WITH the approach of another military space shuttle mission, set for an Aug. 8 blast off, the news media has started another round in the ``Guess-the-payload'' game. While poking fun at hapless, helpless Pentagon press officials, these reporters play their own game of courageous news sleuthing. The stakes are egos on one side and national security on the other. During the mission last December, while both NASA and defense officials remained silent about the progress of the flight, the news media regaled the public with mocking tales of inept Pentagon bureaucrats trying to cover up a space event which amateur observers in Canada and Europe had supposedly already completely penetrated. A series of experts were trotted out to disclaim on how ridiculous it was for the government to try to keep secrets. The key themes were that such secrecy didn't work anyhow, and was immoral even to attempt since it violated the public's right to know how its tax dollars were being spent.
Such claims are unjustified, based more on ego-tripping and ideological bias than on sound analysis. Secrecy surrounding shuttle missions is necessary and effective, and the only ``rights'' violated by it are those of voyeuristic thrill-seekers or their media employers.
Many military spacecraft perform functions subject to countermeasures, but the dilemma facing the Soviets is what sort of countermeasures to apply. Successfully-maintained ignorance can tremendously enhance the value of such costly satellites, and it has often done so, mercifully invisible to the news media. Likewise, exposure of function can reduce or even eliminate the applications planned for them, and this has happened too. Sometimes that exposure comes from spies, and sometimes from open sources.
One feature of military shuttle missions most often mocked by newsmen is the withholding of launch time and intended orbital path. A frequent refrain is that such data is ``immediately obvious'' to Soviet spy satellites.
Such complaints reflect ignorance of Soviet technology, as well as ineptness by government spokesmen explaining such policies. There are excellent reasons for protecting such data in advance.
The rationale revolves around the nature of space operations. Although once a satellite is deployed it can eventually be observed by Soviet ground sites, the deployment process itself can be extremely sensitive. There are a series of characterizing events which, if observed with sufficiently sharp focus, could alert the Soviets to many classified features of the payload.
One example is the orbital insertion burn performed by the shuttle's maneuvering system. If measured precisely, the known thrust of the engines and the known orbit resulting from the burn can be used to compute the payload weight.
To observe and time a shuttle rocket burn, Soviet satellites would have to know in advance where and when the burn would occur so that a particular satellite's sensors could be directed onto a narrow angle with a fast scan rate to detect both the start and stop of the burn. Without such advance knowledge several days ahead of time, the Soviets will be unable to obtain the data necessary to ``weigh'' the secret payload.
Other characterizing events involve operations with deployment mechanisms (such as the robot arm), with waste water dumps, with communications relay satellites, and so forth. These could be spotted only if the Soviets knew where and when to concentrate their sensors.
Although newsmen will assert that they publish nothing not already known to the Soviets, this excuse is not credible. Anyone without full security clearances about a project cannot judge what trivial facts are significant. Technical intelligence is a game of tiny details that add up.
Western analysts frequently discover valuable information in Soviet papers, despite heavy censorship. Soviet defectors have told Western debriefers how much more valuable are American press stories, both in providing new information and in verifying single-source reports. So stories about the identity of military space vehicles are helpful to the Soviets.
Claims of ``not news to the Russians'' are patently transparent in many Western reports. Networks and magazines garner prestige, increased circulation, and higher profits from such material. Last year, one magazine even hired a private plane to fly over the roll-out of the B-2 Stealth bomber, obtaining - and proudly publishing - high-quality views of the vehicle's features which the Air Force intended to sequester. These pictures were better than any the Soviets could have obtained from any other source.
As far as the ``right to know,'' that is a charade to rationalize the media's primeval thrill of ``winning the game'' with nasty space militarists. Military space projects have been extensively reviewed and approved by tough-minded congressional panels, and if that's insufficient reassurance, the whole system needs reform. But sabotaging military space operations by aiding the Soviets in their countermeasures is stupid, costly, irresponsible, and ultimately self-defeating.