• Aeryn Avilla

Blue Shuttle: The Manned Spaceflight Engineer Program

The Manned Spaceflight Engineer (MSE) Program was an attempt to train American military personnel as payload specialists for Department of Defense (DoD) Space Shuttle missions. Only two of the thirty-two MSE's selected flew in space in the nine years the program was active.


The crew of STS-51-C— the first DoD Shuttle mission. MSE Gary Payton is on the far right. (NASA)


Since its official beginning in 1969, the US Air Force (USAF) and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) participated in the development of the Space Shuttle. The most prominent military influence on the vehicle is the size of the orbiter's payload bay. Still retaining the desire to fly all-military space missions, like with the previous decade's Man In Space, X-20 Dynamic Soarer, and Manned Orbiting Laboratory programs, the DoD wanted its own Shuttles flown by its own crews. When this so-called "Blue Shuttle" was not granted, the Air Force settled with their own astronauts hitching rides with NASA missions to handle highly classified payloads, thus beginning the MSE Program.


Ultra-rare MSE patch (spacefacts.de)

The DoD required the MSE program to consist of officers from the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Each officer would remain at NASA for four to six years during which he or she would fly at least one Space Shuttle mission before returning to their respective branch. The requirements for the first group of candidates were the following:

  • Have at least three to ten years of service as an officer on active duty

  • Hold rank from First Lieutenant to Major

  • Be able to pass the NASA Class III physical exam (required for all NASA payload specialists)

  • Hold a Bachelors of Science in engineering, science, or space operations

  • Have a minimum of two years of experience in program acquisition or testing and launch support of flight and missile operations

Flight backgrounds were not required but candidates also needed appropriate security clearances to be able to work on specific classified payloads. Originally, twelve Air Force and two Navy officers were chosen but one from each branch declined. The naval officer was not replaced but the Air Force officer was replaced by Gary Payton. The thirteen MSE's were selected in 1979. All officers could anticipate flying at least once and some twice.

  • 1st Lt. Frank Casserino, USAF

  • 1st Lt. Jeffrey Detroye, USAF

  • Capt. Michael Halem, USAF

  • Capt. Terry Higbee, USAF

  • Capt. Daryl Joseph, USAF

  • Capt. Malcolm Lydon, USAF

  • Capt. Gary Payton, USAF

  • Capt. Jerry Rij, USAF

  • Maj. Paul Sefchek, USAF

  • Maj. Eric Sundberg, USAF

  • Lt. Cmdr. David Vidrine, USN

  • Capt. Keith Wright, USAF

  • Capt. Brett Watterson, USAF


Manned Spaceflight Engineer class 1. Gary Payton, the only member of his class to fly, is standing in the center of the front row. (spacefacts.de)


At the time, NASA had yet to define its own payload specialist training program so the agency was not sure how to train the new MSE's. The Air Force did not want the MSE's to go through standard NASA astronaut training because they were supposed to enter back into the service after their Shuttle flights— most military officers who became NASA astronauts never returned. When the Air Force refused to put its own astronaut candidates through general NASA training, the agency refused to provide any assistance: It was NASA's belief that since it did not select the MSE's, it did not have control over them. This led to persistent tension between NASA and the visiting MSE's. The DoD came up with its own training program, consisting of underwater EVA and manned maneuvering unit simulations at NASA Marshall and Martin Marietta [1], Shuttle mission simulations at Rockwell [2], and T-38 training at Edwards Air Force Base for those with previous flight experience. In late 1981, the first cadre of MSE's completed training.


Michael Mantz and Charles Jones, members of MSE class #2, during water survival training.

(911 Living Memorial)


The second class of MSE's, this time consisting of fourteen Air Force officers, was selected in August 1982 and began training the following May. Selection criteria were the same but did not emphasize science, engineering, and space operations backgrounds. For example, Captains James Armor and Craig Puz were commanders of Minuteman missile crews while Captain Randy Odle was a bio-environmental researcher at RAF Alconbury in the United Kingdom. This cadre included two women, 1st Lieutenant Maureen LaComb and Captain Katherine Roberts, and one African-American, Captain Livingston Holder. Captain Charles Jones was killed in the September 11 highjacking in 2001 [3]. Due to the size of the MSE corps, the second class was told only half of them might fly in space.

MSE Charles Jones in Apollo-era spacesuit
Capt. Jones in an Apollo-era suit used for training (911 Living Memorial)

  • Capt. James Armor

  • 1st Lt. Michael Booen

  • Capt. Livingston Holder

  • Capt. Larry James

  • Capt. Charles Jones

  • 1st Lt. Maureen LaComb

  • Capt. Michael Mantz

  • Capt. Randy Odle

  • Capt. William Pailes

  • Capt. Craig Puz

  • Capt. Katherine Roberts

  • Capt. Jess Sponable

  • Capt. W. Davis Thompson

  • Capt. Glenn Yeakel


STS-4 Columbia on the launch pad
STS-4 Columbia on the launch pad, June 1982 (NASA)

MSE's Sefchek and Watterson worked on the STS-4 payload, the P-80-1 experiment package, while Casserino, Detroye, and Payton were "paycoms" (payload communicators) at the Air Force Satellite Control Facility in Sunnydale, California. In early 1982, seven MSE's were chosen as prime and backup candidates for three Shuttle missions scheduled for 1983 and '84. These flights were delayed due to issues with their payloads [4], which were developed by TRW, Hughes, Martin Marietta, and Lockheed under the direction of the NRO. Setbacks in the program reignited the decades-old debate inside the Air Force on the usefulness and feasibility of manned spaceflight. It also resulted in the DoD developing a new unmanned rocket capable of launching Shuttle payload bay-sized payloads into geosynchronous orbit, an orbit frequently occupied by military satellites. This vehicle became the Titan IV and flew from 1989 to 2005. Vidrine was a candidate for a payload specialist "observer" on STS-41-C (originally STS-13) and participated in flight simulations with commander Bob Crippen. One month before the scheduled April launch the Space Division refused to authorize Vidrine's flight because it had "no value" to the Air Force and he was removed from the crew. In late 1985 three officers from the Air Weather Service were selected for the Weather Officer in Space Experiment flight which never took place [5].


In late 1984, Brett Watterson was assigned as payload specialist to STS-62A, the planned first Shuttle mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Two successful DoD-dedicated Shuttle missions flew Gary Payton and William Pailes of the second class in 1985. This resulted in an additional five DoD missions scheduled for 1986 and '87 along with STS-62A and two launches of the Navstar GPS satellites. A third cadre of five more MSE's rounded out the program's astronaut corps in 1985.

  • Capt. Joseph Caretto

  • Capt. Robert Crombie

  • Capt. Frank DeArmond

  • Capt. David Staib

  • 1st Lt. Teresa Stevens

After the Challenger disaster in early 1986, however, NASA was more concerned with making it safe to fly again than it was with the MSE's. Administrator James Fletcher expressed the desire to fly five-member crews and potentially eliminate the position of "payload specialist". By the end of 1987, only ten officers remained active. The Manned Spaceflight Engineer program ended in 1988 primarily due to lack of need for crewed DoD missions now that an uncrewed heavy-lift launch vehicle was available [6]. The DoD, yet again, had lost manned space capability.


STS-51-J payload specialist MSE William Pailes
STS-51-J payload specialist MSE William Pailes

Black and Blue: The Real DoD Shuttle Missions

Despite the unsuccessfulness of the Manned Spaceflight Engineer program, a total of eleven Shuttle flights flew with classified payloads and required a higher level of secrecy than regular NASA flights. Although the DoD requested the media not disclose flight details to maintain confidentiality, the press nonetheless reported whatever they could using open source intelligence. An example of this is correlating the direction of the Shuttle after liftoff with orbital inclination— different payloads require different orbits to operate properly. Unlike with other Shuttle missions, NASA began public countdowns for DoD launches only a few minutes before liftoff, did not distribute press kits, and did not broadcast Shuttle-to-ground communications. With two exceptions, only active-duty military NASA astronauts flew these missions [7]. Below is a table of the missions and their characteristics.

Mission

Orbiter

Year

Details

Payload

STS-4

Columbia

1982

non-DoD flight; classified payload; neither were deployed due to malfunction

CIRRIS (Cryonic InfraRed Radiance Instrumentation for Shuttle; UHS (Ultraviolet Horizon Scanner)

STS-51-C

Discovery

1985

1st DoD flight; payload specialist was MSE Gary Payton

allegedly ORION, reconnaissance satellite - still classified

STS-51-J

Atlantis

1985

maiden flight of Atlantis; payload specialist was MSE William Pailes

pair of defense satellite communication systems spacecraft

STS-27

Atlantis

1988

30+ years later no confirmation given to allegation that EVA was performed to repair damaged satellite

Lacrosse reconnaissance satellite

STS-28

Columbia

1989

carried human skull into space

KH-12 reconnaissance and Ferret satellites

​STS-33

Discovery

1989

only mission with civilians

believed to deploy second ORION

STS-36

Atlantis

1990

originally slated to launch from Vandenberg AFB

initially thought KH-11 recon. satellite; might be CIA-designated recon. satellite MISTY

STS-38

Atlantis

1990

launch was originally scheduled for July, launched in November

Magnum-3 reconnaissance satellite

STS-39

Discovery

1991

mission declassified before launch

military-sponsored pallet called AFP-675 (new version of STS-4's payload)

STS-44

Atlantis

1991

payload declassified before launch; Army intelligence specialist Thomas Hennen observed military targets from orbit - Terra Scout program

16th Defense Support Program satellite - early warning of missile launches

STS-53

Discovery

1992

NRO's existence revealed earlier in the year

satellite identified as DOD-1


In 1993, after the final DoD mission flew, all crew members of classified flights were awarded the National Intelligence Achievement Medal. Some details of these missions are still classified three or four decades later.


