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Enterprise at Vandenberg
While the military planned to be a major user of the shuttle, even developing its own launch site for it in California (above), the NRO initially resisted being wholly reliant on the shuttle. (credit: USAF)

Big Black and the new bird: the NRO and the early Space Shuttle


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Within a year—give or take a few months—the shuttles will no longer be roaring through Florida skies. The program will shut down, the orbiters will go to museums, and pundits and bloggers will jump all over each other to pontificate on the meaning of the shuttle program. Most will declare it a mistake, some will call it a disaster. Eventually the historians will get to it, holding symposia and writing books about the program. Some of them will look at the shuttle’s early origins, when it was slated to be all things to all people: cheap, reliable, responsive. They will look at the early 1970s policy decision to place all American satellites—civilian, commercial, and military—aboard a single rocket. And inevitably they will stumble into what is perhaps the last gaping hole in our knowledge of the shuttle’s origins: the issues surrounding the military and intelligence communities’ agreement to transfer all of their vital satellites to the shuttle. There is not much information on this subject at all, so the recent declassification of several documents that discuss it is a notable development.

What makes these documents most notable is that they are apparently the first declassified US documents referring to NRO policy on using the Space Shuttle.

The documents are contained in the most recently published version of a State Department series known as Foreign Relations of the United States (or FRUS for short). FRUS is not the most voluminous source of declassified documents on historical US government activities, and space is rarely discussed in the FRUS volumes. However, FRUS frequently contains very high-level policy documents. The recent FRUS volume includes a chapter on space containing three documents from 1976 concerning the requirement to maintain a backup expendable launch vehicle (ELV) capability for military and intelligence satellites during the early introduction of the shuttle. One of the documents is from Charles W. Cook, then the acting Director of the National Reconnaissance Office.

What makes these documents most notable is that they are apparently the first declassified US documents referring to NRO policy on using the Space Shuttle. As students of American space policy know, the decision to build the Space Shuttle and to transfer all American satellites from a fleet of ELVs to the shuttle was one of the most important—and ill-advised—decisions in American space history. Despite this fact, the NRO refuses to confirm or deny that it has any documents on this debate during the 1970s. This is a policy decision, probably intended to throw up a legal barrier to the NRO—i.e. the Big Black Bureaucracy—having to slide down a slippery slope of acknowledging the obvious: that it actually launched intelligence satellites aboard more than a handful of shuttle missions.

Some of the effects of the decision to shift all American satellites to the shuttle are well known. These include the grounding of vital American intelligence payloads after the 1986 Challenger accident. The decision also hastened, and possibly doomed, the development of a competitive American commercial space launch capability: after Challenger, Arianespace assumed a dominant position launching commercial satellites and has never surrendered it. But there have undoubtedly been many unseen effects as well, such as an increase in costs of intelligence satellites as they had to be redesigned to fly on the shuttle. The new documents indicate that this was something that the intelligence community feared in the years before the shuttle started flying.

Backups and the NRO

The first of the new documents is a July 1976 memorandum from acting NRO Director Charles W. Cook to the Committee on Foreign Intelligence. The Committee on Foreign Intelligence was an interagency committee headed by the Director of Central Intelligence, George H. W. Bush. Cook was forwarding an NRO policy statement on the requirement for maintaining expendable launch vehicles to back up the space shuttle. The statement declared: “During the period of transition to the Shuttle the reliability of the Shuttle will be a major, but gradually diminishing, factor in determining requirements for expendable Shuttle backup launch vehicles. In contrast, Shuttle vulnerability and operational and logistic restrictions will continue indefinitely to influence the need for backup boosters.”

The policy statement then added: “An additional requirement for expendable boosters in the Shuttle era arises out of the need to provide a quick reaction capability during crises. In crisis periods the importance of overhead reconnaissance would increase, yet our primary reconnaissance vehicles and launch vehicles (Shuttle) might be neutralized.”

