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
(Page 4 of 6)
Then came the 1986 Challenger accident. As NASA struggled to return the shuttle to flight, the Air Force and NRO sped up their plans to move payloads back to unmanned rockets. The only satellites that would still be launched on NASA’s shuttle were those that couldn’t be shifted to the Titan IV.
When the military abandoned the shuttle, MSEs like Frank Casserino and Watterson suddenly lost their flights. By 1988—the year NASA returned the shuttle to service—the military astronaut corps had disbanded, its members scattered to new assignments. (Of the 27 officers in the first two MSE groups, five would later become generals.)
The remaining classified flights fell to NASA astronauts. The first post-Challenger military mission was STS-27, whose crew rescued the ONYX satellite. Then came STS-28 in August 1989, which analysts assumed at the time—based on its 57-degree orbit that overflew a large percentage of the Earth—carried another imaging satellite. Years later, the sleuths determined that STS-28 had instead carried a Satellite Data System spacecraft for relaying imagery from NRO spy satellites. (That conclusion was confirmed for me by an Air Force officer familiar with the mission, who upon seeing CBS news footage of the NRO satellites in 1998 said, “It’s strange to work on a secret project for 10 years, then see it on network television.”)
The next classified mission was STS-33, in November 1989. Discovery’s crew was commanded by Fred Gregory, with John Blaha as pilot and three mission specialists: veteran astronaut Story Musgrave, Sonny Carter, and Kathy Thornton. Musgrave and Thornton (who had once worked as a scientist for the Army) were the only civilians ever assigned to secret missions. In orbit over Thanksgiving, the crew of STS-33 was able to conduct its mission with limited public scrutiny. The Air Force admitted only that the astronauts deployed a spacecraft using the Inertial Upper Stage; the payload is believed to have been the second ORION eavesdropping satellite.
The cargo for the next classified flight, STS-36 in February 1990, was harder for ground-based sleuths to figure out. The mission was unusual for its highly inclined orbit—62 degrees, still a shuttle record—which took the crew well above the Arctic Circle and far enough south that they could glimpse the coast of Antarctica. The industry magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology reported the payload’s name as “AFP-731” and its weight as 37,000 pounds. For years it was thought to have been an advanced KH-11 imaging satellite; not long after Atlantis’ return, the Soviet news agency Novosti reported that the satellite had “malfunctioned,” and that large pieces of debris were being tracked prior to reentry.
Wrong, says author Jeffrey Richelson, whose credits include books on the Defense Support Program (DSP) early warning satellites and The Wizards of Langley, a 2001 history of technical innovation at the CIA. In the latter book he claims that STS-36 deployed a stealthy reconnaissance satellite named MISTY. The “debris” had likely been jettisoned shrouds or instrument covers. Stealthy or not, the satellite was eventually spotted by amateur trackers in a roughly 500-mile-altitude orbit at a 65-degree inclination.
The November 1990 flight of STS-38 presented another puzzle for spysat detectives. Its trajectory east of Cape Canaveral initially pointed toward a third ORION eavesdropping satellite, but NRO information released eight years later indicates that it might have been a data relay satellite. Richelson has suggested that in addition, STS-38 carried a small “inspector” satellite designed to get close to other spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit. That scenario is still being debated.
With the launch of STS-39 in April 1991, the Department of Defense began to lift the veil on its shuttle operations. The mission was declassified before launch, and NASA was allowed to reveal that it carried a military-sponsored pallet called AFP-675, a reflight of the payload flown years earlier on Mattingly’s STS-4 mission.
Which is not to say that STS-39 didn’t have secrets. One day, according to a member of the crew, another astronaut, Guy Bluford, “went up on the aft flight deck by himself while the rest of us pretended not to notice.” Bluford launched a small classified satellite, purpose still undisclosed.