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