Into the Black – NASA’s Secret Shuttle Missions -‘Tasting’ the Unknown

Space shuttle Columbia lands at Edwards Air Force base in California after the successful completion of the STS-28 mission. Photo Credit: NASA

Astronaut Dick Richards was five weeks from his first launch into space when the Challenger disaster snatched the opportunity, cruelly, from him. In January 1985, he had been assigned as Jon McBride’s pilot for the ASTRO-1 mission, scheduled for the following March to observe Halley’s Comet. When Challenger lifted off a year later, McBride and Richards were in their seats in the JSC simulator, practicing launch aborts, and briefly stepped outside to watch their friends fly into orbit. Within 73 seconds, their mission, 61E, vanished in a heartbeat, the Shuttle programme collapsed to its knees and the astronaut office would never be the same again. In fact, the careers of Richards and 51L pilot Mike Smith were entwined in more ways than one. For starters, they were the only Navy pilots selected by NASA in May 1980 and they had both been assigned to their first missions at the same time; Smith was teamed with Dick Scobee and Richards with McBride.

At first, it seemed to Richards that the pairings might happen the other way around. “I started getting all these simulation flights with Dick Scobee,” he recalled in his oral history and he started to wonder if they were being primed for a crew assignment. Then, a few weeks later, Mike Smith started doing simulations with Scobee and Richards started simulations with McBride. Years later, Richards believed that the postponement of the first Vandenberg mission and its knock-on effect on other flights, further downstream, may have led to the decision. It would certainly be ironic to suppose that simple quirk of fate and timing might have kept Richards from flying as pilot on Challenger’s final mission.

It is interesting that Richards’ 15-year career as an astronaut was already two-thirds over before he actually made it into space. The weeks and months after Challenger were devastating and one of his hardest jobs was supporting Mike Smith’s widow, Jane, in her grief. Two years later, in February 1988, he finally received assignment as pilot on STS-28, a classified Department of Defense assignment. The crew that he would be joining had actually been assigned to Mission 61N in December 1985, although the pilot for that flight, Mike McCulley, was substituted for Richards. Commander Brewster Shaw would be joined by mission specialists Jim Adamson, Dave Leestma and Mark Brown.

With the pressure on getting Discovery and Atlantis into space before the end of 1988, Columbia found herself last in the queue and her launch was delayed until July and eventually the second week of August in the following year. However, despite being her first post-Challenger mission, the curtain of secrecy surrounding STS-28 showed no sign of being drawn back. Not until many years later would a few details of exactly what Brewster Shaw’s crew did in space finally begin to trickle out.

For his part, Dave Leestma described preparations for the mission as unusual and very cloak-and-dagger in nature. “Sometimes you had to disguise where you were going,” he said. “You’d file a flight plan in a T-38 [for] one place and go somewhere else, to try to not leave a trail for where you were going or what you were doing, who was the sponsor of this payload or what its capabilities were or what it was going to do. You had to be careful, all the time, of what you were saying.” STS-28 would transport the Department of Defense’s fourth major Shuttle payload into orbit, but in the wake of Challenger the United States intelligence community began to reduce its reliance on the reusable orbiter by reverting to expendable boosters. Only payloads which were too large, heavy or awkward to be reconfigured for an expendable launch remained on the Shuttle. “The DoD did not like dealing with NASA,” said Leestma. “It was a constrained arrangement, but it worked very well and the DoD was happy with the product that they got in the end.”


Seen here is the official patch design for the STS-28 mission. Image Credit: NASA


It had long since become standard practice in the build-up to such missions that the countdown was conducted in almost complete secrecy, with the public affairs commentary starting when Columbia emerged from the T-9 minute hold. Only after this point were the gathered spectators able to listen in to the clipped intercom exchanges between the crew and launch controllers. A software problem caused the clock to be held for longer than planned and a combination of haze and fog over the Shuttle Landing Facility meant that STS-28 set off 40 minutes late at 8:37 am EST on 8 August 1989. Watching from the VIP area was NASA Deputy Administrator J.R. Thompson, who declared “We’re off to a good start on this mission.” Considering that the flight was historic, as the space agency’s flagship orbiter spread her wings once again, the official announcement from spokesman Brian Welch was flat and businesslike: two hours after launch, he said, Shaw’s crew had been given a ‘Go’ for orbital operations. That was it.

