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 5 of 6)
The trend toward declassification continued with STS-44 in November 1991. Months before the launch, the Air Force acknowledged that Atlantis would carry the 16th DSP satellite for early warning of missile launches. Also on board were some secondary experiments and Army intelligence specialist Thomas Hennen, who flew in space to observe military targets on the ground, under a program known as Terra Scout.
The following year, the existence of the National Reconnaissance Office was officially revealed, just as the queue of secret shuttle payloads wound down to the end. The last dedicated military mission, STS-53, flew in December 1992, carrying a satellite identified as DOD-1, which Richelson and other analysts surmise was another data relay vehicle.
NASA closed the secure control room at JSC in Houston and the equally secure Firing Room 4 at the Kennedy Space Center. The cadre of Air Force support personnel was dispersed. And that brought to an end the sometimes testy, always mysterious relationship between NASA and the Air Force/NRO, which had figured so prominently in the middle decade of the shuttle’s nearly-30-year history.
In 1993, a person identified publicly only as a “high-ranking intelligence official” traveled from Washington to the Johnson Space Center to meet with all the astronauts who had flown secret shuttles and present them with National Intelligence Achievement Medals. At that time, each astronaut was officially cleared to wear the medal in public and to acknowledge the facts written on the citation. Hoot Gibson, for example, could now disclose that he had “returned to” STS-27’s satellite payload, and that the mission specialist on that flight, Mike Mullane, had used the shuttle’s robot arm. Sixteen years later, those brief citations provide almost the only official details of what happened.
Today, the astronauts remain bound to silence. Says Mattingly, “The accomplishments were first-class. I would give anything if someone would say, ‘Here’s what we did. You should be proud of it.’ ”
As for the Ross-Shepherd spacewalk on STS-27, we still can’t say for certain that it happened. There is another clue, however. On February 14, 2001, astronauts Tom Jones and Robert Curbeam were in the middle of their third spacewalk of space station assembly mission STS-98. NASA public affairs had advertised it beforehand as the 100th American spacewalk. But just as the astronauts were about to say something to mark the event, pilot Mark Polansky radioed them on a private channel to warn them off. According to Jones’ 2006 memoir, Skywalking, “Somebody had done a recount, and discovered that the real 100th EVA [extravehicular activity] had been two days ago on EVA-2.”
How could that happen? Had there been a secret spacewalk that never made it into the official tally?
Maybe someday we’ll all be cleared to know.