This answer explains that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) had plans for their own space shuttle. The so-called "blue shuttle" would be operated by the U.S. Air Force out of Vandenberg Air Force Base. Although launch facilities were built at Vandenberg, they were never used, and the idea was scrapped in favor of using NASA's orbiters and facilities for missions.

How far did the plans for DoD's own shuttle orbiter get? This might include

  • Appointing or hiring people specifically for such a project
  • Performing studies/reports to formulate a proposal
  • Asking Congress for money for an orbiter
  • Getting money from Congress for an orbiter
  • Selecting the number or name of an orbiter
  • Beginning construction of an orbiter

I'm only asking about the orbiter, not Vandenberg or other aspects. It's possible that the answer is "there was nothing more than talk."


The plan was not for the Department of Defense to have an additional Orbiter built for it. Instead, the Orbiter Discovery (OV-103) was to be dedicated for DOD use and based at the Vandenberg launch site. (Space Shuttle, Dennis Jenkins, 1992 edition, page 151)

Prior to the Challenger accident, when NASA was preparing to launch the space shuttle from Vandenberg AFB, OV-103 was the dedicated vehicle for the Air Force. Because of this, she had a different TPS design.

Reentries coming into Vandenberg . . . had a higher cross range requirement, meaning as you’re descending you had to come off of your normal inclination and turn into Vandenberg at a much farther distance from your normal trajectory, which means you had to put it down steeper and you’re getting higher heat loads. So it had a different TPS design on the underbelly of the vehicle.


Quote is from Bill Roberts interview at the JSC Oral History page.

To address "how far did it get" the plans for the first Discovery mission out of Vandenberg (STS-62A) were well along. We had started building training loads in the Shuttle Mission Simulator for the mission, I myself flew launches out of Vandenberg in the simulator. This means that the flight software had been processed and configured for the West Coast launch prior to its incorporation in the training load.

It would have been the seventh mission of OV-103. Her third mission, STS-51C, was a dedicated Air Force mission.

This crew assignment sheet from September 1985 shows 62-A on the manifest. Flights from Vandenberg, using the confusing naming convention of that time, were to have a "2" as the final number digit of the flight number. A second Vandenberg launch, 62-B, is shown, but had no crew assigned yet.

When this list was produced, STS-51I had flown, and STS-51J was next up. So 62-A was seven flights in the future. I personally felt the chances of that happening as scheduled were slim - there was a lot to be done, especially the qualification of the Filament Wound Case (FWC) Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) planned for Vandenberg launches. (FWC SRBs are mentioned in this paper Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster Lightweight Recovery System) Wikipedia gives 15 July 1986 as the planned launch date, but does not say as of when.

enter image description here (Source - personal collection)

  • $\begingroup$ So if I understand the original (pre-accident) plan correctly, Discovery would be the only shuttle the DoD would use, but NASA could also use Discovery for its own missions. Do I have the original plan correct? $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Aug 29 '19 at 3:53
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure about NASA using it after the DOD took it to Vandenberg. My recollection is that DOD would be the sole user, but the references don't explicitly say that. Since the plan was for STS to be the sole US launch vehicle, 103 would likely have been pretty booked up with DOD stuff. They likely would have flown it out of KSC for low inclination missions too. $\endgroup$ Aug 29 '19 at 3:57
  • $\begingroup$ So, Jarvis was a late addition to the crew of the ill-fated 51-L mission? $\endgroup$
    – dan04
    Jan 5 '20 at 0:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @dan04 Bill Nelson bumped him off 61-C for his boondoggle flight. $\endgroup$ Jan 5 '20 at 1:29

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