The ‘primary payload’ was deployed around seven and a half hours into the mission. At the time, John Pike, a space policy analyst for the Federation of American Scientists, speculated that this payload was a massive, 14,500 kg ‘KH-12’ satellite, one of the latest generation of ‘Key Hole’ photographic reconnaissance platforms, whose ancestry stretched back to the 1960s. Pike commented that the KH-12 was one of the Pentagon’s most expensive payloads – with an estimated price tag in the region of $1 billion per unit – although other sources argued that STS-28’s cargo might have been a much lighter Strategic Reconnaissance Satellite (SRS). Still others speculated that it was capable of manoeuvring itself to an orbital altitude of around 480 km, from which vantage point it could take photographs with a resolution as fine as a single metre.

More recently, it has come to light that the payload was probably a member of the second-generation Satellite Data System (SDS-B), a family of Air Force telecommunications platforms. In fact, doubts over whether it was a KH-12 were raised within weeks of the launch, when ground-based civilian observers noted that the satellite ‘flashed’, as sunlight reflected from its solar panels, at regular intervals. This phenomenon, they concluded, was not normally consistent with a reconnaissance system. Certainly, it was not deployed by the RMS mechanical arm, which was not carried on STS-28, and the first photographs of an SDS-B entered the public arena in the spring of 1998, when the National Reconnaissance Office released images and videotapes of a pair of military satellites. One was identified as an SDS-B and Hughes was acknowledged as its prime contractor. Physically, it was not dissimilar to the Syncom/Leasat payloads already deployed on earlier Shuttle flights, but somewhat longer. In a 2009 article for Air & Space magazine, Michael Cassutt quoted an Air Force officer who was familiar with the SDS-B project. “It’s strange,” he told Cassutt, “to work on a secret project for ten years, then see it on network television!”

The Air Force began to develop the first-generation SDS in 1973 to provide America’s intelligence community with a network of orbiting relays, capable of transmitting real-time data and images from reconnaissance satellites which were out of range of ground stations. Another of their responsibilities was to support voice and data communications for covert military activities. The second-generation SDS-B – which first flew on STS-28 – operated in high-apogee and low-perigee orbits, ranging from as close as 480 km and as far as 38,000 km, at steep inclinations which achieved their highest point over the northern hemisphere. This enabled them to cover two-thirds of the globe, relay spy satellite data of the entire Soviet land mass and cover the entire north polar region in support of Air Force communications. Such wide coverage was not possible to geostationary-orbiting satellites. The SDS-B featured a pair of 4.5 m dish antennas and a third, smaller dish for Ku-band downlink. Overall, the satellite measured 4 m long and 3 m wide, with a launch mass estimated at close to 3,000 kg. In total, three of these cylindrical SDS-Bs were deployed by the Shuttle, on STS-28, STS-38 in November 1990 and STS-53 in December 1992.

Although it is unclear as to how they were deployed, some observers have assumed that they were released in a similar fashion to the Syncoms, in a ‘frisbee’ fashion. Others have noted that the solid rocket booster used for the SDS-B was an Orbus-21, physically identical to the motor later fitted to Intelsat 6-3 by spacewalking astronauts during STS-49 in May 1992. This has prompted alternative suggestions that the SDS-B was deployed ‘vertically’ from a special cradle in the payload bay.

