Satellite Radio in Space History

Ten years ago today — March 18, 2001 — XM-Radio launched its first satellite.

(XM-2 launch. Sea Launch photo. Click to enlarge.)

Known as XM-2, or XM “Rock”, the spacecraft was launched by Sea Launch from the converted oil well platform “Odyssey.” A few weeks later, in May of 2001, another Sea Launch Zenit-3SL rocket launched XM-1, nicknamed XM “Roll”. Today, the XM portion of SiriusXM Radio uses similar spacecraft known as “Rhythm” and “Blues.”

A few years after this launch, I got to go out on a Sea Launch mission as one of the space technology security monitors for the Defense Technology Security Adminsitration. As I’ve said before, it was one of the most interesting temporary duty assignments of my Air Force career.

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather


With yesterday’s landing, the Space Shuttle Discovery itself moves into the realm of space history.

(Shuttle Discovery in orbit. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.)

Yours truly worked two Discovery landings when I was stationed at Edwards AFB. Even though my duty station was across the lakebed at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory, I got to be part of the AF Flight Test Center shuttle recovery team, and was part of the contingency convoy for the landings of STS-33 and STS-31. Quite a thrill for a space-happy young officer!

An era is ending … I hope the next era will be even more spectacular.

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

First West Coast Titan-IV Launch

Twenty years ago today — March 8, 1991 — a Titan-IV rocket carrying a DoD payload launched from Vandenberg AFB.

(Titan-IVA launch. USAF image. Click to enlarge.)

The Titan-IV, an “A” model, was the first to be launched from Vandy, and carried a satellite identified as USA-69 for the National Reconnaissance Office.

A few years earlier, I had conducted environmental monitoring of a Titan-IV solid rocket motor test firing, and two years later I joined the Titan System Program Office at Vandenberg and worked on a number of related projects. At the time of this launch, however, I was stationed back in South Carolina and, if memory serves, was on leave — having welcomed my son into the world a few days before.

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

National Security Space History: Minuteman ICBM

Fifty years ago today — February 1, 1961 — an SM-80 Minuteman-IA intercontinental ballistic missile was successfully launched, marking the first test flight of the full-up solid-fueled ICBM.

(Minuteman-I missile. USAF image.)

Of more interest to me, this Air Force fact sheet notes that in April 1959 “Boeing launched the first Minuteman mockup at Edwards AFB, California. Test flights of mockup missiles continued into May 1960, all of which were successful.”

Why does that historical tidbit interest me so? Because many years later my first assignment was to the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards, where those test flights had taken place. What made them remarkable was that those test flights at the Rock were tethered, meaning that after the missile left the silo* it was still shackled to the ground. I wish I had one of the images to post, of the missile trying to get away while sturdy lines held it fast.

Many of my friends spent tours of duty as missileers and missile maintainers, on later versions of the Minuteman as well as other ICBM systems. To each of them, and others whom I don’t know, I say: I’m grateful for your quiet diligence and your deterrent power which kept (and keeps) us secure. I salute you all.

*Which I visited many times, at Area 1-100.

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

A Space History Tragedy

The date may not register with all of us every year, but few space enthusiasts — and probably few U.C. citizens — over thirty will ever forget the mishap that destroyed the Space Shuttle Challenger.

It’s hard to believe that it was 25 years ago today — January 28, 1986 — that the Challenger lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-51L, and exploded a little over a minute into the launch profile.

To this day, I find it almost painful to watch the video of the explosion. Indeed, I find it hard to compose this post, even though I’ve known it was coming for a long time.

So I will just post this picture of the Challenger astronauts — Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, and Gregory Jarvis — the way I like to remember them:

(STS-51L crew, leaving the Operations & Checkout Building. NASA image.)

Hopeful. Enthusiastic. Fearless.

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Discoverer-19: CORONA Meets Missile Detection

Fifty years ago today — December 20, 1960 — the Discoverer-19 satellite launched from Vandenberg AFB.

