Saturday Night Science: Into the Black

 

“Into the Black” by Rowland WhiteOn April 12, 1981, coincidentally exactly twenty years after Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth in Vostok 1, the United States launched one of the most ambitious and risky manned space flights ever attempted. The flight of Space Shuttle Orbiter Columbia on its first mission, STS-1, would be the first time a manned spacecraft was launched with a crew on its first flight. (All earlier spacecraft were tested in unmanned flights before putting a crew at risk.) It would also be the first manned spacecraft to be powered by solid rocket boosters which, once lit, could not be shut down but had to be allowed to burn out. In addition, it would be the first flight test of the new Space Shuttle Main Engines, the most advanced and high performance rocket engines ever built, which had a record of exploding when tested on the ground. The shuttle would be the first space vehicle to fly back from space using wings and control surfaces to steer to a pinpoint landing. Instead of a one-shot ablative heat shield, the shuttle was covered by fragile silica tiles and reinforced carbon-carbon composite to protect its aluminium structure from reentry heating which, without thermal protection, would melt it in seconds. When returning to Earth, the shuttle would have to maneuver in a hypersonic flight regime in which no vehicle had ever flown before, then transition to supersonic and finally subsonic flight before landing. The crew would not control the shuttle directly, but fly it through redundant flight control computers which had never been tested in flight. Although the orbiter was equipped with ejection seats for the first four test flights, they could only be used in a small part of the flight envelope: for most of the mission everything simply had to work correctly for the ship and crew to return safely. Main engine start—ignition of the solid rocket boosters—and liftoff!

Even before the goal of landing on the Moon had been accomplished, it was apparent to NASA management that no national consensus existed to continue funding a manned space program at the level of Apollo. Indeed, in 1966, NASA’s budget reached a peak which, as a fraction of the federal budget, has never been equalled. The Saturn V rocket was ideal for lunar landing missions, but expended each mission, was so expensive to build and operate as to be unaffordable for suggested follow-on missions. After building fifteen Saturn V flight vehicles, only thirteen of which ever flew, Saturn V production was curtailed. With the realisation that the “cost is no object” days of Apollo were at an end, NASA turned its priorities to reducing the cost of space flight, and returned to a concept envisioned by Wernher von Braun in the 1950s: a reusable space ship.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or rocket engineer to appreciate the advantages of reusability. How much would an airline ticket cost if they threw away the airliner at the end of every flight? If space flight could move to an airline model, where after each mission one simply refueled the ship, performed routine maintenance, and flew again, it might be possible to reduce the cost of delivering payload into space by a factor of ten or more. But flying into space is much more difficult than atmospheric flight. With the technologies and fuels available in the 1960s (and today), it appeared next to impossible to build a launcher which could get to orbit with just a single stage (and even if one managed to accomplish it, its payload would be negligible). That meant any practical design would require a large booster stage and a smaller second stage which would go into orbit, perform the mission, then return.

Initial design concepts envisioned a very large (comparable to a Boeing 747) winged booster to which the orbiter would be attached. At launch, the booster would lift itself and the orbiter from the pad and accelerate to a high velocity and altitude where the orbiter would separate and use its own engines and fuel to continue to orbit. After separation, the booster would fire its engines to boost back toward the launch site, where it would glide to a landing on a runway. At the end of its mission, the orbiter would fire its engines to de-orbit, then reenter the atmosphere and glide to a landing. Everything would be reusable. For the next mission, the booster and orbiter would be re-mated, refuelled, and readied for launch.

Such a design had the promise of dramatically reducing costs and increasing flight rate. But it was evident from the start that such a concept would be very expensive to develop. Two separate manned spacecraft would be required, one (the booster) much larger than any built before, and the second (the orbiter) having to operate in space and survive reentry without discarding components. The orbiter’s fuel tanks would be bulky, and make it difficult to find room for the payload and, when empty during reentry, hard to reinforce against the stresses they would encounter. Engineers believed all these challenges could be met with an Apollo era budget, but with no prospect of such funds becoming available, a more modest design was the only alternative.

