If a U.S. Navy task force were to be surprised today by a major tropical storm and suffer significant damage and loss of life, the public outcry and negative political fallout would be considerable. So widespread is military and civil trust in space-based systems that failure to avoid a life-threatening storm would be regarded as a serious breach of professional competence.
It is easy to forget, however, that reliable satellite systems are still relatively new tools in military affairs.
The story of how the U.S. Navy began exploring the "final frontier" and gained access to this highest of high ground in support of fleet operations has all the elements of a good novel-ambitious goals, strong personalities, bitter rivalries, and the struggle to master complex concepts, played out against a backdrop of hot and cold war.
The record of Navy space activities is astonishing both in its scope and in the clever ways that bits of metal and ceramics have been molded to do man's bidding. Possibly the most gratifying aspect of Navy activities in space is that although many of the efforts required exotic technical leaps, virtually all of the projects and programs were founded on an unwavering commitment to fleet support.
Navy space activities that resulted in operational capabilities have, therefore, been concentrated in the areas of: precision navigation; communications; detection of targets; and near-real-time warning of threats to tactical forces (with a strong emphasis on keeping track of mobile targets).
The Navy has also been involved, albeit to a lesser extent, in the applications of satellite systems for: gathering intelligence to support national command authorities; strategic warning, and the collection of technical intelligence.
Finally, the Navy has been a participant in a wide range of environmental sensing and scientific space programs, but rarely as the prime sponsor for such efforts.
In describing the Navy's four decades of involvement in U.S. space programs, an effort has been made to tell a lively story rather than simply to assemble essential facts in chronological order. Where appropriate, important Navy choices about how to proceed in developing and using space systems are placed in the context of the social, political, and fiscal factors that influenced decision makers.