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If you can think back to American space launches of the past, some may have noticed
something very unusual about the launch of the Columbia. In the past, manned space
launches from Cape Canaveral were always made toward the southeast, toward the
equator, but not so with the Columbia. It was launched to the northeast, away from the
equator. The reason for this was the secret space reconnaissance mission of the
In its public news releases, NASA told everyone that Columbia was launching into a 44-
degree orbit-that is, it would never go farther north or south than 44 degrees above and
below the equator. But the actual orbit chosen for the Columbia was a 69-degree orbit.
A69-degree orbit was chosen because it would take the Columbia, and the Spy Satellite
inside it, all the way north to the Arctic Circle and beyond. That is the kind of orbit that
is necessary if a spy satellite is to fly reconnaissance over Russia.
The northeast launch of the Columbia was done in order to enable the Spy Satellite to
start gathering data over Russia only minutes after the Columbia reached orbit. Time
was of the essence in any attempt to spy on Russia. Every American spy satellite
launched at Russia during the prior three years had been blinded or shot down before
gathering much data. The secret flight plan for the Columbia was completely different
from what NASA claimed in public. The plan called for Columbia to be launched on an
initial northeast course in the general direction of Bermuda, then roughly 2-l/2 minutes
after launch, Columbia was to begin an unorthodox course change—a wide sweeping
turn into the north. This unprecedented curving launch was in-tended as an evasive
sneak past any Russian Cosmospheres that might be waiting overhead. Still accelerating
on its curving course, the Columbia was supposed to pass about 100 miles east of Cape
Hatteras, North Carolina. Roughly 200 miles east of Washington, D.C., the Shuttle's
main engines were to cut off. After coasting in silence for a few seconds, the fuel tank
was scheduled to cut loose as the Columbia passed 100 miles east of New Jersey.
For the next two minutes the Shuttle and its fuel tank were to be coasting onward past
the east tip of Long Island, over Boston, and onward toward Maine. During that time the
Shuttle was supposed to maneuver away from the fuel tank, using small maneuvering
jets. Finally, just as the Columbia passed over New Brunswick, Canada, the flight plan
called for the orbital maneuvering engines to be fired. Somewhere over the Labrador
Sea, flying upside-down, the Columbia was scheduled to reach Earth orbit. As soon as it
did so, the flight plan called for astronauts Young and Crippen to go to work fast.
COLUMBIA'S SPY MISSION
In less than ten minutes time they were supposed to open up the cargo bay doors and
turn on the sensors of the Spy Satellite resting inside. As they did these things, the
Columbia was to be racing over the south tip of Greenland, out over the middle of the
Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland, above the Arctic Circle, and then
dipping back southward toward northern Norway, Finland, and Russia. According to the
flight plan, the Columbia was scheduled to cross the Russian border just south of the
strategic Kola Peninsula. This would be only some less than 23 minutes after lift-off. At
that instant initial recon-naissance over Russia was to be under way. The Spy Satellite
inside the cargo bay, even though not yet deployed, would have had a perfect view
downward through the open doors of the upside-down Shuttle.
The Columbia was intended to fly over a course across Russia that began just west of
the strategic White Sea in extreme Northwestern Russia. From there the planned course
of the Columbia was to take it southeastward over some 2500 miles of strategic Russian
territory: During the first minute alone, the satellite was expected to see parts of the
highly sensitive Kola Peninsula, the White Sea, including the super secret submarine
yards near Kazan, one of the bases of Russia's flying ABM system. This system uses
charged particle beams carried by supersonic TU-144 Trans-ports.
Toward the end of the first pass over Russia the' Spy Satellite was expected to gather
data on two more of Russia's four Cosmodromes—those of Baiokonur and Tyuratam. In
between, numerous other war targets were also to come under scrutiny. The spy
satellite in the Columbia s cargo bay was expected to see all that during its very first
pass over Russian territory. It would all take only 8-l/2 minutes. Then the Columbia
would have crossed the border with Afghanistan, heading toward India. Barely 10
minutes later, the Spy Satellite was to be radioing its data down to the American
receivers at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
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