accountable for balancing government-wide national security space needs against wants, resolving conflicts and ensuring coordination among the many organizations involved with space acquisitions, and ensuring that resources are directed where they are most needed, most major space programs have experienced significant cost and schedule increases. As inherently joint programs that have a large set of stakeholders, most military space programs have a resulting requirements creep, causing difficulty in gaining consensus. From this, the Analysis of Alternatives process can take years to complete, leading to outdated technologies being fielded and schedule delays. Space programs are typically high dollar, low volume acquisitions, which reinforces a tendency to overload program requirements to satisfy the desires of multiple stakeholders. With too many systems requirements and ever increasing mission assurance expectations, the costs and schedules of these space systems continue to increase.[20]

For instance, program costs for the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite program, a protected satellite communications system, had grown 116 percent as of a 2016 GAO review, and its first satellite was launched more than 3.5 years late. For the Space Based Infrared System High (SBIRS High), a missile warning satellite program, costs grew nearly 300 percent and its first satellite launch was delayed roughly 9 years. Contract costs for the Global Positioning System (GPS) ground system, designed to control on-orbit GPS satellites, had more than doubled and the program had experienced a 4-year delay. The delivery of that ground system is now estimated to be delayed another 2 years, for a cumulative 6-year delay.[21]

This too threatens the identified need for a pivot in the national security space system architecture. Requirement creep in satellite systems, caused by diverse stakeholders trying to incorporate their desired and needed capabilities into a single platform, leads to high-cost, high-complexity assets with long development and deployment times. This is antithetical to the resilient space architecture of distributed and rapidly deployable capabilities proposed by DOD space leadership. According to General John Hyten, current commander of STRATCOM and former commander of AFSPC, the Air Force “spends too much money and time developing satellites that make attractive targets.” As a response, STRATCOM will, according to General Hyten, drive space system requirements for simpler, more easily acquired and deployed systems, and “as a combatant commander, I won’t support the development any further of large, big, fat, juicy targets. I won’t support that.”[22]

Organizational Reform, Past and Present

Past studies and reports recommended several ways to improve leadership and decision-making authority in the defense space community. However, DOD has not adopted many of the recommendations, and the GAO suggested that it was too early to tell whether recent changes would be effective. Nonetheless, several organizational changes have occurred over the past two decades. In response to the 2001 Space Commission, the Secretary of the Air Force was designated the DOD Executive Agent for Space and given milestone decision authority for space programs. However, the EA for Space was not given control of budget and its role as a milestone decision authority was rescinded in 2005, limiting its ability to coordinate space activities. In 2004, the Undersecretary of the Air Force established the National Security Space Office (NSSO) to assist in integrating space activities, combining functions of the National Security Space Architect – which was responsible for developing architectures across the range of mission areas for DOD and the intelligence community – and the National Security Space Integration directorate. The NSSO was disestablished in 2010, when the Defense Space Council was created to serve as the principal advisory forum for all defense space matters. Without enforcement authority, though, it has mainly served and advisory and consensus-building role.

The more recent organizational change was the 2015 establishment of the Principal DOD Space Advisor, a re-designation of the Executive Agent for Space role. PDSA officials believe that the move to the PDSA would consolidate leadership in space and address the issue of fragmented leadership responsibilities. The role includes greater authority than the EA for Space role in that it has the ability to voice opinions to the Deputy’s Management Action Group. However, the GAO raised issues with the position, noting that the DMAG primarily addresses issues on an ad-hoc basis and that most decisions involving investment are done on a “piecemeal” basis within the acquisition, requirements, and budget process. Many DOD officials and experts expressed skepticism of the role, stating that PDSA is merely a cosmetic change.[23]  Meanwhile, in June 2017, the Air Force stood up a Deputy Chief of Staff for Space Operations in Air Force headquarters as an effort to integrate and elevate space operations in the Air Force. The A-11 would be the advocate for space operations and requirements in Air Force Headquarters and integrate the Air Force’s space force in areas such as training and requirements development.[24]

