The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

TR-3A Manta illustration
Despite a lack of evidence that it ever existed, the supposed TR-3 Manta has attracted the attention of aviation enthusiasts, and Aviation Week. (credit: Adrian Mann)

Six blind men in a zoo: Aviation Week’s mythical Blackstar

<< page 1: skeptical reading


The main article is titled “Spaceplane Shelved?” and the warning signs start with the very first sentence. “U.S. intelligence agencies may have quietly mothballed a highly classified two-stage-to-orbit spaceplane system designed in the 1980s for reconnaissance satellite-insertion, and, possibly, weapons delivery.”

Note the use of the word “may.” That word gets a lot of use in the article. For instance, the next paragraph states “This two-vehicle ‘Blackstar’ carrier/orbiter system may have been declared operational during the 1990s.” Other words that get used a lot are “could be” and “perhaps” and “is believed.” These are qualifiers. They indicate uncertainty, and they are clearly warning signs. The problem is that they clash with other more authoritative-sounding language in the articles. After all, if Blackstar may have been declared operational, that also leaves open the possibility that it was not declared operational. It even leaves open the possibility that it never existed at all. And if that is the case, then why is it on the cover of the magazine?

In fact, the first five paragraphs of the article do not include any mention of evidence at all, merely speculation, such as the fact that “U.S. Air Force Space Command officers and contractors have been toying with similar spaceplane-operational concepts for years.” But “toying” with a concept is not the same as flying an airplane.

It is not until the sixth paragraph of the main article that the author mentions that “observed spaceplane landings have been reported at Hurlburt AFB, Fla; Kadena AB, Okinawa; and Holloman AFB, NM.” Observed by whom? The author never names any of the observers at these airbases, nor does he even indicate that he spoke to these eyewitnesses directly. In fact, the alleged Hurlburt sighting is never mentioned again in any of the articles.

After all, if Blackstar may have been declared operational, that also leaves open the possibility that it was not declared operational. It even leaves open the possibility that it never existed at all. And if that is the case, then why is it on the cover of the magazine?

The article then authoritatively states that “the spaceplane is capable of carrying an advanced imaging suite that features 1-meter-aperture adaptive optics with an integral sodium-ion-sensing laser. By compensating in real-time for atmospheric turbulence-caused aberrations sensed by the laser, the system is capable of acquiring very detailed images of ground targets or in-space objects, according to industry officials familiar with the package.” What “industry officials” and for what company? The author never names them. Furthermore, the characteristics of adaptive optics and laser guide stars are well known and have been used for ground-based telescopes for years. There are physical reasons why they will not work in the other direction.

Surprise overflight, Quartz, and ISINGLASS

The article is also based upon some long-standing misperceptions about the conduct of strategic reconnaissance. For instance, it states: “The manned orbiter’s primary military advantage would be surprise overflight. There would be no forewarning of its presence, prior to the first orbit, allowing ground targets to be imaged before they could be hidden. In contrast, satellite orbits are predictable enough that activities having intelligence value can be scheduled to avoid overflights.”

This statement was often made by spyplane buffs in the 1990s to explain the existence of the mythical “Aurora” spyplane, the hypersonic replacement for the SR-71 Blackbird. Those who believed in Aurora started from several false premises. One false assumption was that the SR-71 was such an amazingly useful airplane that the Air Force would not retire it unless they had something equally amazing to replace it. The other false assumption was that “surprise overflight” is an extremely useful capability. In actuality, both of these factors have some validity, but less than their advocates claim for them.

By the 1980s the SR-71 occupied a specific and well-defined niche in the imagery intelligence arsenal. It could not be flown over many targets like the Soviet Union or China because it would be shot down. It could also not be flown over many other targets because it would have to fly over hostile countries during the course of its mission—the Blackbird could not turn quickly to avoid hostile airspace. By the 1980s the SR-71 was restricted primarily to overflight missions over places like Cuba and Nicaragua and peripheral missions off the coast of more threatening nations. Simply put, the SR-71 cost a lot of money to operate and had limited use, and it was not as popular within the intelligence community as it was among airplane buffs.

But “surprise overflight” is actually the more important issue, because it is a real requirement, but not the highest priority requirement for reconnaissance.

