The Inside Story of How Aviation Week’s Decision to Sit on One Cold War Blockbuster Led to Another

DIA briefings arranged by Gen. “Davy” Jones as part of Aviation Week’s deal not to publish KH-11 details revealed the Soviets had begun development of a space shuttle that ultimately flew only once—unmanned— in November 1988. Credit: Energia
DIA briefings arranged by Gen. “Davy” Jones as part of Aviation Week’s deal not to publish KH-11 details revealed the Soviets had begun development of a space shuttle that ultimately flew only once—unmanned— in November 1988. Credit: Energia

Editor’s note: This month Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine, where our U.S. Military Space reporter Craig Covault spent nearly 40 years, is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Since Covault provided decades of award winning coverage, the current editors asked that he write a piece for the Aviation Week anniversary issue detailing the process behind two particular scoops that have become legend at AWST. The story is reproduced here with permission along with two corrections that have come to light.


On March 20, 1978, Aviation Week & Space Technology revealed that the Soviet Union was secretly developing its own reusable space shuttle. The article, complete with details on the Soviet shuttle’s design characteristics, was a scoop picked up by media around the globe. What readers do not know, however, is the revelation’s connection to another Cold War blockbuster written 14 months earlier, but not published, after a plea from the acting chairman of the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

I joined Aviation Week in 1972, just after the launch of Landsat 1, whose unclassified, digital low-resolution multispectral imagery created a sensation at the time. That drew me to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where I got to know the engineers and scientists in the program. They clued me in on the digital imaging technology and what was to come—including the Hubble Space Telescope.

Titan III-D launch. Photo: USAF
Titan III-D launch. Photo: USAF

At Aviation Week, I became space technology editor and was mentored by Avionics Editor Philip J. Klass, who had become a legend in his own time reporting on intelligence programs. In December 1976, there was an extremely unusual secret Titan 3D launch into polar orbit from Vandenberg AFB, California. We calculated the Titan had to be carrying about a 30,000-lb. satellite that was put into an orbit 150 mi. higher than the KH-9 Hexagon film pod satellites that provided U.S. imagery reconnaissance at that time.

Phil and I tossed around what this new satellite might be, and he said: “Go chase it, it’s yours.” I initially got civilian input on the term “Strategic Response Satellite” (SRS), which meant it had to carry a lot of propellant to alter its ground track. I also heard about “near real-time imaging and transmission” to the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center in Washington.

By early 1977, with the Goddard tips supplemented by many others received from military personnel, I had surmised that the big mystery payload:

• Was indeed a 30,000-lb. spacecraft, the maximum polar orbit payload for a Titan 3D, and was flying much higher than the KH-9 Hexagons.

• Employed digital imaging, instead of a limited supply of film, a huge advantage because it never ran out of digits.

• Carried a large telescope for high resolution, a tie-in with Hubble technology.

• Was named the “KH-11 Kennan” after George Kennen, a top U.S. diplomat who championed “Soviet containment.”

I also learned the program apparently used relay satellites. The relay evidence fit the modus operandi of another brand-new secret program—the SDS Satellite Data System spacecraft in highly elliptical orbits. Two were launched, in June and August 1976, just a few months before the mystery Titan 3 payload. Klass did the math to plot SDS orbits relative to this new recon’s orbit, and the whole thing fit.

Together it all meant a huge revolution in U.S. top-secret overhead reconnaissance was underway. It clearly had to be a multibillion-dollar program, because it teamed three big new projects, a KH satellite production line, an SDS satellite production line and a ground processing capability created specifically to process real-time digital images.

I shared those story elements with Klass, Editor-in-Chief Robert Hotz and Washington Bureau Chief Dave Brown, looking for a “go” to write a story. Hotz cautioned, however, that we needed to get a U.S. Air Force security blessing before we published because we did not want to give away to the Soviets and Chinese anything of extreme national security value.

I called a top Air Force public affairs officer in the Pentagon and told him about my straw man reconnaissance program theory, as if I had it cold. He quickly relayed a reply: “The chairman wants to see you.” To which I replied, “The chairman of what?”