However, in response to persistent issues of fragmentation in the DOD’s space leadership structure, significant reorganization was included in the 2018 NDAA. Describing the changes, Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Ala) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn), respectively the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee, noted that “[n]o single official could be held accountable for the success or the failure of the space enterprise. Too many bureaucrats are empowered to say ‘no’ when it comes to defending our assets in space and too few are empowered to say ‘yes,’.”[25] The 2018 NDAA provides the Commander of Air Force Space Command with the sole authority to organize, train, and equip personnel and operations of the Air Force’s space forces, and serve as the acquisition executive for all defense space acquisitions “answerable only to the Secretary of the Air Force, who will answer to Congress.”[26] It terminates the office and position of the Principal Department of Defense Space Advisor, characterizing the office as “burdensome and inefficient bureaucracy,” and transfers its duties of managing Major Force Program 12 to a single official, who cannot be the Secretary of the Air Force, selected by the Deputy Secretary of Defense.[27] It will also terminate the Defense Space Council and disestablish the Air Force A-11, which the NDAA conference report described as a “hastily developed half-measure instituted by the Air Force, which at best only added a box on the organizational chart.”[28]

The FY18 NDAA also directs the Deputy Secretary of Defense to hire a federally funded research-and-development corporation to provide Congress with a “roadmap to establish a separate military department responsible for national security space activities of the DOD.” The FFRDC cannot be affiliated with the Air Force. Some perceive this as a continuing commitment by policymakers to eventually establish a “Space Corps,” a proposal issued by Chairman Rogers which did not make it into the conferenced NDAA.[29] According to Rogers at the Reagan National Defense Forum in late 2017, the idea of a space corps will be revisited in the 2019 NDAA and that “it’s going to happen. It’s inevitable.”[30]

The “Space Corps”

In the space corps proposal, the AFSPC would become a separate service while still reporting to the Secretary of the Air Force, akin to the Marine Corps’ arrangement. While it would not become its own department with its own secretary, it would be led by its own chief who would sit on the Joint Chiefs of Staff with a six-year term. This position would be equal to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and would answer to the Secretary of the Air Force. It would also set up a U.S. Space Command that would be a sub-unified command under U.S. strategic command to help improve the integration of space operations in warfighting. The space corps would be responsible for the DOD’s space force acquisition, management, and oversight[31] According to Chairman Rogers, the size and scope of the space corps would be left to leaders in the Pentagon, who would describe how big it would be and what the bureaucracy would look like.[32]

However, Air Force officials issued significant pushback to the proposal in the run up to NDAA conferencing. According to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, “The Pentagon is complicated enough… [t]his will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart, and cost more money. And if I had more money, I would put it into lethality, not bureaucracy….I don’t need another chief of staff and another six deputy chiefs of staff.”[33] Other leaders focused on the downsides of separating the space force when the DOD should be focused on integrating space across the joint forces. In the words of Air Force Chief of Space Gen. David Goldfein, “If you’re saying the word ‘separate’ and ‘space’ in the same sentence, you’re moving in the wrong direction… [t]he secretary and I are focused how do we integrate space.”[34] Retired Gen. Robert Kehler, former commander of STRATCOM, agreed, “We ought to think about space the way we do about submarines, not the Marines,” noting the submarine force is somewhat of separate, special force that is still part of the Navy.[35]

In an analysis of the space corps proposal, the GAO noted that space would be accorded the greatest amount of visibility and attention and that the organizational change would be very difficult to undo, allowing for its procedures to effectively evolve. However, the GAO also noted that the creation of a space corps would require increased budget to stand up, a challenge in the limited fiscal environment. It would strongly disrupt DOD’s space organizational structure, roles, and responsibilities in the short term.[36]

Analysis and Recommendations

Regardless of the specifics of reorganization within the DOD’s acquisition, management, and oversight of national security space assets, it is imperative that steps be taken to reduce fragmentation and streamline acquisition authorities. Despite differences in opinion about which approach should be pursued, it is an encouraging sign that the Congress and senior Pentagon leadership have recognized this need and appear committed to executing upon it. Preparing the DOD to wage conflict in space by resolving acquisition challenges that currently burden the space force and which lead to “pristine” high-cost, high-complexity systems with long development times is critical to defend against peer-adversary threats and competition in the space domain.

