History’s First Space Ace, Taking Out a Satellite with an F-15

Maj. Wilbert ‘Doug’ Pearson stands with his modified F-15A, prior to shooting down a satellite on Sept. 13, 1985. Photo: USAF

Thirty-two years ago this week, on Sept. 13, 1985, an accomplished F-15 test pilot named Maj. Wilbert D. “Doug” Pearson (now a retired Maj. Gen.) took off from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on a mission which would see him do something no astronaut or fighter pilot had done before, and it would make him history’s first space ace.

The mission, called “Celestial Eagle”, was the culmination of a six year anti-satellite (or ASAT) missile development and test program, and Maj. Pearson commanded the USAF F-15 Anti-Satellite Combined Test Force.

Pearson was tasked with flying a near supersonic vertical ascent in a specially-configured F-15A fighter jet to an altitude of over 35,000 feet, to fire a 2,700 pound, 18-foot long anti-satellite missile (known as an ASAT) into space to kill an obsolete science satellite over 2000 miles away, at an altitude of 340 miles (about as high as the space shuttle could fly).

The flight profile required Pearson to arrive at a precise point and time over the Pacific Missile Test Range off the coast of Calif., and fire a Vought ASM-135A ASAT automatically from the belly of his jet, taking aim on the 2,000-pound Solwind P78-1 solar laboratory, which launched on Feb 24, 1979 from Vandenberg AFB, CA on an Atlas-F rocket.

Maj. Wilbert ‘Doug’ Pearson fires an ASAT launched from a highly modified F-15A off the coast of California, September 13, 1985. Photo: USAF

Weapons in space was controversial then, and still is to this day, but so was the shoot down of the satellite, especially in the science community, because even though it was not operating at 100%, it was still returning valuable data.

It provided the longest continuous stream of data from an instrument observing the sun’s corona ever at the time, until it was shot down.

Flying supersonic at about Mach 1.2, Maj. Pearson arrived on time on target and pulled into a 3.8g, 65-degree climb, slowing down to just below Mach 1 before firing the missile at 38,100 feet, about 200 miles west of Vandenberg.

Once the rocket separated at first stage from the missile, it took aim with a miniature homing vehicle with an infrared sensor on a bullseye intercept, and hit its target with a closing velocity of 15,000 mph.

It was the first successful satellite kill by an aircraft launched missile in history.

Solwind P78-1. Photo: NASA

The Air Force originally wanted an arsenal of 112 ASM-135s, with 20 F-15s modified to fire them, but enormous cost overruns and technical issues killed the program in 1988. After the F-15s had already been modified, of course.

Both pilot and jet soon went their separate ways, but would reunite again 22 years later.

His son, Capt. Todd Pearson, was an active-duty F-15 pilot in Idaho, and the historic F-15 his father flew for mission Celestial Eagle, was at Homestead Air Reserve Base with the Florida Air National Guard, 125th Fighter Wing.

In honor of the mission, “Celestial Eagle” was painted on the nose of the jet, and the captain’s name was painted on the side of the cockpit. He even wore the same circular patch on his left shoulder that his father wore on the same day 22 years earlier, and together they performed the pre-flight walk around the jet.

Retired Major General Doug Pearson (left) and Capt. Todd Pearson (right) joke around before Captain Pearson took off on the Celestial Eagle remembrance flight Sept. 13, 2007. Photo: USAF

The jet eventually retired to the famous Boneyard at Davis Monthan AFB in 2009.

 

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4 comments to History’s First Space Ace, Taking Out a Satellite with an F-15

  • Mike Papa

    Five kills required for “Ace” designation. Four more to go! Cheers!

  • Charles Phillips

    The Air Force launched two inflatable targets for this mission, I think after (??) the mission to hit SOLWIND. Years later, when they were about to re-enter, the commands to inflate were finally sent and one of them did work.

    I worked on this project back in probably 1981 when I was stationed in Colorado.

    Later I worked with the people at the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory who were using SOLWIND, but by the time of this flight I had moved on to the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

  • David Baker

    Great story, and I hate to pose a downer on a great success, but he was not an “ace”, since that term attaches to a pilot having secured five combat “kills” (it used to be 10). Nit-picking? Perhaps, but it never pays to ignore facts.

  • Jeff Wright

    Great–another fighter jock who wants to kill something space.

    Nothing new about that–the ABMA was their first target.

    Thatx a bunch Herb York…