136. Letter From the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, Department of Defense (Currie) to the Director of Central Intelligence and Chair of the Committee on Foreign Intelligence Bush1 2

Dear George:


As an outgrowth of our discussions at the 14 July 1976 CFI meeting and in response to your 6 August letter requesting that the Intelligence Research and Development Council review a National Reconnaissance Office proposed policy statement with respect to expendable launch vehicle (ELV) backup to Space Shuttle, I directed the establishment of a small ad hoc panel to address the following issues:

  • Are backup ELV’s required during the transition period to Shuttle? Should a backup ELV strategy continue beyond the transition period?
  • If backup ELV’s are required, can a procurement program be developed that incorporates a learning curve philosophy?
  • Does retention of a backup capability through the transition period, or thereafter, influence payload design?
  • What is the inter-relationship of the on-going NASA/DoD study on Shuttle orbiters and the NSDM 333 review to the above issues?
  • Does the FY 1978–1982 budget provide adequate funding for backup ELV procurement?


The ad hoc panel completed its review on 8 October 1976. There are several technical issues that surfaced that require further examination which, although germane, do not impact upon current decisions in a cost sense nor do they bear major cost implications [Page 2] for the future. The NRO and U.S. Air Force are proceeding with applicable studies, the results of which should be available by March 1977. Panel conclusions are set forth in ensuing paragraphs. Detailed briefings of the material that led to these conclusions are available to the CFI or members of your staffs, if you desire.


Backup ELV’s are required for both military and intelligence space systems during early years of Shuttle operation. Payload design must incorporate sufficient flexibility to launch either on Shuttle or backup ELV’s during this period.

Any backup ELV strategy must consider both military and intelligence payloads. Procurement planning must assure that the highest priority space systems in both programs can be replenished during the early years of Shuttle operation should the Shuttle encounter schedule delays, loss of an orbiter, or other unexpected problems, yet, not accumulate a large inventory of unused ELV’s should Shuttle meet its projected milestones. For planning purposes the number of ELV’s provided should protect payloads scheduled for Shuttle launch from Kennedy Space Center through FY 1982 and from Vandenberg Air Force Base through FY 1983. The TITAN III common core configuration (T-III-T) with the Interim Upper Stage (IUS) which, in essence, is a standardization program, should be used to improve flexibility and reliability in meeting user launch schedules and to minimize costs. The procurement plan must be reviewed continuously and adjusted to conform to changing payload programs schedules and demonstrated. Shuttle program progress to minimize the possibility of cost increases in the out years over and above those currently envisioned. The backup ELY plan should permit a minimum essential buy of complete T-III-T vehicles, plus time-phase buys for bill of materials and subassemblies to assure a continuing ELY production capability through FY 1982.


It is not possible to accurately forecast in 1976 that backup ELV’s to Shuttle will be or not be required in 1985; i.e., at the currently planned completion of NRO transition.

A decision on continued ELV backup is not needed now and should not be made now. A detailed review of transition planning shows that a decision on continued ELY production can be protected and deferred until FY 1982. Transition planning is carefully keyed [Page 3] to NASA Shuttle milestones. The backup ELV plan can be adjusted should the Shuttle program encounter delays or technical problems.


Four, and up to eight, Shuttle launches of priority military payloads (and up to 40 Shuttle launches nationally) are scheduled before any intelligence payload is programmed for Shuttle launch.

The military programs are serving a DoD pathfinder role, i.e., beginning transition in 1980. Intelligence payloads, as currently planned, should be in a position to begin transitioning to the Shuttle in 1982 with relatively higher confidence. The Secretary of Defense has recently placed $163 million beginning in FY 1978 in the Air Force FY 1978–1982 budget to provide an initial backup ELV capability for priority military space systems planned for Shuttle launch at Kennedy Space Center. The NRP should now fund protect for the remainder of the necessary backup ELV capability beginning not later than FY 1980 and continuing through the 1982 budget period to meet its requirements.


Shuttle will be able to place additional throw-weight into high-altitude synchronous orbit in comparison to current booster or planned booster capabilities. Therefore, joint design for Shuttle and backup ELV can be restrictive in terms of throw-weight and volume.