The reorganization actions taken by the 2018 NDAA, coupled with other actions taken within the Pentagon, appear to be positive first steps. Designating AFSPC as the sole authority to organize, train, and equip and to serve as the acquisition authority for all Air Force space systems centralizes and streamlines space system acquisitions within the Air Force, which is the predominate user of national security space systems. Considering that AFSPC promulgated the Space Enterprise Vision and is a lead Air Force organization for setting requirements, centralizing acquisition authority and decision-making with it should be a positive step toward enabling a more resilient space architecture through different systems approaches.

In early December, the DOD designated the commander of AFSPC, currently Gen. Jay Raymond, to become the Joint Force Space Component Commander, taking operational responsibility for the employment of all joint space forces. This does not change AFSPC’s mission, but increases integration with other STRATCOM operational component commanders and elevates the operational level of command and control from a three to a four-star commander. The restructure is intended to build a more coherent organizational structure enabling cleaner operational authority over space assets.[37] While the restructure officially reorganized joint space forces beneath STRATCOM, it effectively elevates the space mission to co-equal status with STRATCOM’s other terrestrial missions.[38]

Between this operational elevation of AFSPC’s commander and the centralized acquisition authorities granted by the FY18 NDAA, closer coordination in space system architectures and requirements can be achieved between STRATCOM and AFSPC’s leadership. With AFSPC taking on operational responsibility of all joint space forces, it is better poised to understand and recognize critical enterprise-level capability needs and issue requirements for those, instead of a diversity of mission-focused stakeholders seeking input into the requirements process.

Of course, other challenges are not addressed by the NDAA’s reorganization. There is no impact on any other organization other than the Air Force, which is not enough to change the entire space force landscape. Nor does it necessarily minimize the bureaucratic burden         of oversight and requirements setting by organizations and stakeholders outside of the Air Force’s command and control structure. Some have suggested that steps such as granting the Secretary of the Air Force Milestone Decision Authority for space acquisition programs, including RDT&E and procurement, would help processes on the back side of acquisition bring space systems to fruition faster.[39] With AFSPC, as a focal point for acquisition, now answerable to the Secretary of the Air Force under the FY18 NDAA, this would be a positive development. However, bureaucratic inertia from space stakeholders outside of the Air Force may undermine this new reorganization’s effectiveness. Some have suggested eventually establishing a Defense Space Agency, with a USD (Space), for consolidated oversight of military space. This could combine space acquisition functions from all military agencies into one organization, providing greater unity of cross-service military space acquisitions and oversight and provide focused OSD oversight of military space policies and execution. However, this would not necessarily consolidate all national security space activities.

Either way, future changes in the organizational structure may be necessary to achieve streamlining of space system acquisition. However, sufficient time should first be given to allow this current reorganization structure to settle in and for processes to develop, evolve, and refine before reorganization is again attempted. While many experts and leaders in DOD, GAO, and the Congress had skepticism that the PDSA would effectively serve as a coordinating function for DOD’s space stakeholders, it should be noted that its supporters expressed frustration that not enough time was granted for the position to become fully effective.[40] To that end, it would be unwise for the Congress to reattempt to stand up a space corps or otherwise significantly restructure the authorities for acquisition and management of space systems within the DOD through the FY19 NDAA. It should first be seen whether the new AFSPC arrangement, coupled with STRATCOM’s interest in more resilience architecture requirements, can change the way that national security space systems are designed and acquired.

Moreover, as suggested by current DOD leadership in their pushback against the space corps proposal, the Air Force is currently in the process of redefining its space doctrine to meet emerging space threats and challenges, even if it does face persistent acquisition challenges, and is working to integrate space assets into the joint force. To entirely upend the DOD’s space hierarchy and command and control during this period of integration would be detrimental to this doctrinal and integration work. Rather, if a separate service is eventually going to be set up, it should be done so progressively, perhaps emerging out of an eventually stood up Defense Space Agency.

