Secret Missions

From its payload-carrying capacity to the wings that provided its substan­tial cross-range, the Space Shuttle was heavily shaped by the role the U. S. Department of Defense played in its origins. After Congress essentially pit­ted nasa’s Skylab program and the air force’s Manned Orbiting Laborato­ry against each other for funding in the late 1960s, nasa decided to try to avoid such problems with its next vehicle by soliciting DoD involvement from the beginning. In several ways, the shuttle’s design and capabilities were influenced by uses the military had in mind for the vehicle.

Until early 1985, however, the military played only a limited role in the shuttle’s use. Beginning as early as STS-4, there had been flights with classi­fied military components, but there had yet to be a dedicated military clas­sified flight. That would change with 51c, in January 1985.


Crew: Commander T. K. Mattingly, Pilot Loren Shriver, Mission Special­ists Ellison Onizuka and James Buchli, Payload Specialist Gary Payton

Orbiter: Challenger

Launched: 24 January 1985

Landed: 27 January 1985

Mission: Launch of classified military intelligence satellite

T. K. Mattingly had dealt with classified elements previously, as com­mander of STS-4. After he returned from that mission, Deke Slayton asked him if he would be interested in staying in the astronaut corps and com­manding the first fully DoD-dedicated classified mission. Slayton told Mattingly that the mission should require only six months of training, which would be a very short turnaround compared to many flights. Mat­tingly recalled, “With all the training and all of the years we put into the program, the idea of turning around and going right away was very ap­

pealing, to get my money back for all that time. . . and so I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that.’”

The pilot of 51c, Loren Shriver, said the rest of the crew was chosen to bridge the two worlds involved in the mission. Rounding out the crew were air force colonel Ellison Onizuka, marine corps colonel James Buch – li, and air force major Gary Payton. “We knew that STS-10 [as it was orig­inally called] was going to be DoD,” Shriver noted, “and when the crew was formed, it was all military guys that formed the crew. I think NASA be­lieved that it didn’t have to do that, but I think it also believed that things would probably go a lot smoother if they did. So they named an all-active – duty military crew.”

Although the promised quick turnaround had been the drawing card for the mission for Mattingly, problems with a solid-fuel engine used to deploy a payload on one of the shuttle’s first operational missions caused a delay for the mission, since the plan was for 51c to also use a solid-fuel booster to deploy its classified payload. The flight was grounded for more than a year.

During the delay, Shriver learned that being assigned to a crew could have a downside. Traditionally, being named to a crew had been one of the best things that could happen to astronauts—they knew they were going to fly, they knew what their mission was going to be, and they had some idea of roughly when they would fly. With STS-10, which was renamed 51c during the delay, the crew discovered that sometimes being part of a crew could actually keep you from flying. “I thought, ‘Well, maybe I never will fly.’” Shriver said. “It was the kind of situation where once you were identi­fied as the crew for that mission, then especially this one being a DoD mis­sion, you were kind of linked to it, as long as there was some thought that it was going to happen. And it never did completely go away. It just went kind of inactive for a while and then came back as 51c.”

The classified payload for the mission was reportedly the Magnum satel­lite, a National Security Agency satellite used to monitor military transmis­sions from the Soviet Union and China. While the mission was officially clas­sified, according to news reports at the time, information about the payload and its purpose is available in congressional testimony and technical journals.

Everything about the mission was classified, not just the payload. This included all details about training, astronaut travel, and even the launch date. “I couldn’t go home and tell my wife what we were doing, anything about the mission,” Mattingly said. “Everybody else’s mission, everybody in the world knew exactly what was going on; NASA’s system is so wide open. They could tell their wives about it, their family knew, everybody else in the world knew what was on those missions. We couldn’t talk about anything. We couldn’t say what we were doing, what we had, what we were not do­ing, anything that would imply the launch date, the launch time, the tra­jectory, the inclination, the altitude, anything about what we were doing in training. All that was classified. Couldn’t talk about anything.”

People ask questions all the time, Mattingly said, and they ask even more questions when they know that they can’t know the answer.

Then they just get even more adamant that you should tell them and try to dream up of more tricky ways to get you to say something—the media, of course, being number one in that game. . . . Everybody had an opinion as to what it was, and you’d just say, “Cannot confirm or deny," and that’s all that was nec­essary. . . . It was humorous, I guess, to listen to people out there trying to guess as to what it might be. You’d say, “Okay. Well, just let that churn around out there. I’m going to go do my training and not worry about it." And eventually you don’t think much about it. But it does require you, then, when you do go meet the press or you do go do public presentations, that you have to think a lit­tle bit harder about what you can say and not say.

As a result of the delay, Mattingly and crew spent a substantial amount of time preparing for the mission, in an unusual experience that blended the very different cultures of NASA and the military. “The interesting thing about the classified mission is JSC and the whole NASA team has worked so hard at building a system that insists on clear, timely communication,” Mattingly said. “The business is so complex that we can’t afford to have se­crets. We can’t afford to have people that might not know about something, even if it’s not an anomaly. For something that’s different, something un­usual, we try to make sure that it’s known in case it means something to somebody in this integrated vehicle.”

