The Spies Who Saved the Space Shuttle
Hidden behind NASA’s public drive into space was a second, shadowy government agency. And without it, the space shuttle might never have flown.
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.
That’s the pivotal scene in an incredible new nonfiction book by Rowland White, an aviation expert and author of several profiles of pioneering aviators and their high-tech craft. Drawing on the author’s extensive interviews with veteran astronauts and NASA leaders, Into the Black explores the Cold War space race from the perspective of a small group of military test pilots—including Navy hotshot Bob Crippen—who bounced between competing Air Force and NASA space programs before finally joining NASA’s roster of shuttle crews.
Crippen piloted Columbia on her first mission—a mission that very nearly killed him, and which could have brought America’s manned space program to a fiery halt.
The tale begins on Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the world’s very first artificial satellite, Sputnik. The U.S. government had been working on its own satellites, too, but Sputnik turned effort into panic. In 1958, Congress passed a law forming the National Aeronautics and Space Agency—and President Dwight Eisenhower signed it.
The Soviets put a man in orbit in 1961. The Americans duplicated the feat in 1962.
Money flowed into NASA and on Sept. 12, 1962, Eisenhower’s successor John F. Kennedy stood before an audience in Houston and proclaimed that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” By then the Apollo program, which aimed to land astronauts on the lunar surface, was already two years old.
On July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission, with three astronauts aboard, landed on the Moon before the Soviets could accomplish the same feat. The Soviet Union scrambled to catch up. Meanwhile, NASA began to worry.
“The race to put a man on the Moon was essentially a stunt,” White writes, “a single, narrowly focused effort leading nowhere except to success or failure.” To justify its continued existence, NASA proposed to make space travel routine. That required an affordable spacecraft—one that the agency could use over and over again instead of launching once and disposing of, as it did with most of the Apollo equipment, including the crew capsule with its single-use, single-piece heat shield.
The result was the space shuttle: a hybrid vehicle that would launch vertically on a cluster of rockets, orbit the planet a few dozen times, then return to Earth initially like a capsule does before converting to airplane-like flight for a gentle landing on virtually any runway. Patch it up, strap on new rockets, launch it a week later. NASA estimated that a fleet of half-a-dozen space shuttles would bring the cost of launching a payload into orbit down from $10,000-per-pound to as little as $20 a pound, assuming a shuttle flew every week.
The burden of approving or rejecting the space shuttle program fell to President Richard Nixon. On Jan. 13, 1972, Nixon said yes. According to White, the president “wasn’t prepared to preside over... a further retreat from the country’s world-leading position in aerospace technology.”
But “NASA was not the only show in town,” as White points out. Nor did the shuttle posses a spaceflight monopoly. In the heady early days of the space race, the U.S. military had “carve[d] out its own place in space.” In 1961, the Eisenhower administration had secretly formed a new agency to oversee America’s spy satellites. The National Reconnaissance Office combines people and equipment from the Air Force, Navy, and CIA—and its very existence remained classified until 1992.
The NRO and the Air Force even tinkered with its own manned space program, with the goal of spying on the Earth below. They went as far as to build a partial prototype of the so-called Manned Orbital Laboratory that would have been America’s first space station had Nixon not canceled it in 1969.
More significantly, the NRO developed and, with the Air Force’s help, launched a series of increasingly sophisticated spy satellites. The Keyhole series of spacecraft sported cutting-edge film cameras with massive, finely polished lenses that allowed them to make out fine detail on the Earth’s surface. In the beginning, the satellites dropped film canisters that plummeted into the atmosphere, deployed parachutes, and hung in the air as specialized Air Force cargo planes scrambled to snatch them up. By the mid-1970s, the satellites could beam digital images back to Earth in real time.
In one very telling incident in 1973, a Keyhole sat turned its camera away from the planet below and “play[ed] the part of a space telescope,” White writes. Its focus—NASA’s space station, the malfunctioning Skylab. The Keyhole helped Skylab’s astronaut occupants to diagnose, and then fix, problems with the station’s solar array. “It was as if... the unmanned world sent a salute to the manned world,” White describes one space official thinking.
But Keyhole was deeply classified. It was hardly the thing to inspire public fervor. And despite the NRO’s successes, certain key Air Force officials remained committed to a manned space program. Chief among them, the military astronauts the Air Force had tapped to crew the abortive Manned Orbital Laboratory, including Crippen.
