Even before the first Shuttle flight, NASA was already concerned about possible damage during liftoff. They had arranged for a KH-11 spy satellite to photograph the shuttle in orbit. The operation was kept secret:

Young and Crippen were instructed to perform maneuvers with the RCS thrusters to align Columbia so that the KH-11 could photograph it, but were not informed of the reason for them.


The pictures were analyzed while the shuttle was still in orbit, and the damage was considered acceptable enough for Columbia to land normally.

Because we know of these events today, the operation was revealed to the public at some point. Who and when revealed this operation?

(Coincidentally, the size of the shuttle's payload bay was designed to ferry spy satellites to and from orbit.)


1 Answer 1


This was revealed in 2015, in the book Into the Black, about STS-1.

The hardcover edition of Into the Black had the overall basics of the imaging effort, although not specific details. ... His new version of the story in the paperback edition indicates that the imaging attempt had been planned starting over a year before the flight.

That revised paperback edition was published in April, 2017:

The first flight of the space shuttle, 36 years ago today, .... Until now, few people knew the details of a secret effort to inspect Columbia during its two days in orbit using the KH-11 spy satellite. Writer Rowland White tells the story in this condensed excerpt from the new, revised edition of his history of STS-1, Into The Black, to be published by Touchstone on April 18.

The crew did know they were being observed by a spy satellite, but this was not discussed on open comms:

Among the handful of people at JSC briefed on the NRO’s involvement were the primary and backup shuttle crews, who were already training for the first flight. Invited into the vault, the four astronauts listened intently as The Plan was described in detail. After considering what was said, Columbia’s STS-1 Commander, John Young, asked: “Well, what do we have to do in all this?”

"Nothing really,” replied Ken Young, ‘Just perform the maneuvers and orientations we send up. And don’t ask anything on the open loop if some attitude change seems weird or unconventional.”


while NASA’s press kit explained that each day the “launch windows opened at local sunrise plus 45 minutes and are more than 6 hours in duration,” Lineberry and Young knew that, while in theory that was right, in practice there was almost no flexibility at all. The two of them had chosen the launch time of 0700 hours EST very specifically. It was when they had determined that the shuttle would have to launch in order to optimize the opportunities for the NRO to capture images of Columbia in orbit.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I've removed my part of the question about the astronauts knowing, but left the Wikipedia quote as is. $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Commented May 7, 2019 at 21:37
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Looks like I'm gonna have to get that book. There are a bunch of used copies available though, not sure that is a good sign. $\endgroup$ Commented May 7, 2019 at 21:51
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble I enjoyed it, though I obviously could have overlooked many sins you would notice. :) $\endgroup$ Commented May 7, 2019 at 22:59
  • 13
    $\begingroup$ After reading the book I did a little searching of KH-11 and was little depressed for few days after learning that while civilian astronomers have struggled three decades with a single Hubble Space Telescope, military has operated a vast fleet of almost identical satellites - pointing downwards. As a humanity, we really have our eggs in wrong basket. $\endgroup$
    – busdriver
    Commented May 8, 2019 at 7:23
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I've often wondered if such a capability would have help us out when STS-107 was in orbit... $\endgroup$
    – Digger
    Commented May 8, 2019 at 15:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.