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Declassified spysat exhibit reveals rare look at Cold War space program

by Roger Guillemette, Contributor

Viewed from both sides, the HEXAGON satellite on display after being declassified on Sept 17, 2011. (R. Guillemette/
September 18, 2011

— Twenty-five years after their Cold War-era missions ended, two clandestine U.S. satellite programs were declassified Saturday (Sept. 17), with the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) unveiling three of the United States' most closely guarded assets: the KH-7 GAMBIT, the KH-8 GAMBIT 3 and the KH-9 HEXAGON spy satellites.

The vintage NRO satellites were displayed to the public Saturday during a one-day-only exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. The three spacecraft were the centerpiece of the NRO's invitation-only 50th anniversary gala celebration held at the center later that evening.

Saturday's spysat unveiling was attended by a number of jubilant NRO veterans who developed and refined the classified spacecraft and their components for decades in secret, finally able to show their wives and families what they actually did 'at the office' for so many years.

Both of the newly declassified satellite systems, GAMBIT and HEXAGON, followed the U.S. military's frontrunner spy satellite system CORONA, which was declassified in 1995. [See images of the newly declassified satellites]

Revealing the "Big Bird"

The KH-9 HEXAGON, often referred to by its nickname "Big Bird," lived up to its legendary expectations. As large as a school bus, the KH-9 HEXAGON carried 60 miles of high resolution photographic film for space surveillance missions.

"This was some bad-ass technology," Dwayne A. Day, a military space historian, told "The Russians didn't have anything like it."

Day, co-editor of "Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites," noted "it took the Soviets on average five to 10 years to catch up during the Cold War, and in many cases they never really matched American capabilities."

Phil Presser, designer of the satellite's panoramic 'optical bar' imaging cameras, agreed with Day's assessment.

"This is still the most complicated system we've ever put into orbit ...Period," Presser said.

Phil Presser, designer of the KH-9's panoramic camera, points out some of the satellite's features. (R. Guillemette/

The HEXAGON panoramic cameras rotated as they swept back and forth as the satellite flew over Earth, a process intelligence officials referred to as "mowing the lawn."

Each 6-inch-wide frame of film captured a wide swath of terrain covering 370 nautical miles — the distance from Cincinnati to Washington — on each pass over the former Soviet Union and China. The satellites had a resolution of about 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to nearly 1 meter), according to the NRO.

According to documents released Saturday by the NRO, each HEXAGON satellite mission lasted about 124 days, with the satellite launching four film return capsules that sent its photos back to Earth. An aircraft would catch the return capsules in mid-air by snagging their parachutes following the canisters' re-entry.

In a intriguing footnote, the film bucket from the first KH-9 HEXAGON sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in spring 1972 after Air Force recovery aircraft failed to snag the bucket's parachute.

The film inside the protective bucket reportedly contained high resolution photos of the Soviet Union's submarine bases and missile silos. In a daredevil feat of clandestine ingenuity, the U.S. Navy's Deep Submergence Vehicle Trieste II succeeded in grasping the bucket from a depth of 3 miles below the ocean.

Hubble vs. HEXAGON

Former International Space Station flight controller Rob Landis, now technical manager in the advanced projects office at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, drove more than three hours to see the veil lifted from these legendary spacecraft.

Landis, who also worked on the Hubble Space Telescope for NASA, noticed some distinct similarities between the orbiting observatory and the HEXAGON reconnaissance satellite.

"I see a lot of Hubble heritage in this spacecraft, most notably in terms of spacecraft size," Landis said. "Once the space shuttle design was settled upon, the design of Hubble — at the time it was called the Large Space Telescope — was set upon. I can imagine that there may have been a convergence or confluence of the designs."

"The Hubble's primary mirror is 2.4 meters [7.9 feet] in diameter and the spacecraft is 14 feet in diameter. Both vehicles [KH-9 and Hubble] would fit into the shuttle's cargo bay lengthwise, the KH-9 being longer than Hubble [60 feet]; both would also fit on a Titan-class launch vehicle," he said.