In whatever manner that SDS-B left Columbia, it is certain that the deployment was completed on the first day of the mission, because Shaw and Richards performed a separation manoeuvre at 4:58 pm EST on the 8th. A second payload, weighing just 125 kg, was also deployed and has been rumoured to have been a kind of ‘ferret’ satellite for radio and radar signals intelligence. The remainder of the mission went like clockwork and the astronauts tended a number of military experiments in the middeck and a pair of Getaway Special canisters in the payload bay.

The STS-28 crew reflected no fewer than three of the armed services: Air Force commander Brewster Shaw (seated, centre) is flanked by Navy officers Dick Richards (left) and Dave Leestma. Standing are Air Force engineer Mark Brown (left) and Army officer Jim Adamson. Photo Credit: NASA

After 18 months training together, the men of STS-28 had developed into a close-knit team…despite being in different branches of the military. Richards and Leestma were Navy, Shaw and Brown were Air Force and Adamson was the only Army member of the crew, but their common string was that they all shared a military background. “We were all cut from the same cloth,” Richards remembered. “There wasn’t too much that we needed to talk about. We all understood each other and so, from that sense, it was probably boring to the outsiders, but it was comfortable for us.” Maintaining the requirements of the top-secret classification was a pain, although there were a handful of non-classified experiments…included an instrumental female skull, donated to research the penetration of radiation into the human cranium whilst in space. Hundreds of thermoluminescent dosimeters were mounted in the skull to record radiation levels and it was flown twice more – in February and April 1990 – to measure the effects of different orbital altitudes and inclinations.

Five days after launch, at 6:37:08 am PST on 13 August, Brewster Shaw guided Columbia smoothly onto the dry lakebed Runway 17 at Edwards Air Force Base. “Super team and great machine,” radioed Capcom Frank Culbertson as the vehicle rolled to a halt. Shaw, however, was not happy with his landing. On Mission 61B, he had touched down on the concrete Runway 22, which, with its well-defined boundaries, made it easier to judge sink rates and heights. On the dry lakebed, there were stripes to outline the runway, but it was not nearly as well defined and affected his depth perception. “When we came down and I flared the orbiter,” he said, “I didn’t know how high we were. Looking at the photographs, we weren’t very high, but I basically levelled the vehicle off and then it floated.” The result was that Shaw allowed Columbia to ‘float’ on her main gear for a substantial portion of her deceleration, before rotating the nose gear onto the runway. “We got a lot of great data about low-speed flying qualities on the orbiter,” he continued, “but it wasn’t supposed to work out that way.” Still, as JSC Director Aaron Cohen remarked as he greeted the five astronauts, the effort to get Columbia flying again had been triumphantly achieved. She looked pretty dirty, to be fair, after her eighth voyage, but had suffered minimal damage and almost immediately began preparations for her next flight in December.

For Dick Richards, one other anecdote stood out from the STS-28 re-entry. As Columbia passed through Mach 10 and super-heated air streamed across the vehicle, creating and depositing pockets and blobs of white-hot plasma, something splattered across one of his cockpit windows…and stayed there. After touchdown, he mentioned it to Don Puddy, the head of Flight Crew Operations and asked him to get one of the technicians to take a look at it. The substance, still in liquid form, was scooped up into a plastic coffee cup and taken away for analysis. That analysis was not quite what either man expected. A few days later, Richards caught up with Puddy.

“What did they say about what that material was?”

“You’re not gonna believe this,” Puddy replied with a grin and recounted the story. The technician had taken the coffee cup, filled with something from the upper reaches of the atmosphere and placed it onto a counter. Without realising, another technician had come along, grabbed the cup, poured coffee into it and knocked it straight back.

That,” he said in disgust, “is the worst tasting coffee I’ve ever had!”

From that day to this, Richards never discovered what had deposited itself on his window at ten times the speed of sound…but, in a new and somewhat dubious space ‘first’, someone had at least tasted it. 

With 'something' from the upper atmosphere clinging to Dick Richards' window, Columbia touches down at Edwards Air Force Base on 13 August 1989. Photo Credit: NASA

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