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
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Paul Sefchek, one of those who didn’t (he retired from the Air Force in 1989 and died in 1997 at the age of 51), told me in an interview years ago that his colleagues were like “old Army scouts who were sort of aimed at NASA by the Air Force and told to find out whatever they could find out. They returned to the fort bleeding and full of wounds.”
One fundamental problem was how the two agencies perceived “payload specialists.” NASA thought of them as outsiders, almost guests—engineers or scientists who tended one particular satellite or experiment, and typically flew just once. The MSEs thought their job was to help bridge the gulf between the military and civilian space agencies.
It didn’t work. Gary Payton, now deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space, is the only one of the first group of military astronauts to fly; he recalls, “I was naive enough to believe that the payload side would be treated by NASA the same way the Air Force launch people treated us. In the world I came from, payload requirements would drive the time of day you launched, the time of year, everything. In 1980, NASA was still worried about getting the shuttle to fly. So we were not paid much attention to. It was a rude awakening.”
In addition to cultural differences, there were plain old turf battles. According to Dave Vidrine, director of the military astronaut program in the early 1980s, one eager MSE, whom he didn’t want to name for publication, was “coming up with a lot of new projects and carving out his own turf.” On one occasion, NASA astronaut Ellison Onizuka was training underwater at the Johnson Space Center for a spacewalk when the MSE, a qualified scuba diver, decided he needed to measure a piece of equipment. He and another member of the Air Force team in Houston jumped into the training pool and went to work. The NASA test conductor spotted the two unauthorized divers and ordered them out of the pool. A shouting match ensued, and the offending MSE was banned temporarily from the center.
T.K. (Ken) Mattingly, an Apollo-era astronaut who also reached the rank of rear admiral before retiring from the Navy in 1989, commanded the shuttle’s fourth mission, in June 1982, which carried the program’s first classified payload. He describes the relationship between the NASA astronauts and the MSEs in those early days as “sour.”
Nor did the MSEs have much support within the Pentagon. Jeff DeTroye, one of the first 13 military astronauts, was assigned to escort General Lew Allen, Air Force chief of staff, during a visit to Los Angeles for the 20th anniversary of the NRO in 1981. Upon learning of DeTroye’s involvement in the shuttle, Allen was blunt. He had played “a primary role in canceling the Manned Orbiting Laboratory [a proposed military space station of the 1960s], and had he had his way, would have canceled the shuttle,” DeTroye says. Allen made it clear he thought there was no role for man in space, period, according to DeTroye.
Mattingly says, “I sometimes thought the only people in the Air Force really interested in the shuttle were the MSEs.”
Still, the classified payloads had to be launched—not just on the secret flights, but as secondary payloads on NASA-sponsored shuttle flights too. Once the two sides started working together on actual missions, things improved, according to Payton, who was part of the support team for Mattingly’s STS-4 flight. “We found that once the shuttle had flown, there were people inside NASA who were eager to satisfy military requirements,” he remembers. “We saw that the [NASA] folks were pretty damn good!”
On the other hand, the STS-4 payload, identified only as “P82-1,” didn’t impress Mattingly. “It was a rinky-dink collection of minor stuff they wanted to fly,” he recalls. P82-1 turned out to be the Cryonic InfraRed Radiance Instrumentation for Shuttle (CIRRIS) and the Ultraviolet Horizon Scanner (UHS), two sensors designed to test missile detection from space. A cover failed to open, so neither worked.