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Splitting rockets: What would a military-NASA collaboration really mean?

Earlier this week, we told you that the incoming Obama administration was reportedly mulling increased cooperation between NASA and the Department of Defense (DoD) to bolster the manned U.S. space program. The media noted the cooperation might include NASA's adopting and modifying military rockets to launch future crewed missions into space. (NASA is currently developing its own rockets to serve that purpose under the embattled Constellation program, which would provide a next-generation transport system following the space shuttle's retirement, presently scheduled for next year.)

But commenters on our site and elsewhere pointed out that the rockets in question, Atlas 5 and Delta 4, aren't truly military in nature, and so their use in future space missions wouldn't necessarily require more DoD collaboration.

What's the deal? We checked with United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that handles the Delta and Atlas programs, to find out. ULA spokesman Mike Rein says that although the rockets were not designed exclusively for defense purposes, that is their primary function today—hence the common "military" tag. And, as commenters have noted, NASA already uses Atlas 5 and Delta 4 for unmanned missions, but Rein adds that even those launches currently require consultation with the military.

"The Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets were developed by Lockheed and Boeing as commercial rockets to be used both by the government and by commercial and civil industries," he says. But now, he says, 80 percent of ULA business comes from the military and the National Reconnaissance Office (the U.S. intelligence agency responsible for recon satellites), with 15 percent coming from NASA and a scant 5 percent from commercial enterprise.

Rein says that ULA supports the Constellation program and will not participate in the debate over subbing in ULA rockets for proprietary NASA rockets on manned missions. But he notes that the "unmanned side of the house for NASA definitely uses Atlas and Delta." Even then, however, the military plays a role.

"We launch on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Vandenberg Air Force Base, so just by the fact that we launch on those two installations," Rein says, "you have the military involved in every launch you do."

Photograph of Delta IV rocket prepared for launch courtesy of NASA/KSC

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