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Related: Did the Space Shuttle have "military uses"? (This question is discussed in comments, but not really conclusively answered.)

One of the military requirements that was added on to the design goals for the Space Shuttle (and subsequently never used) was to be able to launch, deploy or retrieve a large satellite (probably a military or CIA spy satellite), and then land within a single orbit.

Some sources have claimed that this was explicitly in order to allow the military or CIA to capture USSR or other adversaries' satellites intact and return them intact to the USA. Some other people have argued that this is not supported by evidence or terribly convincing, and have pointed to arguments that the fast retrieval requirement is just to retrieve our own/allies satellites very quickly with minimal exposure to the USSR.

Is there any actual evidence that the Space Shuttle was ever explicitly intended to do the "military satellite capture caper"?

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    $\begingroup$ the shuttle is not especially stealthy. Capturing a satellite would become obvious very quickly. Scheduling a burn right around rendezvous time on the satellite could be crippling for the shuttle too. $\endgroup$ – Antzi Mar 2 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ This isn't a proper answer, but it is worth noting that if a nation did try to steal satellites, it would be trivial to booby trap future satellites to damage the vehicle performing the theft. Thus, it isn't a capability that would prove useful for very long. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me they'd want to spend the money for something that was going to be useful at most a handful of times. $\endgroup$ – Charlie Kilian Mar 2 at 19:18
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    $\begingroup$ @CharlieKilian I think that no bobby trap is needed at all. If the owner of the satellite retains some control over its attitude control systems and/or engines, they may damage the Shuttle pretty well. They may even do that unintentionally and/or in an automated manner, depending on how the satellite is supposed to regain the lost attitude. $\endgroup$ – fraxinus Mar 3 at 11:04
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    $\begingroup$ True™ answer: the Shuttle was actually intended for stealing satellites, but only with the owners consent. To everybody's surprise however, no satellite owners gave consent to have their satellites stolen, so this was never done in practice... $\endgroup$ – leftaroundabout Mar 3 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ That was "You Only Live Twice". $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Mar 3 at 17:44
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I believe this can be debunked by referring to the actual requirements for Design Reference Mission 3B. (DRM 3B being the famous one-orbit-and-grab-a-satellite mission).

Mission Requirement g. for this mission is

The payload is maneuverable for prephasing

I will leave it to the reader to decide on the probability of a nation maneuvering their satellite for another nation to steal it.

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    $\begingroup$ Do you know or have an educated guess as to why it would be necessary to do such a thing in one orbit? The crossrange requirement for this mission seemed to have more impact on the shuttle design than any single feature besides the payload dimensions. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Mar 2 at 2:33
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    $\begingroup$ Now I'm wondering if an enemy satellite could be forcibly maneuvered enough with a remote probe to carry this out. Especially if the probe had more delta-v budget than the satellite had left. $\endgroup$ – bobsburner Mar 2 at 10:22
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    $\begingroup$ @pygosceles the 2nd paragraph on page 106 clearly rules that out "(target to be retrieved) will have been maneuvered such that a position compatible with rendezvous is attained" $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Mar 2 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Mazura absolutely. The LDEF for one. and these nytimes.com/1984/11/17/us/… The EURECA. That's what I thought of just off the top of my head, may be more. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Mar 3 at 1:29
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    $\begingroup$ @DohnJoe HST and other satellite servicing missions actually performed did not have the one-orbit-and-land constraint. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Mar 4 at 13:56
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Supplemental to Organic Marble's answer from the requirements, some discussion on the thought process behind them is in the book 'Into the Black' which while not necessarily the most up to date source does include information from members of the military who ended up absorbed into the shuttle program.

The early spy satellites used film cameras and then deployed the film in capsules for recovery by aircraft that hooked the parachutes out of the sky. This functioned for routine work but cases where either the film was recovered too late to be useful or a capsule had to be 'wasted' by releasing early occurred along with capsules not being recovered at all. This was also expensive as once the in orbit satellite ran out of film a new one needed to be launched, even if the original was otherwise fully serviceable.

