The Shuttle Is Carrying NASA Into a Secret Orbit

Lee Dembart is a Times editorial writer.

The current military flight of the space shuttle Discovery is a precursor to many more secret missions that will fill shuttle manifests in years to come. Besides the Pentagon flights, which are expected to account for one third of shuttle operations in the future, there will also be flights for commercial customers for which the U.S. space agency will abandon the policy of openness that Americans have come to expect during 24 years of manned spaceflight.

"We expect that there will be commercial proprietary flights," said Charles Redmond, a NASA spokesman. The space agency will protect commercial secrets just as it is now protecting military secrets.

As Discovery thundered off its launching pad last week on America's first manned military spaceflight, it left behind renewed attention to the usually cordial but sometimes strained relationship between the Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Before launching, as it stood on its pad beside the Atlantic Ocean, the shuttle looked the same as it had on its previous 14 civilian flights over the last four years. But almost everything else at this sprawling spaceport bespoke the military's desire to maintain secrecy about the mission and its cargo.

The digital clocks that normally count down the hours, minutes and seconds to launch were dark. The normally steady stream of commentary and descriptions from NASA was silent. Close-up television pictures of the shuttle were unavailable, as were the communications between the astronauts and the ground, a staple of America's 45 previous manned spaceflights.

There were no press conferences with the five-member crew. The press site, normally bustling with hundreds of accredited reporters, was reduced to a handful. The Air Force had sought to keep all reporters out, but NASA objected and prevailed after assuring the Pentagon that strict security would keep the press from wandering over the base. The usual bus trips to the launching pad four miles from the press site were canceled.

Usually, NASA issues thousands of guest passes for a launch, allowing people to line the space center's roadways and waterways to get a better look at the breathtaking spectacle of the shuttle lifting off atop 7 million pounds of thrust. This time, no guest passes were issued, and the base was closed to the public. "We decided it was safer and easier to have less commotion on site," Redmond said.

The tension between the Air Force and NASA was underscored by changes in the rules being made almost at the last minute. The Air Force had refused to disclose the precise launching time of the shuttle. The world was to know when the launch occurred only when the engines fired up and the ship took off. But early last week the Air Force said it would give nine minutes' advance warning of the blastoff. "We feel it's an adequate compromise between the legitimate needs of the public to know and our security concerns," an Air Force spokesman, Lt. Col. Bob Nicholson, told reporters.

The seeds of the current mission and the marriage of civilian and military policies were sewn during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who decided that space should be a civilian enterprise. When Congress created NASA, it made the free and open access to information part of the new agency's charter.

When Congress approved the shuttle during the administration of President Richard M. Nixon, the Air Force agreed to use it after NASA agreed to build it to the military's specifications. The size of the shuttle's cargo bay was determined by the Air Force.

Through the years of the space era, NASA and the Air Force have established a symbiotic relationship in which they have shared manpower and tasks while maintaining the distinct identities and purposes of independent agencies. Ticking along was the central conflict between NASA's commitment to openness and the military's unbending desire for secrecy. In the last few years, the Pentagon's space budget has overtaken NASA's, begging the question of which is the lead agency and whose policies and procedures would be followed.

Early in 1981, even before the first shuttle flight, the Air Force and NASA began discussions about how they would handle the first all-military mission. "They really didn't understand the way we normally do business," said Redmond.

During the fourth shuttle flight in June, 1982, part of the cargo bay contained a military experiment the nature and purpose of which were not disclosed. It was the first time in the history of NASA that such a restriction had been imposed.

The policy will continue to evolve. The current flight is to be followed by dedicated military shuttle missions that will be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base north of Santa Barbara, starting next year.

In the future, the Pentagon will use and pay for fully one-third of all shuttle missions, a key element in the basic economics of the shuttle. The Air Force paid $32.4 million for last week's launching, the same as any customer would have paid for the full cargo bay. By 1988, the price will rise to $100 million.

The secrecy rules that NASA has been forced to adopt for the military flight will be used for the commercial customers as well. NASA envisions a major commercial future for the shuttle. It has already flown an engineer from McDonnell Douglas Astronautics, who ran a prototype device for manufacturing drugs in the weightlessness of space. The exact nature of the drug he produced was a proprietary secret.

"This is not a dress rehearsal," Redmond said. "It's the real thing. But we are learning. We're creating a worn grass path that at some point is probably going to be concreted into a walkway."

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