There are many reconnaissance targets that cannot be hidden. Buildings, for instance. An Iraqi army about to invade Kuwait. Missile silos. Satellites in “predictable” orbits work just fine for these targets. But there are also some targets that can be hidden from predictable satellites. They have to be small and mobile, or they have to be the kinds of operations that occur over a short period of time. For instance, it has been widely reported that India successfully concealed its preparations for an atomic bomb test by timing them to occur between passes of American reconnaissance satellites. The important thing to consider is that these kinds of targets are clearly a small subset of the overall list of targets that intelligence collectors are interested in.

Clearly there is a well-defined niche for surprise reconnaissance. But one problem with using an aircraft to fill this niche is that you have to know when the adversary is doing something that you need to see and you have to know where he is doing it. Would the Blackstar have been useful at spotting the preparations of the Indian nuclear test? It would, but only if the United States had known that the Indians were preparing such a test at precisely that time and could schedule a flight to catch it while it was happening. In other words, before using this system to gather intelligence, it first has to be tipped off that something is happening. However, that kind of luck is exceedingly rare in the intelligence collection business.

Would the Blackstar have been useful at spotting the preparations of the Indian nuclear test? It would, but only if the United States had known that the Indians were preparing such a test at precisely that time and could schedule a flight to catch it while it was happening.

We also know that the US intelligence community has sought to conduct surprise overflight in a different way—by making some of its satellites stealthy and therefore unpredictable. Reports of one or two stealthy imaging satellites have circulated for years, and in the past year the Washington Post reported on a controversy in Congress over the high costs of a follow-on stealth satellite system. So it is harder for an adversary to hide from a satellite that they do not know is overhead.

But more importantly, we know that ever since the early 1990s the intelligence community has pursued a new strategy toward collecting reconnaissance—continuous presence. The Global Hawk and Predator unmanned aerial vehicles are the best example of this. Rather than flying over a target at high speed and then leaving, they orbit over an area of interest for hours until they spot something happening, like a terrorist emerging from a house.

Blackstar would also be a bad choice for overflight reconnaissance for other reasons. It would be visible on radar and by infrared sensors in space as soon as it launched. Another problem is that if it was used to overfly Russia it could easily be misinterpreted as a missile attack. In fact, this is one of the reasons why the intelligence community canceled the ISINGLASS spyplane in the 1960s (the name was always written in all-caps in official documents). Two decades before the CIA sought to develop Quartz, the Air Force tried to develop ISINGLASS as a successor to the SR-71. It was supposed to be air-dropped from a B-52, and fly a skip-glide trajectory over the USSR. Numerous technical problems plagued the development project, but many intelligence officials were uneasy about a reconnaissance system that to the Soviets would look a lot like a B-52 launching a missile aimed at the motherland. (I have collected dozens of declassified documents on ISINGLASS and plan on writing a history article in the near future.)

This raises an additional point: because of its speed, there is no way for Blackstar to be used that would not entail it flying over or relatively near Russia. That would be dangerous. But it also prompts the question of why the Russians have never revealed Blackstar’s existence. Why don’t they blow the cover of this supersecret American project?

Connecting mythical dots

The article is unclear on what the supposed Blackstar orbiter actually did. It mentions the one-meter optical telescope, but then lists a bunch of other possible missions: carrying specialized microsatellites to low Earth orbit, or carrying hypervelocity missiles to low Earth orbit (the “Rods from God” scenario). Clearly Scott never talked to anybody in a senior position in this alleged program.

The article states that “actual development and employment of a transatmospheric spaceplane have not been confirmed officially. However, many sightings of both an XB-70-like carrier and a spaceplane have been reported, primarily in the western U.S. Only once have they been seen together, though.”

If “many” sightings have occurred, what are the names of the people who have made the sightings? How credible are they? It is also worth noting that “many sightings” of flying saucers have also occurred, and many people claim to have been abducted by aliens. But Aviation Week does not consider these sightings to be proof of extraterrestrials visiting Earth. Why is the magazine willing to accept unsubstantiated claims in one case but not in another?

Only two people are named in the articles as eyewitnesses to the vehicle. One is “James Petty,” who is listed as the “President of JP Rocket Engine Co.” Petty claims to have spotted the carrier aircraft and the spaceplane attached to its belly flying over Salt Lake City at 2:35 in the afternoon on October 4, 1998. Why a top secret aircraft would be flying over a major American city in broad daylight is unclear. Also unclear is why no other person reportedly saw this unusual plane in the middle of the day over a major metropolis.

