NASA and the U.S. military weave a tangled web.
Ostensibly, NASA is run by civilians. Its astronauts aren’t active duty service members and NASA officials aren’t military either. However, if you examine the history of the space agency, it becomes clear that the reality is more complicated.
According to a report by Matt Novak at Gizmodo, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) — the secretive intelligence organization responsible for the upkeep of the U.S.’s fleet of spy satellites — used NASA’s space shuttles to launch multiple secret missions to orbit over the course of the decades-long program.
Although that may sound shocking, these kinds of missions were actually standard.
“Though the NRO may have not officially acknowledged ‘the fact’ that it used the space shuttle to launch payloads, as suggested by the redacted document published by Gizmodo, the secretive agency’s involvement was still largely known since the early days of the NASA 30-year program,” Robert Pearlman, space historian and editor of the website collectSPACE.com, said in an interview.
While it might be pretty easy to hide the specifics of what a satellite will do when it gets to orbit, it’s basically impossible to hide a rocket launch, particularly the launch of a space shuttle.
Journalists covering the space program before the shuttle missions ended in 2011 would relay every detail they could unearth about the launch and its payloads. This meant that even secret NRO satellites didn’t go unnoticed at the time, even though their details were not revealed.
Even today, space reporters and members of the public know when a secret NRO payload is launching even if they don’t know exactly it’s specific capabilities and mission.
The NRO launches a fair number of secret satellites under contracts with the private companies SpaceX and United Launch Alliance. (And yes, we still speculate.)
The slightly more surprising detail contained in the newly-released documents is the fact that the NRO actually had input on the design of the shuttles themselves.
“Eleven space shuttle missions lifted off with classified payloads, which took advantage of features of the winged orbiters that the NRO requested when the shuttle was being designed,” Pearlman said.
The NRO asked that the space shuttle’s payload bay be large enough to accommodate any “spacecraft growth,” the spy agency expected for their secretive payloads, according to the documents.
NASA and the military have been intertwined since the beginning of the space agency.
Many NASA astronauts were chosen to come work for the space agency after careers in the military, and NASA’s first crop of astronauts were specifically selected from the military.
However, the agency, by its nature and charter is civilian.
Former president Dwight Eisenhower decided that NASA would be a civilian organization in order to in some way set it apart from the Soviet Union’s space program. By functioning as a civilian government organization, NASA was and is able to do its work totally out in the open.
This spirit of openness remains at the space agency today, but even so, the space shuttle’s history of launching secret missions deployed by civilian astronauts still seemingly runs counter to it.
But hey, that’s government work for you.