343. Black Shuttles

Atlantis, first launch, DOD mission.

Regular readers will notice that these posts are coming later in the day.

During the planning stage of the Space Shuttle, some changes were called for by the National Reconnaissance Office. That is an organization which, at that time, was not acknowledged to exist, but which is the home of sophisticated space hardware and a big budget. Specifically, NRO wanted the cargo bay on the shuttles to be bigger, presumably to accommodate their oversized spy satellites. They got their way, and the money they provided helped keep the struggling shuttle program afloat during the hard early days.

We’ve been looking at the Air Force in space this week and NRO isn’t the Air Force — quite. However, the head of NRO has traditionally been an undersecretary or Assistant Secretary of the Air Force. So, close enough.

It would not be unreasonable to think of the Air Force as an organization run by pilots and ex-pilots. MISS was a program designed to put men into space; so were the Dyna-soar and the MOL. But none of them ever succeeded in putting Air Force astronauts into space.

During this period of public failure, there were secret successes in the form of more and more military satellites. One of the earliest class of mission was reconnaissance, and the Air Force/NRO success with unmanned satellites was the primary reason MOL was abandoned. Through the sixties and into the seventies, these satellites used sophisticated film cameras, and their findings came back to earth via film canisters dropped from satellites and snagged out of the air by military aircraft. After digital imaging came to maturity, that was no longer necessary.

Sidebar.      Just how successful those satellites were, and how rich the NRO is, became embarrassingly obvious in 2012. The NRO gave NASA two Hubble-quality space telescopes that they had ordered, but weren’t using. One of these is slated to become the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, due for launch in 2024.

At the same time that the Air Force, through NRO, arranged to have the shuttle’s cargo bay expanded, it began to build a shuttle launching facility at Vandenberg Air Base in California. To understand what this means requires knowledge that every space nerd had in the sixties, but which is never talked about these days.

Why do we launch space missions from Florida? Because it is the only place in the US which is both far south and on the eastern seaboard. Rockets are typically launched as close the the equator as practical so that the rotation of the Earth is added to the rocket’s speed — something vitally important when crude, early craft were being launched. They are launched from the eastern seaboard to provide thousands of miles of open ocean for first stages — or fiery, falling failures — to land in.

Vandenberg is situated on the western edge of the nation, ideally located for launching rockets north or south into polar orbit — that orange-peel path spy satellites need. Advanced Titans and Atlases launch from there as needed, without fanfare. But not with complete secrecy. It is a California cliché for a UFO scare to be debunked as “just another night launch from Vandenberg”.

The Johnson Space Center is in Huston because Texan LBJ was President when it was built. Orbital physics had nothing to do with it.

No shuttle was ever launched from Vandenberg. Shortly after the second classified Department of Defense shuttle mission, the Challenger was lost. Important secret launches were delayed by the hearings that followed.

The relationship between NASA and the Air Force had never been a happy one, and the Air Force shifted as quickly as possible back to its own resources. They used the shuttle to take up satellites too large to be launched by other means, and otherwise returned to using their own missiles, typically out of Vandenberg.

The Luke Skywalker picture of Air Force pilots in their space fighters has never come about. The closest to that idea is the robot X-37b, which we will look at in some future post.

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The Smithsonian Air & Space magazine carried an article in 2009 on the eleven black shuttle missions. Since most details are still classified, the article is frustrating, but will provide about as much as you will find anywhere outside of alien-influence websites.

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