Updated on: 2 December 2002
Posted on: 1 December 2002


U-2 Shuttle Photos

Sequence of Four aerial U-2 photos showing the May 4, 1989 STS-30 launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. One of these photos appeared on the cover of the Summer 1995 issue of ”Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly."
These two photos were among those taken by a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft flying a race track pattern at approximately 20,000 feet (I was also told 60,0000 -John)altitude above the Kennedy Space Center. These unique bird's eye views show the Space Shuttle Atlantis during the first seconds after liftoff during STS-30 on May 4, 1989. Why were these photos taken?
The orbiter Atlantis, upon its return after the successful DoD STS-27 mission in December 1988, was peppered with some 707 hits on the tiles. When the orbiter landed, engineers were amazed to find seven times the normal number of hits. Because of the unusual number of hits received, engineers wanted to know if the damage was unique to Atlantis or was part of a trend that began with STS-27. They wanted to "see" the damage as it was happening to help answer such questions as where did the debris sources originate since damage could have been caused by ice, insulation from the external tank or ablative material falling off of the solid rocket boosters. In addition, they wanted to know how much material was lost and at what point in time during the flight (pre Mach, transition or post Mach) did the damage occur.
Upon closer examination of the orbiter tiles from STS-27, engineers found 16 damage sites with residual material that could be sampled. The results of the sampling revealed traces of MSA-1 (the ablator) and Hypalon paint (the white topcoat) from the SRB forward assemblies. Since the forward skirts and frustrums showed very little loss of material, a process of elimination suggested the damage might have originated from the unrecovered SRB nose caps. Most of the orbiter lower surface damage was on the right side; the left was virtually undamaged. Hence, the source of the damage seemed to lean toward the right SRB nose cap.
To view the booster nose caps during launch is difficult. Engineers wanted to view the SRB nose caps during the first two minutes of flight-from pre Mach, transition, to post transition. To view the nose caps during this period is tricky. All of the ground cameras at the pad only look at the aft end of the launch vehicle during launch. Some of the more distant tracking cameras like those at Patrick, Cocoa Beach and Shiloh, view the sides of the vehicle for quite some time. Generally speaking however, the aft end of the vehicle becomes predominant after the roll maneuver making any detailed top view impossible from the ground.
Enter the USAF and the U-2 squadron stationed at Patrick AFB. NASA approached the Air Force to see if they could use a U-2 to fly a race-track pattern above the Shuttle Launch Complex to take high resolution black and white photos during the first 2 minutes of launch. When asked, the Air Force was all too eager to jump at the opportunity since most of the time they are not required to track a high speed moving target.
A U-2 first flew on such a challenging reconnaissance mission during the launch of STS-29 in March of 1989. The pilot flew a race-track circuit at an altitude of approximately 20,000 feet at a standoff distance of about 5 miles to keep clear of the Shuttle flight path. The pilot's skills were challenged by the crucial timing required to get into position. NASA wanted the pilot to be at a certain point so as to take the best photos during liftoff which was somewhat downrange of the pad. But the shuttle moves and moves fast! It jumps off of the pad quickly so the photo window is very narrow. The pilot could get into position but he was not able to hold that position for very long because he is moving relative to the Shuttle flight path. The fact that the U-2 and the shuttle are moving and moving in different planes made it a challenge for the pilot to get into the correct photo position. The pilot was aided somewhat by the wide angle view of the cameras. In addition, the launch countdown was often delayed by weather or ships in the launch area. When launch did occur, the U-2 was at a different point in the race track pattern and away from the optimal starting point.
The U-2 was tried on two shuttle flights (STS-29 and STS-30). The STS-29 shots were not as useful as those returned from the STS-30 launch. The pilot could not get the U-2 in the right position to get optimum slant angles for the images. The photo analysis people could not resolve enough information from the photos to tell them anything about the nose cones.
Another suggested option was to install little TV cameras in the booster forward skirts to look back at the tank as well as TV cameras in the tank to look at the boosters. But the cost of that option was way too high to make it practical not to mention the extensive modifications that would have had to been made to existing flight hardware.
What about looking at the nose caps after splashdown? Generally, the nose caps are not recovered because they fall out of range of the recovery area. Then they either sink or drift in the current. There are no flotation or tracking devices on them. The SRB nose cones are the first things that eject from the boosters. The nose cones come off and pull out the pilot chutes which in turn pull out the main chutes. Even if you could predict where the nose cones would fall, any kind of search was not practical since the time was needed to recover the SRBs and their chutes.
Eventually, it was determined that the available evidence suggested that the tile damage was booster ablative material falling off of the right SRB nose cap due to a bonding problem. The material would fall off during the high aerodynamic forces encountered during launch. Any material hitting the orbiter at Mach speeds causes damage. ET foam, having the lightest density, causes relatively shallow impact sites. SRB ablator is denser; ice is the densest. The greater the density of the object, the deeper (and the larger the surface area) of the impact site. Of course, everything that hits on the forward portion of the orbiter cascades down and causes more damage further aft. Once engineers found the source of the problem, the bonding problem was resolved and no further damage to the orbiter tiles was encountered on subsequent shuttle missions.


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Also I'm looking for more info on these flights, such as pilots that flew the flights, interesting stories and tail numbers of the aircraft that flew the flights......please email John


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