How to STEAL a 25,000 lbs Satellite Straight Out of Space with the Space Shuttle

The Space Shuttle program spans over 30 years and boasts an impressive record of more than 100 missions.

Throughout its remarkable journey, the Space Shuttle exhibited a wide range of capabilities, becoming a pioneering force in space construction and satellite servicing missions. 

Among the diverse missions, one particular plan – Shuttle Reference Mission 3B – was one of the craziest ever proposed.

Although the mission was never attempted, it proved instrumental in influencing the Space Shuttle’s design.

Modifying the Space Shuttle

space shuttle blueprint
Credit: NASA

During the early stages of the Space Shuttle program, garnering political support was a formidable challenge, nearly leading to its cancellation by a single vote.

To overcome this hurdle, NASA struck a deal with the Department of Defense (DoD). In exchange for redesigning the shuttle to accommodate a wish list of DoD requirements, NASA secured crucial support. 

The most notable modification entailed expanding the payload bay to accommodate the new generation of reconnaissance satellites.

While this decision enabled NASA to advance its space station objectives, it posed significant challenges to the shuttle’s design, requiring the integration of a large disposable external tank to compensate for the lack of space for massive fuel tanks. 

satellite in space shuttle
Credit: NASA

The DoD’s requirements for the Space Shuttle were particularly demanding, necessitating a massive payload bay measuring approximately 15 feet wide and 60 feet long (approximately 4.5 meters by 18 meters). 

This expansion allowed the shuttle to accommodate the new generation of reconnaissance satellites, thus cementing its role as a versatile platform for satellite deployment and servicing.

NASA embraced this opportunity as it aligned with its objectives, particularly during the construction of the International Space Station.

Space Shuttle Mission-3B Plan

Mission 3B envisioned a single-orbit rendezvous and capture of a spacecraft orbiting in a near-polar orbit, with the unique objective of an immediate return to the launch site.  

1. The Launch

baseline reference mission 3b map
Credit: NASA

Launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the west coast of the United States, the shuttle would follow a carefully designed trajectory, taking approximately 12 minutes to reach orbit and align with the target satellite.

It was essential to use the west coast launch site for polar orbits to avoid dropping spent stages on land.

The trajectory of this mission was meticulously designed, and the shuttle would head southwards, taking approximately 12 minutes to reach orbit and align with the target satellite. 

2. Grabbing the Satellite

Upon reaching orbit, the orbiter would open its payload bay doors and initiate preparations for the rendezvous and capture. It would chase the target satellite, maintaining a position approximately 10 nautical miles below and seven nautical miles behind the spacecraft.

space shuttle grabbing a satellite
Credit: NASA

 The elliptical trajectory was meticulously calculated to intercept the target within 20 minutes, during which the spacecraft performed constant measurements and adjustments to fine-tune its approach.

Ground control involvement during this operation was limited, and the onboard computer handled trajectory analysis and maneuvering using the small reaction control thrusters.

As the shuttle closed in on the target, its approach speed was initially about 30 meters per second, necessitating meticulous maneuvering to reduce the speed to approximately three meters per second once within a hundred meters of the target.

The challenging capture process involved using the manipulator arm to secure the satellite and store it securely in the payload bay for the journey back to Earth.

Once the satellite was securely stowed, the payload bay doors would be closed, and the de-orbit burn would commence as the shuttle crossed the equator heading north over Africa.

The de-orbit burn performed using one of the orbital maneuvering systems (OMS) pods, was designed with an ample safety margin, ensuring the success of this critical maneuver. 

3. The Descent

The shuttle’s descent and re-entry trajectory would take it over Greenland, the North Pole, and Europe, requiring a wide curve turn at hypersonic speeds, showcasing the cross-range capabilities of the shuttle and the significance of its enlarged delta wings.

Finally, the shuttle would fly down the west coast of the United States, producing sonic booms as it approached towns like San Francisco, and ultimately touch down at Vandenberg Air Force Base approximately one hour and 50 minutes after liftoff.

And that is how you steal a satellite from space.

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