Comments on “Have You Ever Heard of the Blue Cube?”

On April 7, 2022, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) added a blog post titled “Have You Ever Heard of the Blue Cube?” about Onizuka Air Force Station. While I was excited to read something about the Blue Cube that was “new,” I wanted to punch my computer screen after I read it.

So, in typical fashion, I wrote up a letter to the folks in Chantilly that provided a bit more clarification to their post. My comments are in yellow and underlined, their original text is in blue.

To whom it may concern,

I’ve provided some comments on the recent post on the NRO’s main webpage, titled “Have you heard of the ‘Blue Cube’?” My comments are in red below the text of the document

CHANTILLY, Va.  –   

Throughout its almost 50-year existence, few in the nation knew about the “Blue Cube” located in Sunnyvale, California. The Air Force Satellite Control Facility (AFSCF) was once home to a light blue, cube-shaped building, which was the distinguishing feature of the compound. This building represented the origins of U.S. space operations. 

Building 1003, the Advanced STC, aka Blue Cube was finished in 1969. If you add 50 years to 1969… it equals 2019. If you use the 1959 date – Satellite Test Center (aka The Stick), then the 2009 date makes more sense. But there was no large Big Blue Cube in 1959… 

According to documentation on your site (reference doc 266, the AFSCF History, https://www.nro.gov/Portals/65/documents/foia/declass/WS117L_Records/266.PDF), the AFSCF did not originate in Sunnyvale – it was only a detachment of the Los Angeles AFS AFSCF. The AFSCF didn’t “move” up to Sunnyvale until 1977 

“AFSCF designated and organized with Hq at Los Angeles and assignment to SSD. Det 1, AFSCF, designated and organized together with 6594th Air Base Squadron at Sunnyvale. 6594th Aerospace Test Wing discontinued, eff 1 Jul 65.” 

In 1958, as tensions rose between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (USSR) during the Cold War following the launching of SPUTNIK I by the USSR, the Department of Defense (DoD) realized that the U.S. needed to re-evaluate how intelligence was being collected. DoD leadership recognized a need for the Air Force to assist with additional reconnaissance efforts and begun the process of building the Air Force Satellite Test Center. The AFSCF base became the home for new and emerging operational programs in the areas of space reconnaissance. 

This is a dramatic simplification. WS-117L was already in the works prior to Sputnik, and Subsystem H (what became the AF Satellite control network) was being defined as time went along. The Stick was actually given to the USAF by Lockheed, who designed and controlled the Agena spacecraft which CORONA and EARPOP satellites were built into. It made perfect business sense for them to do this. Please don’t give the Air Force too much credit here. Again, these requirements were established prior to the building (or even planning of) the AFSTC. And chronological misuse of AFSCF here… not officially AFSCF at Sunnyvale Air Force Station until 1977. 

One of the first programs was the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). This space-based lab was originally conceived in 1962 and was publically announced in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In his address to the American public, President Johnson stated, “this program will bring us new knowledge about what man is able to do in space.” 

Total misrepresentation of MOL as one of the “first” programs. AFSTC was the backbone of Corona, Gambit, Earpop operations. MOL, as well as the expansion of other NRP satellites programs, was the impetus for building the Advanced Satellite Test Center. You should have a Technical Operating Requirement (TOR) document from Aerospace in your files about the Advanced STC plans. If you want the reference number, I’ll be happy to send it along. 

In 1969, Sunnyvale’s Building 1003, which would become known as the “Blue Cube,” was built to support the MOL program, run by Operating Division Four (OD-4). However, on June 10, 1969, the MOL program was cancelled having made no operational flights.  

Okay, first sentence is technical correct… until you reach the OD-4 part. The closing brochure for Onizuka AFB had the chronology for the Operating Divisions 1 and 4 that were present at the base, including their stand-up and merger into OD-4. You’ve kluged two activities that were separated by at least a decade. 

