UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


The Cape, Chapter I, Section 3

USAF Space Organizations and Programs

Defense Department Involvement in the Space Shuttle Program

Several major space initiatives helped shape the course of the Cape's military space operations after 1970. There were, of course, the Air Force's own programs (e.g., TITAN 34D, TITAN IV, DELTA II, ATLAS II, NAVSTAR GPS, DSCS III, etc.), but the Defense Department also was involved in the nation's manned Space Transportation System (STS) program as both a customer and a supplier of services. The Space Shuttle had a profound effect on the timing and evolution of military space operations on both coasts after 1970.

Following his acceptance of the STS proposal at the end of the 1960s, President Richard M. Nixon authorized NASA to begin developing the Space Shuttle on 5 January 1972. The President authorized a six-year, $5.5 billion development program to have an operational Space Shuttle by the end of the decade. The Shuttle would have a 15x60-foot payload bay, and the orbiter was expected to carry civilian and military payloads weighing up to 65,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit. Since the Shuttle would be expected to accomplish polar missions as well as equatorial missions, Shuttle launch sites on both U.S. coasts were required. In April 1972, the Defense Department agreed with NASA to give the Air Force responsibility for developing a Shuttle launch site and other facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base to support the Shuttle's west coast missions. Defense had no objection to NASA's decision to convert the Kennedy Space Center's APOLLO launch complexes into Shuttle launch complexes to support the east coast missions. While NASA was responsible for defining the Shuttle's architecture based on inputs from its civilian and military customers, the Defense Department secured an agreement with NASA in October 1973 to allow the Air Force to develop the Interim Upper Stage (IUS) needed to boost Shuttle and unmanned launch vehicle payloads into higher energy orbits. As we shall see below and in Chapter II, the IUS was associated with TITANs as well as Shuttles.20

Air Force System Command's Space and Missile Systems Organization (SAMSO) was tasked with the details associated with developing the IUS and acquiring Shuttle facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The development of the IUS got underway first, and it progressed along a separate contracting path from the Vandenberg facility initiative. On 19 August 1974, SAMSO issued a Request For Proposal (RFP) for a nine-month-long IUS system study effort to five major space contractors that had operational upper stages in production (i.e., Martin Marietta, Lockheed, General Dynamics, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas). Four of the five contractors developed IUS concepts based on modifications to existing liquid-propelled upper stages, and Boeing offered an upper stage using solid rocket motors. Following completion of IUS system studies in 1975, four of the five contractors competed for the IUS validation contract. Based on his assessment of the contractors' IUS system studies and his consultations with the Director, Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E) and NASA, the Air Force Assistant Secretary for R&D decided to develop the IUS along solid propellant lines. Boeing won the $21.4 million contract on 3 September 1976, and the company proceeded with the 18-month-long validation phase of the IUS effort. One of the primary objectives of that phase of the program was to determine the IUS' optimum size and performance characteristics. The IUS had to be able to lift a 5,000-pound payload into geosynchronous equatorial orbit from a Shuttle cargo bay orbiting 150 nautical miles above Earth. Boeing proceeded on the assumption that the IUS would be 15 feet long and 10 feet in diameter. The basic vehicle would be powered by two solid rocket motors of differing sizes (e.g., a 24,030-pound motor in Stage I and a 7,925-pound motor in Stage II). The larger motor would be rated at approximately 42,000 pounds of thrust, and the smaller motor would provide approximately 17,000 pounds of thrust.21

Figure 20: Cutaway profile of Inertial Upper Stage (IUS)

