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Gaining the High Ground
In 1946, General Curtis E. LeMay, director of research and development for the air staff (a precursor to the Air Force), asked the Douglas Aircraft Corporation to study the feasibility of orbiting an artificial satellite. Their report, Preliminary Design for an Experimental World Circling Spaceship, published on May 2, 1946, was a visionary document. It recognized the scientific and military applications of satellites, as well as the political implications of orbiting the first spacecraft, and outlined the technical specifications for a small satellite weighing no more than 2,000-pounds. Although the technology to create such a vehicle did not exist then, the report predicted many eventual uses of satellites, including missile guidance, weather monitoring, global communications, and reconnaissance. On March 16, 1956, ten years later, the Air Force issued General Operational Requirement No. 80, officially establishing the requirement for an advanced reconnaissance satellite. In the decade, the Air Force studied the military applications of satellites and made significant strides in developing the necessary technology. In July 1956, the month the U-2 first flew over the Soviet Union, the Air Force Air Research and Development Command approved Weapon System 117L (WS-117L), a defense program to build reconnaissance satellites in assorted orbits. The project began in October 1956, when the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation received a contract to develop a video read-out reconnaissance satellite. First designated Advanced Reconnaissance System, then SENTRY, and finally SAMOS, the system was designed to photograph the Earth, develop the pictures on the spacecraft, scan them, and transmit the electronic images to Earth. The contract also included a secondary system, which would return the exposed film in deorbited capsules parachuted from the satellite. SAMOS initially received priority, since it offered the possibility of providing near real-time reconnaissance, but world events and concern over the timeliness to achieve SAMOS reversed this prioritization.
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On October 4, 1957, two months after the Kremlin announced it had successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Soviet Union orbited the 184-pound Sputnik-1 satellite. President Dwight D. Eisenhower initially downplayed the accomplishment, calling Sputnik a “small ball in the air” during a Pentagon press conference five days later, but he badly misread public opinion. The event humiliated the nation, which was struggling to launch Vanguard, a Navy satellite 50 times lighter than Sputnik. Eisenhower initially showed little interest in accelerating America’s missile and satellite efforts, but on October 24, the President’s Board of Consultants on Foreign Intelligence Activities reported that WS-117L was badly behind schedule. On November 12 (10 days after Moscow launched the 1,000-pound Sputnik-2, carrying the first living creature, a dog named Laika, into space) two RAND researchers, Merton B. Davies and Amrom H. Katz, published a report that the WS-117L film-recovery system could be operational a year sooner than the more complex SAMOS.

CORONA Imagery Intelligence Satellite

In February 1958, President Eisenhower approved a plan, which transferred WS-117L’s film-recovery system from the regular Air Force to a covert Air Force-Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) team led by CIA Deputy Director (Plans) Dr. Richard M. Bissell, Jr. To avoid military bureaucracy and inter-service rivalry, the president specifically stated that CIA should manage the new effort, now called CORONA. Bissell ran CORONA under an arrangement similar to the one he used to develop the U-2, which leveraged the unique resources of the Air Force, CIA, and private industry. The Air Force provided the rockets, launch facilities, and recovery aircraft; CIA managed the program and covert funds; Lockheed (the prime contractor) built the reconnaissance system; the Fairchild and Itek Corporations made the cameras, and General Electric produced the film return capsules. To conceal CORONA’s purpose, and explain the construction of ground facilities and ensuing launches, CIA disguised the reconnaissance effort as Discoverer, an Air Force biomedical program.

On August 10, 1960, after 12 successive failures, the United States launched Discoverer-13, the first successful CORONA satellite. The first mission was a test vehicle that carried an American flag, but no film. The first intelligence operation to return film occurred eight days later. Air Force C-119, and later C-130, planes recovered the film return capsules in mid-air as they drifted downward over the Pacific Ocean. A Kodak facility in Rochester, New York, developed the film, which was then sent to Washington, DC, for analysis.
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The CORONA program continued until 1972 and produced over 800,000 images. The program boasted a remarkable list of firsts in space history:
  • First photograph taken from space
  • First recovery of an intelligence payload from space
  • First mid-air recovery of an object from space
  • First mapping of the earth from space
  • First use of multiple film return capsules
  • First space program to fly 100 missions.