Over a multitude of design iterations, the now-familiar architecture of the space shuttle emerged as the only one which could meet the mission requirements and fit within the schedule and budget constraints. Gone was the flyback booster, and with it full reusability. Two solid rocket boosters would be used instead, jettisoned when they burned out, to parachute into the ocean and be fished out by boats for refurbishment and reuse. The orbiter would not carry the fuel for its main engines. Instead, it was mounted on the side of a large external fuel tank which, upon reaching orbit, would be discarded and burn up in the atmosphere. Only the orbiter, with its crew and payload, would return to Earth for a runway landing. Each mission would require either new or refurbished solid rocket boosters, a new external fuel tank, and the orbiter.

The mission requirements which drove the design were not those NASA would have chosen for the shuttle were the choice theirs alone. The only way NASA could “sell” the shuttle to the president and congress was to present it as a replacement for all existing expendable launch vehicles. That would assure a flight rate sufficient to achieve the economies of scale required to drive down costs and reduce the cost of launch for military and commercial satellite payloads as well as NASA missions. But that meant the shuttle had to accommodate the large and heavy reconnaissance satellites which had been launched on Titan rockets. This required a huge payload bay (15 feet wide by 59 feet long) and a payload to low Earth orbit of 60,000 pounds. Further Air Force requirements dictated a large cross-range (ability to land at destinations far from the orbital ground track), which in turn required a hot and fast reentry very demanding on the thermal protection system.

The shuttle represented, in a way, the unification of NASA with the Air Force’s own manned space ambitions. Ever since the start of the space age, the Air Force sought a way to develop its own manned military space capability. Every time it managed to get a program approved: first Dyna-Soar and then the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, budget considerations and Pentagon politics resulted in its cancellation, orphaning a corps of highly-qualified Air Force astronauts with nothing to fly. Many of these pilots would join the NASA astronaut corps in 1969 and become the backbone of the early shuttle program when they finally began to fly more than a decade later.

Missing thermal protection tiles on STS-1 OMS pods
Missing tiles on Columbia’s orbital maneuvering system pods in STS-1. NASA photo (public domain).

All seemed well on board. The main engines shut down. The external fuel tank was jettisoned. Columbia was in orbit. Now weightless, commander John Young and pilot Bob Crippen immediately turned to the flight plan, filled with tasks and tests of the orbiter’s systems. One of their first jobs was to open the payload bay doors. The shuttle carried no payload on this first flight, but only when the doors were open could the radiators that cooled the shuttle’s systems be deployed. Without the radiators, an emergency return to Earth would be required lest electronics be damaged by overheating. The doors and radiators functioned flawlessly, but with the doors open Young and Crippen saw a disturbing sight. Several of the thermal protection tiles on the pods containing the shuttle’s maneuvering engines were missing, apparently lost during the ascent to orbit. Those tiles were there for a reason: without them the heat of reentry could melt the aluminium structure they protected, leading to disaster. They reported the missing tiles to mission control, adding that none of the other tiles they could see from windows in the crew compartment appeared to be missing.

The tiles had been a major headache during development of the shuttle. They had to be custom fabricated, carefully applied by hand, and were prone to falling off for no discernible reason. They were extremely fragile, and could even be damaged by raindrops. Over the years, NASA struggled with these problems, patiently finding and testing solutions to each of them. When STS-1 launched, they were confident the tile problems were behind them. What the crew saw when those payload bay doors opened was the last thing NASA wanted to see. A team was set to analysing the consequences of the missing tiles on the engine pods, and quickly reported back that they should pose no problem to a safe return. The pods were protected from the most severe heating during reentry by the belly of the orbiter, and the small number of missing tiles would not affect the aerodynamics of the orbiter in flight.

But if those tiles were missing, mightn’t other tiles also have been lost? In particular, what about those tiles on the underside of the orbiter which bore the brunt of the heating? If some of them were missing, the structure of the shuttle might burn through and the vehicle and crew would be lost. There was no way for the crew to inspect the underside of the orbiter. It couldn’t be seen from the crew cabin, and there was no way to conduct an EVA to examine it. Might there be other, shall we say, national technical means, of inspecting the shuttle in orbit? Now STS-1 truly ventured into the black, a story never told until many years after the mission and documented thoroughly for a popular audience here for the first time.

