Home » News » NRO Declassifying Two Cold War Spy Satellites

NRO Declassifying Two Cold War Spy Satellites

by John Reed on September 15, 2011

So the National Reconaissance Office is celebrating its 50th birthday this weekend by throwing a party for 4,000 guests at the National Air and Space Museum’s very cool Udvar-Hazy Center.

What’s going to be the highlight of a night spent celebrating the secretive agency that operates America’s spy satellites? The declassification of two famous Cold War spy sats, of course.

NRO director and former Air Force general Bruce Carlson told reporters during a breakfast in Washignton this morning that the office will be declassifying the KH-7 –8 series Gambit spy satellite that was used to take pictures of the Soviet Union between 1963 and 1984 and the KH-9 Hexagon satellite (shown in a rendering above since its still classified) used between 1971 and 1986.

The massive KH-9 Hexagon was 60-feet-long by ten feet wide. Both satellites carried thousands of feet of wet film that was dropped back to Earth and plucked out of the sky over the Pacific ocean by specially modified C-119 Flying Boxcars and C-130 Hercules.

(Watch this cool old movie about this process called “Catch a Falling Star.” Notice how the winch operator just pitches an empty coffee cup out the C-119’s open cargo door. Yeah, that wouldn’t fly in an AF promo flick today)

All four of the Hexagon’s film capsules will be on display and the satellite’s body will be partially opened up so that museum guests can look inside to see in inner workings of the 60-foot-long camera, according to Carlson.

The former general recounted just how much IMINT the satellites were able to collect, though it was a bit of a challenge to get the program on its feet:

Running a camera that’s 60-feet-long, you think, ‘gosh what if it jams, what if something goes wrong, you go to the movies and it does every once in  a while.’ Well, it didn’t happen very often and they took more pictures on the first successful flight of that system than they did in all the U-2 flights that had ever taken place. But you know, there were 12 failures before there was one success. So, it didn’t succeed until the 13th shot and in the meantime we’d put pieces of those mechanisms and rockets all over Cape Canaveral and Vandenburg — we splattered them as far as Finland and Norway. So, it was quite an adventure to get this whole thing off the road and moving.

12 failed launches with debris of a highly classified system strewn close to the Soviet border. Can you imagine such a program being allowed to continue today if information like that were made public? The classified nature of the KH-9 probably kept it alive and relatively safe from criticism – enabling big risks that eventually led to big technological leaps.

Good luck getting tickets to the party, the wait list already has 200 people on it, according to Carlson.


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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Jayson September 15, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Well at least it was a biodegradable paper cup :) Pretty awesome video of how they catch a falling star. I love historical footage like that.


blight September 15, 2011 at 9:22 pm

And this is Cold War era stuff.

Wonder if they'll ever declassify their Synthetic Aperture Radar satellites (LACROSSE et al)…maybe they have already?


Dave M September 15, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Air Force HH-53 were also used for this mission till about 1986/87.


Roland September 16, 2011 at 12:53 am

Hopefully its upgraded to the latest technology for the country's reconaissance, early warning system, defense,and to counter any future threats.


JSCS September 16, 2011 at 9:49 am

Folks at Kodak are still dodgy when asked about this…..they were a big part of that program.


Stephen N Russell September 16, 2011 at 11:17 am

wonder if we can Recover those Sats & place in Museum??
Satellite Recovery can boast 350B a year business.


Matt Holzmann September 16, 2011 at 11:29 am

These satellites could read the license plates of Russian trucks. And you're talking 1960's technology.


Cthel September 16, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Optics hasn't really changed much (with the invention of the flexible mirror and adaptive optics). The performance of the satellite "lens" is more a matter of precision manufacturing rather than cutting edge technology; however, the rest of the satellite was indeed a miracle of ingenuity and design.

For similar reasons, the performance of modern CCD surveillance systems is not much better than the film camera used in the U2 - it all comes down to the design of the optical equipment, rather than some high-tech wizardry.


Roland September 16, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Add a rocket booster, ion fuel engine with wings on the side so it can travel anywhere around the world.


Kski September 17, 2011 at 6:32 pm

Will just make sure the security can remove any nosy eyes, cough-China,cough. Away from those old spy sates.


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