(Discoverer-19 “launch cover” postcard, cancelled the day of launch. From the “Unmanned Satellite Philately” site created by Don Hillger and Garry Toth at Colorado State University.)

Part of the CORONA program and listed as an Air Force photoreconnaissance satellite, Discoverer-19 “did not carry a film capsule,” but was launched “as a test for the MIDAS missile-detection system.” MIDAS, the “Missile Detection Alarm System,” was an infrared detection system and precursor to the Defense Support Program and Space-Based Infrared systems.

The National Reconnaissance Office produced an interesting history of MIDAS, declassified in the late 1990s. That history points out that Discoverer-19 carried instruments to measure the background IR radiation emitted by the Earth “to confirm the technical feasibility of the MIDAS concept.”

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Congratulations to the X-37B Team!

A little over 7 months after its launch, this morning the X-37B landed successfully at Vandenberg AFB, according to this VAFB press release.

(Artist’s conception of the X-37. NASA image.)

This program has elicited some interesting commentary in the press. As I wrote in the Space Warfare Forum the day after the launch,

I find it interesting that the news outlets make such frequent use of the word “secret” to describe something that a) they’ve been given pictures of and written articles about, and b) they knew ahead of time was going to launch. Fox News, “a mission shrouded in secrecy,” really? Metro UK, “secret military robot shuttle”? They don’t know what secrecy is.

What a far cry from the days when only the launch and payload crews knew what was on top of the rocket, and the first time most other people found out about the launch was when it thundered away in the distance. And most people never knew what the payload was.

For the curious, here’s more on the X-37 itself.

And again, congratulations to everyone involved — well done!

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Delivering a Secret Payload

Twenty years ago today — November 15, 1990 — Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from the Kennedy Space Center on a classified Department of Defense mission.

(STS-38 crewmembers in the crew compartment trainer. NASA image.)

STS-38 astronauts Richard O. Covey, Frank L. Culbertson, Jr.,* Charles “Sam” Gemar, Robert C. Springer and Carl J. Meade deployed their classified payload — which was probably classified higher than SECRET — and then returned to Earth on November 20th.

This Wikipedia article includes speculation about what that payload might have been. Don’t ask me: I don’t know, and if I did I still wouldn’t say.

*I met CAPT (Ret.) Culbertson last year, at the NASA Industry/Education Summit. In the “small world” department, our high schools used to be in the same conference, back when my high school still existed.

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Milstar Flight Two

Fifteen years ago today — November 6, 1995 — Milstar-2 launched from Cape Canaveral on a Titan-IV rocket.

(Artist’s conception of a Milstar satellite. USAF image.)

I was newly assigned to the 4th Space Operations Squadron when the Milstar-2 satellite was launched and went through its on-orbit checkout. This was not a Milstar “Block II” satellite, with the medium data rate payload, but the second of the Block I satellites.

Serving in the 4 SOPS at the time of the launch, since the launch vehicle was a Titan, made a nice combination of assignments: my previous assignment had been with the Titan system program office.

Bonus space history: On this date 45 years ago, the GEOS-1 (Geodetic Earth Orbiting Satellite) satellite was launched on a Delta launch vehicle from Cape Canaveral. It was “the first successful active spacecraft of the National Geodetic Satellite Program.”

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Space History at Two of My Duty Stations

Forty years ago today — October 14, 1970 — test pilot John A. Manke flew the X-24A lifting body on its first supersonic flight over Edwards AFB.

(X-24A on the lakebed at Edwards AFB. NASA image.)

The X-24A was one of several lifting bodies used to study Space Shuttle flight characteristics.

And 45 years ago today, in 1965, the second Orbiting Geophysical Observatory — OGO-2 — was launched by a Thor rocket from Vandenberg AFB. It was the first OGO launch from Vandy, and was placed in a polar orbit.

I feel privileged, and somewhat awed, to have served (and done some neat things) at both of those bases.

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather