' ... T-9 Minutes and Counting ... ': NASA's First Secret Shuttle Flight

Since the conception of the manned spaceflight engineer programme, the intent was to fly a dedicated officer aboard each classified flight. For Mission 51C, it would be Air Force Major Gary Payton (back left). The other NASA crew members were Loren Shriver (front left) and Ken Mattingly (front right), with Jim Buchli and Ellison Onizuka behind. Photo Credit: NASA

Since the conception of the manned spaceflight engineer programme, the intent was to fly a dedicated officer aboard each classified flight. For Mission 51C, it would be Air Force Major Gary Payton (back left). The other NASA crew members were Loren Shriver (front left) and Ken Mattingly (front right), with Jim Buchli and Ellison Onizuka behind. Photo Credit: NASA

“Miracle” is a term which is often applied to many aspects of the space programme: to Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight to the accomplishment of the first manned lunar landing or to the safe return of Apollo 13. But the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery in January 1985 on Mission 51C marked a miracle of another kind. In a sense, it was quite literally miraculous that the orbiter made it into space at all … both metaphorically and literally, as the Challenger accident investigation would later reveal. When astronauts Ken Mattingly, Loren Shriver, Ellison Onizuka, and Jim Buchli were named as the crew of STS-10 in October 1982, they confidently expected to launch aboard Challenger in September of the following year on the first classified mission for the Department of Defense. It would put the shuttle’s advertised ability as a “truck” for the United States’ largest and most sensitive national security sentinels to the ultimate test.

Unfortunately, the mission quickly ran into problems when the Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster, built by Boeing for the Air Force, failed to properly inject the first Tracking and Data Relay Satellite into geostationary orbit in April 1983. Mattingly’s mission was manifested to use the same type of rocket stage. The flight hung in limbo whilst an investigation board pored over the failure and made recommendations, and Boeing spent a year correcting the problems and recertifying the booster. By November 1983, Mattingly’s flight had been redesignated as Mission 41E and rescheduled for July of the following year, but within a few months it was delayed yet again. When NASA issued an updated manifest in May 1984, it had vanished entirely and Mattingly’s crew were reassigned to 51C, still with Challenger and set for December. “That,” said Loren Shriver, “is when we started to learn that the numerical sequence of the numbers of the missions … didn’t mean a lot.”

For a time, Shriver wondered if he would ever fly, but unlike other missions, payloads were very much interchangeable; they were a DoD crew. “You were kind of linked to it,” he recalled, “as long as there was some thought that it was going to happen, and it never did completely go away. It just went kind of inactive for a while, then came back as 51C.” When he was assigned to the mission, Shriver was not surprised that his crewmates were all active-duty military officers. “I think NASA believed that it didn’t have to do that,” he recalled, “but I think it also believed that things would probably go a lot smoother if they did.”

It became a staple of each Department of Defense mission for a patriotic crew patch, with little indication as to its primary objective. Photo Credit: NASA

It became a staple of each Department of Defense mission for a patriotic crew patch, with little indication as to its primary objective. Photo Credit: NASA

Flying a classified mission posed its own problems for Mattingly. Within NASA, he had become familiar with the practice of sharing information, particularly about the shuttle. With a Department of Defense payload, the crew could not publicly discuss the particulars of their flight and the exact details were made available to only a handful of engineers, technicians, and Air Force managers. “I had some apprehension,” Mattingly said, “about could we keep the exchange of information timely and clear in this small community when everybody around us is telling anything they want and we’re keeping these secrets. Security was the challenge of the mission.”

Cipher locks were placed on training materials, “but then you had to give the code to a thousand people, so you could go to work!” They were given a classified meeting room in the astronaut office, a classified safe for their documents … and a classified phone, with an unlisted number. In the entire span of their training time together, the phone rang just once. It was a sales call, asking Mattingly if he wanted to buy a new long-distance service!

The ridiculous levels of secrecy became even more laughable at other times, particularly when the astronauts were obliged to “disguise” the places where they were doing their training. They would file T-38 flight plans to Denver, then file new ones to the San Francisco Bay area, then rent a car to eventually reach their military destination at Sunnyvale in California. They were asked to do their mission training during the daytime and at night, to keep the launch time secret from prying eyes, or anyone who could be bothered to put two and two together, but all this furore never convinced Mattingly than anyone really cared. On one occasion, their office secretary booked motel rooms for them—”secretly,” of course—but the four astronauts, crammed into a decrepit old rental car, with Ellison Onizuka at the wheel, had a surprise when they arrived. Jim Buchli spotted it first.

