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In his own words: Pentagon space official Pete Aldridge

Posted: January 10, 2011

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Aldridge's shuttle crew portrait. Credit: Air Force/NASA
"I was appointed by President Reagan to be the under secretary of the Air Force in 1981, and in that job I was responsible for directing and coordinating all the Air Force space activities, and as well, we can now talk about, I was director of the National Reconnaissance Office, the one that builds all of the spy satellites. During that time, the NRO was a covert organization and I could not even tell my wife what I did at the Pentagon. I remained in that office as secretary of the Air Force and continued as director of the NRO until I left in December 1988.

"During that time, there was a partnership that existed between NASA and the Department of Defense. While NASA supplied the East Coast shuttle operations and the shuttle vehicles and the overall shuttle facilities, the Air Force would build another space launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base for polar launches, develop a solid rocket motor, we called the Inertial Upper Stage, for geosynchronous orbits, and pay NASA a discounted price for each shuttle launch of DoD payloads.

"The price charged to the DoD was based upon the linear footage used in the shuttle payload bay. Based on the mission model at that time, the DoD and the NRO were planning to require 10 to 12 shuttle flights per year.

"About the time I arrived in my Air Force and NRO positions, the shuttle had its first launch in April 1981. The national policy was the shuttle would be the exclusive vehicle for launching all government, military and civilian payloads, and commercial payloads would be launched on an as-available basis. As a result, there were plans to shut down all expendable launch vehicle production as soon as the shuttle was declared operational, which was expected at the fourth flight.

"In addition, the DoD payloads were being modified to adapt to the shuttle payload bay characteristics and launch environments. They were getting short and fat, fitting snuggly in the 15-foot payload bay diameter and to minimize cost-per-flight, since we were paying for each linear foot used!

"A short time before the fourth flight, the Air Force and the NRO began to have doubts that the shuttle could meet the launch rates demanded, and at that time only two of the four orbiters could meet launch weight requirements for the larger DoD payloads.

"Launch turnaround times certainly would not meet the original performance expectations -- I believe the number was like 55 flights per year with five orbiters -- and probably, in the DoD view, could not meet then-projected flight rate of 24 flights per year with four orbiters.

"As flight rates dropped, the cost-per-flight eliminated the projected cost advantage of the shuttle operations over ELVs and pressure began to build to increase the price charged for each DoD flight.

"When the realities of the shuttle performance became apparent in the early years of shuttle operations, around 1983, the DoD began to argue for a change in the shuttle-only policy to permit ELV production to continue until the shuttle completely demonstrates that it can meet the launch rate and payload demands of civil, commercial and DoD users.

"If the launch rate did not exceed 12 flights per year, the DoD would find itself in a very unpopular situation of having to preempt most of the shuttle flights to meet critical national security needs. Civil and commercial users would just have to wait for the next available launch opportunity.

"The plan was submitted to Congress for the DoD to produce 10 large ELVs, complementary to the shuttle, and launch them at a rate of two per year for five additional years of ELV operations. It was believed then that five additional years would clearly demonstrate whether the shuttle would meet demands of all the users. This argument, obviously, met a lot of resistance, especially within NASA and Congressional committees overseeing the NASA program budget.

"The main argument made by opponents of the DoD plan was that this was the first step of the DoD to abandon use of the shuttle altogether and, if this happened, it would raise the cost-per-flight of the remaining (customers), challenging the program's viability. They continued to state the shuttle would meet all the demands of the DoD and other users and the reliability shown actually exceeded that of ELVs.

"I can state that the DoD had no intention of abandoning the shuttle, all we wanted was to complement the shuttle until the time it took to the demonstrate the launch rate and met the performance of the DoD required. Most importantly, we were committed to the shuttle because of its unique capabilities. We took advantage of its large payload bay to develop several key and very unique advanced-technology national security payloads, some of which I cannot talk about even to this day. These payloads would be launched from both Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base.

"The first of these national security payloads was launched from Cape Canaveral in January 1985. In addition, we were planning to launch multiple GPS satellites on the shuttle to rapidly populate the GPS constellation. The DoD allowed the Milstar satellite to grow to meet user requirements, since we had the shuttle payload capacity to do so. However, this did require the shuttle to launch the liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen Centaur upper stage with Milstar, a risky proposition that never happened. A shuttle launch was an ideal mission for the missile-warning satellite -- the Defense Support Program -- using the IUS upper stage. The Defense Satellite Communications System, DSCS, got a cheap ride on the shuttle because it could piggyback with other payload options.

"We did have a problem with our weather satellite, the DMSP, launching it into polar orbit. We could not piggyback a ride on the shuttle with that location because the full payload capacity was being used by other national security missions and it was too expensive to launch a small DMSP satellite on a single shuttle mission.

"After a lot of discussion, arguments, testimony before Congress and bureaucratic infighting, the shuttle-only policy was eventually overturned by President Reagan in 1985 and signed into a policy directive stating that the ELV complement to the shuttle would be developed. The DoD would commit to buy at least one-third of the available shuttle flights each year -- then, still projected to be 24 flights per year, a revised shuttle launch pricing policy would be established to account for the rising cost and a joint technology effort to develop a follow-on to the shuttle would be initiated.

"To solve our dilemma for launching DMSP satellites from Vandenberg, we developed another program plan to modify several Titan 2 ICBMs being removed from launch silos and convert them to space launch vehicles.

"The first shuttle test-flight from Vandenberg was planned for July 1986. On this flight, we were going to take advantage of the polar launch capability from Vandenberg to deploy a technology demonstration satellite for detecting aircraft from space, a program called Teal Rudy. It carried along a large, non-deployed (package of) scientific sensors.

"The launch required two shuttle upgrades -- more power from the shuttle main engines and a new high-performance filament-wound solid rocket motor. We had to make up for the loss of the Earth's rotational speed that you suffer from polar launches.

"And on a personal note, Bob Crippen was to be commander of that flight and I was to be a payload specialist. This was going to be the first time humans had ever flown over the poles.

"However, on January 28, 1986, the Challenger accident changed everything. The shuttle was grounded for three years, the Titan 4 production was increased from 10 vehicles to 41, and the Delta 2 and Atlas 2 production started. The DoD and NRO had to re-adapt then-shuttle compatible payloads to make them ELV-compatible with new, larger payload fairings. Vandenberg's shuttle launch facility was closed, the shuttle performance upgrades were terminated, the replacement for the Challenger orbiter was authorized and paid for by DoD funds and the new space launch policy was formulated, which directed only man-required payloads be flown on the shuttle and no commercial launches would be allowed."