Secret Space Shuttles
When you’re 200 miles up, it’s easy to hide what you’re up to.
- By Michael Cassutt
- Air & Space magazine, August 2009
The giant gold and silver satellite glittered against the black sky as space shuttle Atlantis closed in on it from below. Commander Hoot Gibson and pilot Guy Gardner flew the approach, while mission specialist Mike Mullane, at the other end of the flight deck, readied the shuttle’s robot arm for a capture. Downstairs in the airlock, mission specialists Jerry Ross and Bill Shepherd waited in their spacesuits for Gibson’s order to go outside and attempt a rescue.
The mission of STS-27 had been to deploy the first in a series of new spy satellites that used radar to observe ground targets, in any kind of weather, day or night. But shortly after the astronauts released the spacecraft, called ONYX, from the shuttle’s cargo bay, on December 2, 1988, one of its antenna dishes had failed to open. Without intervention by the crew, the billion-dollar satellite would become a hunk of space junk. As it turned out, they succeeded in grabbing, fixing, and re-releasing ONYX, for which they later received a medal from the U.S. intelligence community.
At least that’s one possible scenario for what happened. The astronauts may just as well have fixed the satellite without a spacewalk by Ross and Shepherd. We don’t know because not a word of the ONYX rescue was reported in newspapers or on television. Why not?
Because STS-27 was—and remains—a secret mission.
Between 1982 and 1992, NASA launched 11 shuttle flights with classified payloads, honoring a deal that dated to 1969, when the National Reconnaissance Office—an organization so secret its name could not be published at the time—requested certain changes to the design of NASA’s new space transportation system. The NRO built and operated large, expensive reconnaissance satellites, and it wanted a bigger shuttle cargo bay than NASA had planned. The spysat agency also wanted the option to fly “once around” polar missions, which demanded more flexibility to maneuver for a landing that could be on either side of the vehicle’s ground track.
“NRO requirements drove the shuttle design,” says Parker Temple, a historian who served on the policy staff of the secretary of the Air Force and later with the NRO’s office within the Central Intelligence Agency. The Air Force signed on to use the shuttle too, and in 1979 started building a launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in northern California for reaching polar orbits. Neither the Air Force nor the NRO was ever comfortable relying exclusively on NASA’s vehicle, however. Delays in shuttle launches only increased their worry; even before the 1986 Challenger accident, they were looking for a way off the shuttle and back onto conventional rockets like the Titan.
The uneasy relationship between the Air Force, NRO, and NASA assumed a human face in 1979, when the military chose its first group of shuttle astronauts. Two years before the shuttle’s first launch, the NRO selected 13 Manned Spaceflight Engineers as potential payload specialists, all but one from the Air Force. The new military astronauts ranged in age from 24 to 36. Most had advanced degrees in engineering; one was a Ph.D. They were experienced in satellite flying and acquisition. And they believed they were the vanguard of the Air Force in space.
Only one of that first group ever made it to orbit.