The 'convergence or confluence' theory was confirmed later in the day by a former spacecraft designer, who declined to be named but is familiar with both programs, who confided unequivocally: "The space shuttle's payload bay was sized to accommodate the KH-9."

The NRO launched 20 HEXAGONs from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., from June 1971 to April 1986.

The HEXAGON's final launch in April 1986 — just months after the space shuttle Challenger was lost — also met with disaster as the spy satellite's Titan 34D booster erupted into a massive fireball just seconds after liftoff, crippling the NRO's orbital reconnaissance capabilities for many months.

The spy satellite GAMBIT

Overhead view of the KH-7 GAMBIT, prior to its public unveiling at the Smithsonian, Sept. 17, 2011. (R. Guillemette/

Before the first HEXAGON spy satellites ever launched, the NRO's GAMBIT series of reconnaissance craft flew several space missions aimed at providing surveillance over specific targets around the world.

The program's initial system, GAMBIT 1, first launched in 1963 carrying a KH-7 camera system that included a "77 inch focal length camera for providing specific information on scientific and technical capabilities that threatened the nation," per the NRO. A second GAMBIT system, which first launched aboard GAMBIT 3 in 1966, included a 175 inch focal length camera.

The GAMBIT 1 series satellite has a resolution similar to the HEXAGON series, about 2 to 3 feet, but the follow-up GAMBIT 3 system had an improved resolution of better than 2 feet, NRO documents reveal.

Both large satellites were launched out of Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The satellite series' initial version was 15 feet (4.5 m) long and 5 feet (1.5 m) wide, and weighed about 1,154 pounds (523 kilograms). The GAMBIT 3 satellite was the same width but longer, stretching nearly 29 feet (9 m) long, not counting its Agena D rocket. It weighed about 4,130 pounds (1,873 kg).

Unlike the follow-up HEXAGON satellites, the GAMBIT series were designed for extremely short missions.

The GAMBIT 1 craft had an average mission life of about 6.5 days. A total of 38 missions were launched, though ten of them were deemed failures, according to the NRO.

The GAMBIT 3 series satellites had missions averaging about 31 days. In all, 54 of the satellites were launched, with four failures recorded.

Like the CORONA and HEXAGON programs, GAMBIT satellites returned their film to Earth in re-entry capsules that were then snatched up by recovery aircraft. GAMBIT 1 carried about 3,000 feet (914 m) of film, while GAMBIT 3 was packed with 12,241 feet (3,731 m) of film, the NRO records show.

By comparison, the behemoth HEXAGON was launched with 60 miles (320,000 feet) of film.

The GAMBIT satellite program was active from July 1963 to April 1984.

HEXAGON and GAMBIT 3 team up

During a briefing, NRO officials confirmed to that the KH-8 GAMBIT 3 and KH-9 HEXAGON were later operated in tandem, teaming-up to photograph areas of military significance in both the former Soviet Union and China.

The KH-9 would image a wide swath of terrain, later scrutinized by imagery analysts on the ground for so called 'targets of opportunity.' Once these potential targets were identified, a KH-8 would then be maneuvered to photograph the location in much higher resolution.

"During the era of these satellites — the GAMBIT and the HEXAGON — there was a Director of Central Intelligence committee known as the 'Committee on Imagery Requirements and Exploitation' that was responsible for that type of planning," Robert McDonald, director of the Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance, said.

NASA's Rob Landis was both blunt and philosophical in his emotions over the declassification of the GAMBIT and HEXAGON programs.

"You have to give credit to leaders like Pres. Eisenhower who had the vision to initiate reconnaissance spacecraft, beginning with the CORONA and Discoverer programs," Landis said. "He was of the generation who wanted no more surprises, no more Pearl Harbors."

"Frankly, I think GAMBIT and HEXAGON helped prevent World War III," Landis said.

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