Limited Role Seen for Shuttle : Military Returns to Space Using Throwaway Rockets

Times Staff Writer

America’s return to space, symbolized by the successful launching of one of a new series of unmanned rockets early this month and the planned mission of the space shuttle Discovery this week, comes not a moment too soon for the U.S. military.

For 2 1/2 years, the Pentagon has been unable to replace an aging constellation of critical spy satellites, threatening to leave the nation without eyes and ears in space to watch Soviet military activity and eavesdrop on a broad range of electronic data.

“For a while, we were living on the brink,” one senior Air Force officer said. Only luck--the surprising longevity of a number of existing satellites--saved the country from what might have been a national security nightmare, he said.

To Spend $11 Billion


But the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s space shuttle, keystone of the nation’s civilian space program, has virtually no place in the military’s launching plans. The Air Force instead will spend more than $11 billion to build dozens of what it considers cheaper and more reliable throwaway boosters.

Air Force Secretary Edward C. Aldridge denies that the Pentagon is abandoning the space shuttle, originally a joint civilian-military vehicle designed to be the chief carrier of Pentagon payloads into orbit.

“I would turn that around,” he recently told Congress. “I think the shuttle has abandoned us.”

America’s military space program crashed in flames in 1985 and 1986. Between back-to-back failures of big unmanned Titan 34-D rockets, the space shuttle Challenger exploded in January, 1986, killing six astronauts and a schoolteacher and grounding the shuttle program for 32 months.


‘Bird’ Awaiting Ride

With the Titan rockets scheduled to be phased out anyway--only three remain, and the last is to be fired next year--the Challenger disaster left the Air Force with almost no means of lifting its satellites into orbit. Consequently, 23 photoreconnaissance, communications, navigation, weather and electronic intelligence “birds” are sitting on the ground waiting for a ride into space, Air Force officials say.

That has left the Air Force determined never again to rely on a single rocket as its means of reaching orbit. The service began a costly “space launch recovery program” designed to assure access to space and revitalize the orbital rocket industry, which had been all but obliterated by the national decision to scrap every new rocket except the one used by the shuttle.

“We made a tragic error in the late 1970s by deciding that the shuttle would be the exclusive means for launching our space systems,” Aldridge said in January at a ceremony marking a milestone in the construction of the Air Force’s new heavy booster, the Titan 4. “We have paid, and will continue to pay, dearly for that error.”


As the American space program foundered, the Soviets continued to launch dozens of inexpensive, short-lived satellites into orbit. A number of other countries--China, France, Britain, Japan, India, Italy and Israel--have developed the ability to reach space, according to U.S. officials.

Program Moves Forward

Air Force officials said that--despite popular fear that the United States had lost its lead in space after the shuttle and Titan failures--the space program continued to move forward.

“The general feeling was that the United States was lost in space during this time,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Rankin, vice commander of the Air Force Space Command in Los Angeles. “From a national security standpoint, that has not been the case. Our plan was to emerge from this difficulty in a stronger position than before--and that is the case.”


But, despite the successful launching on Sept. 5 of a Titan 2, which reportedly delivered a group of Navy “White Cloud” ocean surveillance satellites, the military has been having trouble putting its most critical spacecraft into orbit.

On Sept. 2, an Air Force Titan 34-D, said by civilian experts to be carrying a top-secret Vortex electronic intercept satellite, failed to boost its payload into proper orbit. The National Security Agency Vortex spacecraft, formerly known as Chalet, is designed to listen in on Soviet radio, radar, telephone and missile flight data, according to space specialists.

And the planned shuttle launching facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California has been mothballed indefinitely because Defense Department payloads that were to be launched into high polar orbit from the California facility on the shuttle will now be going on big expendable rockets.

Satellite Reconfigured


The nation’s most sophisticated photoreconnaissance satellite, the KH-12, was specifically designed to fit the shuttle cargo bay and to fly from Vandenberg to achieve optimal coverage of the Soviet Union. Instead, the spy satellite has been reconfigured to fit on the new Titan 4, civilian experts said.

The Air Force is already spending more than $4 billion to build 23 Titan 4 rockets and asking for money to buy 20 more. The first is set to be launched next month carrying a satellite that provides early warning of a missile launching.

And the Titan 4 is only one of four new or renovated rockets that the Air Force moved to acquire after the Challenger and Titan 34-D disasters.

It has also ordered 14 retired Titan 2 intercontinental ballistic missiles rebuilt as space launch vehicles. It is buying 20 Delta 2 launchers, the first of which is supposed to fly this fall, and it has ordered 11 Atlas 2 medium-lift rockets, which are expected to be delivered beginning in 1991.


In all, the Air Force is seeking nearly 100 new unmanned rockets. “Aldridge is getting (expendable rockets) while the getting is good,” said John E. Pike, space specialist at the Federation of American Scientists. “He’s getting more rockets than he has payloads.”

“That’s absurd,” Rankin countered. He says that the Air Force is buying only as many rockets as it has satellites to launch.

Criticism Continues

“It’s always feast or famine,” Rankin said. “We used to be criticized by the civilian and scientific communities for taking too much of the shuttle. Now, we’re being criticized for not taking enough of it.”


Regardless, the proliferation of new missile contracts has provided an unexpected boost for the nation’s missile industry. Martin Marietta Corp., McDonnell Douglas Corp. and General Dynamics Corp. are all getting a piece of the action.

Aldridge cites the importance of maintaining the nation’s expendable rocket industry.

“It’s also known as ‘Everyone gets fed,’ ” Pike added. “It’s been a bonanza for rocket makers.”

If the redesigned shuttle can prove its reliability, NASA will put intense pressure on Congress to force the military to put back on the shuttle the payloads that had been taken off and assigned to expendable rockets. NASA always has counted on the Pentagon to help defray the cost of shuttle launchings.


Complains About Cost

But Aldridge has complained that the space agency now is charging $250 million per shuttle flight to deliver cargo to space. He says he can put Air Force satellites in orbit for much less using unmanned, throwaway rockets that do not need the expensive safety features built into manned spacecraft.

The shuttle Discovery, scheduled to fly Thursday, will carry a $100-million NASA tracking satellite but no military cargo. After that launching, two of the next four shuttle missions will be dedicated to military cargoes, thought to be a Magnum electronic intelligence satellite and a KH-12 photoreconnaissance craft.

Beyond that, the Pentagon has reserved space on seven more shuttle missions through 1990, but the Air Force has quietly pulled some payloads off the shuttle and is planning to put them in space on its new generation of rockets.


Some experts believe that the Air Force already has pulled the KH-12 off the shuttle and is preparing to put it in space next spring aboard a Titan rocket. The Air Force, as always, refuses to discuss classified payloads.

The current tension between NASA and the military dates back at least two decades.

Not Sold on Concept

“The Air Force always wanted its own fleet of expendables,” said Jeffrey T. Richelson, an academic space expert. “The CIA, too, was never sold on the concept of placing satellites in orbit by any sort of manned system.


“It goes back to the arguments over manned orbiting laboratories in 1968-69. The CIA opposed that because they were afraid something like this would happen, a disaster that would affect the whole program.”

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last October, Aldridge said: “We do not want to get into a situation of putting all of our eggs into one basket again. We want multiple launch capabilities. We want to be able to have the flexibility to get to space.”

He told the senators that the Air Force would no longer count on the shuttle for any critical national security missions.

Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) wondered if that meant the Air Force had no plans to use the shuttle after the nine flights already paid for. “So you will kiss it off?” the senator asked.


“Yes, sir,” Aldridge answered.