Your simplification of the MOL cancellation also ignores one of your most recent declassification releases – the EOI studies and KH-11 KENNEN. That EOI capability, as well as the Vietnam War, killed MOL… but I can see why you want to avoid the former topic. 

Prior to the MOL program, NRO—stood up in 1961—planned to supersede the original photoreconnaissance satellite, the Corona program, with that of a more powerful, high-resolution program. The improved capabilities of the Gambit-3 and the planned improvements from Hexagon—NRO’s second and third photoreconnaissance satellite programs—exceeded that of Corona.  

Ass-backward chronology here –Corona and Gambit should have been mentioned *before* MOL, while Hexagon should have been mentioned about the time of MOL’s cancellation.  

Their success led succeeding President Richard Nixon to believe that there was no need to increase the cost and risk to send astronauts into space, thus ending the MOL program. 

Although the MOL program never made an operational flight, it was the gateway to understanding that unmanned spy satellites of OD-4 would soon exceed the capabilities of the MOL mission. After the MOL program was officially cancelled, the “Blue Cube” was used to house other DoD satellite programs. 

From the Aerospace TOR document, the individual MCCs were not all dedicated to MOL… but allowed flexibility to support multiple programs at different levels of security in one building. Too pat of an answer on that last sentence. Again, chronological misuse of OD-4. 

Due to the region’s population increase in the 1970s, the station’s physical security vulnerabilities became apparent. As a result, Air Force Space Command relocated operations from the Silicon Valley to Falcon Air Force Station, Colorado–renamed Schriever Air Force Base in June 1998. Spacecraft operations were split between the two locations and each location would serve as a backup to the other. 

Mischaracterization of the need for Falcon AFS – Shuttle Operations and Planning Center (SOPC) and Space Operations Center (SOC) was the reason for Falcon’s construction. Blue suit ops with Blue Shuttle support, were the reasons for its construction – no mention that AFSCF supported the first (and subsequent) shuttle launches 

AFSCF was renamed the Onizuka Air Force Station in January 1994 in honor of Lt. Col. Ellison Shoji Onizuka—a U.S. Air Force test pilot, engineer, the first Asian-American, the first Japanese-American, and the first Buddhist astronaut to reach space—who was tragically killed in the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in 1986. 

This paragraph should get your writer shot – Sunnyvale Air Force Station was renamed in 1986 after Onizuka… and a few years later was “upgraded” to Air Force Base. Then after turmoil in the 1990s, it was “downgraded” to an Air Station, then “Air Force Station” once again. That 1994 date is complete fabrication, and a gross simplification of when the station was *really* named after Colonel El Onizuka. 

In 2005, after 46 years of service, Onizuka AFB was selected for closure, causing NRO to relocate its remaining resources to Schreiver AFB and Vandenberg SFB. NRO’s mission at the facility ended in April 2007 and Onizuka AFB was officially closed down on Sept. 30, 2010, one year before the Base Realignment and Closure Commission’s deadline. The land was turned over to the city of Sunnyvale in 2013 and the building was demolished in April 2014. 

While I’m not a fan of United States Space Force (!), I am a fan of consistency. If you mention Schriever and Vandenberg in the same sentences, they should both be “Air Force Bases” or “Space Force Bases.” But Onizuka AFS’ legacy did not extend into the current clowny USSF era.  

USSF History Office (Ball and Sturdevant) have a mountain of information about Sunnyvale/Onizuka AFS/AFB/AFS. The dates and timelines are there, and your archives have the “other” side of the story (NRP timelines).  

Joe Page II

Note: I don’t ever expect to hear back from the powers-that-be on this one… but, if something gets tossed my way, I’ll be sure to post a response.

And just in case it does get updated, the original (as listed above) can be found at the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine: https://web.archive.org/web/20220413164335/https://www.nro.gov/News-and-Media/News-Articles/Article/2992528/have-you-heard-of-the-blue-cube/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: