Secret Imaging of NASA Shuttle Discovery During STS-114 Mission

By Craig Covault
May 8, 2005
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Secret Imaging of NASA Shuttle Discovery During STS-114 Mission

Editor’s note: This article is published in the 9 May 2005 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology/AviationNow.com and is reproduced here with permission.

By Craig Covault/Kennedy Space Center

Safety-and engineering-related pictures of the shuttle Discovery in orbit will include imagery by secret U. S. Defense Dept. ground-based high-resolution systems and, where possible, one or more U. S. Air Force/National Reconnaissance Office imaging reconnaissance satellites already in orbit.

Advanced versions of the original KH-11 digital-imaging reconnaissance satellite have had the capability to do medium resolution “space-to-space imaging” of other vehicles dozens of miles away in space since the early 1980s.

The use of these assets on STS-114 is more to exercise the NASA/Defense Dept.’s classified process in using them in an emergency, rather than the result of any expectation they will see anything beyond what other sensors looking at Discovery would find. The capability has been used for years to look at Russian and Chinese — even U.S.— spacecraft when necessary for trouble shooting.

Prior to the loss of Columbia, there was NASA confusion in the process of bringing the secret imaging systems into play, although the Defense Dept. was more than willing to help. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board specifically recommended a more formal process for the use of such secret assets be implemented and exercised.

Beyond ground-telescope capability, the space-to-space capability has been used to image shuttles on occasion since the early 1980s. On STS-2, the second shuttle flight in November 1981, the launch team even extended a planned countdown hold for a phony reason—to adjust launch timing for set up of the proper shuttle/NRO spacecraft geometry in orbit to image Columbia’s thermal tiles. Tile loss during launch had been an issue at the start of the shuttle program.

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