In these articles, Scott claims that Petty is the only person who has seen the two aircraft connected to each other. But that raises an important question—if the two aircraft were only spotted together in 1998, why was Scott writing in 1992 about a “mothership” aircraft and its attached spaceplane? Clearly he had nothing to connect them together back then, but he speculated that they were connected.

Why a top secret aircraft would be flying over a major American city in broad daylight is unclear. Also unclear is why no other person reportedly saw this unusual plane in the middle of the day over a major metropolis.

Furthermore, the 1992 article claimed that the spaceplane was located on the top of the mothership. But based upon Petty’s alleged sighting, Scott now claims that it is carried on the bottom of the mothership, which supposedly looks like a B-70 Valkyrie bomber. The artwork in the article depicts it stuck on the bottom of the carrier, giving the mothership a pregnant look. This is another example of the internal illogic of the stories, because the B-70 Valkyrie had its landing gear mounted in the lower triangular section, where it would be blocked by the spaceplane. In other words, if the planes looked like Aviation Week claims, the mothership would not be able to roll down a runway to take off.

Other supposed facts make no sense. For instance, the article states that on the spaceplane “air is directed to what is believed to be aerospike engines similar to those once planned for use on the NASA/Lockheed Martin X-33.” There are several problems with this statement. For starters, aerospike engines are rocket engines. They are not jet engines and they do not use air, they use propellant and oxidizer. Equally important, the theoretical value of an aerospike engine is that it can work efficiently at both high and low altitude. But if the spaceplane is launched at 90,000 feet [27,400 meters], an aerospike engine is unnecessary.

The article is also filled with suppositions that are based upon no stated data. For instance, the carrier aircraft is capable of “operation at supersonic speeds and altitudes up to 90,000 feet.” How does the author know about altitude and speed if the only hard data that he possesses are eyewitness accounts?

The main article states that “three oversized [C-5 Galaxy] transport aircraft were modified with 8-foot wide ‘chipmunk cheek’ extensions on each side of the cargo compartment aft of the nose hinge point; an extra six-wheel set of landing gear that partially retracts up against the after fuselage, forward of the ramp; a shortened upper deck, and two internal harness/cradle supports.” But where are the photographs of these three odd-looking C-5s? C-5 Galaxies are so big that they cannot be parked indoors at airfields. They are always parked outside. Has anybody ever photographed one in flight or on a ramp at an airbase? Anybody at all?

The article also lists two tail numbers for the aircraft: 00503 and 00504. These “tail numbers” imply Fiscal Year Serial Numbers, which consist of six digits (not five), with the first two designating the year that the aircraft was ordered. So the likely candidates are 70-0503/4, 80-0503/4, or possibly 90-0503/4.

But none of those numbers are actually assigned to C-5 Galaxies. We know that 70-0503/4 were numbers assigned to canceled F-4E Phantom interceptors. 80-0503/4 were assigned to F-16A Fighting Falcon fighters, and 90-0503/4 were assigned to AH-64A Apaches built for Egypt. If these bogus serial numbers were actually painted on C-5s, then why has nobody photographed these planes with the fake numbers? There is a large planespotting community around the globe that loves to take photos of rare and unusual aircraft, tracking them by their serial numbers. Have they produced any photos of these planes? No. The article states that a third C-5 had a distinctive red “CL” on its tail “and supposedly was used by the Central Intelligence Agency.” Are there any photos of this prize either? No. In fact, we know that there are two C-5C (Space Cargo Modified) Galaxies in operation. Their serial numbers are 68-0213 and 68-0216, and photographs of them have appeared on the Internet (Google “C-5C Galaxy”).

The article also states that “all three C-5s may have been retired in recent years, according to a NASA contractor.” When C-5s are retired they are sent to the “Boneyard” at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, and TV documentary crews and airplane buffs have toured the base and taken photographs of them. Commercial imaging satellites have also photographed the Boneyard. So where are the photos of these unusual C-5s? It is also worth noting that the Air Force has a website listing all of the C-5 aircraft that have been sent to the Boneyard.

page 3: “Speedy” and the Valkyrie >>