Then came the kicker: “Therefore, as a matter of policy, the NRO must extend beyond the Shuttle transition period its consideration of the requirement for expendable launch vehicles to back up the Shuttle.”

The plan had been to shift all American satellites to the Shuttle and to retire the fleet of ELVs like Scout, Thor, Delta, Atlas, and Titan. In fact, the economic models that showed that shuttle would be a cheaper way to launch satellites depended upon pushing all of the payloads to the shuttle. Those models were deeply flawed, but nevertheless this was policy. Cook and the NRO were indicating that they intended to keep at least some ELVs flying, not simply during the transition to shuttle, but beyond, possibly indefinitely, casting the previous American launch vehicle policy into question.

Cook and the NRO were indicating that they intended to keep at least some ELVs flying, not simply during the transition to shuttle, but beyond, possibly indefinitely, casting the previous American launch vehicle policy into question.

In October 1976, Director of Central Intelligence George H. W. Bush wrote to James Lynn, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), about the issue. Bush stated that “estimates of the cost of transitioning the ongoing intelligence satellite programs to the Shuttle cause us some concern because they are quite high.” He said that a joint NASA/NRO Payload Accommodations Working Group had been established to examine “at the engineering level many of the technical problems contributing to high transition costs for the existing program.” In addition, the NRO had “programmed Shuttle transition to coincide with already planned major system upgrades in as many instances as possible, alleviating the requirement to change our existing satellite designs solely to accommodate them to the Shuttle.”

Bush added that the intelligence community was concerned about the survivability of the shuttle. In response, NASA began studying both an unmanned “fly-by-wire” launch mode for the shuttle, and “a short duration mission which does not overfly the Soviet Union.”

Finally, Bush noted that the shuttle did offer the intelligence community several opportunities, including the possibility of recovering and refurbishing satellites, storing spare satellites on orbit, conducting orbital experiments with new technologies, erecting large structures (i.e. antennas) in low orbit, and one other opportunity that remains classified.

Bush concluded the letter by stating that “current projections for cost of Shuttle launch are considerably below the cost of conventional boosters… We hope that these costs will not escalate.”

Staring into the crystal ball

A few days after Bush’s letter to the OMB director, Mal Curie, the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, wrote to Bush in his capacity as chair of the Committee on Foreign Intelligence. Curie was responding to Bush’s request that the DoD address the issues raised by the NRO’s July policy statement. Curie acknowledged that backup ELVs were required during the shuttle transition period.

A new Director of the NRO, who eventually became Secretary of the Air Force, Hans Mark, finally forced the secretive office to abandon its opposition and shift its intelligence satellites to launch aboard the shuttle.

But then Curie got to the sticky issue raised by the NRO policy position. “It is not possible to accurately forecast in 1976 that backup ELVs to Shuttle will be or not be required in 1985; i.e. at the currently planned completion of NRO transition.” Curie noted that up to 40 shuttle missions, including 4–8 military payloads, would be launched before any intelligence payload flew on the shuttle.

According to Curie, it was not necessary to make a decision in October 1976 about whether to continue purchasing ELVs for NRO launches beyond 1985. Curie was essentially recommending kicking the can down the road and allowing the decision to be made later, by somebody else. In November 1976 President Ford lost the election to Jimmy Carter, and Bush, Lynn, and Curie were soon gone, and a new set of officials had to take on this issue.

The NRO’s resistance to shifting all of its payloads to the shuttle and eliminating backup ELVs continued into the Carter administration. A new Director of the NRO, who eventually became Secretary of the Air Force, Hans Mark, finally forced the secretive office to abandon its opposition and shift its intelligence satellites to launch aboard the shuttle. (See “The spooks and the turkey: Intelligence community involvement in the decision to build the Space Shuttle”, The Space Review, November 20, 2006.)

Perhaps when the shuttle is finally retired and the history symposiums begin, we will learn a little more about the intelligence community’s role in one of the biggest American space policy decisions ever made.


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