Finally, it is important to note that other areas of reform which are critical for improving DOD space system acquisitions extend beyond organizational challenges and fragmentation in leadership. These include streamlining reviews and delegating more decision-making and budgetary authority to lower levels. Likewise, innovative new contracting mechanisms such as OTAs through offices such as the Office of Responsive Space may serve to achieve the needed resilient space architecture in quicker development cycles and timelines. Organizational reform to resolve longstanding issues in DOD space acquisition may help support these other areas of reform, but will not alone resolve DOD’s acquisition problems.


Reforming the DOD’s space acquisition structure and organization is, and will continue to be, critical for the United States’ military to have a space force capable of countering threats and winning conflict in the future. Positive progress has been taken in the FY18 NDAA toward centralizing acquisition authority with the AFSPC, a central user of national security space systems and primary requirement setter, though more work and further changes are likely needed to be done to streamline the burdensome oversight structure. At any rate, for now, it is promising to see that leaders in the Pentagon and in Congress recognize the vital utility and importance of national security space systems and see this issue as one critical for the continuing security and military supremacy of the United States.

Works Cited

[1] Aaron Bateman, “In outer space, the US is vulnerable to China and Russia,” The Hill, July 20, 2017, http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/defense/342992-in-outer-space-the-us-is-vulnerable-to-china-and-russia

[2] Elbridge Colby, “From Sanctuary to Battlefield,” Center for a New American Security, January 27, 2016, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/from-sanctuary-to-battlefield-a-framework-for-a-us-defense-and-deterrence-strategy-for-space

[3] Steven Tomaszewski, “How the US Military Is Preparing for Hostile Threats to Its Satellites,” Vice News, May 5, 2015, https://news.vice.com/article/how-the-us-military-is-preparing-for-hostile-threats-to-its-satellites

[4] “Space Domain Mission Assurance: A Resilience Taxonomy,” Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense & Global Security, September 2015, https://fas.org/man/eprint/resilience.pdf

[5] Elbridge Colby, “From Sanctuary to Battlefield.”

[6] “Defense Space Acquisitions: Too Early to Determine if Recent Changes Will Resolve Persistent Fragmentation in Management and Oversight,” Government Accountability Office, July 27, 2016, https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-592R

[7] Cristina Chaplain, “Space Acquisitions: DOD Continues to Face Challenges of Delayed Delivery of Critical Space Capabilities and Fragmented Leadership,” Government Accountability Office, May 17, 2017, https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/684664.pdf

[8] Ibid.

[9] Dee Ann Davis, “Lawmakers Begin Moving Military Space Management Out of the Air Force,” Inside GNSS, November 10, 2017, http://www.insidegnss.com/node/5681

[10] “Defense Space Acquisitions: Too Early to Determine if Recent Changes Will Resolve Persistent Fragmentation in Management and Oversight,” Government Accountability Office

[11] John Venable, “Creating a “Space Corps” Is Not the Solution to U.S. Space Problems,” Heritage Foundation, October 10, 2017, http://www.heritage.org/sites/default/files/2017-10/BG3254_0.pdf

[12] “Defense Space Acquisitions: Too Early to Determine if Recent Changes Will Resolve Persistent Fragmentation in Management and Oversight,” Government Accountability Office

[13] John Venable, “Creating a “Space Corps” Is Not the Solution to U.S. Space Problems”

[14] Colin Clark, “Space Command Readies For War With ‘Space Enterprise Vision’,” Breaking Defense, June 20, 2016, https://breakingdefense.com/2016/06/space-command-readies-for-war-with-space-enterprise-vision/

[15] “Defense Space Acquisitions: Too Early to Determine if Recent Changes Will Resolve Persistent Fragmentation in Management and Oversight,” Government Accountability Office

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Defense Space Acquisitions: Too Early to Determine if Recent Changes Will Resolve Persistent Fragmentation in Management and Oversight,” Government Accountability Office

[18] Cristina Chaplain, “Space Acquisitions: DOD Continues to Face Challenges of Delayed Delivery of Critical Space Capabilities and Fragmented Leadership”

[19] “Best Practices: Better Support of Weapon System Program Managers Needed to Improve Outcomes,” Government Accountability Office, November 30, 2005, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-06-110

