Into The Black: NASA’s Secret Space Shuttle Missions

 

This is the first in a five-part series that will cover the secret space shuttle missions that NASA conducted. Photo Credit: NASA

The Secret History of NASA’s Middle Child: Part 1: An Open Secret

With the recent groundbreaking at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, the final journey of Atlantis – NASA’s ‘middle child’ in its Shuttle fleet – has finally begun in earnest, cementing a pledge by Administrator Charles Bolden in April 2011 to “showcase” his old friend at the historic site from which all of her 33 missions began. 

When the Atlantis attraction is unveiled to the public, sometime in the summer of 2013, it will see the venerable orbiter suspended in a 6,000-square-metre, $100 million chamber, with payload bay doors open, as if in orbit, backdropped by a multi-story rotating digital projection of the Home Planet. If anything can reinvigorate excitement for the space programme and inspire the next generation, then surely Atlantis’ final mission promises to do just that.   

The final resting place of the craft, which achieved so much in a quarter-century of operational service, is both triumphant and saddening, filled with honour and a tangible tugging at the heart-strings. Atlantis took the Shuttle’s first planetary explorers – Magellan and Galileo – aloft and her astronauts logged several hundred hours of spacewalking time, building the International Space Station, working outside Russia’s Mir complex and upgrading the Hubble Space Telescope. She was instrumental in Shuttle-Mir, which kicked off Phase One of co-operation with the Russians, and during her watch the citizens of nine discrete nations – Mexico, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, France, Russia, Canada, Germany and the United States – viewed the grandeur of Earth and the profound emptiness of the cosmos through her windows. If the ‘International’ Space Station is part of Atlantis’ enduring legacy, perhaps she should now be honoured as an ‘International’ Space Shuttle.   

However, her space career began very much as a ‘national’, rather than ‘international’, asset and of her first dozen missions, almost half were classified and dedicated to the Department of Defense. This is understandable, since the Shuttle’s original mandate was to transport large reconnaissance and intelligence satellites into orbit, with its payload bay, delta-shaped wings, cross-range and unique upmass capability specifically tailored by NASA to satisfy its key champion, the Air Force. Early plans envisaged the reusable vehicles flying single-orbit, 90-minute sorties to place secret payloads into space, whilst later in the pre-Challenger era a second launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was in the final stages of preparation for a series of polar-circling missions. 

From its conception, the design of the Shuttle was dictated to NASA by the military. The dimensions of its cavernous payload bay - covered by clamshell doors, here seen during the process of opening at the start of Mission 51J - were specifically engineered to meet the needs of the Air Force, whose powerful lobbyists offered political support for the reusable vehicle. Photo Credit: NASA

It is therefore a little ironic that Atlantis’ maiden voyage in October 1985 should have been top-secret…and yet details of her classified payload had already trickled onto the pages of Aviation Week, before the mission had even ended. Today, images of the payload from Mission 51J have long since been declassified and are firmly in the public domain, but only because it was little more than a pair of military communications satellites and not a ‘deep black’ reconnaissance platform or imaging sentinel. For that reason, almost two decades since the Shuttle’s last classified flight, most of the Department of Defense missions remain cloaked in secrecy…and rumour continues to abound about their nature. This series of articles will seek to uncover what little is known about them.    

Mission 51J began with an upset wife. Management consultant Diane Bobko was particularly irritated as her husband prepared for his third trip into space. Unlike his previous missions, this one was classified and she knew that he was permitted to tell her very little about it. 

“Bo,” she said, one morning in September 1985, “you’re not telling me exactly what day you’re going to land, but I think it’s going to be pretty close to a day I have a programme in Baltimore.” 

“Diane, it’s the first flight of a new vehicle,” her husband replied. “Probably the safest thing you can do is go ahead and schedule that right now.” 

To this day, Karol ‘Bo’ Bobko retains a noteworthy, yet often overlooked record as the only astronaut to have flown the maiden voyages of two Space Shuttles and he was clearly reflecting on the problems experienced getting Challenger ready for her first flight in April 1983 when he assured his wife that the first flight of Atlantis would probably also meet with delay. Ironically, it did not. 

The 'open secret' crew of 51J are pictured at the end of their Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test, standing in front of an M-113 armoured personnel carrier, which would be used in the event of an emergency evacuation from the launch pad. Karol 'Bo' Bobko (left) was joined on the flight by Ron Grabe, Dave Hilmers, Bob Stewart and Bill Pailes. Photo Credit: NASA

Atlantis was named in honour of a two-masted ketch, operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute from 1930 until 1966, which became the first vessel built specifically for interdisciplinary research in marine biology and geology and physical oceanography. During her time at sea, Atlantis and her scientists scored a number of impressive discoveries, not least of which was the identification and description of the first abyssal plain – the ‘Sohm Abyssal Plain’, to the south of Newfoundland – in 1947. Today, she is owned by Argentina as a naval research vessel. The construction of the spacefaring Atlantis got underway in January 1979, following a contract award to Rockwell International to configure a structural test article into the future Challenger and build two additional orbiter vehicles, OV-103 and OV-104. The names ‘Discovery’ and ‘Atlantis’ were assigned to these new orbiters a few days after the award. 