“Stop here,” he said. “Now, let’s go over this one more time. We made extra stops to make sure that we wouldn’t come here directly … and they can’t trace our flight plan. We didn’t tell our families. We didn’t tell anyone where we were. And we can’t tell anyone who we’re visiting. Look at that.” Four sets of eyes peered over toward their “secret” motel … and beheld an enormous banner, emblazoned with the legend: WELCOME, 51C ASTRONAUTS. “How’s that for security?” chuckled Mattingly.

When the countdown clock began ticking, 9 minutes before launch, it must have caught the assembled spectators by surprise. Mission 51C was indeed the quietest human launch ever conducted by NASA, a fact which sat uneasily with Public Affairs staff and public alike. Photo Credit: NASA

When the countdown clock began ticking, nine minutes before launch, it must have caught the assembled spectators by surprise. Mission 51C was indeed the quietest human launch ever conducted by NASA, a fact which sat uneasily with Public Affairs staff and public alike. Photo Credit: NASA

When Challenger returned from her previous flight in October 1984, she was scheduled to be relaunched on 8 December for 51C, but inspections revealed that almost 5,000 of the delicate thermal protection tiles had become debonded during re-entry. One tile, located in the vicinity of the left-hand wing chine, had completely separated from the airframe and, although not a catastrophic problem in itself, revealed a far more worrying issue. A vulcaniser material, known as “screed,” used to smooth metal surfaces under tile bonding materials, had softened to such an extent that its “holding” qualities were impaired. Subsequent investigation revealed that repeated injections of a tile waterproofing agent called “sylazane,” coupled with the effects of six high-temperature re-entries, had caused degradation in the bonding material. By the time Challenger flew her next mission, the use of sylazane had been scrapped. In the interim she was reassigned to Mission 51E, scheduled for launch in February 1985, and 51C switched to Discovery with a launch date in late January 1985. Years later, Loren Shriver did not remember any significant mission impact, other than the six-week launch delay, from switching orbiters.

Due to the classified nature of the flight, some Air Force officials did not even want the precise launch date, or even the astronauts’ names, released to the public. Loren Shriver was not alone in his amazement at this excessive insistence on secrecy. “We weren’t going to be able to invite guests for the launch in the beginning,” he told the NASA oral historian. “This is your lifelong dream and ambition. You’re finally an astronaut and you’re going to go fly the Space Shuttle and you can’t invite anybody to come watch …We finally got them talked into letting us invite … 30 people, and then maybe some car-pass guests, who could drive out on the causeway … but trying to decide who, among all of your relatives and your wife’s relatives, are going to be among the 30 who get to come see the launch, well, it’s a career-limiting kind of decision if you make the wrong decision. You have part of the family mad at you for the rest of your life!”

Fortunately, Shriver’s family and most of his wife’s relatives were from Iowa, which was sufficiently distant for many to be unable to make the journey to Florida. Privately, Shriver and his crewmates worried that their inability to discuss the mission openly might compromise their preparedness and the thoroughness of their training. It must have been an unusual sight to behold the 51C stack, sitting on Pad 39A, with only a select number of military and NASA personnel knowing precisely when the launch would take place; in fact, the media had been told to expect liftoff within a three-hour “block” of time, sometime between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. EST on 23 January 1985. Freezing weather conditions kept Discovery on the ground that afternoon, but the situation seemed to have improved marginally by the following day. For the spectators at KSC, the famous countdown clock, which normally ticks away the final minutes and seconds, showed a blank face and all communications between launch controllers and the flight crew were kept quiet. Then, at 2:41 p.m. EST, the blackout suddenly ended with a statement from the launch commentator:

“ … T-9 minutes and counting. The launch events are now being controlled by the ground launch sequencer … ”

In one of relatively few images ever publicly released from Mission 51C, astronauts Loren Shriver (bottom), Ellison Onizuka (left) and Jim Buchli pose for a photograph in Discovery's flight deck. Photo Credit: NASA

In one of relatively few images ever publicly released from Mission 51C, astronauts Loren Shriver (bottom), Ellison Onizuka (left), and Jim Buchli pose for a photograph in Discovery’s flight deck. Photo Credit: NASA

The remainder of the countdown proceeded normally, and Discovery lifted off at 2:50 p.m. and thundered into the cold blue Florida sky. Ascent was interesting, because communication between the orbiter and Mission Control was kept strictly under wraps, with only the voice of the commentator reading off a string of standard calls pertaining to the performance of the main engines, the fuel cells, the Auxiliary Power Units, and the shuttle’s steadily increasing altitude and velocity. No indication was given as to the precise duration of the mission—one source reported that NASA would reveal this information a mere 16 hours before the scheduled landing—and, with the exception that the classified payload would be deployed later that day, very few other details were released about the flight. Many of the accredited members of the press who were in attendance mocked the “secrecy”; one NBC journalist quipped that “a Russian tourist on a Florida beach, a hundred miles away, could have called the Kremlin with the exact launch time!”

