Skip to comments.TOP SECRET: Your Briefing on the CIA's Cold-War Spy Satellite, 'Big Bird'
Posted on 01/01/2012 12:14:42 AM PST by neverdem
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...
(Excerpt) Read more at theatlantic.com ...
our private eyes, are watching you watching you watching you
Since these birds had to go through multiple rolls of physical film and drop them periodically in a safe way, and there wasn’t a way of restocking film to them on the fly, they lasted anywhere from 30 to 180 days, then self destructed by re-entry.
Careful...if no one accepts this mission, the entire Forum will self-destruct in 5, 4, 3,....
Although some aspects of this program are being declassified, the basic details have been public knowledge for a long time. I always wondered how they could manage to time the plane flights precisely enough to catch film dropped from space.
Wow. Neat article. It takes me back to the days of chain driven Honneywell chart recorders... (when you could wiggle a wire or two, ‘tap’ on this or that, and get it working again...).
Chalkboards and slide rules did wonders.
I was on the source selection team.
I long for the days when secrets of national importance were actually kept secret...instead of reading about the leaking sieves in Washington putting our soldiers and country at risk.
I've met some of these guys. Some are no longer with us and never got a chance to talk about what they did for their country.
Did you catch that line about the AP leak in the late 70’s? Sounded like an internal KGB memo.
Reads here like they were encapsulated into dedicated re-entry vehicles, plopped into the ocean and grabbed by ship.
One of the treble hooks which the AF used to snag the parachute is on display in the lobby of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Using the parachute worked until the Navy found a Soviet sub waiting under the planned drop zone, in case the C-124 missed the snag. That’s when they realized the need to figure a way to download the images by encrypted communications.
I once watched an entire lunar eclipse from the roof of this thing, ten stories high!
Thanks for the post very interesting I would still like to see them declassify Echelon.
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