Into the Black – NASA’s Secret Shuttle Missions: A Gold Star for an Admiral

STS-33 was the first nocturnal Shuttle launch and landing of the post-Challenger era; entirely appropriate, perhaps, in light of the shroud of darkness which covered its primary payload. Photo Credit: NASA

The delays in preparing Columbia for her first post-Challenger launch and the need to despatch the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter during a critical ‘window’ of opportunity in October 1989 had already pushed Fred Gregory’s STS-33 mission from August until the middle of November. By that time, his flight – a classified Department of Defense assignment, scheduled to run for four days – had changed in other ways, too. Together with his crew of pilot Dave Griggs and mission specialists Manley ‘Sonny’ Carter, Story Musgrave and Kathy Thornton, he had been working on the flight since November 1988. Then, just six and a half months later, an unexpected and shocking tragedy occurred. On 17 June, Griggs was preparing for his role in a weekend air show, flying alone in a single-engine, 1940s-era aircraft, just south of the town of Earle, Arkansas.

Shortly after nine o’clock that morning, according to eyewitnesses, Griggs was performing aileron rolls, when one wing accidentally touched the ground and the aircraft crashed into a wheat field. Dave Griggs – test pilot, Vietnam veteran, accomplished astronaut and rear admiral in the Naval Reserve – was killed instantly. The accident had occurred whilst Griggs was off-duty and not in a NASA aircraft, but it sent shockwaves through the astronaut corps. After the funeral, Mike Mullane remembered the wake at the Outpost tavern in Houston and saw Griggs’ former crewmate, Kathy Thornton, her cheeks soaked with tears, walk in and place one of the wreaths of flowers onto the bar.
Thornton secured a minor record of her own on STS-33, becoming the first and only woman to fly aboard a classified Shuttle mission. Many have speculated that her assignment came about because she had served as a research physicist at the Army’s Foreign Science and Technology Center, before becoming an astronaut, and had worked on a NATO-awarded post-doctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, West Germany.

Aside from the tragedy of Dave Griggs’ death, the reality was that launch of STS-33 was only five months away and a new pilot had to be appointed. A first-timer was not advisable at such short notice and many of the experienced pilots – Guy Gardner, John Blaha and Ron Grabe – had either already been assigned to other missions or were expected to upgrade to the commander’s seat.

At length, in discussion with Don Puddy, it was Fred Gregory who requested that Blaha be reassigned to his crew. “I liked John,” he told an interviewer for the website,, in September 2011, and felt that Blaha’s experience on Discovery’s most recent flight would be beneficial to STS-33. Puddy agreed. Blaha had already been assigned, back in April, as pilot of STS-40, the first Spacelab Life Sciences mission, tentatively scheduled for June 1990…but that flight was far enough into the future for a rookie pilot to be named in his stead. Within days, at the end of June 1989, Blaha was formally announced to join Gregory’s crew and Air Force test pilot Sid Gutierrez took his place on STS-40. When the crew produced their official mission patch, a small gold star was placed near Blaha’s name. It commemorates Rear Admiral Stanley David Griggs, the original pilot, who flew STS-33 in spirit.

As much as STS-33 would be cloaked in secrecy, so its crew was touched by tragedy. In June 1989, John Blaha (left) was assigned as pilot to replace the late Dave Griggs. Less than 18 months after the mission, in April 1991, Sonny Carter (second from the left) was killed in a commercial air crash. Photo Credit: NASA

The last three years had been tough on all of them, including Fred Gregory himself. Not only had he lost his pilot in a horrifying accident, but he had been sitting next to Dick Covey in Mission Control on the day that Challenger exploded and had worked closely with the two teacher candidates, Christa McAuliffe and her backup, Barbara Morgan. “I had spent a lot of time with Christa and Barbara,” he told the NASA oral historian, “because I had teachers in my family.” Gregory spent many hours with them, talking through the planned lessons and the importance of the Teacher in Space project.

His assignment to STS-33 had come in a late-evening call from Don Puddy, after he returned from a flying assignment. “I don’t believe that I told my wife immediately,” he said. “I wanted to really milk it a little bit…and I did.” Years later, he would remember the crew – with both Griggs and Blaha aboard – as the best ever assembled, with the entire team performing like a flawless symphony in the simulators. “We would get in a simulator,” he reflected, “and our training crew, I’m sure, was attempting to kill us, and we were trying to make absolute fools of them.”

Launch was originally set for 20 November 1989, but was delayed due to problems with the integrated electronics which controlled the ignition and separation of Discovery’s twin SRBs. NASA rescheduled the attempt for the small hours of the 22nd and Gregory’s crew remained at the Cape. By this time, Story Musgrave had already flown two Shuttle missions and was preparing for his third and his completion of a master’s degree in literature at the University of Houston in 1987 had imbued him with new skills as a poet and wordsmith. On the day of launch, at three in the morning, he took Sonny Carter and Kathy Thornton to Pad 39B, surprising the guards and technicians, who greeted them with enthusiasm.

A stunning image of the launch of STS-33 taken from the air. This photo truly lives up to this series on the dedicated Department of Defense missions of "Into the Black." Photo Credit: NASA

It was “a primitive, primal experience to never be forgotten,” Musgrave wrote on his website,, “welcomed by everybody. That machine looming in the lights, Jupiter overhead, a crescent Moon on the ocean horizon, the fog moving in and out over Discovery…What exuberant exhilaration! What beauty and power.” That power was unleashed at 7:23 pm EST that same evening, when STS-33 speared for the heavens in the first nocturnal launch of the post-Challenger era and only the third in the Shuttle’s eight-year history.

Deployment of their classified payload followed on Discovery’s seventh orbit, approximately ten and a half hours after launch. The Air Force would later admit that the satellite was boosted into orbit atop an Inertial Upper Stage and it is today generally believed that it was an electronic intelligence platform, possibly codenamed either ‘Magnum’ or ‘Orion’. It was a successor to the earlier Rhyolite-Aquacade spacecraft and represented the latest in an era of satellites developed under the auspices of the National Reconnaissance Office, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.

With a total mass of around 2,600 kg, the STS-33 satellite it is thought to have featured a large, gold-coloured mesh antenna, measuring perhaps 78 m in diameter when fully unfurled, and was physically similar to the payload deployed on Mission 51C in January 1985. This antenna ‘farm’ was so large that it was presumably attached to a gimbal mechanism for steering, which permitted it to monitor specific points of interest, such as ballistic missile flight test telemetry and observers have speculated that the rear of the Magnum-Orion comprised a pair of solar arrays and a downlink communications antenna. Other objectives included electronic, radio communications and radar emissions intelligence and the Magnum was apparently boosted to geostationary orbit by its IUS.
Since the Department of Defense had openly admitted that only the payloads which could not be reconfigured for an expendable launch were kept aboard the Shuttle, the physical size of the satellite was immense…as was its cost, with some estimates placing Magnum-Orions at around $750 million each. Sketches of the satellite, attached to the IUS, indicate that it virtually filled the Shuttle’s payload bay. Perhaps, someday, images may be released and the eventual declassification of DoD documents may shine a light on this mysterious payload and upon STS-33 itself.

The official mission patch for STS-33. Image Credit: NASA
Artist's concept of Boeing's CST-100 crew capsule approaching the International Space Station. NASA has issued a call for industry to submit proposals for the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Initiative. Image Credit: Boeing

NASA Calls For New Commercial Crew Proposals

Celebrating Black History Month: NASA’s African-American Astronauts