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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

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Hans’ Mark

However, there is a better explanation in a June 1971 report produced by the Space Transportation System Committee summarizing its activities for 1970. The committee was established as a policy-level coordination forum between NASA and the DoD and it was via this forum that DoD’s requirements (which were really the NRO’s requirements) were transmitted to NASA. That document was printed in volume 2 of the NASA series Exploring the Unknown.

The report states:

Based on required improvements to the present systems, mission needs and payload growths predicted for the 1980s, an equivalent payload weight capability of 40,000 to 53,000 pounds [18,150 to 24,050 kilograms] is required to low earth polar orbit; 40,000 to 50,000 pounds [18,150 to 22,680 kilograms] is required to low earth polar orbit. A 60 foot cargo bay length is necessary for current and projected missions and a 15 foot diameter is needed for high energy missions if the 60 foot length is not to be exceeded.

“High energy missions” is a reference to geostationary spacecraft, which remain among the most highly-classified spacecraft built by the NRO. In addition, the requirement was set for projected missions, and what the NRO was projecting as future missions is also highly-classified. Thus, it seems extremely doubtful that we will know for many years—perhaps decades—if the national security requirements established for the shuttle in 1970 were logical or perhaps wishful thinking at the time. We do know that NASA’s projected payload model for the shuttle, which provided the proof that the vehicle could be economical if all American satellite payloads were shifted to the shuttle, was based upon many illogical assumptions. For instance, they assumed a very high number of Spacelab missions.

It seems extremely doubtful that we will know for many years—perhaps decades—if the national security requirements established for the shuttle in 1970 were logical or perhaps wishful thinking at the time.

Although we are still unable to answer the payload bay requirement question, McLucas’ comments about refusing to agree to place all NRO payloads on the shuttle does shed a little light on the shuttle origins. Prior to this, we had little other information on the NRO’s position on the Space Shuttle. What we did have largely came from another memoir by a former Director of the NRO who also became Secretary of the Air Force, Hans Mark. Mark published a book in 1987 titled The Space Station, a Personal Journey, in which he discussed his involvement with the shuttle when he was serving as Secretary of the Air Force. Mark wrote the book at a time when the NRO was still classified, so he could not acknowledge his connection with that organization. He wrote:

During my service in the Pentagon from 1977 to 1981, I tried to modify the policies of the Air Force toward the Space Shuttle. One thing I tried to do was to urge people to design their spacecraft in such a way that full advantage would be taken of the capability of the Space Shuttle. I was partially successful in doing this, and certain spacecraft were designed to take full advantage of the payload capacity of the shuttle and of the volume of the payload bay. (It is interesting that seven years earlier the design of the shuttle was, of course, developed in such a way that just these things could be done.) In addition, I also succeeded in getting some of the people in the Air Force to think about the possibility of building their spacecraft in such a way that they could be retrieved and then refurbished and used again. There was even the possibility of repairing, replenishing, and maintaining spacecraft on orbit by using the ability of the shuttle crews to go out and perform extravehicular activities.

Mark’s statement that by 1977 there were still payloads that did not take full advantage of the capability of the Space Shuttle is intriguing. Does this mean that no intelligence spacecraft requiring the shuttle’s capabilities were underway when he entered office? If true, this would mean that the projected national security requirements that dictated the shuttle’s payload bay size and lifting capability in 1970 had not come to fruition even seven years later. Could the shuttle have been designed for a requirement that didn’t exist until Hans Mark pushed the NRO into building different spacecraft? Of course, there are other ways of reading Mark’s statement, and it is possible that at least some NRO spacecraft were in development that would require the shuttle’s capabilities. We simply do not know, and probably will not for a long time.

McLucas and Mark have provided bookends to this discussion. McLucas had agreed to put NRO payloads on the shuttle, but clearly his successors at the NRO dragged their feet until Hans Mark came along. Both of these sources also highlight another question that has not yet been definitively answered: was US government policy during this time period to shift all Air Force payloads (i.e. comsats, metsats, and navsats) to the shuttle but to not shift all NRO payloads to the shuttle? That appears to be the case, but if it is true, it makes the government policy appear to be rather dysfunctional. Not many people find bureaucratic politics interesting, but it seems likely that some significant bureaucratic squabbles occurred between the NRO, the Air Force, and NASA during that period. If so, it would be interesting to know who said what to whom.

Mark also provided a little further insight into the decision-making at the NRO during this time:

On balance, I believe that the conservative attitude of the Air Force toward the Space Shuttle at the time was probably justified. We were to encounter delays and problems in the Space Shuttle program that would indeed call for a cautious approach. Perhaps the most articulate exponent of the Air Force position at that time was Mr. Jimmie D. Hill, who was then a member of the undersecretary’s staff and who would later become the deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space systems. Hill had an encyclopedic knowledge of Air Force space systems as well as a first-class intelligence that he applied to the problems at hand. By taking positions that were generally opposed to mine, we usually arrived at workable compromises that could be implemented.

Jimmie Hill was, in fact, the Deputy Director of the NRO, and it is clear that when Mark referred to the “Air Force,” he really meant the NRO. After all, he wrote his book at a time when the undersecretary of the Air Force was also the Director of the NRO, and when the NRO’s existence was not publicly acknowledged. People knowledgeable about these issues have confirmed that Hill fought the shift of NRO spacecraft to the shuttle, and was not totally successful at that fight. However, part of the reason that Hill has earned almost cult-like status within the agency is because the Challenger accident later proved him right.

McLucas and Mark have provided bookends to this discussion. McLucas had agreed to put NRO payloads on the shuttle, but clearly his successors at the NRO dragged their feet until Hans Mark came along.

Hans Mark’s decision to put all intelligence payloads on the shuttle—which also meant retiring the remaining expendable launch vehicles—was later reversed by another NRO Director, Edward “Pete” Aldridge, who in 1984 chose to purchase the “Complementary Expendable Launch Vehicle” (CELV) to launch approximately ten NRO payloads, “complementary” to the shuttle. When the Challenger exploded in 1986, the NRO already had nearly a half dozen spacecraft lined up for launch on the shuttle that could only fly on that vehicle. They were all grounded until the shuttle resumed flight. But the CELV, soon renamed the Titan 4, entered service in 1989 and ensured that the NRO had other options. Of course, the Titan 4, despite its availability, never proved ideal for national security work. It was expensive and finicky, and although it was an improvement over the shuttle, it was not a significant improvement.

Taken together, the McLucas and Mark memoirs add a little bit of clarity to the situation—but only a little. McLucas makes clear that when as Director of the NRO he agreed to support the Space Shuttle, he did not agree that it would become “the sole means of getting all major satellites into orbit, as later became the policy.” Mark made clear in his 1987 book that it was he who decided that the shuttle would become the sole means of getting all major satellites into orbit.

There are certainly other questions to be asked about military involvement in the shuttle. For example, starting in 1973, the Secretary of Defense formed the Defense Department Shuttle User Committee to identify potential military applications and coordinate them with NASA. John McLucas admits to being intrigued with the shuttle’s potential for on-orbit servicing or recovery of satellites. But the records of this committee have never been released, so we do not even know about discussions concerning relatively unclassified satellites. Furthermore, at some point the DoD decided to classify all military shuttle flights, even those that launched such innocuous payloads as communications satellites. Who was involved in these decisions and why did they make the arguments that they did?

Similarly, the Challenger accident affected not only NRO spacecraft, but other military payloads, and the degree to which relatively unclassified military space programs were disrupted by the shuttle remains relatively unexplored by historians.

For example, consider the issue of when GPS was declared fully operational. Although the Air Force is justifiably proud of the GPS program and misses few opportunities to tout its successes, the GPS system could have been declared operational much earlier than 1992. McLucas discusses in his memoirs how, while serving as Secretary of the Air Force, he had fought to preserve GPS funding. Strategic Air Command was opposed to any system that did not rely upon inertial guidance, and others in the Air Force were opposed to “having to pay most of the bills for a support system that would benefit other services and the private sector.” So an intriguing question about military use of the shuttle is how much of the delay in operational availability of the GPS system can be blamed on the Challenger accident, and how much can be blamed upon the Air Force itself? That question, unlike many of the questions associated with intelligence community involvement in the shuttle, may ultimately be answerable. Hopefully, military space historians will step up to the task.

As the shuttle reaches its final retirement, there will certainly be more books and symposia to discuss its history and its legacy. Hopefully, as this happens, some of the mysteries of its military origins will be answered in greater detail.