Quiet Mission

One passenger on board STS-4, which was not publicised as highly, was the first classified Department of Defense payload. The United States military had long harboured an active interest in both the development and usage of the Shuttle for their own purposes; in fact, a separate launch-and-landing facility had been built for the reusable spacecraft at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Already, the US Air Force was in the process of buying nine dedicated Shuttle missions to launch its classified spy satellites and conduct other military experiments for the bargain-basement price of just $268 million.

This remarkable deal - less than $30 million per flight - had been struck with NASA partly in recognition of the support offered to the Shuttle during its development by the Department of Defense, but also in anticipation of the latter's plans to fly regular Shuttle missions out of Vandenberg from 1986 onwards. One of

NASA's Shuttle fleet - most likely Discovery, due for completion in mid-1983 -would be exclusively detailed to Vandenberg to take either military payloads or polar-orbiting satellites into space. It would be the first time a manned spacecraft had launched from the West Coast.

History has shown that, in the wake of Challenger, it never happened. The loss of a Shuttle and its crew, together with the inevitable public scrutiny and interest in manned launches, eventually drew the Department of Defense back to using expendable rockets. By employing these, unlike the Shuttle, it could preserve the secrecy it needed for its highly sensitive spy satellites. Nevertheless, it did remain committed to NASA in terms of its nine agreed missions, and even added a tenth, which finally flew in December 1992. However, no Shuttles ever flew from Vandenberg or into polar orbit.

In readiness for what was expected to be a flurry of military missions, the first-ever classified payload was carried on STS-4 and known rather cryptically as 'DoD 82-1', meaning it was the first - and only - Department of Defense experiment to be flown during financial year 1982. Some details of this payload have slipped out over the years and the centrepiece seems to have been a sensitive detector known as the Cryogenic Infrared Radiance Instrument for Shuttle (CIRRIS), which was also destined to fly on another military mission in April 1991.

It would appear that its objective was to test infrared sensors for an advanced surveillance satellite known as Teal Ruby which, at the time of the Challenger accident, was scheduled to be on board the first Shuttle mission out of Vandenberg sometime in July 1986. Interestingly, and perhaps pointing to Teal Ruby's significance, that mission would have been under the command of none other than STS-1 veteran Bob Crippen. In the wake of Challenger, and the near-three-year period of grounding that followed, Teal Ruby was eventually shifted onto the STS-39 mission and finally cancelled.

When STS-39 lifted off in April 1991, it carried not Teal Ruby, but an updated version of CIRRIS. Apparently, by the time it would have been ready to launch, the Teal Ruby technology - considered 'advanced' when it was built in the late 1970s -would be virtually obsolete. Had it flown, Teal Ruby would have been capable of detecting and tracking missiles passively from space.

''[Teal Ruby] was a prototype staring mosaic infrared sensor that was trying to be able to detect low-flying, air-breathing vehicles - things like cruise missiles - and a way to try to detect those approaching US territories,'' said Jerry Ross, who would have accompanied Crippen had the original Vandenberg mission not been cancelled.

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