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Discussion below this question has lead to this question.

I'd like to know if the US military has in the past, or still does, launch non-weapon payloads into orbit themselves. (Orbit, as opposed to small sounding rockets for science)

As far as I know they currently use commercial launch providers to put military satellites into space (thus the other question) but have they launched things to orbit themselves?

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The USAF has a long history of launching space missions. US military satellites are launched not by NASA, but by the air force. This includes for example:

  • spy satellites
  • military communications sats
  • GPS

USAF Space Command has the following mission:

to "Provide resilient and affordable Space and Cyberspace capabilities for the Joint Force and the Nation."[9] As a result, AFSPC's activities make the space domain reliable to United States warfighters (i.e., combat forces personnel) by assuring their access to space.

AFSPC's primary mission areas are:

  • Space forces support, involving the launching of satellites and other high-value payloads into space using a variety of expendable launch vehicles and operating those satellites once in space
  • Space control, ensuring the friendly use of space through the conduct of counterspace operations encompassing surveillance, negation, protection and space intelligence analysis[10]
  • Force enhancement, providing satellite-based weather, communications, intelligence, missile warning, and navigation; force enhancement is direct support to the warfighter

Before NASA was formed, the USAF was already working on space capability (along with their ICBM program). Many early launches were done by the USAF, with rockets derived from ICBMs.

There's an Air Force station at Cape Canaveral. Launch support (range monitoring, communications, launch abort etc.) for NASA missions is done by the USAF.

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We could have a discussion about what "non weapon" means but the military has launched numerous research payloads on ICBM type boosters.

Some examples

Gemini-B, a test vehicle for the planned military space station Manned Orbiting Laboratory. The Gemini flew a suborbital trajectory to test if it was OK to cut a hatch in its heat shield (it was) but the MOL mockup continued into orbit.

enter image description here

ASSET a maneuverable reentry vehicle (ok, it's suborbital, but not a sounding rocket, and very cool)

enter image description here

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