Today, almost three decades later, 51C remains classified, but rumours have emerged over the years that Discovery’s crew possibly deployed a spacecraft codenamed “Magnum”—a signals intelligence satellite, operated by the National Reconnaissance Office for the CIA—which was boosted into near-geostationary orbit by its IUS. Reports have suggested that the TRW-built Magnum weighed somewhere between 4,800-6,000 pounds (2,200-2,700 kg) and was notable for its physical size, featuring 100 m-wide umbrella-like reflecting dish antennas to collect radio frequency signals from Earth. Aviation Week noted that Discovery entered an orbit of 126 x 322 miles (204 x 519 km), inclined 28.45 degrees to the equator, and executed three engine burns during its first four circuits of the globe. The payload was then deployed during the seventh orbit. Deployment was the responsibility of the entire crew, although this crew was unusual in that it included a unique military expert: Major Gary Eugene Payton of the Air Force, a member of a new cadre of payload specialists, known as manned spaceflight engineers, specifically chosen by the Department of Defense for these classified missions.

From its earliest conception the shuttle was dominated by the ambitions of the Air Force, and an assumption had long been made that the Department of Defense would employ the reusable spacecraft to carry many of its classified payloads. A new launch site was being built at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., for near-polar missions, and efforts also encompassed the design and construction of a dedicated Mission Control, known as the Shuttle Operations and Planning Center (SPOC). However, as the 1970s wore on and military budgets withered under Jimmy Carter’s Democratic administration, the Air Force opted to delay the SPOC in favour of making modifications to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to support its missions. Parallel plans to permanently assign one orbiter (probably Discovery) to military objectives and hire a dedicated Air Force astronaut corps to fly the missions were abandoned, and it was decided to use personnel already detailed to NASA. “The only opportunity for an Air Force program,” wrote space historian Michael Cassutt, “seemed to be in NASA’s new class of payload specialists.” It was Air Force Under-Secretary Hans Mark (later to become Deputy Administrator of NASA under Jim Beggs) who introduced the new manned spaceflight engineer position in January 1979 and assigned responsibility for its development to Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Christian of Los Angeles Space Division. Early guidelines called for candidates to have between three and 10 years’ of active military service, to rank between a first lieutenant and a major, to be able to pass NASA’s required flight physicals, to hold a degree in engineering or science, and to have at least two years’ experience in programme acquisition, test, and launch support, or flight and missile operations. By August, 14 officers had been selected—a dozen from the Air Force and two from the Navy—although two of them declined the invitation and only one was replaced. Consequently, 13 manned spaceflight engineer candidates arrived at Air Force Space Division in El Segundo, Calif., in February 1980, under Christian’s command. Their number included David Vidrine, the naval officer who would later, briefly, be considered for a seat on Mission 41C, as well as Gary Payton and the man who would serve as his 51C backup, Keith Wright.

Their selection was trumpeted by the Air Force as illustrative of the service’s bright future in space, although little interest was shown in NASA’s offer to invite the 13 candidates to Houston for two years of training and evaluation. “At that time,” grumbled one senior officer, “any Air Force guy who went to NASA never came back!” The Air Force’s rejection led the civilian space agency to close ranks, refusing further assistance for the manned spaceflight engineers and insisting that it had neither chosen them, nor was it able to control them.

Commander Ken Mattingly (right) had already announced his retirement from NASA to return to the U.S. Navy by the time Mission 51C took place. By his own admission, only the first shuttle mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base might have encouraged him to stay. A year later, the loss of Challenger sounded the death-knell for shuttle flights from the West Coast. Photo Credit: NASA

Commander Ken Mattingly (right) had already announced his retirement from NASA to return to the U.S. Navy by the time Mission 51C took place. By his own admission, only the first shuttle mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base might have encouraged him to stay. A year later, the loss of Challenger sounded the death-knell for shuttle flights from the West Coast. Photo Credit: NASA

“I was naïve enough to believe that the payload side would be treated by NASA the same way the Air Force launch people treated us,” Gary Payton explained later. “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. It was a rude awakening.” Some space agency officials felt that the newcomers should be considered as “engineers,” not “fliers,” and should not participate in any flight-related training until they were formally assigned to a shuttle crew. Frustrations over the excessive secrecy imposed on the Department of Defense missions often boiled over into disputes. Nevertheless, the manned spaceflight engineers proceeded with their duties, working on the development of military payloads, including the Navstar Global Positioning System, the Defense Satellite Communications System, and others, and the group completed training in December 1981. By the late summer of the following, 14 more candidates had been selected, including two women and one black officer, with a broader range of academic credentials, ranging from bioenvironmental research to computer science and weapons engineers to rescue pilots.

