The rush to the Moon wasn’t the only space race during the Cold War. While the United States and the Soviet Union sprinted to get into orbit—and beyond—another contest was proceeding inside the U.S. government, cloaked in secrecy. At the same time that the USA was competing with the USSR to get into the solar system, NASA and the U.S. military were battling each other for dominance of America’s efforts in space.
The rivalry came to a head in April 1981, during the first orbital test flight of the very first operational space shuttle, Columbia. The shuttle, NASA’s flagship and a symbol for American military and scientific prowess, was in trouble. Her heat shield had partially failed. No one knew if the damage would prevent Columbia from safely returning to Earth.
And for a moment, it seemed only the military—more specifically, the then-secret National Reconnaissance Office, which controls most of the government’s spy satellites and whose staff overlaps with those of the Air Force, Navy, and CIA—could save the shuttle and her crew. In effect, rescuing its own bureaucratic enemy.