Military Uses For the Space Shuttle

A buddy of mine claims that every time (since the existience of the shuttles, that is) the US has launched a major military offensive, the space shuttle Atlantis has been in orbit. (Next scheduled launch date is March 1st, BTW.) I don’t know if this or true or not, but I can’t really fathom what good it would do to have the shuttle up there anyway.

I suppose one could use it as a mobile observation platform (But aren’t our spy satellites capable of that?), and given that it can only be up there a couple of weeks at a time, I can’t imagine that there’d be any practical use for the thing, really.

So, paranoid theories about it being used to blow up the landmines in the DMZ or something similar, is there a military use for the thing at the opening stages of a war?

I think the whole idea is silly. But then again…

Tuckerfan, without putting too fine a point on it, what is it you are asking? You can’t conceive of a weapon that would be more effective from space? Or you don’t believe the military would use the shuttle, if they had the opportunity? Or you don’t believe the shuttle astronauts–many ex-military pilots–would agree to participate?

It strains credulity to believe that the military was uninvolved in a venture, considered over decades, which they thought constitute an advantage.

Oh, I can readily concieve of lots weapons that’d be more effective from space, the years I spent reading Heinlein were far from wasted! But, given the limited amount of time that the shuttle can stay in orbit (when compared to the Moon or the ISS), I can’t see that there’d be much use for the thing during a war (at least not when compared to a permanent fixture like the ISS or spy satellites). And while it’s possible that they have some kind of “super-secret überweapon” mounted in the thing that those of us without a high level security clearance know nothing about, what good would it do to have the thing in position to fire (once one worked out the various orbital mechanics to get the thing into position) for only a couple of weeks before one had to return it to Earth for another six months or longer? One would think that you’d want such a weapon in orbit for at least as long as the current military operation would last, if not longer.

I can’t see them using it to gather prelim intel, and then continuing the war with that same intel. I’d think that if they’d gone to the expense (and I don’t think I have to tell you how ghastly expensive it is to launch one of those birds) to develop such a system of intel gathering they’d accept it being available for only short periods of time.

Now, supposedly, the military are the ones that paid for the Atlantis and that every time it’s been used, it’s carried a military payload (though not necessarily at the outbreak of hostilities), but the only thing I can concieve of it being used for at the beginning of a war (and not at any other time during the war) is to create a communications/radar disruption over the target area before the initial air strikes. That sounds more expensive to me than using conventional ECM aircraft (of which we have boatloads). So if it ain’t that, then what is it? And why only use it during the start of the war and not at other times?

Oh, I see. Quite right. The shuttle is well nigh useless in-and-of-itself for military missions. The issue at hand is how the payload is used. Military payloads–which formed a considerable part of the original schedule of shuttle missions–were secret, and the astronauts for those missions were not allowed to talk about them. In the end, there weren’t many of them, and now the military mostly uses other vehicles.

There is NO WAY the quite infrequent shuttle missions could be used for the convenience of unanticipated military operations, to address your friend’s question. The Russians had great difficulty–even given their frequent satellite launch schedule in the 70s and 80s–covering interesting military targets.

I don’t know whather Atlantis has been up every time just as American forces go into battle, but assuming that’s true, here’s my WAG:

It’s a reconnaisance(sp?) platform. Yes, there are permanently orbiting satellites like KH-11 (IIRC, there’s also an upgraded KH-12 with some new magical powers as well). But they have very limited maneuvering ability, changing their orbit is extremely expensive since they can’t be refueled. Atlantis travels in a lower orbit, which means more frequent passes over a given area, and its orbit can be optimized (to an extent) for a particular region of the globe.

Also, whatever spy gear it carries will be the very latest, cutting edge stuff. Most of our spy satellites have technology 10-20 years old.

Lastly, the recon package can be customized for the necessary task. Spying on Iraq may be a very different proposition from spying on Serbia. How I don’t know, maybe something as simple as a different electrical infrastructure. In any case, being able to pick and choose which sensors to put up there could mean a substantial increase in effectiveness (assuming they choose correctly).

And yet, I will point out, that the Atlantis was in orbit when we launched our attack on Afghanistan (and my friend had claimed before 9/11 that the Atlantis was in orbit before we launched a military offensive in the past). Now, of course, there’s talk about the US going into Iraq, so I checked to see what the launch schedule was for Atlantis and found that it’s March the 1st.

Admittedly, I haven’t checked to verify my friend’s claim ('though his dad is ex-DoD so he should know something about these kinds of things), but if Atlantis is in orbit when the US goes into Iraq (and even freakier, if they swap Atlantis to an earlier launch date and we invade at that time), then there’s got to be something to it, right? Can’t simply be a coincidence can it? If there is something going on, then what could it be?

You’re right, and your friend is absolutely wrong. The launch schedule of the shuttles is so bound by restraints of weather and mission parameters–not to mention, now, terrorist threat–that they can’t be relied on to launch even within any given month. I.e., they’re completely useless for most military purposes. Too few of them, too short a mission duration–you name it.

Yes, it’s true the military had high hopes for them. Those hopes have been forgotten for decades.

I disagree. If the lower orbit was more desirable for recon, why not put the Keyhole satellites there in the first place? It’s not that big a difference anyway, they are both classified as low earth orbit. (800km vs. about 500km) The Keyhole satellites also carry a lot of fuel for orbital changes - the KH-12 has 7 tons of fuel, for example.

Not true. It takes just as long to design a Shuttle payload as it does a satellite payload. You could take your chances with off-the-shelf instruments but I doubt if even a cutting-edge commercial instrument works as well as the best DoD design from 10 years ago, given that commercial instruments are not designed for space environment. The quality of the Shuttle windows is very poor so you can’t do any serious observation using a hand-held instrument.

I doubt that. There are only so many wavelengths you can use, and any decent satellite would be equipped to handle most of them.

If it is important to launch a customized recon system on demand, the Shuttle is a very poor way to do it. Since ithey manned spacecraft they are more prone to delays. Just last week a launch was delayed due to bad weather in Spain, where an emergency landing facility is located. And do you realize how big a KH-series spy satellite is? It’s similar in size and construction to the Hubble Space Telescope, and barely fits the Shuttle cargo bay. There’s no way you can hide it on a Shuttle which is already loaded with another payload. You can’t shrink the size because the telescope aperture determines the resolution.

Here are the shuttle flights since ‘81

Persian Gulf Air War starts 1/16/91
Persian gulf Ground War in Iraq starts 2/24/91

There was no Shuttle aloft at either time.

There is some evidence that the Soviets belived the space shuttle could be used to attack Moscow, presumably in the opening stages of a nuclear war.
I’ve read this in a few places in the past but the only reference I can find at the moments is this
Remember this was around the time of Andropov in the early 80’s when nuclear war was looking more likely.
Check out the events surrounding the ABLE ARCHER Nato exercise in '83 which the Soviets seriously took to be the build up to a nuclear exchange.

Bit of a hijack, but…

Is this the satellite that can “see” in all the different spectrums at once and simultaneously processes and compares the images from each spectrum looking for certain telltale signatures?

I remember hearing something about this a while back, but I haven’t heard anything recently. Anybody else hear about something like this up there?

I guess when I say “spectrum” I really mean different areas of the spectrum…

STS 38 in Novemebr 1990 was DOD. If I remember correctly, they deployed a satellite to watch Iraq.