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Enterprise at Vandenberg
The Space Shuttle Enterprise during tests of the launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in the 1980s. The military at one time planned on making extensive use of the Space Shuttle. (credit: USAF)

The spooks and the turkey

Intelligence community involvement in the decision to build the Space Shuttle

The Space Shuttle is scheduled to make its last flight in just about four years. Various people have already started writing its epitaph. However, one would hope that before we finish writing the final chapter on the shuttle’s history, it will become possible to rewrite the opening chapters, using a little more data than what we have so far. The story, unfortunately, remains a little sketchy.

The decision to build the Space Shuttle is without doubt the single most important space policy decision of the last four decades, yet the documents available on the national security requirements for the shuttle are virtually nonexistent. We know, for instance, that the shuttle had some strong supporters in the Air Force—people who embraced a vision of shuttles with “USAF” and the stars and bars painted on the side. We also know that there were other military officers who, before the shuttle even began flying, regularly referred to it as “the turkey”, and even reputedly circulated a cartoon of a shuttle-turkey hybrid at classified briefings. But overall, our information on the early military involvement in the shuttle decision is anecdotal and not well corroborated. In fact, our best information on this subject comes from memoirs, and recently another one has emerged with a little more data.

The decision to build the Space Shuttle is without doubt the single most important space policy decision of the last four decades, yet the documents available on the national security requirements for the shuttle are virtually nonexistent.

Most people familiar with the shuttle’s history know the basics about its origins: the shuttle was conceived in the latter 1960s as a means for safely and routinely taking people and cargo to and from low Earth orbit, and it was supposed to dramatically lower the cost of doing this. However, lowering costs meant increasing the flight rate and that could only be accomplished if all American expendable launch vehicles were retired and their payloads were shifted to the shuttle. “All,” in this case, meant all, including national security payloads. Doing this required the acquiescence of the national security community, which extracted two concessions from NASA: the shuttle would have a much larger payload bay than originally planned or required by NASA, and the shuttle would also have a greater crossrange capability, enabling it to fly back to its launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base after a single orbit. NASA agreed and that’s how the agency got the big shuttle we still have today. That’s also how the national security community ended up with all their eggs in one basket when the Challenger exploded in 1986, and why it took many years to reopen the expendable launch vehicle line and get military satellites into orbit years later.

That’s the short version of the story. Unfortunately, as far as the national security aspects of the decision are concerned, that’s also the long version of the story. We don’t know much more than this gross outline. Details are scarce. Tom Heppenheimer’s book, The Space Shuttle Decision: NASA's Search for a Reusable Space Vehicle, includes this version of the story, adding a few details, such as the fact that the national security requirements for the shuttle were finally hammered out at a January 1971 workshop. Unfortunately, Heppenheimer relied heavily on secondary sources—i.e. published works, not original documents—for this part of the history. Primary sources, in the form of memos, reports, and first-person accounts from military officials, do exist, but fewer of them are available than historians would like.

Take, for instance, the fact that whereas most historians of the shuttle decision, including Heppenheimer, refer to the “national security community” or “the Air Force,” the reality is that there were several key actors involved on the DoD side: the US Air Force; the Office of the Director of Development, Research, and Engineering (DDR&E) in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; and the National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO. The DDR&E oversaw all advanced technology development conducted by the military. The Air Force operated communications, weather, and missile warning satellites that they agreed to launch on the shuttle. The NRO operated intelligence satellites, which were then increasing in size dramatically.

The fact that there were three institutional actors on the military side raises all kinds of questions. Did the NRO and the Air Force share the same position regarding the shuttle? Or did they differ and how? Where did the DDR&E fit into this discussion? Did the DDR&E have ultimate say, or could he be overruled by the NRO?

There are other questions too. Who were the key negotiators for the Department of Defense when this bargain was being struck? Who said what to whom? Why did they take the positions that they did? To take one key question, did the Air Force agree to transfer all of its satellites to be launched on the Space Shuttle while the NRO refused?

We don’t have the answers regarding these questions for several reasons. Part of the reason appears to be Air Force recordkeeping. As any Air Force historian will tell you, the service’s recordkeeping system started to fall apart by the mid-1960s. Historians doing research on the Air Force can find voluminous documents from the 1950s and early 1960s, but far fewer records after around 1966. This also applies to classified archives that are not accessible to the general public. Even people who have gone through the classified archives will tell you that there are fewer records by the late 1960s, i.e. the time that the Air Force became involved in the shuttle decision.

The other major problem is the NRO. The NRO has made a policy decision to not even confirm or deny that it has any records regarding the Space Shuttle, even from the late 1960s and early 1970s. NRO security officers have allowed former NRO officials and a blue ribbon panel chaired by Donald Rumsfeld in 2000 (before he became Secretary of Defense) to acknowledge that the NRO has used the Space Shuttle, but the agency will not even acknowledge that it has documents on this subject from 36 years ago, even if they cannot be released because of national security. That is most likely a policy decision based upon legal advice rather than any potential threat to national security. After all, it is common knowledge that the NRO launched classified satellites from the Space Shuttle in the 1980s, so there can be little danger to national security to at least acknowledge an NRO policy connection to the shuttle in the early 1970s. However, by refusing to confirm or deny the existence of any records, the NRO makes it all the more difficult for anybody to legally request documents from later dates. They have thrown up a legal barrier at the furthest possible distance in order to protect everything. However, this does not mean that we have no evidence of an early NRO connection to the Space Shuttle.

The NRO has made a policy decision to not even confirm or deny that it has any records regarding the Space Shuttle, even from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Recently the Air University Press published the posthumous memoirs of John McLucas, who served as the Director of the National Reconnaissance Office from March 1969 to December 1973 before becoming Secretary of the Air Force, a position he held until 1975. McLucas was thus the Director of NRO during the period when the Department of Defense first agreed to launch payloads on the Space Shuttle. McLucas died in 2002, after a long and distinguished career in both government and industry.

McLucas’ book is titled Reflections of a Technocrat: Managing Defense, Air, and Space Programs during the Cold War, and it was written with the assistance of Kenneth J. Alnwick and Lawrence R. Benson. McLucas devoted a chapter to his tenure as NRO director. That chapter is titled “What Can Now Be Told.” Unfortunately, he tells far less than we would hope to learn after three and a half decades. Here is what he wrote about the NRO’s involvement in the early shuttle decision:

Johnny Foster at [the Director for Defense Research & Engineering office] was the Pentagon’s point man on the shuttle, and he consulted with me on its potential. We agreed that it would only make sense for the DoD to use the shuttle if it could carry our largest payloads. After considering future military spacecraft requirements, we told NASA that the shuttle would need a cargo bay 60 feet [18.3 meters] long by 15 feet [4.6 meters] in diameter. NASA leaders agreed, so in effect we determined the ultimate size of the shuttle, which originally had been planned with a cargo bay about 40 feet [12.2 meters] long by 12 feet [3.7 meters] in diameter. Although in some respects NASA might have been better off with a somewhat smaller STS [Space Transportation System] that would not put so much stress on its engines, it then could not have accommodated some of the space agency’s largest payloads, most recently the 43-foot-long [13.1-meters-long] Chandra X-Ray Astrophysics Telescope launched in 1999.

McLucas also added this comment about budgetary and policy support of the shuttle:

I was willing to provide some relatively modest funding but reluctant to become a major financial supporter. Although agreeable to adding the shuttle to our inventory of launch vehicles, I never intended that it become the sole means of getting all major satellites into orbit, as later became the policy.

One key question is how the NRO reached the conclusion that they would need such a large payload bay in the future. Michael Yarymovych, who in the late 1960s was a NASA employee assigned to the DDR&E office to work on the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program, said that he used the MOL as the baseline for the DoD’s requirements for the shuttle. There were no plans to fly a MOL on the shuttle, and in fact, the MOL was canceled in summer 1969, several years before the shuttle design was finalized. MOL was 12.5 meters (41 feet) long, and had the same 3-meter (10-foot) diameter as the Titan 3 rocket that was to carry it into orbit; in other words, it was clearly not the payload that drove the shuttle design. Other sources have speculated that the size was established by the NRO’s KH-9 HEXAGON reconnaissance satellite that first entered service in 1971 and was then the largest spacecraft in use—so big that it was referred to as “the big bird.” But the KH-9 fit into the Titan 3 payload fairing, meaning that it had a diameter of no more than 10 feet, not nearly 15 feet and therefore requiring the shuttle. Still other sources have speculated that the width of the payload bay was established by the aperture size of planned reconnaissance satellites, which was itself determined by the large mirrors to be incorporated into these satellites.

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