But for a classified military mission the number of people who could know and talk about the mission details was limited. “I had some apprehensions about could we keep the exchange of information timely and clear in this small community when everybody around us is telling anything they want, and we’re kind of keeping these secrets,” Mattingly explained. “Security was

the challenge of the mission. How do you plan for it? How do you protect things? We went around putting cipher locks on all the training facilities, but then you had to give the code to a thousand people so you could go to work.”

Shriver also recalled concerns that the requirement of classification of el­ements of the mission would interfere with the open communication that was a vital part of safety and mission assurance. “In the nasa system, ev­erything is completely open; . . . everybody is pretty well assured of having the information that they know they need. We were concerned that just the opposite was going to happen, that because of the classification surround­ing the mission, people were going to start keeping secrets from each other and that there was a potential that some important product or piece of in­formation might not get circulated as it should.”

In reality, Shriver opined, nasa and the DoD managed to find ways to make compromises that protected the information that needed to be pro­tected while allowing for sharing of information that needed to be shared.

The mission, yes, was classified. Certain descriptive details about what was go­ing on were always classified, but within that classification shell, so to speak, the system was able to find a way to operate and operate very efficiently, I thought. There were still some hiccoughs here and there about how data got passed back and forth, and who could be around for training and who couldn’t, and that sort of thing. But eventually all that got worked through fairly well, and I think the pathfinding we did on that mission helped some of the subsequent DoD – focused missions to be able to go a little bit smoother.

A special room for storing classified documents and having classified conversations was added to the Astronaut Office. The new ready room in­cluded a classified telephone line. “They said, ‘If certain people need to get hold of you, they’ll call this number,’” Mattingly recalled.

It’s not listed and it’s not in the telephone book or anything. It’s an unlisted num­ber, and this causes less attention. “You’ve got to keep this out of sight, don’t let anybody know you’ve got it, and this is how we’ll talk to you on very sensitive things." So we had a little desk in there, put it in a drawer, and closed it up. In the year we worked on that mission, we spent a lot of hours in this little room because it was the only place we could lay our stuff out; the phone rang once, and yes, they wanted to know if I’d like to buy mci [telephone] service.

Even if, by and large, the mission stakeholders did a good job making sure that the secrecy didn’t prevent needed information from being shared, there was at least one occasion when it went too far, Mattingly recalled. “My sec­retary came in one day, and she was getting used to the idea that there’s a lot of people we deal with that she doesn’t know. . . . She came in to me one day, and she says, ‘You just got an urgent call.’ ‘Okay.’ ‘Joe (or somebody) says call immediately.’ So, okay. ‘Joe who?’ She said, ‘He wouldn’t tell me. He said you’d know.’ We went in our little classified room and said, ‘Does anybody know a Joe?’ We never did figure out who it was, and he never called back.”

Preparing for a classified mission was quite the adjustment because of the differences between NASA and air force security systems and the many rules for how to deal with classified information. “In any bureaucracy we sometimes overdo things, but as much [as] we make fun of these folks, they convinced me that some of the precautions we were taking were, in fact, justified,” Mattingly stated.

I was a bit skeptical, but they showed me some things that at least I bought into. Whenever we traveled, they wanted to keep secret when was the launch time, and they certainly wanted to keep secret what the payload mission was. And to keep the payload mission secret, that meant whenever we went somewhere they wanted us to not make an easy trail when we’d go somewhere. To keep the launch time classified, they wanted us to make all our training as much in the daytime as at night, so that someone observing us wouldn’t be able to figure this out. They nev­er convinced me that anyone cared, but they did convince me that if you watch these signatures you could figure it out, and it is secret because we said it was.

The extra work to preserve secrecy, in Mattingly’s opinion, turned out to have some benefits, but also plenty of downsides to go along with them.

I didn’t mind the idea of flying equal [time in] day and night, because that meant I got to fly more, because I wasn’t about to split the time, we’ll just double it. So that was a good deal. But then they had this idea they wanted us, when­ever we went to a contractor that was associated with the payload or with the people we were working with, they didn’t want us to get in our airplane and fly to that location. They wanted us to file [flightplans] to go to Denver and then refile in flight and divert to a new place so that somebody who was track­ing our flight plans wouldn’t know. And when we’d get there, we could check in using our own names at the motel, but, you know, just Tom, Dick, and Harry. So, just keep a low profile.

Even so, the mission preparations did, at times, demonstrate the dif­ficulty of keeping secrets when too many people know the information.