In 1981, ground-based surveillance of satellites in orbit was rudimentary. Two Department of Defense facilities, in Hawaii and Florida, normally used to image Soviet and Chinese satellites, were now tasked to try to image Columbia in orbit. This was a daunting task: the shuttle was in a low orbit, which meant waiting until an orbital pass would cause it to pass above one of the telescopes. It would be moving rapidly so there would be only seconds to lock on and track the target. The shuttle would have to be oriented so its belly was aimed toward the telescope. Complicating the problem, the belly tiles were black, so there was little contrast against the black of space. And finally, the weather had to cooperate: without a perfectly clear sky, there was no hope of obtaining a usable image. Several attempts were made, all unsuccessful.

But there were even deeper black assets. The National Reconnaissance Office (whose very existence was a secret at the time) had begun to operate the KH-11 KENNEN digital imaging satellites in the 1970s. Unlike earlier spysats, which exposed film and returned it to the Earth for processing and interpretation, the KH-11 had a digital camera and the ability to transmit imagery to ground stations shortly after it was captured. There were few things so secret in 1981 as the existence and capabilities of the KH-11. Among the people briefed in on this above top secret program were the NASA astronauts who had previously been assigned to the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program which was, in fact, a manned reconnaissance satellite with capabilities comparable to the KH-11.

Dancing around classification, compartmentalisation, bureaucratic silos, need to know, and other barriers, people who understood what was at stake made it happen. The flight plan was rewritten so that Columbia was pointed in the right direction at the right time, the KH-11 was programmed for the extraordinarily difficult task of taking a photo of one satellite from another, when their closing velocities are kilometres per second, relaying the imagery to the ground and getting it to the NASA people who needed it without the months of security clearance that would normally entail. The shuttle was a key national security asset. It was to launch all reconnaissance satellites in the future. Reagan was in the White House. They made it happen. When the time came for Columbia to come home, the very few people who mattered in NASA knew that, however many other things they had to worry about, the tiles on the belly were not among them.

(How different it was in 2003 when the same Columbia suffered a strike on its left wing from foam shed from the external fuel tank. A thoroughly feckless and bureaucratised NASA rejected requests to ask for reconnaissance satellite imagery which, with two decades of technological improvement, would have almost certainly revealed the damage to the leading edge which doomed the orbiter and crew. Their reason: “We can’t do anything about it anyway.” This is incorrect. For a fictional account of a rescue, based upon the report [PDF, scroll to page 173] of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, see Launch on Need.)

This is a masterful telling of a gripping story by one of the most accomplished of aerospace journalists. Rowan White is the author of Vulcan 607, the definitive account of the Royal Air Force raid on the airport in the Falkland Islands in 1982. Incorporating extensive interviews with people who were there, then, and sources which were classified until long after the completion of the mission, this is a detailed account of one of the most consequential and least appreciated missions in U.S. manned space history which reads like a techno-thriller.

Special thanks to Ricochet member Seawriter for his review of this book, which brought it to my attention. I’d probably have never discovered it otherwise. I hope I haven’t stepped on his review (which I encourage you to read); I’ve used it more as a point of departure to discuss the history and development of the shuttle.

White, Rowland. Into the Black. New York: Touchstone, 2016. ISBN 978-1-5011-2362-7.

Before the shuttle was launched into space, NASA had to be confident it could be flown in the atmosphere and guided to a precision landing with no propulsion. The Approach and Landing Tests (ALT), using the non-space-qualified orbiter Enterprise, launched from the back of the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and then glided to landing on the dry lake or runway at Edwards Air Force Base. Here is the first ALT free flight on August 12, 1977. For the first three ALTs, a tailcone covered the nozzles of the engines to reduce turbulence. The tailcone was removed for the final two tests.

A Remarkable Flying Machine is a NASA documentary made after the STS-1 flight. All of the involvement of intelligence assets in the flight remained secret at the time.

The Greatest Test Flight is a thirteen part series presenting the entire flight of STS-1, including all of the air to ground communications, mission control shift change press conferences, and on-board video. I will link to all parts and embed video of the most interesting. Parts 1, 2. Part 3 includes the launch starting at 52:00.

Part 4 shows the opening of the payload bay doors at 48:00 and the missing tiles at 52:00.

