In an interview with Oleg Kotov, a Russian cosmonaut, he makes an ambiguous statement on the military uses of the Space Shuttle:

New Scientist: After the cold war, why didn't Russia maintain its shuttle programme?

Oleg Kotov: We had no civilian tasks for Buran and the military ones were no longer needed. It was originally designed as a military system for weapon delivery, maybe even nuclear weapons. The American shuttle also has military uses.

Is this true? Did the American shuttle have "military uses"? What were these uses? Was it, as with Buran, designed to also function as a weapon delivery vehicle?


6 Answers 6


There was originally supposed to be a "blue" (Air Force) Shuttle. Military missions benefit from retrograde orbits, so there was originally supposed to be a west coast launch facility (Vandenberg) as well.

The shuttle was saddled with large cross-range landing requirements which were entirely due to the DoD's involvement (and never used). As chiron has pointed out, the STS was used for several DoD payloads as well.

The cross-range requirement was particularly damaging to the whole system's life span. It drove the size of the aerosurfaces — which were already much larger than they had to be due to the uncertainty of the flight regime when they were designed. The vertical stabilizer alone on the shuttle is probably twice as big as it needs to be to provide the control authority needed by the Orbiter. So much dead weight….

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    $\begingroup$ What were these purported military missions? Just the launch of satellites or weapon delivery as well? I see some information here on "high priority payloads", but many of the reference links are broken. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 8:26
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    $\begingroup$ Based on what appeared in the media at the time, the shuttle's military tasks were all related to satellites for observation, monitoring, communication tasks - nothing with an offensive capability. The only U.S. space launches capable of or purposed for an offensive role would have been a few satellite killers which I think were all air-launched (Pegasus). $\endgroup$
    – Anthony X
    Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 23:13
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble Easter Island? That would be quite a sight. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh articles.latimes.com/1985-06-30/news/mn-70_1_easter-island $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ The military requirements were added in exchange for canceling the Air Force space program. NASA was desperate to ensure full funding of the Shuttle, and lobbied to get the Air Force space program canceled to force the Air Force payloads onto the Shuttle to better justify it's value. $\endgroup$ Commented May 11, 2017 at 23:15

There were shuttle launches which had military tasks:

  • STS-4

    24 Jun 1982, Columbia
    Crew: Thomas K. Mattingly II, Henry W. Hartsfield, Jr.
    Payload: Classified US Air Force payload of two missile launch-detection systems

  • STS-51-C

    24 Jan 1985, Discovery
    Crew: T. Mattingly, L. Shriver, E. Onizuka, J. Buchli - all military and G. Payton - military engineer (his name was a secret for 2 years).
    Payload: Magnum satellite - radio intelligence

  • STS-51-J

    3 Oct 1985, Atlantis
    Crew: K. Bobko, R. Grabe, D. Hilmers, R. Stewart - all military and W. Pailes - military engineer.
    Payload: Two military communication satellites - DSCS-3

  • STS-27

    1 Dec 1988, Atlantis
    Crew: M. Mullane, R. Gibson, J. Ross, W. Shepherd
    Payload: Lacrosse satellite - radar intelligence (maybe?)

  • STS-28

    Aug 1989, Columbia
    Crew: B. Shaw, R. Richards, J. Adamson, D. Leestma, M. Brown.
    Payload: photo intelligence satellite - Key Hole or SDS-2 (maybe?)

  • STS-33

    23 Nov 1989, Discovery
    Crew: M. Carter, S. Musgrave, K. Thornton, F. Gregory, J. Blaha.
    Payload: Magnum(Orion) (maybe?)