Two additional satellites, the KH-5 ARGON and KH-6 LANYARD, were closely related to CORONA. The U.S. Army Map service used ARGON to acquire precise geodetic data for pinpointing targets. The Air Force launched 12 ARGON satellites between February 1961 and August 1964; four were successful, two partially successful, and six were failures. After 1964, NRO piggybacked ARGON missions on CORONA satellites to reduce the demand for launch facilities at Vandenberg. The LANYARD was an attempt to develop a high-resolution photoreconnaissance satellite. Of the three LANYARD satellites launched between March and July 1963, only one returned film and the images were blurry. GRAB Signals Intelligence Satellite

On August 14, 1959, President Eisenhower authorized the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) to develop the GRAB (Galactic RAdiation and Background experiment) satellite to collect Soviet air-defense radar emissions. Reid D. Mayo, an NRL engineer, conceived the theory behind GRAB in March 1958, while stranded by a blizzard at a Pennsylvania restaurant. As he waited for the snow to clear, he pondered the application of technologies he developed for submarines during World War II to the problem of intercepting Soviet radar signals. He wondered if a version of the system he developed for submarine periscopes could intercept Soviet radars if mounted on a Vanguard satellite. He penciled range calculations on a paper placemat and determined that such a system could intercept Soviet radar signals up to an altitude of 600-miles. When Mayo returned to Washington, DC, he presented the idea to Howard Lorenzen, chief of the NRL countermeasures branch and a leading figure in America’s electronic warfare program, who supported the idea. On June 22, 1960, a little over two years later and a few weeks before America orbited CORONA, the United States launched GRAB-1, the nation’s first signals intelligence satellite, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The NRL attempted five GRAB launches between June 1960 and April 1962; only two succeeded. The GRAB vehicles collected radar signal pulses in a specified bandwidth and transmitted the corresponding signal to NRL radio receiving sites in the satellite’s field-of-view. Ground stations recorded the data and dispatched the tapes to NRL, the National Security Agency, and the Air Force Strategic Air Command for analysis.

National Reconnaissance Office

After the success of the U-2, GRAB, and CORONA, the United States established new authorities to manage America’s reconnaissance program. On August 31, 1960, Secretary of the Air Force Dudley C. Sharp created the Office of Missile and Satellite Systems to direct the Air Force SAMOS video readout program. Under Secretary of the Air Force Dr. Joseph V. Charyk ran this Pentagon-based office. That same day, Secretary Sharp also designated Brigadier General Robert E. Greer, Assistant Chief of Staff for Guided Missiles, as the Director of the SAMOS field office in El Segundo, California. This two-office arrangement (one in the Pentagon, the other in California) provided a direct chain-of-command from the Air Force general directly in charge of SAMOS on the West Coast to senior Air Force civilians in the Pentagon who reported to the Secretary of Defense, and to the president.

A year later, on September 6, 1961, acting Director of Central Intelligence General Charles P. Cabell and Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell L. Gilpatric, established the National Reconnaissance Program, which consolidated America’s satellite and aerial reconnaissance projects under a covert National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). For the next 31-years, NRO’s existence was a secret. Dr. Charyk and CIA Deputy Director (Plans) Dr. Richard M. Bissell, Jr., co-directed the new organization. The NRO’s alphabetic programs created separate efforts for the Air Force (Program A), CIA (Program B), and Navy (Program C), as well as a program for the U-2, SR-71, and A-12 aircraft (Program D). In 1962, shortly after the last unsuccessful GRAB launch, control over the Naval Research Laboratory’s satellite activities transferred to Program C. On December 13, 1962, NRO launched the first of seven successful POPPY satellites, GRAB’s successor, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
Advanced Reconnaissance

Developed in the 1960s as CORONA follow-on systems, the KH-7 and KH-9 film-return satellites provided imagery of Soviet and Chinese nuclear installations, missile sites, and other activities in “denied territories.” Between July 1963 and June 1967, NRO operated 38 KH-7 missions. Only 30 missions obtained usable images, totaling about 43,000 linear feet. Between June 1971 and October 1984, NRO conducted 19 KH-9 missions, and attempted a twentieth mission in April 1986, which exploded on launch. The KH-7, America’s first successful high-resolution imagery satellite, complemented the broad area search capabilities of the KH-9. In effect, the KH-9 determined that something was worth seeing on the ground; the KH-7 then acquired the detailed imagery for analysis. However, de-orbiting capsules, developing the film, and examining the images took weeks; America needed a faster method of gaining intelligence from space. On December 19, 1976, NRO launched the KH-11 near real-time electro-optical satellite. As demand for satellite reconnaissance grew, NRO developed increasingly sophisticated technology to collect and process imagery and signals intelligence.

Legacy of Satellite Reconnaissance

Satellite reconnaissance was a critical part of American technical intelligence during the Cold War. Before these systems, intelligence about the Soviet Union, China, and other “denied areas” was largely guesswork; limited to what airborne and ground-based platforms could collect on the country’s peripheral. The NRO systems provided clues to the location and capabilities of key radar sites, weapons testing ranges, military units, and industrial facilities. This intelligence dispelled the idea that Moscow operated differently in the interior and kept what they wanted America to see on the edge of Soviet territory. The NRO’s signals and imagery satellites gave U.S. and allied leaders an enhanced picture of critical national threats and contributed to the Cold War’s end in 1989.