The Shuttle and Interim Upper Stage (IUS) are projected to deliver approximately 5,000 lbs. of payload to geostationary orbit compared with 3,250 lbs. for TITAN IIIC today and approximately 3,600 lbs. for the improved TITAN IIIC. Current on-going studies indicate the common stack TITAN III/IUS may deliver approximately 3,950 lbs. of payload to this orbit with some limitations. In addition, the TITAN III/IUS program includes funding provisions for shroud development larger than the current 10 foot diameter design. This increased payload weight and volume delivery capability is intended to encourage user programs to aggressively design toward the Shuttle capabilities while retaining an ELY launch capability during early transition to the Shuttle. In modifying currently programmed payloads for Shuttle capabilities, we should consider [Page 4] modular approaches so that expendables or certain components can be removed when necessary to adjust payload weight to ELV capability. It is premature at this time to commit to further up-grading of ELV capability beyond that already planned. However, NRO and Air Force Phase 0 studies should define the actions required to preclude foreclosure of future increases in ELV capability, if firm requirements should develop.


The NASA Shuttle program now contains three orbiters. NASA and DoD have recommended to the OMB that, beginning in the President’s FY 1978 budget, funding be provided to NASA for procurement of two additional orbiters.

The DSARC members have reviewed the recently completed NASA/DoD study and concluded that considering any reasonable, projection of national Shuttle traffic, potential attrition of orbiters, and the need for priority launch of DoD payloads, a five orbiter fleet is desirable. SecDef has indicated that he will pursue the subject of additional orbiters with the President during the FY 1978 budget deliberations. Although Presidential and Congressional action is still required to assure a viable national orbiter fleet, progress so far in this area has been timely; hence plans for early Shuttle use should be continued. As noted earlier, the backup ELY plan should assure that funding is available and ELV hardware is in the pipeline, should the Shuttle program encounter unforeseen delays.


An initial study of the vulnerability and dependability of Shuttle as a launch system compared to current ELV’s shows that the projected higher reliability of the Shuttle offers a major improvement in the likelihood of mission success and the increased payload weight and volume capabilities can be used to reduce space system vulnerabilities.

Shuttle capabilities can be used to increase life on orbit of our spacecraft through redundancy and design improvements and [text not declassified]. With the backup ELV’s which we are now planning, the Shuttle will be the first new launch system for which a true backup has been provided.


Additional funds will be required by the NRO for backup booster procurement.

Substantial benefits can be derived by developing a backup plan which uses common ELV hardware and considers both military and intelligence needs. Economies result from procuring common hardware and minimizing the number of ELV configurations. Backup ELV’s, based upon the T-III-T/IUS should be used interchangeably for priority and military space systems. Recognizing these benefits and the pathfinder role the military systems assume in earlier Shuttle use, the NRP should plan only for complete ELV backup for initial Shuttle launches for its systems and procurement of subassemblies and bill of materials (i.e., long lead) to permit further complete ELY fabrication only if required in subsequent years.

It will cost, according to current NRO budget estimates, approximately [text not declassified] (FY 1980–1982) to fund the proposed backup plan which is time phased to meet currently forecasted NRO Shuttle transition launch dates. Dollars were not allocated within the NRP specifically for this purpose at the tithe of the July CFI meeting. The decision to authorize initial expenditure of these funds can be deferred until November 1978.

I recommend that the current NRP plan as reviewed by the ad hoc panel which is now set forth in the DNRO October 1976 Report to the CFI (Volume I), be approved by the CFI, with the exception that monies proposed for inventory conversion in FY 82 [text not declassified] not be approved at this time. It is noted that the NRO can absorb the remainder, approximately [text not declassified], by reprogramming within previously approved total program levels over the 1980–1982 period. The planned consolidated backup ELV plan assures that ELY production is maintained through 1982, recognizes the probability that unused ELV’s may be in the inventory, yet retains sufficient flexibility to continue production if necessary. As stated in the conclusions, decisions to authorize expenditures can be deferred some two years hence. Completion of on-going U.S. Air Force and NRO studies during the next year should illuminate where further refinements of the consolidated backup plan may offer cost avoidance. I will keep you apprised of progress in this regard.
I cannot stress too strongly the need, albeit the relatively significant dollar amounts, to commit now in a policy sense to an outyear flexible procurement strategy. This will establish a planning base from which many inter-related decisions will evolve with respect to payload design, booster capabilities, and other technical considerations. Assurance that backup ELV options are protected should permit us to examine much more aggressively and in some depth, new concepts to achieve more flexible and effective intelligence space systems operations using Shuttle.


Malcolm R. Currie
  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, Job 79M00467A, Executive Registry Files (OPI 10), Space Policy Interface 64 010176–311276. Top Secret; Codeword. NSDM 333 is published as Document 128.
  2. Currie outlined the conclusions of a panel convened to determine the extent to which expendable launch vehicles would be required during the initial operating years of the Space Shuttle.