  • STS-36

    28 Feb 1990, Atlantis
    Crew: J. Creighton, J. Casper, D. Hilmers, P. Thout, M. Mallein.
    Payload: AFP-731 satellite (maybe stealth satellite)

  • STS-38

    15 Nov 1990, Atlantis
    Crew:R. Covey, F. Culbertson, C. Meade, R. Springer, C. Gemar.
    Payload: AFP-658 satellite or SDS-2 satellite

  • STS-39

    28 Apr 1991, Discovery
    Crew: M. Coats, B. Hammond, G. Harbaugh, D. McMonagle, G. Bluford, L. Veach, R. Hieb
    Payload: AFP-675 satellite

  • STS-44

    24 Nov 1991, Atlantis
    Crew: T. Henricks, J. Voss, M. Runco, T. Hennen.
    Payload: DSP satellite (rocket attack alarm)

  • STS-53

    2 Dec 1992, Discovery
    Crew: D. Walker, R. Cabana, M. Clifford, G. Bludford, J. Voss.
    Payload: SDS-2 (retransmission satellite)

This is from one Russian magazine. So I cannot say this is all true. But it's some useful info:)

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    $\begingroup$ chiron, welcome aboard! A little bit more information would be nice. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ This is really not descriptive, would you please explain in more detail, what military use they served? You can use publicly available information, and add some quotes (with attribution and/or links to sources), if that helps. Most of these STS missions you list have in one form or another military aspects described in their respective Wikipedia pages, for example. Tho if you have other sources of information, then even better. Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ The list is confirmed here. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 8:05
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    $\begingroup$ Please remember that military missions did not stop in 1992. Some were dual-use (STS-99 SRTM comes to mind). $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 8:22
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    $\begingroup$ There were a number of classified payloads and tasks that was not disclosed as well. $\endgroup$
    – Chad
    Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 5:16

One of the design drivers for the Space Shuttle was an Air Force requirement for a cross-range of 2000 km. This was laid out in Reference Missions 3A and 3B:

  • 3A: launch into polar orbit (from Vandenberg), launch a satellite and land at Vandenberg within one orbit. This (specifically, the HEXAGON satellite) was the initial driver for the length of the payload bay and payload weight. The cross-range requirement allowed the landing at Vandenberg even though Earth has rotated a bit during the orbit (a straight-line mission would have ended up in the ocean).

  • 3B: launch into 100 nautical mile (185.2 km) polar orbit from Vandenberg, retrieve a 25,000 lb (11,340 kg) satellite and land at Vandenberg within one orbit.

The goal of these single-orbit missions was presumably to deploy or retrieve without giving the Soviet Union a chance to establish the Shuttle's orbital parameters over multiple orbits or worse, give them the chance to shoot down the Shuttle.

This mission profile was never used in practice. The highest inclination orbit flown by a Shuttle was out of the Cape using a performance-costly "dogleg" maneuver to avoid the coastline. It reached 62 degrees inclination (this was STS-36). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this was one of the classified DOD missions (thanks to Organic Marble for the addition). A polar orbit would have required a launch from Vandenberg. A Shuttle launch site was prepared there, but was never used.

This article has some interesting references to this mission:

Somewhat surprisingly, although the NRO did not choose to redesign the HEXAGON for recovery and refurbishment at this time, the requirement to do so was still incorporated into the space shuttle’s design. A 1973 internal Johnson Space Center document established requirements 3A and 3B for the shuttle. The first requirement was the ability to launch a large payload into polar orbit and return the shuttle to its launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The latter required the shuttle to launch into the same orbit and conduct a rapid rendezvous and retrieval of the same payload that would have been launched under requirement 3A. The shuttle then would have returned to the launch site, this time carrying 11,340 kilograms in its payload bay. This is the same mass listed in a declassified document for HEXAGON vehicles 7–12, plus equipment in the shuttle bay for holding the spacecraft. However, a HEXAGON at the end of its mission, with its reentry vehicles and film and fuel expended, would have been considerably lighter.

HEXAGON was a series of spy satellites that used photographic film. The film was spooled into a reentry capsule, and each satellite carried 4 of these capsules. When full, the capsule would be dropped off for recovery on the ground.

That made HEXAGON expensive to use as satellite lifetime was limited by its film supply. You can see why retrieval and relaunch was an attractive option.

By the time the Shuttle was operational, HEXAGON was replaced with KENNEN, which used a CCD instead of film and would have less need for servicing missions.