He boomed: “The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. David Jones. He wants to see you at 2 p.m. today.” I suddenly fully realized the seriousness of the situation. Hotz insisted I go alone, noting: “You be the judge. If he sells you on national security specifics, we will hold. But if he waffles and it sounds like political-based security, we are going to publish.”

This accurate model shows the original KH-11 design that, like Hubble, carried about a 2.4-meter (8-ft.) mirror but with a shorter instrument base section. Credit: NASA
This accurate model shows the original KH-11 design that, like Hubble, carried about a 2.4-meter (8-ft.) mirror but with a shorter instrument base section. Credit: NASA

At the Pentagon Gen. “Davy” Jones greeted me warmly, dismissed my military escort, and said: “OK, Craig, tell me what you’ve got.” In my head I assembled all the various inputs and described to him a specific spacecraft and program. It was a bit of a bluff, because nobody had told me exactly how it all fit together.

To my great relief, Jones said: “You are exactly right. Now I am going to explain why Aviation Week should hold it.” He then cited several specific KH-11 imaging details on how the new spacecraft was catching the Soviets with their pants down.

To my surprise, he revealed that signals-intelligence intercepts proved the Soviets were talking a lot about what the payload might be and had assessed that it was likely an advanced weather satellite. There was no talk among them that there was a hugely advanced overhead reconnaissance system they should have been worrying about. As a result, Jones said, the Soviets were not closing doors on missile silos or putting new aircraft under cover during KH-11 passes over Soviet territory. In the midst of the Cold War, the U.S. was, for the first time, seeing warhead details on Soviet ICBMs aimed at American cities and military facilities.

I told Jones that he had made a convincing case and Aviation Week would hold the story. We exchanged a few more thanks, and I headed for the door. But Jones called me back. “Now what can I do for you?” he asked. I told him I had not come with any quid pro quo in mind. He praised that but reiterated the offer more strongly. For Jones, it was also a way to really seal Aviation Week to a deal.

“Some secret Soviet Space briefings would be useful,” I said. “You shall have them,” the chairman replied.

Shortly thereafter, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) called to invite me to the first of several top-secret-level Soviet space backgrounders that continued every few months up to mid-1978. And it was at one of those DIA briefings that I got the huge scoop that the Soviets, in spite of their denials, were developing a reusable winged space shuttle to compete directly with NASA’s shuttle, which the Soviets believed was destined for strictly military purposes.

Buran 1.01 near touchdown at the Baikonur complex on its first and only flight to space.
Buran 1.01 near touchdown at the Baikonur complex on its first and only flight to space.

We kept the KH-11 story on ice until the summer of 1978, when a disgruntled low-ranking CIA employee, William Kampiles, sold the KH-11 manual to a Soviet spy for a mere $3,000. He probably could have gotten $3 million. With that, the KH-11’s cover was blown. The Soviets knew what the KH-11 was, diagrams and all.

After Kampiles was arrested, Aviation Week decided to go with the KH-11 story, but as courtesy I asked to see Gen. Jones again. This time, however, the chairman elevated it even higher. I was summoned to a meeting in the White House West Wing, and took my colleague Klass with me.

Our “inquisitors” were four-star Adm. Dan Murphy, the head of National Security Programs for the National Security Council; Leslie Dirks, the CIA’s deputy director for Science and Technology whom President Jimmy Carter had awarded the National Security Medal, and an official from the Justice Department. The presence of the Justice official signified that the Carter administration was putting on the heat.

I explained Aviation Week was going to go with the story now that the Soviets had the manual. Murphy replied sharply, “It would be a violation of national security to reveal that story.” He said the manual, which by then the Soviets had possessed for months, may not have been widely distributed among the Soviet military.

Pushing back on that point, politely, I said: “The fact is that the Soviets have it. The Justice Department has already made that public, not Aviation Week.” I pulled out a small calculator and waved it in front of Murphy saying: “If Phil Klass and I can figure out what that spacecraft is doing with just this, then I believe Soviet intelligence personnel, armed with the manual, could do the same.”

