Secret Orbiter System Revealed

A formerly secret system for orbiting satellites and (implicitly) conducting space warfare has been revealed. A stunningly complex and sophisticated 'black project' was developed, utilized to an unknown degree, and is now mothballed — all without Congressional debate or public knowledge. The incredible technological capabilities of the United States are revealed to be able to accomplish in secret what others could not achieve in public.

Aviation Week & Space Technology, a highly—esteemed publication in defense and aerospace circles, has published details describing the system has now—mothballed 'Blackstar' orbiter. AW&ST thinks it is okay to spill the beans now that the system is no longer actively deployed.

I am slightly queasy about drawing a road map for espionage on future black programs. The article describes many details about the way special systems and components were developed, and the footprints hidden. But now that the information is out there, it is well worth understanding the secret project.

There is no indication given about the degree to which the secret satellite orbiter system was used. It was certainly tested, and may have been utilized with some frequency, for all we know. It is, however, now retired and in storage in Groom Lake, Nevada, aka Area 51, home of many black projects, and according to UFOlogist lore, crashed alien spacecraft.

Two stage to orbit launches

This was a different and more discreet method for getting into outer space. Enemies wouldn't be aware of a launch. No rockets needed. The two—stage system had a small orbital vehicle. Two models of orbiter existed.

The smaller version was about 60—65 ft. long and may have been unmanned or carried a crew of two, some say. Industry engineers said this technology demonstrator was "a very successful program."

The larger orbiter is reportedly 97.5 ft. long....

These actual space craft were taken up to the outer edge of the atmosphere, attached to the belly of a new secret supersonic aircraft, basically a modified XB—70 Valkyrie bomber.  The orbiter boosted itself into space powered by a special exotic fuel, a boron gel with very high energy to mass characteristics. The fuel itself was the end product of an intense development project pushing the state of the art.

The orbiter craft was built of special composites made with a honeycomb structure. A forty foot wing panel was only a reported 3/8 inch thick, and could be picked up by one person. But able to withstand the heat and physical stresses of re—entry.

Once the orbiter had placed a satellite in orbit, or perhaps fixed a satellite, or perhaps even damaged a target satellite, it then re—entered the earth's atmosphere and glided in, landing at air bases with long runways. The craft could also, of course, be used to launch a weapon earthward, or to conduct surveillance. Because intelligence satellite orbits are well—known, enemies can wait until no satellites are overhead to undertake secret activities. The orbiter system allowed surveillance during periods in which no visibility from space was anticipated.

Once on the ground, a modified and dedicated C—5 jumbo transport was needed to fly the orbital vehicle its unnamed home base, for future boosts into orbit.

Origins of the Program

If the magazine's account is to be believed, the program became a priority in response to the Columbia Shuttle disaster:

...after the shuttle Challenger disaster in January 1986, and a subsequent string of expendable—booster failures, Pentagon leaders were stunned to learn they no longer had "assured access to space." Suddenly, the U.S. needed a means to orbit satellites necessary to keep tabs on its Cold War adversaries.

A team of contractors apparently stepped forward, offering to build a quick—reaction TSTO [two stage to orbit] system in record time. The system could ensure on—demand overflight reconnaissance/surveillance from low Earth orbit, and would require minimal development time. Tons of material——including long—lead structural items——for a third XB—70 Valkyrie had been stored in California warehouses years before, and a wealth of data from the X—20 DynaSoar military spaceplane program was readily available for application to a modern orbiter (see following articles).

I take this brief account as evidence that some 'wasted' military projects, regarded as failures or dead ends, turned out to have had great value. DynaSoar was terminated shortly after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and ate up $430 million (low billions, adjusted for inflation. The Valkyrie bomber was a much more visible program that never went anywhere, or so we were told. XB—70 No. 2 crashed on June 8, 1966, leading to the demise of the program before No. 3 could be built. The program cost $1.3 billion in pre—inflation dollars and never achieved its goal of replacing the B—52, which remains in use to this day.

Other programs which also seemed to be wasteful were used as covers for work on Blackstar.