  • $\begingroup$ That's quite impressive the shuttle was capable of that. Was it ever used for any polar orbits of this kind? $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 17:29
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    $\begingroup$ The article's author has indicated that he's come across declassified documents that state definitively that HEXAGON was the design driver for the shuttle payload bay length: forum.nasaspaceflight.com/… $\endgroup$
    – Tristan
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 16:06
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    $\begingroup$ A poster at collectspace.com/ubb/Forum30/HTML/001340.html states that he was part of a USAF test team assessing the shuttle, and that reference missions 3A/3B were "dropped in the early 70s ... They did not drive the size, performance or cross range of the shuttle. They were to drive the rendezvous sensors and mission ops processes." Does anyone have a citable source that supports this claim? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 17:05

Any launcher that can carry a warhead payload into orbit has military uses.

In point of fact, the first civilian launch vehicles were in fact ICBMs with science payloads instead of warheads.

Further, any orbital camera with a 1m or smaller surface object resolution has military uses; current civil cameras in orbit are below 20cm surface resolution. (I was able to see a roughly 15cm wide post on a 2013 orbital image on google maps, and it was more than 1 pixel wide. I can make out 18cm wide by 40cm long mailboxes on the same image. If I can make out individual mailboxes on civil orbital imaging, then I can identify most military vehicles, at least as to type and location.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, yes, even a toothpick can have military uses. But was the shuttle designed to also function as a weapon delivery platform? Was it designed to swallow up enemy satellites? Etc., etc. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 5:46
  • $\begingroup$ There's no additional design needed - it can carry optical packages, it can carry and deploy rockets (which is what the boosters for high-orbit insertion are), and it can carry significant amounts (more than most ICBMs). I don't know if the telescope palate was ever built, but I know a multi-use imaging palate was designed, including for surface mapping applications. $\endgroup$
    – aramis
    Commented Aug 23, 2013 at 5:55

While the Shuttle served as generic launcher of satellites, and a manned platform for space experiments, including military technology, that was nothing other platforms would not be capable of.

The one distinguishing task that only the Shuttle was meant to be capable of — also, the one justification for its bulky construction, one never exploited in practice either — was the ability to steal other countries' satellites from orbit.

While the Shuttle did retrieve a couple satellites, and even landed four of them, that was always with the owner's full consent, two faulty communication satellites retrieved for repair, refurbishing and relaunch, and two unmanned science platforms for long-term experiments, retrieved to process the results of these experiments. The shuttle was meant to be able to "steal" a satellite though — without the owner's consent, and, to protect the payload during reentry, carried a bulky cargo bay that had to be shielded for reentry, increasing the dry mass greatly. This was never done, and the huge expense for lifting the cargo bay never appeared justified by practical use.

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    $\begingroup$ Per (forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=25296.0), grabbing someone else's satellites was unlikely: "BRM-3A/3B was limited to a 100 nmi orbit at 104 degree inclination and 3B was intended to retrieve spacecraft delivered by 3A (the spacecraft could have maneuvered to a different operational orbit and back in the meantime). As long as the Soviets weren't dumb enough to put anything in that particular orbit, they had nothing to worry about." $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 12:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbes: I doubt the polar launch "snatch" or Russian satellite was really an option. The satellite would need to be disabled (you really don't want it to fire RCS in the cargo bay), firmly moored (and you don't have good plans of it to prepare a precise cradle), and this all done without Russians realizing early enough, and say, crashing it into the shuttle. I really can't imagine this done in a single orbit. I believe picking a dead satellite in a random orbit over many hours would be far more viable. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ Regardless, practically viable or not, it was one of fundamental design considerations, making the shuttle such a money black hole. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 13:09
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    $\begingroup$ The design consideration was 'retrieve a satellite in one orbit', I'm just saying it's unlikely to have been 'retrieve someone else's satellite'. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ I'd say there's a big enough difference between "meant to" and "could have been used to" that a reference would be really nice. $\endgroup$
    – Greg
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 19:27

There is a whole bunch of detail about the whole military design aspect of the Space Shuttle in the book "Into the Black" by Rowland White. As an aside, it was a fascinating read about using the KENNEN satellites to take images of the first Space Shuttles to verify the integrity of the underside tiles.


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