SLC-6 at Vandenberg AFB
SLC-6 at Vandenberg AFB (USAF)

California Dreamin': Vandenberg and the Space Shuttle

The DoD was also interested in flying polar-orbital Shuttle missions. These flights could not launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida because they would have flown over populated areas along the southeastern United States. Additionally, the external fuel tank would have traveled over not only Canada but Soviet Russia and possibly China. Space Launch Complex-6 (SLC-6 or "Slick Six") was constructed at Vandenberg Air Force Base (now Space Force Base) in California in the mid-1960s to support Titan III launches for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program. It was refurbished and upgraded in the '80s for the Space Shuttle. The planned inaugural flight was to be STS-62A Discovery launching in the summer of 1986. Its primary objective was to deploy Teal Ruby, an experimental early warning satellite. The mission also would have performed a series of Earth atmospheric observations using telescopes and instruments in the orbiter's payload bay. Payload specialist #2 was Brett Watterson, an MSE from the first class of DoD astronauts. Due to the poor relationship between NASA astronauts and MSE's, Under Secretary of the Air Force and NRO Director Pete Aldridge was named payload specialist #1. After the mission was cancelled post-Challenger, STS-62A's pilot and two mission specialists (Guy Gardner, Mike Mullane, and Jerry Ross, respectively) flew STS-27 in 1988. Aldridge was promoted to Secretary of the Air Force.


Crew of STS-62A (NASA)

(front l-r) Guy Gardner, Mullane, Ross, Dale Gardner; (back l-r) Aldridge, Crippen, Watterson


Although STS-62-A was the only mission with a full crew planned before Californian operations ceased, two more missions were in the early planning stages. STS-62B, set to launch in late 1986 [8], would have included Kathrine Roberts as a payload specialist and would have deployed the KH-12 Advanced Kennan reconnaissance satellite. STS-82B would have deployed the Cosmic Background Explorer observatory, which later launched on a Delta rocket in 1989. Aldridge directed the Air Force to transfer all Shuttle assets from Vandenberg to the Kennedy Space Center and the Vandenberg extension of the Shuttle program was terminated on December 26, 1989. SLC-6 and its sister pads on the west coast are still active, though, and the most recent launch from SLC-6 was a Delta IV Heavy on April 26, 2021. For more information on Vandenberg and the Space Shuttle, visit California Dreamin': Vandenberg AFB and the Space Shuttle.



Author's note: Thanks for reading and be sure to like and share this post!



[1] Martin Marietta was responsible for the Manned Maneuvering Unit, a "jetpack" that allowed astronauts to perform untethered EVAs.

[2] Space Shuttle orbiters were assembled at Rockwell's facility in Palmdale, California.

[3] He is memorialized at the North Pool on Panel N-74 at the National 9/11 Memorial

[4] These missions are difficult to describe because they are listed by their original designations, such as STS-16. STS-16 was later designated STS-41-H. However, no mission called STS-41-H ever took place. The original STS-16 may have taken place in 1985 instead, giving it a new designation such as STS-51-[letter].

[5] I was unable to find any further information about the Weather Officer in Space Experiment but what I included in this post came from the reference with the asterisk (*)

[6] Similarly, twenty years earlier a more reliable unmanned reconnaissance satellite caused the cancellation of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program.

[7] The exceptions are former Marine Story Musgrave and former DoD scientist Kathryn Thornton, both of whom flew on STS-33.

[8] Discovery was the only Shuttle planned to launch from SLC-6. However, it was found that turnaround time at Vandenberg was not fast enough to have STS-62B launch in 1986 so it likely would have launched in the first half of 1987.



 

Bibliography

  • Avilla, Aeryn. “California Dreamin': Vandenberg AFB and the Space Shuttle.” SpaceflightHistories, 16 Nov. 2021, https://www.spaceflighthistories.com/post/vandenberg-space-shuttle.

  • Becker, Joachim. “Manned Spaceflights.” Manned Spaceflights, http://www.spacefacts.de/english/flights.htm.

  • Cassutt, Michael. “The Manned Space Flight Engineer Programme.” SP31-1, Jan. 1989, http://epizodsspace.narod.ru/bibl/spaceflight/31/mse.html. *

  • Cassutt, Michael. “The Secret Space Shuttles.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Aug. 2009, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/air-space-magazine/secret-space-shuttles-35318554/.

  • Spellman, James. “Legacy Panel Hosts Retired Pioneers of Manned Spaceflight Engineer Program.” Los Angeles Air Force Base, 3 Jan. 2017, https://www.losangeles.spaceforce.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1040932/legacy-panel-hosts-retired-pioneers-of-manned-spaceflight-engineer-program/.


"California Dreamin'" written by John and Michelle Phillips, 1963, first performed by Barry McGuire

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