The space shuttle Columbia, flying for the first time since the 1986 explosion of its sister ship Challenger, thundered into space Tuesday, carrying a secret Defense Department payload widely believed to be a spy satellite.
Columbia was launched from the space center at 5:37 a.m. PST with five military astronauts aboard.
“A completely clean and smooth ascent,” reported George Diller, NASA’s launch control commentator. “Columbia, great flight!”
It was the third launch of a shuttle this year and the fifth since the Challenger disaster 3 1/2 years ago. Sources said that it is one of the last shuttle flights that will loft Defense Department hardware into orbit, as the Pentagon moves toward reliance on a fleet of expendable rockets to launch its satellites.
Columbia lifted off into hazy Florida skies just 67 minutes after the opening of the “launch window” set by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It punctured the earth’s outermost layer of atmosphere 11 minutes and 25 seconds later.
Some 41 minutes after ignition, following an official silence that distinguishes such secret Defense Department flights from their civilian counterparts, NASA confirmed that Columbia had reached orbit. The craft’s mission is scheduled to end in four or five days at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The Defense Department has kept the identity of the shuttle’s payload a closely guarded secret and--unlike civilian flights--would not reveal the shuttle’s launch time until nine minutes before liftoff.
In the wake of the Challenger disaster, Columbia had undergone a major overhaul to prepare it for a return to space. Some 258 modifications were made to the orbiter, including the addition of a crew escape system, the replacement of heat-shielding tiles with protective “blankets,” and wiring improvements.
“As good as new,” launch director Robert Sieck said after the launch. “It’s going to be a gem of a vehicle.”
Defense Department sources said that a single Soviet spy ship--stationed in international waters off Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic--monitored the launch. The same ship last week watched as the Navy conducted its second test flight of the Trident missile.
Most experts believe that the Soviet Union will be able to identify the satellite and its function as soon as it reaches orbit. But space agency officials said that the Pentagon’s refusal to reveal the shuttle’s liftoff time or the length of its operations stymies the Soviets’ efforts to eavesdrop directly on the launch operations and the delicate process of placing the satellite in orbit.
Without such precise information, Moscow cannot maneuver its own spy satellites into position to monitor the new American spy-in-the-sky, according to Kennedy Space Center spokesman Karl Kristofferson.
Speculation on Satellite
The authoritative industry magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology recently reported the payload of Tuesday’s shuttle to be a 20,000-pound photo-imaging satellite called the Strategic Response Satellite. But veteran space-watcher John Pike, an analyst with the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, said Tuesday that he believes the satellite lofted into orbit Tuesday is a KH-12, a TRW-built photo-reconnaissance satellite capable of snapping finely detailed pictures from 200 to 300 miles in space.
Intelligence experts believe that the Defense Department has launched two KH-11s, which are designed to verify adherence to arms treaties and monitor military movements. In orbit since 1984 and 1987, respectively, the earlier models of the Keyhole satellite are both nearing the end of their useful lives and the Defense Department has been eager to replace them.
It is expected to launch a second KH-12 next year on a Titan 4 rocket. Pentagon officials had said after a Titan 4 engine malfunction in June that the rocket was expected to be grounded at least until next February.
“It’s ironic that just as the Pentagon is ready to dump its commitment to the shuttle program, they have problems with the Titan launch vehicle that reconfirm their reliance on the shuttle as an alternate vehicle,” Pike said.
The shuttle-borne satellite launched Tuesday likely will reach an orbit that will allow it to see less than it is designed to see, Pike said. From its projected orbit, the satellite likely will be unable to look further north in Soviet territory than Moscow, missing critical naval bases in the northern Kola Peninsula.
The Defense Department has scheduled six more shuttle flights between now and 1993 to carry secret payloads into orbit, according to Lt. Col. Ron Rand, an Air Force spokesman. But while the Air Force has said that it might use as many as two shuttle missions each year after that, officials have refused to make formal commitment to those flights.
Calling himself “a little surprised” by reports of the Defense Department’s intentions, deputy NASA Administrator James R. Thompson said Tuesday: “We’ve got enough (payloads) to fly. They (the Defense Department) have to make the calls relative to their payloads, what birds they want to fly on.”
Tuesday’s flight was commanded by Air Force Col. Brewster Shaw, 44, a veteran of two earlier shuttle missions. One other veteran of space flight, Navy Cmdr. David C. Leestma, 40, also is on the flight. Other crewmen are Navy Cmdr. Richard N. Richards, 42; Army Lt. Col. James C. Adamson, 43, and Air Force Maj. Mark N. Brown, 37.
Columbia is the oldest of the nation’s three space shuttles, and was the first shuttle to fly. NASA concentrated on making changes to the newer orbiters, Discovery and Atlantis, before focusing on refitting Columbia.