Aviation Week, often referred to as Aviation Leak in defense circles, is out with a fascinating story on a top-secret space plane, supposedly built and operated by the U.S., beginning in the late 1980s. Reporters from the magazine have been on the story for the past 16 years, and while available evidence tends to support existence of the space plane program (nicknamed "Blackstar"), Aviation Week has never been able to completely confirm the project.
According to the magazine, Blackstar may have recently been shelved, perhaps due to operating costs, or failure to meet performance expectations (more on that in a bit). Blackstar apparently consisted of a "mothership" that resembled a 1960s-era XB-70 supersonic bomber, which carried the space plane high into the atmosphere. At that point, the orbiter craft was released, using its own engines to carry it to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, or if the mission required, into low earth orbit. After completing the mission, the space plane glided back to earth, landing on a runway like a conventional aircraft. The magazine claims that orbiter landings have been reported at a number of USAF installations, including Hurlburt Field, Florida, Kadena AB, Okinawa, and Holloman AFB, New Mexico.
The space plane's biggest advantage is/was its unpredictability. As Aviation Week notes:
"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."
My knowledge of the alleged Blackstar program is what I've read in Aviation Week and other publications. But it certainly fits the pattern associated with other, high-priority black world programs in the past. In the mid-1970s, for example, the Air Force launched its Have Blue program, which resulted in the F-117 Stealth Fighter. Have Blue was conducted under the tightest possible security; the two prototypes flew out of the Air Force's Groom Lake complex in Nevada, often at night to minimize detection by Russian spy satellites. Defense contractors were given broad latitude (and almost unlimited funds) in the successful effort to develop a stealth fighter.
Based on Aviation Week's reporting, the biggest difference between Have Blue and Blackstar programs seems to have been the early participation of Lockheed, which was apparently the primary contractor for the space plane. By comparison, Lockeed was a late-comer to Have Blue; in the 70s, the company was mired in debt over its L-1011 airliner project, and Pentagon officials wondered if the famous "Skunk Works" could actually develop a stealth aircraft ahead of rivals Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas and Northrop. Lockheed's success with the F-117 may have given it a leg up in the Blackstar competition, underscoring its legendary reputation for solving complex engineering problems and delivering technological breakthroughs, in minimum time.
Boeing also appears to have played a significant role in Blackstar, thanks to its role in development of the XB-70 and related technologies back in the 1960s. Interestingly, both companies were "eliminated" from the National Aero-Space Plane (NASP) program in the early stages of that competition during the 1980s. That process may have allowed Boeing and Lockheed to take their developments into the black world, for accelerated development of Blackstar, which may have been designated the SR-3/XOV.
It's a fascinating story, and I give it credence for a couple of reasons. First, Aviation Week is virtually without peer in its coverage of the defense industry; they've been on the story for more than a decade and developed credible information and sources that provide limited confirmation of the Blackstar program.
Secondly, I've spent enough time in the Spook world to understand that we don't willingly give up a surveillance capability unless there's something in the pipeline to replace it. The Air Force's retirement of the SR-71--coupled with DOD decisions to eliminate such programs as the "unclassified" USAF spaceplane program and the Army's anti-satellite program--suggested that we had something better, and it appears that the XOV could have performed many, if not all of these missions, depending on its payload configuration. Aviation Week believes the space plane was used primarily as a reconnaissance platform, showing up, unannounced (and probably undetected) over high-value enemy installations, before sensitive equipment or activities could be concealed. It's exactly the type of capability the intelligence community needed, in an era when even low-tech allies could predict the passage of "standard" spy satellites and work around perceived imaging windows.
One final thought: if the SR-3/XOV platform has been shelved, we probably have something even better in the offing. I can't imagine the President and the DNI moth-balling the XOV, unless we have a replacement nearing operational service, or already in operation. And whatever that platform is (assuming it exists) is, I hope it remains as veiled as the Blackstar program and not on the front page of the NYT.