Parts 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 cover orbital operations. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know what’s going on as they discuss and perform the maneuvers to position the orbiter for photography by ground based telescopes and the reconnaissance satellite. Part 16 contains the deorbit burn at 1:10 and the landing sequence at 1:33.


There are 41 comments.

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  1. Seawriter Member

    Nah, You haven’t stepped on my review. Enjoyed reading this one. Appreciate the different perspective.

    Seawriter

    • #1
    • September 17, 2016, at 11:06 AM PDT
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  2. Judge Mental Member

    So what was the cause of so many items that were ‘untested’? It seems out of character for how NASA typically did things. So was it technical limitations or just budget constraints?

    • #2
    • September 17, 2016, at 11:10 AM PDT
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  3. Seawriter Member

    Judge Mental:So what was the cause of so many items that were ‘untested’? It seems out of character for how NASA typically did things. So was it technical limitations or just budget constraints?

    Yes, both. The biggest technical limitation was that in 1981 you could not land the Orbiter without a pilot aboard. Unless you were willing to throw away the first Orbiter, you could not test it unmanned. Even there you would not get the data you needed out of it unless it put down on a runway, so you could examine it in detail. Scattered in itty-bitty pieces after it crashed would have revealed a lot less info.

    Finally, that was the way NASA did things circa 1966-1986. NASA took lots of chances during the Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab programs. The riskiest mission might possibly have been Apollo 8 (the first trip to the moon), although the never-flown Skylab reboost would have been up there. (It was never flown because Skylab reentered the atmosphere before the Shuttle could be flown, but if STS-1 had occurred on schedule (in 1979), STS-2 would have been the Skylab rescue.)

    Seawriter

    • #3
    • September 17, 2016, at 11:28 AM PDT
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  4. Trink Coolidge

    John Walker: A thoroughly feckless and bureaucratised NASA rejected requests to ask for reconnaissance satellite imagery which, with two decades of technological improvement, would have almost certainly revealed the damage to the leading edge which doomed the orbiter and crew. Their reason: “We can’t do anything about it anyway.” This is incorrect.

    This is frankly – nauseating. As we lose faith in our federal bureaucracies – this is reeally depressing. Still, we manage to limp forward.

    Just last evening, my husband and I climbed into the Jeep to get out from under our wooded habitat to watch the Harvest Moon rise.

    For some reason – I found it particularly moving and we reminisced about the days that American men walked the surface of that beautiful, timeless orb.

    Yes, our son is on a team that explores it with a telescope on the LRO. But it’s not the same.

    • #4
    • September 17, 2016, at 11:35 AM PDT
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  5. John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Seawriter: Yes, both. The biggest technical limitation was that in 1981 you could not land the Orbiter without a pilot aboard.

    An autoland system was designed for the orbiter, but was not complete at the time of STS-1. It was first tested in a partially complete state in STS-3, where a mode selection error after touchdown almost resulted in disaster. Decades later, landings were still done under manual control, in part to give the commander and pilot hands-on experience in the “feel” of the orbiter flying in the atmosphere.

    Prior to the Columbia accident in STS-107, there were several aspects of the reentry and landing sequence which could only be performed by the crew, including starting the auxiliary power units (which provide hydraulic pressure to the flight control surfaces), extending the air data probes, and lowering the landing gear. In particular, nobody wanted to allow anything other than an explicit crew command to extend the landing gear, since once extended, it could only be retracted by equipment on the ground. After the return to flight, modifications to the systems were made to allow all of these operations to be commanded remotely or by the onboard computers. This was to allow, in the case of damage to the orbiter’s thermal protection system which caused the crew to remain on the International Space Station as a safe haven, awaiting rescue by another mission, the damaged shuttle to attempt an unmanned reentry and landing or be ditched in the ocean. In this circumstance, the crew would attach a special cable carried on every mission which would allow the computers to command the functions which would normally be performed by the crew.

    • #5
    • September 17, 2016, at 11:55 AM PDT
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  6. Richard Easton Member

    John, that’s a wonderful review. I hope you don’t mind a family picture:

    Astronauts 1975

    These are Navy astronauts visiting my Dad’s office at the Naval Research Lab in 1975. A close replica of Vanguard 1 is on the table. A drawing of the Naval Space Surveillance System, which helped inspire Timation which led to GPS, is at the top left. Which astronaut is Crippen? Can anyone name the other astronauts.