That paused the debate. I told them again that we would publish the KH-11 story but only in the context of Kampiles’ arrest. And I volunteered that I would keep the relay SDS birds secret for a while because they were the key to the real-time transmission of imagery. Aviation Week did not publish the full story about the SDS relay spacecraft until Phil Klass wrote about them in detail on page 46 of the April 2, 1990, issue. As another concession, I said I would just dribble in the details across many issues of the magazine, not trumpet the whole program at once. That seemed to quiet them, but I remember that our goodbyes this time around were not as friendly.

Our 18 months of sleuthing finally resulted in the scoop of the KH-11, as well as a major exclusive on the Soviet space shuttle. The first plain vanilla KH-11 story was published in the August 28, 1978, issue on page 22. It did not even mention digital imaging. The first mention of that did not come until after the second KH-11 was launched, a year after our White House meeting.

Be sure to “Like” AmericaSpace on Facebook and follow us on Twitter: @AmericaSpace



  1. The story I want to hear is how Aviation Week was making so little money that they had to let Craig Covault go. He and a number of other amazing journalists have been let go by the journalism industry over the last many years.

  2. Many excellent journalists have been left aside because news as a business is failing. Nobody knows how to reverse that trend. And, yes, it sucks on a great many levels.

    • Jim Hillhouse, Charles Phillips, Tom Vasiloff, Craig Covault, James Oberg, M Wilson, and Raj Pillai –

      Are any “excellent journalists” critically thinking and writing about the potential real and hidden costs and diverse national security risks of our President’s, and the NRO’s, encouragement of the international proliferation of “cheap” low tech ICBM/launchers?

      Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…

      Should we expect many more than the twenty companies building small cheap and low tech ICBMs/launchers noted by Gary Oleson in his May 16, 2016 article ‘Effects of changing economics on space architecture and engineering’ at The Space Review?

      Does large, cheap, highly accurate, and low tech ICBM/launcher proliferation also seems likely?

      “However, the loss in payload would come to only about 80 kg if the stage soft-landed where it would naturally fall after separation. India could take advantage of the Andaman Islands and get the first stage to land there after equatorial launches from Sriharikota, Sivan remarked.” From: ‘Not Just the RLV-TD – ISRO Has More Plans for Slashing Launch Costs’
      By Gopal N. Raj on 23/05/2016 At: THE WIRE

      We once had a serious advocate of cheap satellite launch named Gerald Bull who: “fired a 400 lb (180 kg) Martlet 2 projectile at 7,000 ft/s (2,100 m/s)[1] sending it briefly into space and setting an altitude record of 180 km (590,000 ft; 110 mi)”.
      And, “He then resumed work with Iraq, convincing them to build a new satellite launcher gun, Project Babylon. Saddam Hussein agreed to fund the project, but only if Bull helped with their efforts to re-design the re-entry vehicle of the SCUD missiles to improve range.”
      From: ‘Project HARP’ at Wikipedia

      Of course, most folks know that Gerald Bull was then assassinated.

      Are the folks working on all the new cheap and low tech ICBMs/launchers and a great diversity of dual use commercial/military Earth observing/targeting satellites potentially at risk of eventually sharing Gerald Bull’s fate?

      The V-2 rocket, or Retribution Weapon 2, of World War II had a range of about 320 km, or 200 miles, and was perhaps the first ‘cheap’ launcher but it wasn’t very accurate. It was our “first long-range[4] guided ballistic missile” Quote from: ‘V-2 rocket’ at Wikipedia

      Are we are headed towards a world with the proliferation of new, cheap, deadly accurate, and low tech ICBMs/satellite launchers, or ‘Super Accurate and Global Capable Scud missiles’, that can reach anywhere in the world and be aimed at targets ‘spotted’ by ‘commercial Earth observing satellites’ going to be the ‘new normal’? See: ‘Scud’ at Wikipedia

      Do we really want the kind of world where cheap, highly accurate, and relatively low tech ICBMs are common?