In March 1980, engineers started the structural assembly of Atlantis’ crew cabin and over the next few years the vehicle grew: construction of her aft fuselage began in November 1981, her wings arrived from contractor Grumman in June 1983 and she was complete by April 1984. Rollout from Rockwell’s Palmdale plant in California in March 1985 was followed by an overland transfer to Edwards Air Force Base and arrival in Florida, atop the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, in early April. By September, after installation on Pad 39A, Atlantis was ready to fly; on the 5th, her three main engines burned at full power in a Flight Readiness Firing, one of the last milestones to prepare her for her voyage. All told, the new ship required less than half as much time to assemble as did the queen of the fleet, Columbia, and historian Dennis Jenkins pointed to the greater use of thermal protection blankets, rather than tiles, on her airframe as one of the principal reasons for this. 

Atlantis’ crew for 51J had been in place for some considerable period of time. As early as November 1983, NASA had identified a ‘standby’ crew for Department of Defense flights. It consisted of Bobko in command, together with pilot Ron Grabe and mission specialists Bob Stewart, Mike Mullane and Dave Hilmers. In February 1985, this group (save Mullane, who had been assigned to another flight) were named to 51J. The final crew member, payload specialist Bill Pailes, was only the second member of the Air Force’s corps of manned spaceflight engineers to fly the Shuttle…and, as circumstances transpired, he would also be the last. In the wake of Challenger, the military steadily distanced itself from the orbiters, moving more payloads onto expendable rockets, and the cadre was disbanded. 

Command of this new flight posed something of a problem in the spring of 1985, particularly when Bobko’s previous mission was cancelled and he ended up leading his crew into orbit in April, under a different designation. The inevitable consequence was that Grabe, Stewart and Hilmers were forced to train without him for a time. What really made 51J a pain was its classified nature, in which the astronauts had to conduct virtually their entire training in secret, filing misleading flight plans to training destinations…and then finding out through the pages of Aviation Week and Flight International that details of their supposedly ‘secret’ payload had leaked and been exposed.

In fact, the twin-satellite cargo of 51J became something of an ‘open’ secret and details were published as early as 7 October 1985, the very day that Atlantis touched down. A single Inertial Upper Stage booster carried a pair of $160 million Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS)-III spacecraft, stacked one atop the other, images of which were finally declassified in the summer of 1998. They lend credence to Bobko’s claim that, for all its ‘secrecy’, 51J was little more than a ‘vanilla’ deployment flight. 

Not until the summer of 1998 were any images from this most 'vanilla' of Department of Defense flights revealed...although the nature of the flight had long since trickled into the public domain. A pair of Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS)-III satellites, mounted atop a Boeing-built Inertial Upper Stage, are here raised to their deployment angle in Atlantis' payload bay. Photo Credit: NASA

The DSCS – nicknamed ‘the discus’ – has long been an anchor for the Pentagon’s global communications network, operating in geostationary orbit with half a dozen super-high-frequency transponders for secure voice and data transmissions and high-priority command and control links between officials and battlefield commanders. The Air Force later admitted that it had launched two DSCS-IIIs in 1985 and, according to space analyst Dwayne Day, “the only launch that year that fit was the Atlantis mission”. Subsequent documents highlighted that the DSCS-III satellites had been deployed during a Shuttle flight, but refused to reveal the name of that flight…even though it could be quite easily inferred. “Military secrecy can be bizarre at times,” wrote Day, “like acknowledging that there is a sky, and that the sky can be blue, but never saying that the sky is blue!”   

Physically, the satellites were roughly cube-shaped, with a pair of articulated solar panels which produced 1,240 watts of electrical power. They measured 2 m in height, spanned 11.5 m across their expansive solar ‘wings’ and weighed 2,600 kg. Day considered it significant that 51J’s payload was so readily revealed, but the natures of the other classified satellites launched between 1988 and 1992 have been kept under wraps to this very day. “If the suspected identities of the other classified Shuttle flights are correct,” he speculated in an article for the Space Review in January 2010, “then they are intelligence satellites. Considering the secrecy that remains about American intelligence satellites, it seems likely that these other flights will continue to remain secret for a long time to come.” 

Launch of Atlantis on Mission 51J came at 11:15 am EST on 3 October 1985, following a 22-minute delay to deal with a power controller in one of the main engines’ liquid hydrogen prevalves that showed a faulty indication. As with all classified Shuttle missions, the assembled spectators at the Kennedy Space Center were only aware that launch was imminent when the blank face of the famous countdown clock suddenly came to life and started ticking from T-9 minutes.

Yet there was still a degree of uncertainty about 51J. Flight International suggested (correctly) that if the rumours about the presence of DSCS-III satellites were accurate, then an Inertial Upper Stage was the most likely booster, but suggested the possibility that other instruments might also be aboard, such as the Cryogenic Infrared Radiance Instrument for Shuttle (CIRRIS) and a laser retroreflector for ‘Star Wars’ research. The Air Force cleverly refused to confirm or deny any of the rumours. After four days – one of the shortest Shuttle missions to date – Atlantis touched down at Edwards Air Force in California at 10:00 am PST on 7 October.     

As it turned out, Diane Bobko was in California to meet her husband on the runway. Astonishingly, Atlantis had met with no significant delays, launched on time and landed on time. “So she was there to meet me in California,” Bobko remembered, “gave me a hug and then she had to leave right away to…drive down to Los Angeles to catch the airplane to go to Baltimore.” Later that evening, Bobko was startled out of his sleep by a telephone call. It was his wife. Surely, he thought, if a vehicle as complex as the Shuttle could launch and land on time, on its maiden voyage, then her domestic flight would have been trouble-free. 

“You’re in Baltimore?” he asked. 

“No,” she replied, glumly. “I’m still in Dallas, trying to get to Baltimore!”

Be sure to check back tomorrow for the second part of Ben Evans' series on the secret missions of the shuttle era. Photo Credit: NASA

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