The Secret History of NASA’s Middle Child: Part 5: Infrared Sentinels and Covert Inspectors
The strange thing about STS-44, the closing chapter in this secret history of NASA’s middle child, Atlantis, is the fact that it was not secret at all. In fact, many months before its November 1991 launch, the payload – a Defense Support Program (DSP) early-warning satellite, mounted atop an Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster – was well known and, even in pre-Internet days, information about it was readily available. After STS-44, only one more dedicated Department of Defense mission would ever been flown by the Shuttle; for all intents and purposes, the Pentagon had long since lost interest in the reusable orbiters. In the wake of the Challenger disaster in January 1986, only payloads which could not easily be reconfigured for launch aboard expendable rockets had been kept on the shuttle. When the last classified mission returned to Earth in December 1992, more than two decades of military involvement and domination of the shuttle came to an end.
The fate of Challenger, of course, had much to do with this. Losing a vehicle and a human crew imparted unwelcome public and political scrutiny on manned launches and eventually drew the Department of Defense back to expendable rockets. Edward ‘Pete’ Aldridge was Undersecretary of the Air Force from 1981-86 – and chair of the National Reconnaissance Office during the same period – and very quickly saw the writing on the wall. “I believe Jimmy Carter wrote a presidential directive [in 1978] that the space shuttle…would meet all the demands of all the users,” he told NASA’s oral historian. The capabilities of the winged vehicle were expected to render all other boosters then used by the military – the Atlas, the Titan and the Delta – unnecessary and the expectation was that they would be steadily phased out between 1978-86. The Shuttle would take centre stage as the ‘National’ Space Transportation System.
Aldridge’s worries were twofold. Firstly, when the first shuttle mission got underway in April 1981, it was abundantly clear that promises of weekly flights could not be delivered upon. Turnaround times were far longer than anticipated, the vehicle itself was complex and difficult to service…and two of the orbiters were too heavy for effective use by the Department of Defense. Significant cost savings, which NASA promised would be a third of the nominal fee for an expendable rocket, never materialized, and in terms of the flight schedule the shuttle was incapable of flying more than 12-18 times per year. This abject failure to deliver prompted Aldridge to approach Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1983 to advise against the termination of expendable rocket production. Weinberger agreed, and so did President Ronald Reagan, and proposals were put in place to continue at least the Titan booster production for another five years. “NASA got very upset about it,” added Aldridge. “Administrator Jim Beggs [who headed the agency from 1981-85] saw that as a ploy of the Air Force to remove itself, ultimately, from the shuttle.”
For his part, Beggs has said that he had no concern about the Air Force opting for expendables, as a “backup” capability, but stressed that those rockets were equally as vulnerable as the shuttle to failure. (In fact, two Titans would be lost in separate accidents, a few months either side of Challenger.) At length, after discussing the issue with Weinberger, a compromise was reached between Beggs and Aldridge, in which the Department of Defense would buy up a third of each year’s shuttle missions for its purposes. Yet the seeds of doubt had already been sown. When astronauts Dave Walker, Tom Henricks, Jim Voss, Story Musgrave and Mario Runco were assigned to STS-44 in May 1990, the manifest already showed theirs to be one of the last military shuttle flights.
If misfortune had dogged NASA’s dealings with the Department of Defense, it would certainly seem that cruel luck also followed on the heels of Dave Walker, who was removed from the STS-44 crew in July 1990, only weeks after his assignment, as a disciplinary measure, following an incident a year earlier in which he had flown dangerously close to a civilian airliner. He was replaced as the mission’s commander by fellow astronaut Fred Gregory. The crew also picked up a rather unique payload specialist, Tom Hennen, an Army chief warrant officer. He was tasked with operating a series of experiments to assess the capability of a professional imagery analyst to observe targets from the shuttle.
Atlantis was launched on 24 November 1991 on what should have been the longest Department of Defense mission, planned for ten days, enabling Hennen to conduct his ‘Terra Scout’ observations and imagery experiments over a period of more than a week, using a battery of cameras and other sensors. The first task, however, was the deployment of the $400 million DSP satellite, mounted atop a two-stage Boeing-built IUS. This already proven satellite carried an array of infrared detectors to spot the signatures of missile exhausts against Earth’s background. Its immediate predecessors had already been employed with great success to identify Iraqi Scud launches during Operation Desert Storm.
The DSP effort began operations in November 1970 and underwent numerous upgrades before the fifth-generation satellite was launched on STS-44. Measuring 10 m long and 7 m wide when fully active in orbit, it weighed 2,380 kg and was dominated by a tube-shaped, wide-angle Schmidt infrared telescope. After insertion into equatorial geostationary orbit and separation from the final stage of the IUS, it was spin-stabilized about its Earth-facing axis, rotating about six times per minute. Detection of infrared sources, such as rocket plumes, was accomplished by the telescope and, aimed off the DSP’s axis, by an array of scanning photoelectric cells. As the detector passed over an infrared source of interest, it developed an electronic signal for subsequent transmission to Air Force ground stations. In addition to its military tasks, the DSPs have been used over the years for the detection of forest fires and the observation of volcanic eruptions.
If the DSP was to be observing terrestrial targets with its infrared eyes, the very human set of eyes of Tom Hennen were also quickly set to work. Selected as a payload specialist candidate in September 1988 to operate the Army’s Terra Scout experiment, Hennen was the first non-commissioned officer ever to fly the Shuttle; an intelligence expert with 23 years in the operational imagery field. His tasks during STS-44 were to use the Spaceborne Direct View Optical System (SPADVOS) and the Military Man in Space (M88-1) hardware to evaluate the applicability of a trained military expert to observe targets on the ground or at sea. For Fred Gregory, having Hennen aboard was something totally new. “We had never flown a military non-officer before and it was actually pretty exciting,” Gregory told the NASA oral historian, “because he was from the photo interpretation field. I know many had talked about what you can actually see from space, suggesting that there may be a battlefield advantage of being in space and so, with Tom on-board, he was the one who was going to come in and use whatever small optical devices he had to determine whether it was possible to do a good amount.”