      • Jim Hillhouse –

        “Then, in April, private spaceflight companies in the US called for a ban on using the PSLV for launching commercial satellites because they suspected the Indian government was subsidising launches.” From: ‘Why Haven’t ISRO and the US Signed Their Commercial Space Launch Agreement Yet?’ By Vasudevan Mukunth on 23/05/2016 At:

        Hmmmm, massive amounts of rocket technology intellectual property and enormous physical assets transferred from NASA to ‘private’ US launch companies along with Congress appropriating money for the development of the AR1, various other rocket engines, and new cheap launcher technology isn’t subsidizing, but whatever the Indian government does to improve and develop its needed rocket technology intellectual property and reduce the costs of the PSLV is “suspected” subsidizing?

        Do such oddly mixed messages make sense because it is simply another case of a “Decision to Sit on One” new “Cold War Blockbuster”?

        • I certainly believe that the ISRO should be able to compete for U.S. non-governmental payloads. That the Commercial Space Federation does not want ISRO competition doesn’t surprise me.

          Beyond that, I have nothing to add.

      • James,
        We do need a reason to continue and develop laser beam weapons for aircraft and ship utilization and are scheduled for deployment or already deployed…

        • Tracy the Troll –

          “We do need a reason to continue and develop laser beam weapons for aircraft and ship utilization and are scheduled for deployment or already deployed…”

          Yep, I guess so… However,

          “Cold War II,[1][2] also called the New Cold War,[3] Second Cold War[4][5][6] and Cold War 2.0,[7] refers to a renewed state of political and military tension between opposing geopolitical power-blocs, with one bloc typically being led either by Russia or China (or both),[8] while the other refers to the Western world.” From: ‘Cold War II” at Wikipedia

          Perhaps many news stories won’t be covered and critical analysis of the implications of technical, scientific, economic, political, and strategic choices will be avoided. Lap dog journalism could become even more common. Why bother to ask questions about the potential consequences of our international proliferation of cheap, highly accurate, and low tech ICBMs/launchers?

          Gary Oleson in his May 16, 2016 article ‘Effects of changing economics on space architecture and engineering’ at The Space Review noted, “The global space economy did not contract, even in 2009, and its growth exceeded the general economy in every year except 2010, reaching $330 billion in 2014.”

          Eventually, the global economic impact from Cislunar Space, which legally includes the surface of the Moon, is going to be in the trillions of dollars and could include serious international political and economic cooperation. Avoiding ‘friction’ fires and other forms of extreme nastiness both on Earth and in Cislunar Space sure would be nice.

          Do you remember the scene in the 2005 movie ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’ when Brad Pitt as Mr. Smith is running while carrying his gun, stumbles over some bushes, and accidentally fires a shot at Angelina Jolie as Mrs. Smith?

          Stumbling into war is always an option. Maybe Journalists, “the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff”, and lots of other folks are supposed to ask tough questions and promote critical thinking to help us avoid such potential stumbling.

          On a related note, your mention of “laser beam weapons” reminds me of:

          “The stats for such a weapon are impressive the current prototypes built by companies such as General atomics and BAE Systems can fire an aerodynamic shell at speeds of Mach 7.5 (5,700 mph / 9,200 km/h), which can reach the horizon in 6 seconds and has much greater range than conventional guns, having a reach of 110 nautical miles (126 mi / 203 km).” From: ‘US Navy announces sea trials for electromagnetic railgun’ By David Szondy April 20, 2014 at Gizmag

          That “9,200” km/hour equals about 2.55 kilometers per second. The Moon’s escape velocity is only 2.38 km per second. And that suggests we could eventually use electromagnetic guns to cheaply shoot Lunar resources and products, to Earth and Earth orbit or even to Mars.

          One way or another the Moon could become the resource, manufacturing, and transportation hub of the inner Solar System.

        • Tracy the Troll –


          ‘University Students Launched A Rocket With Completely 3D-Printed Engine They beat NASA to it’ By Kelsey D. Atherton From Popular Science At:

          Yep, another “reason to continue and develop laser beam weapons for aircraft and ship utilization” and an obvious clear success for the President’s de facto policy of strongly encouraging the international proliferation of private, cheap, low tech, and highly accurate ICBMs/launchers.