Critics argue that there was never enough money hidden in intelligence and military budgets to fund a small fleet of spaceplanes and carrier aircraft. However, those who worked on the system's development at several contractor sites say they charged time—and—materials costs to a number of well—funded programs. Lockheed was the lead contractor for Blackstar orbiters being fabricated at McDonnell Douglas in the early 1990s, and workers there typically logged their time against a specific Lockheed charge number associated with that project. But their time might also have been charged to the National Aero—Space Plane (NASP) and the Navy's A—12 fighter accounts, they say. Both multibillion—dollar programs were canceled with little but technology development gains to show for massive expenditures.

The truth seems to be that sustaining a technological edge in military technology requires exploring many concepts that turn out to be dead ends. And even the dead ends may have application in new systems and the public may never hear of it. Suddenly, the 'wasted defense dollars' file seems a bit lighter.

Institutional custody of the black program was similarly kept murky. It certainly wasn't part of the regular military command structure.

...top military space commanders apparently have never been "briefed—in"——never told of the Blackstar system's existence——even though these are the "warfighters" who might need to employ a spaceplane in combat.
The inference is readily drawn that a covert agency actually ran the project. The special C—5 transport seems to have belonged to the CIA at one point.

The National Reconnaissance Office may have played a role in the program, but former senior NRO officials have denied any knowledge of it.

Most intriguingly, this snippet:

One Pentagon official suggests that the Blackstar system was "owned" and operated by a team of aerospace contractors, ensuring government leaders' plausible deniability. When asked about the system, they could honestly say, "we don't have anything like that."

So we may have 'privatized' development of this top secret program to contractors, far less accountable to the public. Which is the point with a secret program.

The article mentions work done at a variety of contractors. Work was definitely not kept within one company for secrecy. Little is learned about how so many companies could be involved and still remain secret. But I suppose every major aerospace contractor has provision for a 'skunk works' capability within its operations.

Anyone the least bit interested in military technology should read the article. Despite secrecy of some data, there is a rich picture drawn of how a massive secret program works.

Hat tip: Dennis Sevakis

Update: Dave Runyan raises important questions about the leak of classified data. And Steven Dugger isn't buying the story. A.J. Strata also doubts the AW&ST article, and suspects a plot by the "Department of Redundancy Department, probably from the Undersecretary of Overkil "

Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.

A formerly secret system for orbiting satellites and (implicitly) conducting space warfare has been revealed. A stunningly complex and sophisticated 'black project' was developed, utilized to an unknown degree, and is now mothballed — all without Congressional debate or public knowledge. The incredible technological capabilities of the United States are revealed to be able to accomplish in secret what others could not achieve in public.

Aviation Week & Space Technology, a highly—esteemed publication in defense and aerospace circles, has published details describing the system has now—mothballed 'Blackstar' orbiter. AW&ST thinks it is okay to spill the beans now that the system is no longer actively deployed.

I am slightly queasy about drawing a road map for espionage on future black programs. The article describes many details about the way special systems and components were developed, and the footprints hidden. But now that the information is out there, it is well worth understanding the secret project.

There is no indication given about the degree to which the secret satellite orbiter system was used. It was certainly tested, and may have been utilized with some frequency, for all we know. It is, however, now retired and in storage in Groom Lake, Nevada, aka Area 51, home of many black projects, and according to UFOlogist lore, crashed alien spacecraft.

Two stage to orbit launches

This was a different and more discreet method for getting into outer space. Enemies wouldn't be aware of a launch. No rockets needed. The two—stage system had a small orbital vehicle. Two models of orbiter existed.

The smaller version was about 60—65 ft. long and may have been unmanned or carried a crew of two, some say. Industry engineers said this technology demonstrator was "a very successful program."

The larger orbiter is reportedly 97.5 ft. long....

These actual space craft were taken up to the outer edge of the atmosphere, attached to the belly of a new secret supersonic aircraft, basically a modified XB—70 Valkyrie bomber.  The orbiter boosted itself into space powered by a special exotic fuel, a boron gel with very high energy to mass characteristics. The fuel itself was the end product of an intense development project pushing the state of the art.

The orbiter craft was built of special composites made with a honeycomb structure. A forty foot wing panel was only a reported 3/8 inch thick, and could be picked up by one person. But able to withstand the heat and physical stresses of re—entry.

