Manned Spaceflight Engineer Program

The Manned Spaceflight Engineer Program was an effort by the United States Air Force to train American military personnel as payload specialists for United States Department of Defense missions on the Space Shuttle program.


The United States Air Force (USAF) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) of the United States Department of Defense (DoD) participated in the development of the Space Shuttle from its official inception in 1969. To save money, the shuttle was intended to serve as the United States' national launch system for all civilian, military, and classified payloads.[1][2][3] The DoD influenced key aspects of the shuttle's design such as the size of its cargo bay,[3][4] and Congress reportedly told DoD that it would not pay for satellites not designed to fit into the bay.[5] The USAF in the 1970s hoped to buy up to three shuttles[3][6] and fly them with all-military crews. As with the earlier X-20 Dyna-Soar and Manned Orbiting Laboratory, budget concerns ended the "Blue Shuttle" program,[6] but the USAF gained the use of up to one third of all launches[1] and the right to requisition the next available launch for high-priority payloads.[6] It renovated an existing launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to send shuttles into polar orbits[4] and established the Manned Spaceflight Control Squadron. Its personnel monitored military shuttle flights from a secret floor of NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston, ahead of a future DoD mission control center in Colorado that would monitor an expected 12 to 14 flights each year.[1]


Many active-duty USAF and other American military personnel have served (about 60% of the total in 1985),[7] and continue to serve, as NASA astronauts. Although with the end of "Blue Shuttle" DoD no longer needed its own shuttle pilots and mission specialists,[6] it still desired military payload specialists for classified payloads on the about 100 or more shuttle flights it expected to use.[1] While NASA offered to train the DoD astronauts the military wanted to control their training, as DoD astronauts who went to NASA rarely returned.[6]

In 1979, the first 13 Manned Spaceflight Engineers (MSEs) were selected,[8] chosen from all services[4] and based at Los Angeles Air Force Base:[1][9]

In 1982, another 14 were selected,[10] chosen only from the USAF:

In 1985, five more were selected:[6][11]


As a civilian agency, NASA typically freely provides details on all aspects of its operations. The DoD shuttle missions required different procedures to maintain secrecy of the classified payloads. The government viewed the flights and their payloads as secret as troop movements, asked media organizations to avoid reporting details, and threatened to investigate even "speculation" as potential leaks of classified information.[12] The press nonetheless reported in great detail on likely military payloads using open source intelligence,[13] such as the direction of the shuttle after liftoff.[14]

Unlike all other flights, NASA only began public countdowns a few minutes before launch,[14] did not distribute press kits, and did not permit reporters to attend countdowns or listen to shuttle-to-ground communications.[12] A secret USAF-NRO mission control center in Sunnyvale, California monitored flights alongside Houston mission control.[4] NASA announced civilian shuttle missions' schedules and flight routes in advance, hundreds of civilians attended most landings, and loudspeakers played radio transmissions. Only a few reporters and NASA employees, by contrast, attended the classified flights' silent landings.[7]


The MSE program faced internal and external challenges. NASA, which early on had a "sour"[4] relationship with the MSEs, was reluctant to assign them to its flights given their lack of NASA training and the need for spots for other payload specialists.[6] Internal USAF debates on the usefulness of manned spaceflight to the DoD[4] caused uncertainty for MSE personnel. New regulations in 1984 that strongly encouraged USAF personnel to move to another assignment after four years caused many early MSEs to transfer out of the program,[6] with only nine active by late 1985.[7]


The DoD stated in December 1984 that it planned to use about 20% of the 70 shuttle flights NASA planned over the following five years,[12] with almost all military-related launches moving to the shuttle from unmanned rockets.[15] Before the loss of Challenger in January 1986, however, ongoing launch delays caused DoD to express concern about overdependance on the shuttle. Despite Congressional and NASA opposition, in 1984 DoD began procuring a new unmanned rocket capable of launching shuttle-sized payloads into geosynchronous orbit. In 1985 it won approval to buy ten such rockets, which became the Titan IV.[3][6][5] Challenger accelerated these plans[4][1] but several NRO payloads only the shuttle could launch were grounded until it flew again,[3] a dilemma NRO had feared as early as the mid-1970s.[2]

With DoD's return to unmanned rockets and less need for dedicated military astronauts, the MSE program ended in 1988 with only two MSEs having flown into space. The Houston squadron was dissolved, construction of the Colorado center ended, and the Vandenberg launch site used for unmanned rockets.[1] Only active duty-military NASA astronauts flew on subsequent missions with DoD payloads, the only exceptions being former Marine Story Musgrave and former DoD scientist Kathryn C. Thornton on STS-33.[4]

Shuttle missions with classified payloads

In 1993 a "high-ranking intelligence official" awarded all crewmembers of the classified shuttle flights with the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement. The astronauts were permitted to wear the medals in public and discuss details of their flights that appeared on the medals' citations.[4]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Broad, William J. "Pentagon Leaves the Shuttle Program" The New York Times, 7 August 1989.
  2. 1 2 Day, Dwayne A. "Big Black and the new bird: the NRO and the early Space Shuttle" The Space Review, 11 January 2010.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Day, Dwayne A. "The spooks and the turkey" The Space Review, 20 November 2006.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Cassutt, Michael "Secret Space Shuttles" Air & Space, 1 August 2009.
  5. 1 2 Aldridge, E. C. Pete Jr. (Fall 2005). "Assured Access: "The Bureaucratic Space War"" (PDF). 16.885j, "Aircraft Systems Engineering". Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved September 17, 2012.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Cassutt, Michael. "The Manned Space Flight Engineer Programme" Spaceflight, January 1989.
  7. 1 2 3 Blakeslee, Sandra. "Astronauts return from secret" (sic) The New York Times, 8 October 1985.
  8. "DoD Group 1 - 1979" Encyclopedia Astronautica.
  9. Peebles, Curtis. High Frontier Darby, Pennsylvania: Diane Publishing Co., 1997.
  10. "DoD Group 2 - 1982" Encyclopedia Astronautica.
  11. "DoD Group 3 - 1985" Encyclopedia Astronautica.
  12. 1 2 3 4 "Secrecy Shrouds Space Shuttle's Military Mission". The Palm Beach Post. 1984-12-18. pp. A1. Retrieved February 27, 2012.
  13. Wilford, John Noble (1988-12-04). "Why Everyone Knew About the Secret Shuttle Mission". The New York Times. Retrieved February 27, 2012.
  14. 1 2 Wilford, John Noble (1988-11-30). "Weather Threatens to Delay Secret Shuttle Mission". The New York Times. Retrieved February 28, 2012.
  15. Halloran, Richard (1984-12-19). "Nations Sparring In Space / Secrecy 'To Mess' With Soviet Minds". The Palm Beach Post. The New York Times. pp. A11. Retrieved February 27, 2012.
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