  3. I well remember Craig’s articles on the development of the Soviet shuttle. I recall a photo of a large, white delta-shaped wing which did not at the time resemble the eventual Buran design. However the information Craig provided his readers was remarkable and represented the quality, well-researched information that established him as one of the true “giants” of experts in the Soviet space program. I also lamented his departure from AW&ST – that business decision I am convinced cost the publication it’s readership. Their loss is America Space’s gain.

  4. Tom: Appreciate your comments. The visual you remember from 39 years ago was simply an artist concept.
    The story text itself was accurate in every way and reflected the final Buran design details.

    • Hi Craig,

      I had the opportunity to visit a high bay facility in Russia in 1998/1999 (on assignment working on the installment of American equipment on the Russian Service Module to the ISS). They were using the electrical analog for the Mir Core Module as a stand in for the ISS Service Module.

      In the same high bay area they had the high fidelity mockup of the Buran. During a work break an astronaut (who shall remain nameless) and I walked over and examined the mockup.

      We noticed that they had a “cut out” in the thermal tiles for the pass through lines to the external tank. While that was needed for the American design, it was not for the Russian design (where the main engines were on the tank, not the Orbiter).

      The “anonymous” astronaut said something to the effect “We probably should not mention this” and I agreed.

      Is there any information as to how much of the Buran design was “cribbed” from the Shuttle?

      • Joe:
        I have been in that same high bay with the Buran mockup. But they would not let me near it, as I was there to see testing on the full scale Mir they had in there at the time. As for the Soviet copying of NASA shuttle some of that certainly took place.

        But the aerodynamics are the aerodynamics for either side and if you put a payload bay between the wings you end up with Soviet shuttle that looks a lot like an American shuttle. I suspect the biggest area of copying was the TPS tiles and RCC and flight control system. I did get a very detailed look at the No. 2 orbiter that never got a chance to fly and one wing did not yet have RCC attached. And instead of an unprotected wing box under the RCC the Soviets had TPS tiles on the wing box behind the RCC.

        This was years before the Columbia accident and such a backup covering of tiles on the wing box may not have saved Columbia, but at least it was something. I had forgotten that Soviet feature until years after Columbia I was shocked relooking at my old pictures and came across my older image of the tiled Soviet wing box.

        As to copying the U S shuttle I noticed the payload bay door mechanisms and payload bay details looked like a copy of US orbiter mechanisms.
        Overall I believe the Soviets had a better design because they put their SSMEs on the Energia giving them a dual system right off the bat–an unmanned Energia heavy lift and when needed a reusable shuttle.

        As a result of the street cred I earned buy holding the KH-11 story I got another 15 years of occasional West Wing backgrounders beyond the DIA briefings arranged by Gen. Jones. At one of those later backgrounders my source described a new CIA report that largely blamed AWST stories on the U.S. shuttle that I had written as giving the Soviets the detail they needed to duplicate our shuttle. And we got a good laugh out of that when I noted if the Soviets were designing their shuttle from my stories the were doing it from a person who had barely passed high school algebra!

        • Thanks for the feed back. had wanted to ask that question for years.

          “Overall I believe the Soviets had a better design because they put their SSMEs on the Energia giving them a dual system right off the bat–an unmanned Energia heavy lift and when needed a reusable shuttle.”

          Greatly agree. Worked with people in the Shuttle Program and the fact that the Side Mount configuration was never developed is a tragedy.

          • Side Mount made some sense as a cargo launcher, but I never liked it for crew.

            SLS makes sense for cargo and crew but obviously we need a good flight rate, Launchpads 39A and 39B, and the broadly supported goal of using the SLS/International Orion system for Lunar ISRU missions to reduce the risks and costs of Cislunar and Deep Space human missions.

            I liked most of the plans of the Direct Team launcher folks.

            To me, the SLS is clearly a product of the efforts of the Direct Team ‘revolution’, not Congress.

            It was an odd ‘revolution’… And some folks don’t seem to be aware of it or understand what occurred.



            “DIRECT was advocated by a group of space enthusiasts who asserted that they represented a broader team of dozens of NASA and space industry engineers who actively worked on the proposal on an anonymous, voluntary basis in their spare time. September 2008, the DIRECT Team was said to consist of 69 members,[1] 62 of whom were NASA engineers, NASA-contractor engineers, and managers from the Constellation Program.”

            And, “With the October 11th signing of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (S. 3729) by President Obama mandating work on the Space Launch System Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle, the DIRECT Team declared their effort a success and disbanded.”
            From: ‘DIRECT’ at Wikipedia

            • Actually, there was extensive analysis done that showed that a crew abort from the Side Mount was practical (unfortunately, as far as I know, none of the evaluations, is available on line).

              In any case the window of opportunity for the Side Mount has (sadly) passed. The SLS Block I (happily) has almost identical potential launch capacity as the Side Mount.

              Agree entirely about the need to increase the flight rate.

              • Yep, “a crew abort from the Side Mount was practical” but was it optimal?

                To my nontechnical perspective, risk reduction to the lowest doable level is the key to both politically and commercially sustainable space transportation systems.

                Maybe the Side Mount was a lower risk systemic option, but I haven’t seen any evidence of that.

                • “Maybe the Side Mount was a lower risk systemic option, but I haven’t seen any evidence of that.”

                  It was and the fact was verified by analysis done by:
                  (1) The NASA “Gold Team” (during the original VSE studies).
                  (2) The (John) Shannon presentation team to the Augustine Commission.

                  Unfortunately the Commission ignored (not refuted, but ignored) the Shannon presentation and (at least as far as I know) neither set of results have ever been made available on the internet.

                  But (as I said), the opportunity to take advantage of the Side Mount Configuration is long past and the SLS Block I is (at this point) a good substitute. Therefore the SLS Block I is the best path forward for an HLV to support a Human Cis-Lunar Space Program.

                  • Now what side mount does is to allow wider disk like payloads–perhaps for OMvs–wide rigid aerobrakes. I don’t really like the idea of top mount spaceplanes what with pitch loads and bending moments. That’s why the air farce spaceplane has to have a shroud–that retards spaceplane growth.

                    Energiya Buran would have allowed orbiter sized hypersonic boilerplantes–worth more than CFD studies.

                    Heck–Each spaceplane might have been different. One a Faget striaght wing–one a lifting body–one a wave rider, etc.

                    Keep engines off the orbiter. Side-mount and parallel staging means no fairings/shrouds–and all engines are at ground level/pad level–easily visible.

                    Nice link:

                    Before SpaceDev was absorbed–Dream Chaser was to look different:

                    A small Energiya Buran type mini-stack might be just what India needs:

                  • Sidemount was pretty much everything good about the shuttle with all the bad removed. It would have been flying a couple years by now with a dozen flights accomplished and 6 to 8 per year scheduled for the next couple decades. The best possible scenario would have the ISS decommissioned at this point and cislunar missions being the focus. What could have been in just half a decade makes me truly sad.

                  • Conway,

                    As stated, the Side Mount was a great opportunity tragically missed, but in the words of the poet:

                    “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.” – John Greenleaf Whittier

                    Time to move on and at least try not to let the SLS Block I meet the same fate. As posts on this website make plain there are some who would like to have that happen.

                  • “-Side Mount was a great opportunity tragically missed-”

                    The Space Agency has made many wrong turns in a half a century plus of existence. The worst case/ best case scenarios are playing out right now though we do not see them developing behind the scenes.

                    Trump is just too bizarre to get elected so we better be ready for Hillary. If she continues the same relationship with Musk that this administration has then the worst case is on the way. We can forget about seeing human beings leave Earth orbit again in our lifetimes.

                    If she dumps Musk and the NewSpace LEO business plan and changes the direction of NASA away from this foolish Mars fantasy and back to the Moon- then we have something to look forward to.

                    Or….something lukewarm in between that will accomplish little.

                  • Find it hard to disagree with your political analysis, except for:
                    “Trump is just too bizarre to get elected…”

                    In the words of Herbert Solow (former Vice President of Productions Paramount Television): “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste and judgment of the American people.” The last several election cycles would seem to bear him out.

                    That would leave us with:
                    (1) Hope someone actually running the Trump Space Policy can be convinced to establish a return to the basic lunar goals.
                    (2) Hope someone actually running the Clinton Space Policy can be convinced to establish a return to the basic lunar goals.
                    (3) Continue the current trench warfare (of the last eight years) in Congress to keep some vestiges of an actual program in place and await the 2020 elections.

                    None of those is very inviting, but that appears to be the way it is.

                    Now it is Saturday night and I am going to go and “drown my sorrows” over a couple of pints of Beer.

                    Hope you have a way to enjoy the rest of your weekend as well.

                  • Joe –

                    “Therefore the SLS Block I is the best path forward for an HLV to support a Human Cis-Lunar Space Program.”

                    Yep. However:

                    The SLS could evolve far past “Block I” and may even eventually achieve 150 to 200 metric tons to LEO.

                    Do you think “the Side Mount Configuration” would have had the same LEO payload growth potential?

                  • James,

                    It is unfortunate that a Document detailing the iterative development of SDHLV’s (SSP Study NSTS 60583, dated June 8, 2010) is not available for on-line review.

                    If it were you could discern what we are discussing. The Side Mount could have started at about 70 tonnes and evolved to the 100 tonne range (more than enough for the Cis-Lunar mission) and it would have required the least changes to the vehicle stack, ground handling infrastructure, manufacturing tooling, etc. For that reason it was the lowest risk, fastest, cheapest way to achieve the initial defined goals of the VSE.

                    If an even bigger vehicle was later required (and if lunar resources are added into the architecture it would probably not be) it could have evolved into an in-line vehicle similar to the SLS, but going in-line initially for a 70 tonne capability was just not required.

                    Again that said we are were we are. The SLS Block I (if it is allowed to be fielded) will have approximately the capabilities of the Side Mount and too many changes have been made to go back.

                  • The RS-25 and SRB are really the essence of the shuttle and they live on in the SLS. The 130 ton lift iteration is calling for composite shell SRB’s which will probably be just reworked filament wound case technology from the 1980’s. The much better option is develop the reusable pressure-fed boosters originally proposed for the shuttle. With twin pressure-feds in the 4 million pound thrust range much more powerful upper stages become possible and eventually a quad iteration will probably be the mature form that will launch over a span of many decades to build a cislunar infrastructure.

        • I was told that Buran also did a roll program on liftoff for no reason other than they saw the Americans do it (do to placement of pad base d on legacy Apollo infra). Also heard they tweaked the crank in the delta wing based to be more forgiving from a COL stability perspective.

  5. Craig, the alternate story I got from a participant was that the spooks had concocted an elaborate charade to actively fool the Soviets into thinking the Kennan was an earlier-generation capsule bird with jammed film return chute — even to the point of sending out C-130s from Hickam to catch a drop attempt, but returning without it [the USAF crews were not told their recovery sorties were charades]. It bamboozled Moscow until the Kampiles leak. ‘Veil’ also referred generally to a deliberate ‘ruse’. Was THAT story a post-success fable, or was the story YOU were given — a lucky accidental misjudgment — a diversionary charade aimed at YOU?

  6. Fascinating article about the Cold War days. It’s such a shame that we had the Soviets beat with that imaging technology until someone gave it away. I imagine that imaging tech was derived from to make the digital cameras that came out later on. Glad for America Space and their recycling some of these stories. I read somewhere that the Hubble telescope was first-gen technology that the CIA etc had long since surpassed. Can only imagine what they use now – but now there is no Soviet Union, either.

  7. The secret of the real-time transmission — or even that the bird was a hi-res imager — was bound to be short-lived, the bonanza was that it had lasted as long as it had before somebody in the USSR got suspicious and began covering up targets [that was my very first USAF duty at Kirtland in 1970, distribute the daily ‘no show’ times when Soviet reccesats were overhead]. There’s mock ‘mock-up’ of the bird at the George Bush library in College Station, Texas, but photos are forbidden even now.