In June 1982, several classified payloads were carried into orbit aboard STS-4 and several manned spaceflight engineers were involved in the preparation and execution of this mission. Even so, their relationships with NASA astronauts were poor. Ken Mattingly, who commanded STS-4, described them as “sour.” At around this time, Gary Payton and Keith Wright were announced as payload specialist candidates for the STS-10 mission and a handful of others—Jeff Detroye, Eric Sundberg, Brett Watterson, Frank Casserino, and Daryl Joseph, all from the first MSE group—were assigned to support follow-on flights. Their roles would be to operate military experiments and observe the deployments of classified satellites. In the summer of 1983, Payton was assigned as the prime manned spaceflight engineer on Ken Mattingly’s STS-10 crew.

Some sources have speculated over the years that the inclusion of manned spaceflight engineers was a method of preventing the NASA crew from gaining too much knowledge of the classified payload. For his part, Loren Shriver did not see Payton’s role in this way; he was very much like any other payload specialist, assigned to the crew to complete his own experiments and tasks. “Gary had a specific purpose,” he said, “but I don’t think it was to make sure that we didn’t learn about what the details of the mission were. As a matter of fact, we all got briefed into the mission and we knew exactly what was going on.” Many of their efforts were effectively hamstrung by the failure of the IUS in April 1983, and, although Cassutt has noted that several payloads were “dual-configured” and could be launched by either the shuttle or an expendable Titan booster, it would seem that Magnum was designed specifically for deployment from the orbiter’s payload bay. As a result, it could not be cancelled, only moved to the next available shuttle opportunity. “In any case,” Cassutt wrote, “because of Magnum’s importance, the DoD exercised its launch-on-demand option, pre-empting the next Shuttle-IUS spot on the manifest.” According to the January 1984 manifest, Mission 51C was to have been an IUS flight to deploy the second Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS), but by May its slot had been taken by Magnum. The TDRS was moved a couple of months downstream and reassigned to 51E.

If Gary Payton’s role was as an observer of Magnum and the IUS, then responsibility for the actual deployment of the payload fell to Ellison Onizuka—the first Asian-American astronaut, of Japanese-American parentage—and North Dakota-born Jim Buchli. Certainly, the deployment itself went perfectly, for Onizuka would soon be assigned to another IUS deployment flight, Mission 51L, with a TDRS. Onizuka said in a pre-flight interview for 51L that he was “very familiar” and “very comfortable” with the performance of the IUS, strongly suggesting that the earlier problems with the booster had been overcome by the spring of 1985. (Certainly, changes had been implemented in the nozzle design and four successful altitude-chamber firings were performed.)

Discovery touches down at the Kennedy Space Center on 27 January 1985, following the shortest operational flight in the shuttle's 30-year history. Photo Credit: NASA

Discovery touches down at the Kennedy Space Center on 27 January 1985, following the shortest operational flight in the shuttle’s 30-year history. Photo Credit: NASA

To this day, 51C remains the shortest operational flight of the shuttle; when Discovery touched down at KSC at 4:23 pm EST on 27 January, she chalked up a mission of just over three days. It was the final flight for Ken Mattingly, who had already announced his retirement from NASA in July 1984 to return to active duty in the Navy as head of space programmes for the Naval Electronic Systems Command in Virginia. In fact, he took up his new post only two weeks after 51C landed. Years later, Mattingly admitted that only one other mission might have kept him with the civilian space agency. “The only mission that I really thought I could get interested in was the first Vandenberg mission,” he told the NASA oral historian, “and [Bob Crippen] was already doing that, so I decided it was probably best to change assignments.”

It would appear that the Navy originally wanted Mattingly to head up its new Naval Space Command at Dahlgren, Va., but the 51C delays meant that he either had to drop the shuttle flight or lose the assignment. “I wanted to stay and finish the mission,” he said, “because we spent so much time on it and it was a particularly good one for me, because those guys [on the crew] were so good.” In Mattingly’s mind, 51C was really “Loren’s mission,” with Shriver cutting his teeth as a pilot before moving on to command his own shuttle flight. It is interesting that all three NASA members of the crew went on from the closeted world of Department of Defense operations to participate in three of the most dramatic and visible missions of the decade: Buchli would be aboard a joint Spacelab mission with West Germany in October 1985, Shriver would later command the flight to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope … and Onizuka, tragically, would secure his own place in history as a member of Challenger’s final crew.

This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Tomorrow’s article will focus on STS-54, a mission in January 1993 which turned from a “vanilla” shuttle flight into one which helped lay the foundations for the construction of the International Space Station. 

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