Legacy Panel hosts retired pioneers of Manned Spaceflight Engineer program

LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- An appreciative crowd of Space and Missile Systems Center personnel gathered in the Gordon Conference Center of the Schriever Space Complex Dec. 5 for the 2016 Legacy Panel, hosted by the Secretary of the Air Force Office of Special Projects Alumni Association. The annual event offered a unique opportunity to hear from distinguished individuals who have been to space or had a significant impact on military space operations.

Headlining this year’s SAFSP Legacy Panel were six retired Air Force officers: Lt. Gen. Mike Hamel, Maj. Gen. John Kulpa, Jr., and Cols. Gary Payton, William Pailes, Daryl Joseph, and Brett Watterson.

The panel focused on the Manned Spaceflight Engineer program, a corps of military astronauts who trained to deploy top-secret national security payloads that the National Reconnaissance Office and Space Division (forerunner of today’s SMC) developed between 1979 and 1988.

Kulpa, who served as director of Secretary of the Air Force Special Projects, and Space Division deputy commander for Space operations at then-Los Angeles Air Force Station from February 1980 until his retirement in April 1983, provided the audience a quick perspective of the times.

In the very beginning of the space age, the Pentagon was excited by the prospect of manned military spaceflight. In the early 1960's, it studied ways to send military astronauts aloft in various types of space vehicles, including winged ones.

According to Kulpa, the military began work in the late 1970's to take advantage of NASA’s Space Transportation System to launch very large, but top-secret payloads like the NRO’s KH-9 HEXAGON photo-reconnaissance system and Space Division’s early-warning satellites.

In 1979, the first 13 Manned Spaceflight Engineers were selected. Two additional groups of another 14 MSEs in 1982 and five more MSEs in 1985 were eventually added. Unfortunately, NASA was initially reluctant to assign the military MSEs to shuttle flights because of their lack of NASA training and NASA’s desire to preserve the limited flight crew assignments for NASA payload specialists.

“Between these two agencies, it really was a shotgun marriage,” said Payton, who served as Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for Space Programs until his retirement in July, 2010. “NASA thought of us as a bunch of snotty-nosed kids, outsiders, almost guests … nothing more than engineers or scientists who tended one particular satellite or experiment, and typically flew just once. We, on the other hand, thought our job was to help bridge the gulf between the military and civilian space agencies.”

According to Payton, who started out as part of the support team for NASA’s fourth shuttle mission, STS-4, in July 1982, once the two sides started working together on actual missions things improved. “We found that once the shuttle had flown, there were people inside NASA who were eager to satisfy military requirements,” Payton said, “and NASA saw that our folks were pretty damn good!”

However, out of a corps of 31 Air Force and one Navy officer, only two MSEs were lucky enough to fly on shuttle missions.

Payton flew mission STS-51C aboard space shuttle Discovery in January, 1985 as the first MSE, deploying an NRO spacecraft. Pailes subsequently flew the following October on STS-51J aboard space shuttle Atlantis to deploy two Defense Satellite Communications System satellites for Space Division.

Hamel, who was commander of SMC from May 2005 until his retirement in November 2008, worked the operations aspects of STS-51C. Watterson was scheduled to fly on STS-62A, the first shuttle mission planned for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in October, 1986.

Then, on Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger accident became a turning point for all MSEs as the Pentagon reassessed its decision to employ the space shuttle as its primary launch system.

As NASA struggled for nearly two years to return to flight, the Air Force and NRO ramped up their plans to move critical national security payloads back to unmanned, expendable rockets. The only satellites that would still be launched on the shuttle were those that couldn’t be shifted to the new Titan IV. When the military turned away from the shuttle, MSEs like Watterson and Joseph, originally an alternate for STS-28, suddenly lost their flights.

By the time NASA returned to flight with shuttle Discovery on STS-26 in September, 1988, the MSE program had disbanded. The corps of military astronauts scattered to new assignments. Although the program had its share of critics – both within and outside of the Air Force – five MSEs, like Hamel, would later become generals who all believed they benefited from the wisdom of the program.

“It really invested a lot in bright, talented, aggressive, young officers to get in there, roll up their shirtsleeves and to really fight for the program. And frankly, there was so much – it wasn’t just about the technical interfaces,” said Hamel. “The operational planning, the command, the data lines and flight rules, the procedures, and the contingency operations – this is really where most of us ended up cutting our teeth. It wasn’t so much what was happening on the flights itself, it was the preparation and coordination of these massive global set of command centers and data handling and Tracking and Data Relay System satellites that I think added a lot of value to the MSEs. I probably learned more during that six-year period of time about the hard nuts and bolts of engineering complicated systems, and of developing operational procedures that most of you use today.”

Hamel also imparted some advice to the company and field grade officers and engineers in the audience.

“The message is, get everybody on the same sheet of music, really focus on the job at hand, and try to get all these discord forces pulling in the same direction. This was truly a titanic clash of cultures (between NASA and the Air Force), and the MSEs were at the eye of the storm,” said Hamel. “Although we all adhere to the principle that we’re here to serve and salute smartly when asked to go do something, the other thing is it’s important for you to take an active interest in your own career. If you aren’t your own best advocate, if you don’t articulate and take ownership of what it is you aspire to want to be – what you think you are good at – study what it is that those who have come before you, how did they get to where they are.

“Those are important ingredients. Don’t sit back and wait for somebody to tell you what to do. Get out there and look for what it is you think you can contribute. Talk to your bosses. Get their support. Don’t ignore what the Air Force expects you to do, because I think all of us (on the panel), when we look back in retrospect will say that every step that we took was important to get us to where we were, and ultimately able to achieve.”