    Sorry, I don’t know how to edit the picture to make it larger.

    • #6
    • September 17, 2016, at 12:00 PM PDT
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  7. John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Richard Easton: Which astronaut is Crippen?

    The picture is tiny so it’s hard to see, but I’d guess Crippen is second from the right.

    • #7
    • September 17, 2016, at 12:04 PM PDT
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  8. Judge Mental Member

    Richard Easton: Sorry, I don’t know how to edit the picture to make it larger.

    Bottom, right-hand corner of the Add Media dialog (you may have to scroll to get to the actual bottom). There are settings for picture size.

    • #8
    • September 17, 2016, at 12:07 PM PDT
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  9. Richard Easton Member

    Astronauts 1975

    • #9
    • September 17, 2016, at 12:10 PM PDT
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  10. Seawriter Member

    John Walker:An autoland system was designed for the orbiter, but was not complete at the time of STS-1. It was first tested in a partially complete state in STS-3, where a mode selection error after touchdown almost resulted in disaster. Decades later, landings were still done under manual control, in part to give the commander and pilot hands-on experience in the “feel” of the orbiter flying in the atmosphere.

    The key is “partially complete state.” What was incomplete was an ability to lower the landing gear. In 1982 the pilot or commander had to yank the landing gear lever manually. The reason given was to prevent a signal being sent opening the landing gear prematurely (as in during orbital operations or entry) because the Orbiter lacked any way to raise the landing gear. (That was done on the ground in the Orbiter Processing Facility.)

    NASA did not add the ability to remotely command lowering the landing gear until after Columbia. That was to allow the crew to shelter aboard the ISS and attempt a robotic autoland of the Orbiter in the event of tile damage. They could then land the Orbiter without risking a crew, which would wait aboard ISS for rescue from a second Orbiter.

    Seawriter

    • #10
    • September 17, 2016, at 12:14 PM PDT
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  11. Seawriter Member

    Richard Easton:Astronauts 1975

    Crip is indeed second from the right. It might be John Young on the right. I do not recognize the rest, but at least two (left and third from left) do not look like astronauts.

    Seawriter

    • #11
    • September 17, 2016, at 12:16 PM PDT
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  12. Richard Easton Member

    The two smaller satellites to the left and right of Vanguard 1 are versions of NTS-2 which launched two years later. It carried the first cesium atomic clocks into orbit and could be considered the first GPS test satellite (technically, the first Block 1 (test) GPS satellite was launched in 1978).

    • #12
    • September 17, 2016, at 12:16 PM PDT
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  13. Richard Easton Member

    Cernan, the last man on the moon, is at the far left. His eyes lit up when I showed him this picture four years ago at an Apollo 17 40th anniversary celebration. He said, “Those were the good old days.” Then there’s Mattingly (Apollo 16), Dad, Evans (Apollo 17) and Crippen. I’d have to look up the last astronaut on the right.

    • #13
    • September 17, 2016, at 12:19 PM PDT
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  14. Trink Coolidge

    John . . only if/when you get time:

    https://ricochet.com/372533/an-unbelievable-story/

    I posted that telepathically-retrieved photo on one of your previous posts. The comment section is reeeally interesting.

    • #14
    • September 17, 2016, at 12:43 PM PDT
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  15. Judge Mental Member

    Seawriter: Finally, that was the way NASA did things circa 1966-1986. NASA took lots of chances during the Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab programs.

    Not saying they didn’t take chances, but if they had been putting astronauts in systems with this many untested components, including major systems like boosters, in the early days, they would have killed a bunch of guys before they got the first rocket off the ground.

    • #15
    • September 17, 2016, at 12:48 PM PDT
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  16. Seawriter Member

    Judge Mental: Not saying they didn’t take chances, but if they had been putting astronauts in systems with this many untested components, including major systems like boosters, in the early days, they would have killed a bunch of guys before they got the first rocket off the ground.