[20] “Defense Space Acquisitions: Too Early to Determine if Recent Changes Will Resolve Persistent Fragmentation in Management and Oversight,” Government Accountability Office

[21] “Space Acquisition: Challenges Facing DOD as it Changes Approaches to Space Acquisitions,” Government Accountability Office, March 9, 2016, https://www.gao.gov/assets/680/675694.pdf

[22] Sandra Erwin, “STRATCOM chief Hyten: ‘I will not support buying big satellites that make juicy targets,’” SpaceNews, November 19, 2017.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Valerie Insinna, “In push to normalize space domain, Air Force adds new three-star position,” Defense News, April 4, 2017, https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/space-symposium/2017/04/04/in-push-to-normalize-space-domain-air-force-adds-new-three-star-position/

[25] Stew Magnuson, “Secretary Wilson Mostly Mum on Proposed Air Force Space Program Reorganization,” National Defense Magazine, November 16, 2017, http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/articles/2017/11/16/air-force-secretary-sees-positives-in-ndaas-space-sounds-warning-on-sequestration

[26] Marcia Smith, “No Space Corps in Final FY2018 NDAA,” SpacePolicyOnline, November 8, 2017, https://spacepolicyonline.com/news/no-space-corps-in-final-fy2018-ndaa/

[27] Sandra Erwin, “Space reforms coming: 2018 NDAA drops legislative bombshells on U.S. Air Force,” SpaceNews, November 9, 2017, http://spacenews.com/space-reforms-coming-2018-ndaa-drops-legislative-bombshells-on-u-s-air-force/

[28] Dee Ann Davis, “Lawmakers Begin Moving Military Space Management Out of the Air Force,”

[29] Rebecca Kheel, “Why the military’s Space Corps isn’t dead yet,” The Hill, November 19, 2017, http://thehill.com/policy/defense/360958-why-the-militarys-space-corps-isnt-dead-yet

[30] Sandra Erwin, “Congressman Rogers: A space corps is ‘inevitable’,” SpaceNews, December 2, 2017, http://spacenews.com/congressman-rogers-a-space-corps-is-inevitable/

[31] Philip Swarts, “House panel takes first step towards military “Space Corps,” SpaceNews, June 20, 2017, http://spacenews.com/house-panel-takes-first-step-towards-military-space-corps/

[32] Christian Davenport, “Some in Congress are pushing for a ‘Space Corps,’ dedicated to fighting wars in the cosmos,” The Washington Post, September 15, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2017/09/15/some-in-congress-are-pushing-for-a-space-corps-dedicated-to-fighting-wars-in-the-cosmos/?utm_term=.4f90f9407b54

[33] Sydney Freedberg, Jr, “Space Corps, What Is It Good For? Not Much: Air Force Leaders,” Breaking Defense, June 21, 2017, https://breakingdefense.com/2017/06/space-corps-what-is-it-good-for-not-much-air-force-leaders/

[34] Ibid.

[35] Mike Fabey, “Debate intensifies over Rogers’ Space Corps proposal,” SpaceNews, September 8, 2017, http://spacenews.com/debate-intensifies-over-rogers-space-corps-proposal/

[36] “Defense Space Acquisitions: Too Early to Determine if Recent Changes Will Resolve Persistent Fragmentation in Management and Oversight,” Government Accountability Office

[37] “AFSPC commander becomes JFSCC, joint space forces restructure,” U.S. Strategic Command, December 4, 2017, http://www.stratcom.mil/Media/News/News-Article-View/Article/1386821/afspc-commander-becomes-jfscc-joint-space-forces-restructure/

[38] Sandra Erwin, “Space commander enthusiastic about NDAA reforms,” SpaceNews, December 8, 2017, http://spacenews.com/space-commander-enthusiastic-about-ndaa-reforms/

[39] John Venable, “Creating a “Space Corps” Is Not the Solution to U.S. Space Problems”

[40] “Defense Space Acquisitions: Too Early to Determine if Recent Changes Will Resolve Persistent Fragmentation in Management and Oversight,” Government Accountability Office

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