Following the expiration of the Inertial Upper Stage validation contract on 28 February 1978, the Air Force Systems Acquisition Review Council and the Defense Systems Acquisition Review Council both recommended the IUS program be continued to full-scale development. The Deputy Secretary of Defense accepted the recommendations and authorized development of the two-stage IUS and production of the first four IUS vehicles for DOD use. (He also authorized development and production of IUS vehicles for NASA's use, providing NASA funded the effort.) On 18 April 1978, Boeing received a contract valued at $300 million to build the first four DOD inertial upper stages, the first five NASA IUS vehicles, and all their necessary space and ground support equipment. (The purchase was later flip-flopped to five DOD and four NASA vehicles per an interagency agreement in the summer of 1980.) Though serious deficiencies were encountered during IUS solid rocket motor firings in 1979, those problems were resolved and capped during inspections, modifications and test firings over the next two years. Computer software problems and cost overruns also posed other problems, and authorized changes to the contract raised its target cost to $462.2 million by the end of 1980. Despite those technical and financial problems, the IUS program made significant gains in 1981 and 1982. The first IUS flight vehicle completed acceptance testing at Boeing's plant in October 1981. It arrived at the Cape's Solid Motor Assembly Building (SMAB) on 1 March 1982, and it was mated to a TITAN 34D and its Defense Satellite Communications System payload (DSCS II/III) in September 1982. (See Chapter II for further details on that mission.)22

With regard to the development of Shuttle facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base, five major construction projects were on the drawing boards at the beginning of 1978. They consisted of a launch pad, a launch control center, an airfield, a tow route and a mate/demate facility. Martin Marietta completed its design of the Shuttle's ground support systems in August 1978, and the corporation proceeded with a $103 million follow-on contract (awarded in June 1978) to: 1) monitor the design and construction of ground facilities, 2) design ground equipment, 3) develop the software for a computerized launch processing system, 4) plan the activation and operation of ground facilities and 5) plan the logistics support for those facilities. The original plan called for an operational Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6) ready to support 20 Shuttle launches per year sometime in 1983. This proved impossible-the program was already facing a $265 million deficit in 1978, and the construction phase of the program had to be lengthened from two years to four years to compensate for the funding problem. While planners remained optimistic about supporting six Shuttle missions per year in 1983, changes in the Shuttle's configuration (i.e., the addition of two strap-on solid rocket motors) required changes in the launch pad's design in 1979, and the pad's initial operating capability (IOC) date slipped to 1984. By October 1981, the IOC had slipped to October 1985, and the total acquisition cost was expected to top $2.5 billion.23

Sadly, SLC-6 never saw its first Shuttle launch. The facility was still months away from its latest IOC date when the Challenger disaster grounded the Shuttle program in January 1986. When Air Force Secretary Edward C. Aldridge announced the Defense Department's Space Recovery Plan on 31 July 1986, he sounded the beginning of the end for the Shuttle facility at Vandenberg: the Shuttle program's remaining three orbiters would be kept at the Kennedy Space Center where the backlog in DOD payloads could be reduced as quickly as possible. The Secretary also noted that the Vandenberg Shuttle facility would be completed, but it would be placed in "operational caretaker status." The SLC-6 contractor workforce was to be reduced from 2,100 to approximately 850 people in the fall of 1986 to achieve operational caretaker status, but, following the cancellation of Shuttle tests at Vandenberg in October 1986, the process was accelerated. The Space and Missile Test Organization at Vandenberg ordered the inactivation of the 6595th Shuttle Test Group on 31 January 1987. A small program office was established under WSMC to carry out the Group's remaining tasks, and the launch site was placed on minimum caretaker status on 20 February 1987. Secretary Aldridge directed the Air Force to begin mothballing the facility in May 1988. Large amounts of Vandenberg's Shuttle equipment were transferred to the Kennedy Space Center and its contractors on the east coast. Lesser amounts of equipment were also transferred to other NASA offices, the Navy and Vandenberg's Titan IV program.24

Figure 21: Space Launch Complex 6 in 1986

The Cape: Miltary Space Operations 1971-1992
by Mark C. Cleary, Chief Historian
45 Space Wing Office of History
1201 Minuteman Ave, Patrick AFB, FL 32925

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list