Arguably NASA’s most important military ally was Hans Mark, who had headed the space agency’s Ames Research Center before becoming Secretary of the Air Force under President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Once an unsentimental skeptic of manned space exploration, Mark developed a romantic streak in his middle age and became a strong proponent of human exploration. “I do not know how to quantify the value of putting people in space,” White quotes Mark saying.
By 1979, the space shuttle program was in trouble. The first operational shuttle, Columbia, was supposed to launch into space in 1979 in order to refurbish the ailing Skylab. But the protective tiles that were supposed to shield Columbia from the 2,300-degree heat of re-entry had demonstrated a bad habit of peeling right off the shuttle, potentially damaging—or destroying—the delicate spacecraft.
NASA initiated a crash program to design new tiles. But the shuttle was looking more and more like an orbital dodo bird. Its scheduled first spaceflight slipped two years to 1981. Stranded without a rescure and repair vehicle, the crewless Skylab plummeted to Earth in July 1979. The public and the government were souring on the space shuttle.
The following November, Mark came to the shuttle’s bureacratic rescue. In his capacity as Air Force secretary, he redirected a billion dollars from the flying branch’s budget in order to shore up the shuttle program’s finances.
More importantly, Mark confronted the NRO and the Air Force bureaucrats working under him. The military and the NRO had objected to using the shuttle to carry their precious spy satellites into orbit. They preferred to use simple, reliable throwaway rockets.
But in Mark’s estimation, the agencies’ reluctance to join forces with NASA and the shuttle program undermined America’s manned space program. He ordered the Air Force and the NRO to redesign their satellites to fit inside the shuttle’s mobile-home-size payload bay. “Sorry, fellas,” Mark told the two agencies, according to White.
The first operational shuttle launched from Cape Canaveral on April 12, 1981. In orbit 170 miles over the Earth’s surface, Crippen and mission commander John Young inspected the spacecraft through its portals. What they saw on Columbia’s tail section startled them. Some of the protective tiles were missing.
“Uh oh,” Crippen thought, according to White. The tail tiles weren’t terribly important, but the tiles on the spacecraft’s belly were vital. If even a few had fallen off, Columbia would surely be destroyed during re-entry. In the case that belly tiles were missing, NASA would have to cobble together some kind of rescue operation.
Problem was, there was no window peering out onto Columbia’s belly. No way for NASA to know whether it should order Crippen and Young to attempt a risky re-entry... or stage an equally risky rescue of the two astronauts.
But there was a way for the NRO to know. The NRO had a Keyhole satellite that, with luck, could snap a few photos of Columbia’s underside. Some deft maneuvering brought the Keyhole close enough for its silent, secret photoshoot. The satellite beamed the images down to an NRO ground station in Virginia. Soon, shuttle flight director Gene Kranz was holding in his hand what White describes as “a sheaf of high-resolution pictures.” The photos confirmed—no damage to Columbia’s belly.
The shuttle landed on April 14, ushering in a new, dangerous era of American manned spaceflight. But as White’s fascinating book so deftly explains, the 31 years that NASA’s space shuttles spent flying to and from orbit might never have happened without the help of the agency’s spooky rivals.
It’s a particularly ironic turn of events, since time proved that the Air Force and NRO right about the shuttle. It proved to be expensive, unreliable, and unsafe—the exact opposite of the qualities NASA promised it would possess. Far from flying once a week, in 31 years of service between 1981 and 2011, five operational orbiters completed just 135 missions—one every 12 weeks. The cost per pound of payload remained stuck at around $10,000, a lot more than the $20 NASA had predicted.
Even worse were the crashes. Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. Fourteen astronauts died. Challenger was consumed by flames when one of its booster rockets exploded during liftoff. Columbia succumbed to internal damage after debris damaged the protective shielding on its wing during launch. The first operational shuttle disintegrated on re-entry.
Similar damage could have felled Columbia two decades earlier during her first trip to orbit. And as White reveals, the very agencies that had objected to the shuttle—and had tried their best to undermine its development before Mark compelled them to support the ungainly spacecraft—ultimately came to Columbia’s side.
What White doesn’t mention is the story’s equally ironic coda. A year before the depleted shuttle fleet finally retired in 2011, the Air Force launched its first X-37B into orbit. Basically a quarter-size, unmanned shuttle, the X-37B combines arguably the best attribute of the space shuttle—reusability—with an unmanned rocket’s comparatively low risk. If an X-37B explodes on re-entry, no one dies.
Among the agencies that have reportedly provided equipment for the X-37B to carry aloft—why, the NRO, of course.