The Coldest Warriors

Tales from the corridors of an agency so secret that officially it didn’t exist.

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Program C, the Navy’s ocean reconnaissance operation, reacted to the maelstrom by distancing itself from the NRO and pretty much going its own way, though Martin Marietta eventually got a contract for surveillance satellites. Wheelon, who at 23 had gotten a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, replaced Scoville in 1963. Like Bissell and Scoville, he saw space reconnaissance as a valuable intelligence tool and told McCone as forcefully as he could that the agency had to play a pivotal role in the program—that strategic reconnaissance was primarily the agency’s job.

Since the old intimate partnership with the Air Force was ancient history, Wheelon advised his boss, competition was the only alternative. McCone was already coming to the conclusion that the CIA had lost its influence within the NRO during the Scoville years, but the NRO had only increased its hold over satellite reconnaissance during that time. Something had to be done to get the CIA back in the satellite business, but the agency would have to do better than Corona. Now spoiling to compete, McCone got the ear of Jerome Wiesner, President John F. Kennedy’s science advisor, and the highly influential “Din” Land, both of whom supported the CIA.

The tumultuous period from 1963 through 1965 saw the greatest breakthrough in space espionage since spy satellites started flying. First called Kennan and later Crystal, the famous KH-11 satellite sent imagery in near real-time—virtually as an event occurred. The KH-11 had its genesis in an improbable convergence of Soviet ballistic missiles and American football. On an autumn Sunday in 1963, Wheelon sat in his living room in Annandale, Virginia, watching a football game broadcast from San Francisco. He recalled that not one useful photograph had been obtained by Corona during the missile crisis in Cuba the previous October. By the time the returning film capsules had been snatched in mid-air, their film sent to Eastman Kodak in Rochester for processing, and the pictures forwarded to Washington for analysis, the crisis was over. It struck Wheelon that if an NFL game could be transmitted live from San Francisco, so could imagery from the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

Wheelon would need the newly invented charge-coupled device, then being developed at Bell Labs. A CCD is an electronic retina: a mosaic of many thousands of tiny light sensors that is no bigger than a postage stamp. CCDs convert photons of light to electrical signals that can be transmitted digitally. It took 13 years before the first Kennan was forward-passed into orbit. Part of the delay involved engineering, since the Greyhound bus-size spacecraft was fantastically complicated. But as usual, part was political.

A few months before Wheelon’s football revelation, the Air Force tried to leapfrog the CIA by sending up Gambit, an advanced bucket-dropper like Corona but with outstanding resolution on the order of 18 inches. Kennan, the CIA’s entry, had that kind of resolution and better, but it also had the tremendous benefit of sending imagery right away. Kennan therefore threatened Gambit, and that set off yet another bruising conflict. The Air Force reacted by trying to orbit Frog (for “Film Readout Gambit”). The idea was to scan Gambit imagery with an older vacuum tube video camera, but transmission from orbit was notoriously poor, which is why Kennan used CCDs.

Frog also had to fly low to get the clearest possible pictures of the target, but that made it more difficult to maintain line-of-sight radio contact with its receiving station. The spacecraft could operate only a few hundred miles inside the Soviet Union, and receivers to collect its imagery would have to be set up like a fence of antennas encircling the Iron Curtain. The advantage of using satellites instead of airplanes to get deep, complete coverage would be lost. The myopic Frog soon croaked.

The Air Force didn’t have a monopoly on harebrained ideas, however. The CIA decided that the ultimate spy satellite should be able to do everything. It therefore invented one that combined imaging, including infrared, and signals intercept capability in a single colossally large and horrendously expensive vehicle. Even before it was killed on the drawing board, its many detractors contemptuously dubbed it “Battlestar Galactica.”

Alexander H. Flax, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for research and development, succeeded McMillan as the NRO’s third director on October 1, 1965, and stayed until March 1969. Flax concluded that the only way to get real-time imagery from deep in the heart of Russia was to beam it up to a second satellite, which would relay the pictures to Earth. A look at a globe of the world showed that the only feasible way to send imagery from the Soviet Union to the United States was by using a relay satellite in an elliptical orbit thousands of miles above the top of the planet, giving it 12 hours or more of “hang time” to collect the imagery and forward it home. This was done by a spacecraft known as SDS, for Satellite Data System, which was developed in close conjunction with Kennan to form a compatible team.

Another brilliant development during the 1960s was Rhyolite, a satellite designed to listen to telemetry coming from Soviet rockets and ballistic missiles as they lifted off their launch pads. Telemetry at launch—information about fuel flow, exhaust pressure, turbopump operation, guidance systems, and other vital signs radioed to the engineers—provides a complete picture of the missile’s performance.

The CIA needed to intercept the telemetry just before and during liftoff. The solution was to park a satellite with a huge antenna over the launch site and eavesdrop on the telemetry, soaking it up on recorders like a mechanical sponge. The best place to do that was at geosynchronous altitude, roughly 22,300 miles up, where the satellite would remain parked over the same spot. But capturing a signal from so great a distance required a huge bowl-shaped antenna. That created another problem: how to get the thing into a launch vehicle’s small upper stage. A contractor solved the problem by folding the antenna like a sophisticated parasol. Rhyolite was built by TRW and first launched in 1970. It was sensationally effective at listening to missile launch telemetry and monitoring thousands of radio conversations simultaneously.

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