[FPSPACE] NIMA and NASA agree to image Shuttles henceforth while in orbit

wayneday wayneday@gwu.edu
Tue, 01 Apr 2003 17:36:25 -0500

>===== Original Message From Carlos Herranz Dorremochea <herranzc@teleline.es>
>It seems to exist at least a good precedent of this practice. It can
>be read in David Baker's account of the almost catastrophic launch of
>Skylab in his book "The History of Space Flight". Only hours into the
>flight of the still empty station, when controllers were trying to
>find out whether any of the Solar Array Wings was perhaps still there
>undeployed and prevented from doing so by some blocking debris,
>"photographs obtained from very special Department of Defense tracking
>cameras operated by the Air Force in New Mexico backed up this
>assertion" (ibid, page 477).
>I wonder whether NASA did ask back then those images to be taken or it
>was done on the Air Force's own initiative and then shown to NASA. I

I would assume that if this was not done at the explicit request of 
NASA, then it was probably done with the quick initiative of the 
Air Force.  Either way, it would not be that notable at that time 
to image a large object in low earth orbit.

>also wonder whether this was publicly disclosed in the press at the
>time and whether those photographs were ever published. With the

I don't know the answer to either of those questions.  However, I 
believe that it probably was disclosed at the time (this was an 
obvious question for reporters to ask after the launch, when NASA 
knew that Skylab had suffered a major problem).  And I also believe 
that I have seen some images of Skylab in orbit which were taken 
from the ground.  I believe that Allen Thomson even mentioned that 
there is a surprisingly detailed radar image of Skylab in orbit, 
possibly on display at the MITRE Corporation outside Boston (MITRE 
is a non-profit corporation that works for the US Air Force).

However, what was _not_ disclosed at the time was that the NRO used 
a KH-8 reconnaissance satellite to image the Skylab.  This was done 
entirely on the initiative of the NRO, not at NASA request.  
Supposedly the photos were extremely good and were also extremely 
helpful for the repair mission.

That was actually a significant decision, because the satellite camera 
used film return technology, meaning that a decision to photograph 
Skylab was a decision to a) not photograph something else, and b) to 
bring the satellite down earlier than planned.  So it represented some 
loss of intelligence capability.  However, the general who recommended 
doing it argued that Skylab was not a NASA space station, but an 
_American_ space station.  In other words, they were all part of 
the same team and the NRO should help NASA out in its mission.

That story was revealed in 1995 at an Air Force conference that 
Jonathan McDowell and myself attended.  (A lot of interesting things
were said at that conference, and Jonathan and I learned a lot--a number
of retired generals said things that they should not have said in front
of an unclassified audience.)  I subsequently wrote about it in an 
article for Spaceflight magazine.