One solution for this was the process the time critical images in orbit, and was the thought behind the USAF MOL program which while not flying hardware did a lot of design and concept work and had a cadre of astronauts in training before the program was cancelled, with the cancellation being based in part that the shuttle program could fulfill the same role in supporting surveillance satellites by either servicing them or recovering them entire.

In the case intelligence was urgent this recovery would need to minimize the time between taking the image and the film being analyzed on Earth, and assuming recovery into the same country this produces the 'launch, recover whole satellite, re-entry' requirement. The mostly over ocean ground track and single pass also made it a harder ASAT target given the urgent intelligence need might be because a war had started.

In practice CCDs become more capable and even at lower image quality than film allowed near realtime images to be produced without needing a manned vehicle at all.

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    $\begingroup$ Near mealtime? Hoping to catch the Soviets eating lunch? $\endgroup$ – Sebastian Lenartowicz Mar 2 at 10:28
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    $\begingroup$ @SebastianLenartowicz: xkcd.com/1834 $\endgroup$ – Michael Seifert Mar 2 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ Side note: even in the early days of CCDs, there were solid techniques for taking many images in succession and applying "de-dithering" to achieve sub-pixel resolution. $\endgroup$ – Carl Witthoft Mar 2 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ Given how easy it is to wirelessly send high-resolution digital images today, it seems amazing that we were able to launch satellites into space but still had to physically pick up film canisters. $\endgroup$ – WaterMolecule Mar 4 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ @WaterMolecule it was an age of rapid development and overlap. The time limitations of film are one example of how NASA research led to many tech advancements like the sensors for modern digital imaging. $\endgroup$ – brichins Mar 5 at 5:14
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If a US military satellite should be recovered in a Shuttle, the following points should be considered:

  • Does the satellite fit into the payload bay? (length, width, height and mass)
  • How can the satellite be grabbed? Is there a special adapter for the robotic arm?
  • How can the attitude control system and all thrusters of the satellite be disabled?
  • How can the transmitter of the satellite be disabled?
  • How can the satellite be prepared for transport. What should be folded and what should be dismounted?
  • How can the satellite be moved into the payload bay?
  • How can the satellite be fix within the payload bay? Are special adapters necessary?
  • How can the self-destruction charges of top-secret satellite parts be disabled?

The payload satellite should not be damaged by the g-forces during reentry and landing on the runway. Nor should the payload bay be damaged by a floating satellite. The security of the Shuttle nor the astronauts should not be endangered by the satellite.

But how can all these points be solved when stealing an unknown secret military satellite?

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    $\begingroup$ Overall valid points, but it would not necessarily be unknown. As a last resort one could fly a recon mission, get a 3D scan and retrieve the satellite during a second mission, after fitting the shuttle with proper holds etc. I would also argue that at least in war or pre-war situations military missions, manned by soldiers, may have more robust safety guidelines: One would accept risks from a payload which was never tested on ground which would be unacceptable for a civilian flight. $\endgroup$ – Peter - Reinstate Monica Mar 4 at 18:55
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Targeting inactive satellites and bringing down just specific parts would certainly simplify things.

E.g. You're only interested in phased array technology - just get those panels loose, stick some cardboard paintings in their place and call it a day before you enter soviet hemisphere. Or you could chop off all mount points of older satellite to measure, then perfectly capture more recent bird which uses same launch vehicle.

In addition, i'm rather skeptical that shuttle cant fly unmanned - especially because Buran could. So risking several million for load of classified soviet technology might be worth wile.

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    $\begingroup$ Or spend half a billion dollars to send an astronaut up to spray-paint the lens. $\endgroup$ – Greg May 25 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ Shuttle definitely cannot fly unmanned now. Or manned either. The program has been shut down for almost 10 years. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble May 25 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ This answer seems to be your opinion of what could be done. Further, it doesn't answer the question of what it was intended for it to be able to do. $\endgroup$ – JCRM May 25 at 20:12
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    $\begingroup$ The relevant mission profile provided for less than 23 minutes between arriving at the satellite and completing stowage. This would require working on a foreign satellite in space with the coordination and practice of a racing car pit team. $\endgroup$ – Tom Goodfellow May 25 at 21:30

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