  8. Excellent read.. one wonders how old is the Hubble like telescope being now used for the WFIRST mission. How many of those 2.4 mt “tubes”were made..

  9. What a great story! I still remember regularly reading AW&ST way back in the late 1970s and 1980s when it was THE source for info on little known space projects of the military and (my favorite) the Soviet Union.

  10. Many years ago I heard anecdotal stories that the KH-11 was sometimes pointed away from looking down at Earth and into Space. The story goes that operators knew about the erupting volcanoes on Io long before the Voyagers arrived in 1979. Do you have any information to confirm this?

    • I would tend to doubt the story VERY seriously. While it is possible that the KH-11 might have observed something out of the ordinary when looking at Io (like maybe an IR excess), they would not have been able to observe unambiguous signs plumes or volcanic activity and would not have even suspected vulcanism to explain any odd observations they might have had even if there were a planetary scientist up on the latest in the field on the KH-11 interpretation staff. The conventional wisdom at that time was that Io would be geologically dead like the Moon and the scientific community did not even suspect otherwise until Peale, Cassen & Reynolds published their now famous paper, “Melting of Io by Tidal Dissipation”, which appeared in the peer-reviewed journal “Science” on March 2, 1979 – just days before the Voyager 1 encounter with Jupiter where the volcanoes of Io were discovered. IF something was observed, nobody would have interpreted the result as erupting volcanoes on Io.

  11. The quality and depth of this story along with the cogent comments is a testament to America Space and it’s commitment to its readers. Looking forward to future articles by Craig.

  12. Jim:

    I do not know of any planetary observations. Would kinda doubt it as it was overbooked with ground targets and not optimized with planetary science cameras or ability to adjust the optics for that.

    BUT the first and later KH-11 types have been used for imaging other Soviet/Russian and Chinese targets and US shuttle orbiters. The technique is known as “Sat Squared” imaging. (If you Google that you can see some remarkable examples.

    It was probably used for STS-1 to asses the belly tiles post launch, but especially STS-2 when Launch Director George Page inserted a phony hold that was a tip off to the need to adjust orbit geometry. It was likely used on several other shuttle flights. But although offered by DOD as NASA MCC worked the implications of the debris hit on Columbia’s wing seen in launch video the offer was not accepted.

  13. Hi Craig, thank you very much for the swift reply and extra info!!
    Like many others on here, I grew up reading your excellent work in AWST and it’s a pleasure to continue doing so.

    Jim Rice
    Geology Team Leader Mars Exploration Rover Project

  14. “We kept the KH-11 story on ice until the summer of 1978, when a disgruntled low-ranking CIA employee, William Kampiles, sold the KH-11 manual to a Soviet spy for a mere $3,000. He probably could have gotten $3 million. With that, the KH-11’s cover was blown. The Soviets knew what the KH-11 was, diagrams and all.”

    How does a multi-billion dollar program get outed by “disgruntled low-ranking CIA employee” and the Buran having so many “systems” identical to the Shuttle.

    Isn’t this just sugar coating the fact of in depth spy activity by the USSR/Russia today?

  15. Craig,

    Here are some questions for you. In regards to your DIA/DoD briefings on Soviet space during the 1970s (and perhaps 1980s), did the breifers ever:

    a)–show you actual satellite photoreconaissance pictures of Soviet space targets?
    b)–show you “artists’ renderings” of as-yet-nonpublicly released Soviet space technologies?
    c)–tell you about upcoming/anticipated space activity benchmarks (ie, those seen from space of R&D on the ground) for particular rocket/spacecraft developments?
    d)–show you HUMINT sourced materials?

    Thought I would take this “open window of opportunity” to ask you these questions. I look forward to your replies.

  16. Thank you for this story. I wish it was the US that did the Energiya Buran system–with the Columbia set up being the one shot Russian system.

2 Pings & Trackbacks

  1. Pingback:

  2. Pingback:

‘An Amazing and Wonderful Experience’: 20 Years Since STS-77’s Record-Setting Rendezvous Mission (Part 2)

SpaceX Prepares for Third Geostationary Mission of 2016