    That is essentially what they did on Apollo 8. It was originally supposed to be an unmanned mission. Plus, the Skylab rescue mission (to get the solar panels open) was another example of using untested systems and procedures. NASA sold everyone that they were always a safety-first organization, but they took a lot of really risky chances in the early program. They got lucky.

    Seawriter

    • #16
    • September 17, 2016, at 12:54 PM PDT
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  17. civil westman Inactive

    Thanks John. Fascinating, as usual.

    What was it about Air Force missions that required the large cross-range?

    • #17
    • September 17, 2016, at 3:35 PM PDT
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  18. John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    civil westman: What was it about Air Force missions that required the large cross-range?

    They wanted to be able to launch into a polar orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, perform a one-orbit mission to inspect, snatch, or destroy a Soviet satellite, and return at the end of the single orbit. Due to the Earth’s rotation, in a polar orbit the Earth would have rotated so that the shuttle would need on the order of 2000 km cross-range to get back to the landing site. For regular polar orbit missions, the cross-range was required in case of an “Abort once around” contingency. Without sufficient cross-range to get back to the California coast, the orbiter would have to ditch in the Pacific. (In case of a main engine failure which occurred too late to return to the launch site, but too early for an abort once around or abort to orbit, the airport on Easter Island was upgraded to shuttle landing capability.)

    After the Challenger accident, plans for polar orbit missions were shelved and the cross-range capability was never required, although it did provide more options when weather caused postponement of planned landings.

    • #18
    • September 17, 2016, at 3:54 PM PDT
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  19. Kevin Creighton Contributor

    Space Station Freedom.

    The Manned Manuver Unit.

    Grabbing satellites in-orbit and returning them to Earth for repair.

    The promises of the Shuttle were so amazing. The reality much less so.

    • #19
    • September 17, 2016, at 4:04 PM PDT
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  20. John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Kevin Creighton: The Manned Manuver Unit. Grabbing satellites in-orbit and returning them to Earth for repair.

    This was actually done.

    On STS-51-A in 1984, two communications satellites which had been deployed on STS-41-B whose kick motors had failed were retrieved and returned to Earth for refurbishment and relaunch. The Manned Maneuvering Unit was used in the retrievals. This was the last untethered EVA up to the present.

    The Long Duration Exposure Facility, which was launched by the shuttle in April 1984 was retrieved and returned by STS-32 in 1990.

    It is absolutely correct to observe that the shuttle’s unique capability to return a large amount of mass from orbit was never seriously exploited.

    • #20
    • September 17, 2016, at 4:26 PM PDT
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  21. John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Richard Easton: The two smaller satellites to the left and right of Vanguard 1 are versions of NTS-2 which launched two years later. It carried the first cesium atomic clocks into orbit and could be considered the first GPS test satellite (technically, the first Block 1 (test) GPS satellite was launched in 1978).

    Unless I’m mistaken, from your earlier posts and comments, isn’t that the actual Vanguard 1 satellite which survived the embarrassing “Kaputnik” launch failure in 1957?

    • #21
    • September 17, 2016, at 4:50 PM PDT
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  22. Richard Easton Member

    Hi John,

    No, we’re talking about three different objects. TV-3 is at the National Air and Space Museum. Here’s a picture I took of it last month:

    TV-3

    • #22
    • September 17, 2016, at 6:15 PM PDT
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  23. Richard Easton Member

    TV-4 was renamed as Vanguard 1 when it reached orbit on 3/17/58. The NRL shop made an almost replica of the TV (test vehicle) 6″ satellite for my Dad which was sitting on the table in the picture with the astronauts. Vanguard 1 is the oldest satellite which is still in orbit. Here I am with Vanguard 1 shortly before its launch (I’m wearing the red coat).Vanguard kids

    • #23
    • September 17, 2016, at 6:21 PM PDT
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  24. GLDIII Temporarily Essential Thatcher

    Richard Easton:

    TV-4 was renamed as Vanguard 1 when it reached orbit on 3/17/58. The NRL shop made an almost replica of the TV (test vehicle) 6″ satellite for my Dad which was sitting on the table in the picture with the astronauts. Vanguard 1 is the oldest satellite which is still in orbit. Here I am with Vanguard 1 shortly before its launch (I’m wearing the red coat).Vanguard kids

    Pretty casual handling of a satellite before launch… (he say while sitting outside of 80’x 20’D TVAC chamber environmentally flaying a 0.75B weather satellite).

    • #24
    • September 17, 2016, at 8:01 PM PDT
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  25. Locke On Member

    IIRC, the Soviet Buran – a knock-off of the Shuttle – not only had a remote/automatic control system, but its only flight was using that system and no humans on board. Interesting case where they were more conservative than the American side.

    • #25
    • September 17, 2016, at 8:04 PM PDT
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  26. Richard Easton Member

    GLDIII:Pretty casual handling of a satellite before launch… (he say while sitting outside of 80’x 20’D TVAC chamber environmentally flaying a 0.75B weather satellite).

    When TV-3 blew up (Flopnik) they recovered the satellite. Dad put it back into its little wooden box. He bought a seat for it on the flight back to Washington and it sat in our house overnight. I was two years old so I don’t remember this. My older brother and surviving sister remember seeing it. Yes, things were more casual in 1957-1958. Shameless self promotion – the details are given in my book. http://www.gpsdeclassified.com

    • #26
    • September 17, 2016, at 8:10 PM PDT
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  27. Scott Abel Member

    What is known about the Air Force program out of Vandenberg? Did they ever run their own full-on secret shuttle, or is it suspected that they have?
    I’ve seen pics of their mini shuttle. Can that thing be manned, or is it only automated, and what, exactly, is its purpose. Do we know?

    • #27
    • September 18, 2016, at 4:09 AM PDT
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  28. Scott Abel Member

    A bit off topic, but I recently came across a TV movie called The Challenger Disaster, which is about the investigation from physicist Richard Feynman’s point of view. Starring William Hurt. Worth your valuable time on Youtube.

    • #28
    • September 18, 2016, at 4:12 AM PDT
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  29. John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Scott Abel:What is known about the Air Force program out of Vandenberg? Did they ever run their own full-on secret shuttle, or is it suspected that they have?
    I’ve seen pics of their mini shuttle. Can that thing be manned, or is it only automated, and what, exactly, is its purpose. Do we know?

    The mini-shuttle is the X-37B, of which two flight vehicles exist. It started out as a NASA program in 1999, with NASA contributing most of the funding with contributions from the Air Force and Boeing, the contractor. It was originally intended to be carried into orbit in the space shuttle’s cargo bay, but plans for this were scrapped after the Columbia accident in 2003. In 2004, NASA transferred the program to DARPA, which continued it as a classified program. This initial version was designated the X-37A. In 2006, the Air Force took over the program and began development of the X-37B. It was redesigned to be launched on an expendable booster, originally the Delta II, but later transferred to an Atlas V, which launches it inside a payload fairing, eliminating worries about interactions between its wings and control surfaces with the atmosphere during ascent.

    The X-37B is designed for long duration in orbit and is equipped with solar panels to generate electricity. Its longest flight to date remained in space for 675 days. The missions performed by the X-37B are classified. Speculation is that it is used to test technologies which will later be used on reconnaissance and other military satellites. Being able to return hardware to the ground for analysis after a long duration flight is a capability available with no other classified military space hardware.

    Plans for the Air Force to operate its own shuttle missions from Vandenberg were abandoned after the Challenger accident in 1986, and the shuttle launch site, at Vandenberg, SLC-6, was mothballed and later re-purposed to launch expendable rockets. It would be impossible to conceal something on the scale of a full-fledged shuttle launch facility. Even before the age of ubiquitous satellite imagery, the Southern Pacific Railroad runs right through the base, and passengers would be able to see any construction of that magnitude. A shuttle launch from Vandenberg would have been readily observed up and down the California coast.

    • #29
    • September 18, 2016, at 5:01 AM PDT
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  30. Seawriter Member

    If anyone is interested in the military use of the Shuttle (planned and actual), let me recommend my book Space Shuttle Launch System 1972-2004 (New Vanguard). As far as I know it is the only book to focus on the military’s use of the Shuttle. Although published in 2004, it is still valid, because the military completely abandoned the Shuttle by then.

    Seawriter

    • #30
    • September 18, 2016, at 5:09 AM PDT
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