Secret Space Shuttles

When you’re 200 miles up, it’s easy to hide what you’re up to

All five NASA astronauts on the classified STS-28 mission had military backgrounds. But only two of the defense department’s corps of 27 shuttle payload specialists made it to orbit. (NASA)
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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.

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. 

Michael Cassutt is a novelist and television writer in Studio City, California.

About Michael Cassutt

Michael Cassutt has co-authored DEKE!, the autobiography of astronaut Deke Slayton, as well as several novels and television scripts.

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