Once the orbiter had placed a satellite in orbit, or perhaps fixed a satellite, or perhaps even damaged a target satellite, it then re—entered the earth's atmosphere and glided in, landing at air bases with long runways. The craft could also, of course, be used to launch a weapon earthward, or to conduct surveillance. Because intelligence satellite orbits are well—known, enemies can wait until no satellites are overhead to undertake secret activities. The orbiter system allowed surveillance during periods in which no visibility from space was anticipated.

Once on the ground, a modified and dedicated C—5 jumbo transport was needed to fly the orbital vehicle its unnamed home base, for future boosts into orbit.

Origins of the Program

If the magazine's account is to be believed, the program became a priority in response to the Columbia Shuttle disaster:

...after the shuttle Challenger disaster in January 1986, and a subsequent string of expendable—booster failures, Pentagon leaders were stunned to learn they no longer had "assured access to space." Suddenly, the U.S. needed a means to orbit satellites necessary to keep tabs on its Cold War adversaries.

A team of contractors apparently stepped forward, offering to build a quick—reaction TSTO [two stage to orbit] system in record time. The system could ensure on—demand overflight reconnaissance/surveillance from low Earth orbit, and would require minimal development time. Tons of material——including long—lead structural items——for a third XB—70 Valkyrie had been stored in California warehouses years before, and a wealth of data from the X—20 DynaSoar military spaceplane program was readily available for application to a modern orbiter (see following articles).

I take this brief account as evidence that some 'wasted' military projects, regarded as failures or dead ends, turned out to have had great value. DynaSoar was terminated shortly after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and ate up $430 million (low billions, adjusted for inflation. The Valkyrie bomber was a much more visible program that never went anywhere, or so we were told. XB—70 No. 2 crashed on June 8, 1966, leading to the demise of the program before No. 3 could be built. The program cost $1.3 billion in pre—inflation dollars and never achieved its goal of replacing the B—52, which remains in use to this day.

Other programs which also seemed to be wasteful were used as covers for work on Blackstar.

Critics argue that there was never enough money hidden in intelligence and military budgets to fund a small fleet of spaceplanes and carrier aircraft. However, those who worked on the system's development at several contractor sites say they charged time—and—materials costs to a number of well—funded programs. Lockheed was the lead contractor for Blackstar orbiters being fabricated at McDonnell Douglas in the early 1990s, and workers there typically logged their time against a specific Lockheed charge number associated with that project. But their time might also have been charged to the National Aero—Space Plane (NASP) and the Navy's A—12 fighter accounts, they say. Both multibillion—dollar programs were canceled with little but technology development gains to show for massive expenditures.

The truth seems to be that sustaining a technological edge in military technology requires exploring many concepts that turn out to be dead ends. And even the dead ends may have application in new systems and the public may never hear of it. Suddenly, the 'wasted defense dollars' file seems a bit lighter.

Institutional custody of the black program was similarly kept murky. It certainly wasn't part of the regular military command structure.

...top military space commanders apparently have never been "briefed—in"——never told of the Blackstar system's existence——even though these are the "warfighters" who might need to employ a spaceplane in combat.
The inference is readily drawn that a covert agency actually ran the project. The special C—5 transport seems to have belonged to the CIA at one point.

The National Reconnaissance Office may have played a role in the program, but former senior NRO officials have denied any knowledge of it.

Most intriguingly, this snippet:

One Pentagon official suggests that the Blackstar system was "owned" and operated by a team of aerospace contractors, ensuring government leaders' plausible deniability. When asked about the system, they could honestly say, "we don't have anything like that."

So we may have 'privatized' development of this top secret program to contractors, far less accountable to the public. Which is the point with a secret program.

The article mentions work done at a variety of contractors. Work was definitely not kept within one company for secrecy. Little is learned about how so many companies could be involved and still remain secret. But I suppose every major aerospace contractor has provision for a 'skunk works' capability within its operations.

Anyone the least bit interested in military technology should read the article. Despite secrecy of some data, there is a rich picture drawn of how a massive secret program works.

Hat tip: Dennis Sevakis

Update: Dave Runyan raises important questions about the leak of classified data. And Steven Dugger isn't buying the story. A.J. Strata also doubts the AW&ST article, and suspects a plot by the "Department of Redundancy Department, probably from the Undersecretary of Overkil "

Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.