One of my secret obsessions is the history of space programs. I've never managed to do anything with it in my academic work, but I have my hopes. Late last night I was browsing through sci.space.history, a USENET group that still is a great source for information on the topic when I ran across this thread, referring me to a lengthy Aviation Week and Space Technology story on a secret government space plane called Blackstar.
Now AWST isn't the Inquirer. On the contrary, it's published by McGraw-Hill and its usual readers are people in the industry or the government. But if this piece, by William B. Scott, a senior editor of the journal, is to be believed, a two stage-to-orbit space plane was developed in the 1980s and may have become operational in the 1990s only to be cancelled recently.
As the piece details, the program was built in response to the loss of the Challenger and subsequent military concern about access to space. During an ultra-secret crash development program, the SR-3, a mothership based on the XB-70 Valkyrie bomber and the XOV, a low-Earth orbiter derived from the X-20A Dynasoar were developed.
This isn't all that far-fetched, Scott suggests, both projects were well under development in the 1960s and there was talk about launching the Dynasoar from the XB-70 at altitude, much as SpaceShipOne was launched from the White Knight carrier (wondering aloud: is Blackstar something an inspiration for Rutan? … of course White Knight flies at sub-Mach speeds and the Blackstar mothership would have flown at Mach 3 or above and SpaceShipOne is incapable of orbit, but still … if anyone could take the general idea of Blackstar and run with it, if only to taunt the Feds, it would be Rutan). The small orbiter would be able to slip into space, make a lightening-fast overflight of a site and return to a horizontal runway. Other applications suggest launching small satellites from its payload bay and retrieving and servicing satellites and perhaps even a role as a weapons platform.
Pentagon officials, the article reports, think that the project may have been owned and operated by companies, not by the government to ensure plausible deniability of its existence. Top military space commanders remained in the dark about Blackstar, which may have been operated by an intelligence agency. Blackstar's existence would explain the mysterious retirement of the Lockheed SR-71 reconnaissance plane in 1990. Observers have long wondered why this program was cancelled. The article concludes with a discussion of sightings of mystery aircraft.
The article is certainly filled with conjecture and speculation. Noted space analyst James Oberg was skeptical, and cites sources saying it was simply unworkable due to the laws of physics. Dwayne A. Day in The Space Review ripped the Aviation Week article, suggesting that the journal also published a mistaken story about a Soviet nuclear bomber in 1958 and then giving evidence as to why the story couldn't be true. Maybe Oberg and Day are right, but AWST is a major publication, not the Inquirer and if Day suggests Scott has been barking up the wrong tree since the 90s, Scott's position is that he has 16 years of files and wants to present that research. Day makes a lot of noise about the government officials being anonymous, but last I heard, it was still illegal to reveal classified information.
Some of the posters on USENET suggest that there is a reason for this leak now. Perhaps it is because the program is operational and in being cancelled will deprive some corporation of a large contract. Perhaps it is an attempt to force reconsideration of the Apollo-style CEV, which seems to many like a move in the wrong direction when a smaller Dynasoar like vehicle, especially air-launched, seems like a much more attractive possibility. Maybe it's just that some old Cold Warriors started thinking that their work wouldn't make it into the history books.
Remarkably, however, the mainstream media have barely picked up on this story. Google news delivers very few hits on the topic, leaving me to wonder if we will ever learn the truth about Blackstar. Is it merely misguided conjecture? Or has the most important story of the US military in outer space just been broken?