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.
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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honoring a deal that dated to 1969, when the National Reconnaissance Office—an organization so secret its name could not be published at the time—requested certain changes to the design of NASA’s new space transportation system.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.
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!”