The amazing story of how our supersecret, Cold-War spy satellites took photos of the Soviet empire and dropped them to Earth, all without the help of computers, bandwidth, or digital cameras.
Here's your mission, should you choose to accept it: build a camera that can take high-resolution photographs of the Earth from orbit and return them to the Central Intelligence Agency. There's only one catch: you don't get to use a computer or a single kilobyte of network bandwidth.
That's the task that the United States government gave to a group of engineers at the optical instruments company Perkin-Elmer in Danbury, Connecticut at the height of the Cold War. It was October 1966 and the new development of the new satellite system, Hexagon, was underway. The project was a follow-on to very successful Corona satellite program and a complement to the higher-resolution Gambit satellite.
All these programs required 315,000 feet of film to be dropped in re-entry vehicles from orbit and retrieved in mid-air by U.S. forces. Gambit and Hexagon were declassified late this year, and its engineers were profiled this week by the Associated Press.
Hexagon was known as "Big Bird" and up to 1,000 Perkin-Elmer employees worked on the program during its peak in the 1970s. Almost nothing was known about the program, except for scraps of information that leaked out to reporters. For example, in 1977, the AP reported, "At present, the United States has only one Big Bird reconnaissance satellite at a time in orbit. If the Big Bird were to be destroyed by surprise attack, it might be months before the Air Force could replace it." It was also known by the likes of William Safire that our satellites could "read the license plates on the cars of Kremlin officials." But what was known was mostly lore: "the American Big Bird... is said to be able to photograph from 100 miles up people walking the streets of Moscow."
In this case, though, the reality is more interesting than the legend. Our satellite programs were ridiculous collaborations between optical specialists like the Perkin-Elmer researchers, Lockheed Martin's satellite makers, Kodak's film creators, and the Air Force's pilots. Check out the AP's description of the program and note the many points of virtuosity.
From 1971 to 1986 a total of 20 satellites were launched, each containing 60 miles (100 kilometers) of film and sophisticated cameras that orbited the earth snapping vast, panoramic photographs of the Soviet Union, China and other potential foes. The film was shot back through the earth's atmosphere in buckets that parachuted over the Pacific Ocean, where C-130 Air Force planes snagged them with grappling hooks.
All of this is now detailed in the National Reconnaissance Office's declassification reports about Hexagon, which include a 72-page overview produced in 1978 and marked TOP SECRET. I've pulled out some of the most fascinating diagrams from the Hexagon overview. For some reason, the hand-lettered proto-Powerpoint drives home to me how long ago we developed this satellite photo capability. We could take photos of Earth from space before we could do desktop publishing.