The Other Shuttle

Aviation Week & Space Technology has an explosive report on the existence of a classified two-stage to orbit space vehicle based on the 1960s XB-70 long-range supersonic bomber and the X-20 DynaSoar spaceplane – both programs that were killed in the 1960s shortly after the Kennedy assassination. These technologies were developed at the time with the intention of being used together to perform spy missions and launch microsatellites – the same mission profile that the “Blackstar” vehicle apparently was designed to perform.

While frequently the subject of advanced studies, such as the Air Force’s “Spacecast 2020,” actual development and employment of a transatmospheric spaceplane have not been confirmed officially (AW&ST Sept. 5, 1994, p. 101). 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.

On Oct. 4, 1998, the carrier aircraft was spotted flying over Salt Lake City at about 2:35 p.m. local time. James Petty, the president of JP Rocket Engine Co., saw a small, highly swept-winged vehicle nestled under the belly of the XB-70-like aircraft. The vehicle appeared to be climbing slowly on a west-southwest heading. The sky was clear enough to see both vehicles’ leading edges, which Petty described as a dark gray or black color.

For whatever reason, top military space commanders apparently have never been “briefed-in”–never told of the Blackstar system’s existence–even though these are the “warfighters” who might need to employ a spaceplane in combat. Consequently, the most likely user is an intelligence agency. The National Reconnaissance Office may have played a role in the program, but former senior NRO officials have denied any knowledge of it.

One Pentagon official suggests that the Blackstar system was “owned” and operated by a team of aerospace contractors, ensuring government leaders’ plausible deniability. When asked about the system, they could honestly say, “we don’t have anything like that.”

Aerospace industry contractors suggest that a top secret Blackstar system could explain why Pentagon leaders readily offered the Air Force’s nascent unclassified spaceplane project, the briefly resurrected SR-71 program and the Army’s anti-satellite program for elimination from budgets in the late 1990s. At the time, an industry official said, “if we’re flying a spaceplane, it makes sense to kill these cover programs and stop wasting money on things we can already do.”

The Blackstar’s funding apparently came from monies allocated to other, cancelled programs such as the National Spaceplane initiative and the Navy’s A-12 fighter. Given the masses of money devoted to those projects, which never produced anything, it’s hardly surprising that the money was going to black projects such as Tacit Blue or the Blackstar. It’s also quite possible that the persistant rumors of the “Aurora” hypersonic spyplane was in fact a cover story designed to throw people off the track of the real secret project – Blackstar. The militay did the same thing by spreading disinformation about an “F-19” stealth aircraft that was shaped like a bicycle seat while the real stealth aircraft was the angular F-117A.

It’s uncertain if the Blackstar ever went into operational service or not, but it does appear that the system did fly more than once. The world of “black” military aircraft is a look into the future of aviation, and the existence of the Blackstar project would add an entire new chapter to the history of American spaceflight.

2 thoughts on “The Other Shuttle

  1. It’s not that often that I see an article that makes me go “whoa”, but that’s definitely one of them.

    The biggest mistake that the Shuttle program made was trying to combine heavy-lift capacity with manned flight; making a manned mission with the shuttle is roughly the equivalent of using a tractor-trailer on your daily commute. Thus we’ve end up spending $300 million a pop on manned missions that should only cost a tenth of that figure. In theory, if Burt Rutan could develop and build Space Ship One (which, until now, I thought was the most advanced two-stage spaceplane ever built) on only $18 million, it’s feasible that the aerospace-industrial complex skunkworks could turn out a full-blown two-stage to orbit spaceplane with a cool billion or two in project funding here and there.

    If this is true, it’s very big and very heartening news for space enthusiasts.

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