We went out to Sunnyvale [California], and we were going to a series of class­es out there, and this was supposed to be one of these where you don’t tell any­body where you’re going, don’t tell your family where you’re going to be, just go. But the secretary got a room for us. So we went, landed at one place, went over to another place, landed out there at Ames, had this junky old car that could hardly run. El [Onizuka] was driving, and Loren and Jim [Buchli] and I were crammed in this little tiny thing, and we’re going down the road and looking for a motel. And we didn’t stay in the motel we normally would stay at. They put us up and tell us to go to some other place and they had given us a name. So we went to this other place, and it was very inconvenient and quite a ways out of the way. And as we drive up the road, Buchli looks out the window and he says, “Stop here. " So we pull over, and he says, “Now let’s go over [the security proce­dures] one more time. We made extra stops to make sure that we wouldn’t come here directly, and they cant trace our flight plan. And we didn’t tell our fami­lies, we didn’t tell anybody where we are. And we can’t tell anybody who we’re visiting." He says, “Look at that motel. What does that marquee say?" “Wel­come STS-51C astronauts, "andeverybody’s name is in it, andyou walk in and your pictures are on the wall. Says, “How’s that for security?"

Security lapses such as that proved frustrating for the crew, Mattingly re­called, when they themselves made great efforts to preserve secrecy only to watch the information get out anyway. “Those are dumb things, but they show that we went to extraordinary lengths trying to learn how to do some of these things. And the coup de grace came when, after, you know, ‘I’ll cut my tongue off if I ever tell anybody what this payload is,’ and some air force guy in the Pentagon decides to hold a briefing and tell them, before we launched, after we’d done all these crazy things. God knows how much money we spent on various security precautions and things.”

Even with the things that were revealed, the public face of the classi­fied mission was also unusual, Mattingly said, explaining that the pub­lic affairs people at Mission Control had an interesting time dealing with the media. “For the first time the mocr’s [Mission Operations Control Room] not going to be open for visitors, there’s nothing to say, nothing to do, you know. ‘They launched.’ ‘Yeah, we saw that.’ ‘Oh, they came back.’ ‘That’s good.’”

On launch day, those tuning in heard the usual launch discussions at launch control, but the communications between ground control and the astronauts were not broadcast, as they had been on all previous flights.

Shriver said that the secrecy had personal ramifications for the astro­nauts, who wanted to share with their friends and family their excitement about the flight—in Shriver’s case, his first.

The airforce did not even want the launch date released. They didn’t want the crew member names released. We weren’t going to be able to invite guests for the launch in the beginning. This is your lifetime dream and ambition. You’re finally an astronaut, and you’re going to go fly the Space Shuttle, and you can’t invite anybody to come watch. It was an interesting process. We finally got them talked into letting us invite [people]; I think each one of us could invite thirty people, and then maybe some other car-pass guests who could drive out on the causeway. But trying to decide who, among all of your relatives and your wife’s relatives, are going to be among the thirty who get to come see the launch, well, it’s a career-limiting kind of decision if you make the wrong decision.

All in all, Mattingly said, he considered the mission to be a success and was proud to be a part of it. He said the real contributors were the people who prepared the payloads but that it was an honor to have the opportu­nity to deliver them.

I still cant talk about what the missions were, but I can tell you that I’ve been around a lot of classified stuff and most of it is overclassified by lots. I think at best it’s classified to protect the owners, you know, it’s self-protection. What those programs did are spectacular, they are worth classifying, and when the books are written and somebody finally comes out and tells that chapter, everybody is go­ing to be proud. Now, all the things we did for security didn’t add one bit, not one bit. But the missions were worth doing, really were. The work was done by others, but just to know that you had a chance to participate in something that was that magnificent is really kind of interesting.


Crew: Commander Bo Bobko, Pilot Ron Grabe, Mission Specialists David Hilmers and Bob Stewart, Payload Specialist William Pailes

Orbiter: Atlantis

Launched: 3 October 1985

Landed: 7 October 1985

Mission: Deployment of two military communications satellites, first flight of Atlantis

Bo Bobko was assigned to command the next classified military mis­sion, 51j, which flew in October 1985. Like 51c, its crew also had a strong military presence: Pilot Ron Grabe of the U. S. Air Force, David Hilmers, U. S. Marines, Bob Stewart, U. S. Army, and Payload Specialist William Pailes, Air Force.

Despite the mission’s classified nature, Commander Bo Bobko described the mission as “pretty vanilla.” “I mean, we went on time and we landed according to the schedule,” Bobko said. “The fact that it was classified was a pain, but you lived with that. Somebody might be doing an experiment, and he could be working on the experiment out in the open as long as it was away from NASA, but having the experiment associated with that shut­tle flight was the classified part of it. So I couldn’t call a person, because as the commander, if I called them, it would give an indication that that ex­periment was on that shuttle flight.”

The 51J mission was the first flight of Atlantis. Bobko, who had also served on the maiden voyage of Challenger, said Atlantis flew well on its first flight.

NASA has subsequently released the information that the payload for the mission included a pair of Defense Satellite Communications System sat­ellites, part of a constellation of satellites placed in geosynchronous orbit to provide high-volume, secure voice and data communications. The sys­tem was a next-generation upgrade from a network the military originally began launching in 1966.