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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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.

The Air Force-NRO control center for shuttle missions was located in Sunnyvale, California. While Houston and Columbia conversed frequently, no one had come up with a way to refer to the classified control center over the open channel. Payload communicator DeTroye recalled a last-minute panic about the mere mention of “Sunnyvale.” “What were we supposed to say? ‘Columbia, this is…Saratoga’? I can’t imagine what [Mattingly] would have done if he’d heard that.”

The use of code words occasionally got comical. On the seventh day of the mission, Mattingly and pilot Hank Hartsfield were getting ready to return to Earth and had just stored the classified checklists in Columbia’s safe. Sunnyvale then asked them to perform “Tab Echo.” The astronauts looked at each other; neither could remember what Tab Echo was. They opened the safe, removed the checklist, and began paging through it. Sure enough, there was Tab Echo: “Store checklist.”

A few years later, when NASA astronaut Kathy Thornton was preparing for her classified mission, STS-33, “training schedules were coded,” she recalls. “They would say things like ‘Event 7012.’ You had to open up the safe every morning to find out that Event 7012 was food tasting in another building, and you were already five minutes late.”

After STS-4, an ambitious schedule of military missions loomed, and in 1982 the Air Force recruited 14 more MSEs. But the first fully classified flight, STS-10, got delayed due to problems with the new Air Force-built Inertial Upper Stage, used to boost satellites to their designated orbit. Other military experiments flew on NASA missions in the meantime. On flight STS-41G, launched in October 1984, the crew conducted a satellite refueling test “hatched by some Air Force general,” according to journalist Henry S.F. Cooper Jr. in his 1986 book Before Liftoff. Oceanographer Paul Scully-Power was also on board, observing ship wakes on the surface of the sea for the U.S. Navy.

Meanwhile, the crew of STS-10 (renamed STS-51C and commanded by Mattingly) continued to train, all the while pioneering the security procedures that classified missions mandated. A ready room was set up in the astronaut office, complete with a secure telephone that had a secret number. “If certain people need to get hold of you,” Mattingly was told, “they’ll call.” The phone rang just once: The caller asked if Mattingly was interested in subscribing to MCI long distance service.

Another time, Mattingly and three STS-51C crewmates—Onizuka, Loren Shriver, and Jim Buchli—had to take a trip to Sunnyvale. The astronauts were ordered to disguise their destination by filing a flight plan for Denver, then diverting to the San Francisco Bay area. They landed their T-38s at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, rented a “junky old car that could hardly run,” according to Mattingly, and drove to an out-of-the-way motel arranged by their secretary. As they pulled up, Buchli, in the back seat, called a halt. “We made extra stops to make sure we wouldn’t come here directly,” he said. “We didn’t tell our families, we didn’t tell anybody where we are. Look at that motel.” On the marquee was written “Welcome STS-51C Astronauts,” with all four names in big type.

Mattingly’s crew—including MSE payload specialist Payton—finally got off the ground in January 1985. For the first time in NASA history, there was no pre-launch public affairs commentary until nine minutes before liftoff. During the flight, the Air Force lifted the veil of secrecy only to admit that the payload was successfully deployed, and that an Inertial Upper Stage was used.
According to  most accounts, STS-51C’s payload was ORION, an eavesdropping satellite for signals intelligence. Parked in geosynchronous orbit, it unfurled a dish almost as wide as a football field is long (hence the need for the shuttle’s large payload bay) to listen in on ground communications and telemetry. No one involved with the mission will comment beyond this recent statement from Payton: “It’s still up there, and still operating.”

The second dedicated military flight was STS-51J, the following October. Karol Bobko commanded the crew of five, and Bill Pailes, a member of the second military astronaut group, was on board as a payload specialist. Even before the launch, outside analysts deduced that Atlantis would release a pair of Defense Satellite Communications System spacecraft in orbit.
When STS-51J landed, the first launch from the new west coast shuttle pad at Vandenberg was just a year away. The mission, STS-62A, was to have been commanded by four-time shuttle astronaut Robert Crippen, with Air Force undersecretary Edward “Pete” Aldridge and MSE Brett Watterson along as payload specialists.

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.

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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