Plans were already afoot, in the months after Challenger, to fly other missions, featuring Air Force meteorologists, Army geologists and geographers and Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) physicists. The plans were part of the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program and encompassed not only Terra Scout, but also ‘Terra View’, using cameras and binoculars to observe ground targets, and ‘Terra Geode’, employing specialized equipment to assess terrain suitability for tactical troop movement. Some of the work in support of Terra View and Terra Geode was actually carried out – the former by Army astronaut Jim Adamson during the classified STS-28 mission and the latter by geologist-astronaut Kathy Sullivan during the Hubble deployment flight – although plans to fly dedicated Army specialists aboard the Shuttle for these two payloads never bore fruit. Similarly, a military Spacelab mission (known as ‘Starlab’) retained a place on the shuttle manifest until 1991, before budgetary support dried up and it was cancelled.
In a sense, financial restrictions, a desire by the Department of Defense to remove itself from the Shuttle and a gradual thawing of relations with the Soviet Union contributed to the demise of several of these missions. Tom Hennen’s Terra Scout work, from what can be ascertained, was successful, although short-lived; for Atlantis suffered a failure of a crucial piece of navigational hardware and was forced to return to Earth after just seven days. As she rolled to a halt on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California on 1 December, astronaut Bob Cabana, seated in Mission Control in Houston, Texas, delivered words of congratulation. “Good job, Fred,” he told Gregory. “Welcome home, Atlantis, and congratulations on a great flight.”
STS-44 was Atlantis’ tenth mission – of which five had been totally dedicated to the Department of Defense – and henceforth NASA’s middle child would be used for scientific flights, Mir dockings and International Space Station construction. It was the end of an era. Only one more classified flight, STS-53, would take place, but after that DoD experiments would be carried only as ‘secondary’ payloads. Yet the classified missions continue to exert a strong pull. It is difficult not to wish, as one looks at the launch images of Atlantis on those handful of voyages, that we could see exactly what was concealed within the confines of her payload bay for these secret missions. And as amateur and professional skywatchers charted the orbital motion of each new classified payload – watching as they tumbled and rotated, ‘blinked’ and ‘flashed’, vanished and reappeared – all were keenly aware that those tiny, innocuous points of light actually represented some of the most covert and sophisticated military technology at the United States’ disposal for their time.
Many of the payloads discussed over the last few articles – the DSCS-IIIs, the first-generation Lacrosse, the Misty, the SDS-B, the Prowler and the DSP – have long since gone from being ‘current’ operational assets and have now entered the pages of history. Yet, unlike so much else in space history, they represent something different: for even today their true nature (even their existence, in some cases) remains hidden. It is an insatiable aspect of the human psyche to want to know the unknowable, to uncover long-held secrets and, perhaps, someday, the true details of these missions will emerge. However, we should shy away from optimism. The KH-8 Gambit and KH-9 Hexagon satellites, recently unveiled in all their glory, were only declassified some four decades after they flew, and this leaves many observers in little doubt that the release of documents and images pertaining to Lacrosse or Misty or the others may not occur in our lifetime.
Still, there are clues in the present which hint at lessons learned in the past. In November 2007, the final DSP satellite was launched into orbit, after several delays. Unfortunately, within a matter of months, after reaching its operational slot in geostationary orbit, it suffered a failure. In the mid-1980s, the failure of the Navy’s Syncom 4-4 communications satellite, after entering geostationary orbit, had spelled the end of the mission, for nothing could be done to reach it at an altitude of 35,000 km. In the latter part of the first decade of the present century, though, the situation had shifted slightly. Eighteen months before the launch of the DSP, a pair of small satellites known as the Microsatellite Technology Experiment (MiTEx), had been placed into geostationary orbit, with the intention that they would evaluate a new ‘inspection’ capability.
The original plan was that the two satellites, weighing only a few hundred kilograms apiece, would inspect each other…but the loss of the DSP yielded an ideal opportunity to put their capabilities to the test. Sometime in mid-December 2008, the two satellites were maneuvered close to the dead DSP – one approaching from the east, the other from the west – to inspect it and attempt to determine what had gone wrong. Not surprisingly, little else has been revealed, but the significance was inescapable. “There is not much we do in space anymore that is really new,” said John Pike of the Global Security think tank, “but this is really new.” The MiTEx demonstration, naturally, aroused international concern: the Chinese, for one, were worried that this capability might allow the United States to inspect their own satellites and possibly attack or even destroy them. It also brings back memories of the mysterious and still unacknowledged ‘Prowler’ and it is hard not to wonder if this spacecraft, deployed covertly from Atlantis, all those years ago, might have served as a pathfinder for the technology used in 2008 by MiTEx.
As to the other missions, we have no images and no awareness even of what the payloads looked like, other than the odd photograph of a Lacrosse under construction or a handful of artist’s concepts of Magnum with its vast antenna ‘farm’ and Misty with its enormous inflatable conical shield. Some of the missions were ‘vanilla’ in nature (by Karol ‘Bo’ Bobko’s own admission), whilst others were filled with drama and excitement, none more so than Robert ‘Hoot’ Gibson’s STS-27. Yet to assume that these flights were ‘boring’, on account of their quietness and lack of detail, is a gross mistake. The eyes of the astronauts who flew these missions saw things which we may never see and were exposed to advanced technologies about which we may never be privy.
“There were exciting things going on in DoD space, back then,” reflected STS-38 commander Dick Covey. “There still are.”
And he should know.
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