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TOP SECRET: Your Briefing on the CIA's Cold-War Spy Satellite, 'Big Bird'
The Atlantic ^ | December 29, 2011 | Alexis Madrigal

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 ...


TOPICS: Editorial; Foreign Affairs; Politics/Elections; Russia; Technical
KEYWORDS: bigbird; cia; hexagon; kh9
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1 posted on 01/01/2012 12:14:51 AM PST by neverdem
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To: neverdem

our private eyes, are watching you watching you watching you


2 posted on 01/01/2012 12:29:43 AM PST by HiTech RedNeck (Sometimes progressives find their scripture in the penumbra of sacred bathroom stall writings (Tzar))
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To: neverdem

By 1977, IIRC the first KH-11 was in orbit though it wasn’t up there very long.


3 posted on 01/01/2012 12:36:07 AM PST by F15Eagle (1 John 5:4-5, 4:15, 5:13; John 3:17-18, 6:69, 11:25, 14:6, 20:31; Rom10:8-11; 1 Tim 2:5; Titus 3:4-5)
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To: F15Eagle

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.


4 posted on 01/01/2012 1:14:57 AM PST by HiTech RedNeck (Sometimes progressives find their scripture in the penumbra of sacred bathroom stall writings (Tzar))
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To: neverdem
your mission, should you choose to accept it...

Careful...if no one accepts this mission, the entire Forum will self-destruct in 5, 4, 3,....

5 posted on 01/01/2012 1:16:02 AM PST by LjubivojeRadosavljevic
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To: LjubivojeRadosavljevic
Quick! press the red button before it all explodes!

http://www.turnofftheinternet.com/#

6 posted on 01/01/2012 1:32:46 AM PST by BlueDragon (who-oah.. c'mon sing it one more time I didn't hear ya)
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To: neverdem

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.


7 posted on 01/01/2012 1:47:03 AM PST by wideminded
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To: HiTech RedNeck

Not the 11 ;) But it may not have been up until August. First one was only up like 90 days or so.


8 posted on 01/01/2012 2:09:44 AM PST by F15Eagle (1 John 5:4-5, 4:15, 5:13; John 3:17-18, 6:69, 11:25, 14:6, 20:31; Rom10:8-11; 1 Tim 2:5; Titus 3:4-5)
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To: neverdem

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...).


9 posted on 01/01/2012 2:22:26 AM PST by Smokin' Joe (How often God must weep at humans' folly. Stand fast. God knows what He is doing)
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To: neverdem

Chalkboards and slide rules did wonders.


10 posted on 01/01/2012 5:10:13 AM PST by R. Scott (Humanity i love you because when you're hard up you pawn your Intelligence to buy a drink)
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To: neverdem

I was on the source selection team.


11 posted on 01/01/2012 5:16:34 AM PST by larryjohnson (USAF(Ret))
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To: neverdem

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.


12 posted on 01/01/2012 5:20:48 AM PST by SueRae (I can see November 2012 from my HOUSE!!!!!!!!)
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To: neverdem
More background to your posting.
13 posted on 01/01/2012 5:37:34 AM PST by Daffynition (*Pray for whatever passes for America these days* Amen. ~ ScottinVA)
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To: neverdem
...up to 1,000 Perkin-Elmer employees worked on the program during its peak in the 1970s...

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.

14 posted on 01/01/2012 5:40:15 AM PST by McGruff (Hold the House, retake the Senate.)
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To: SueRae

Did you catch that line about the AP leak in the late 70’s? Sounded like an internal KGB memo.


15 posted on 01/01/2012 5:40:25 AM PST by Textide
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To: R. Scott
And cocktail napkins. :)
16 posted on 01/01/2012 5:41:14 AM PST by Daffynition (*Pray for whatever passes for America these days* Amen. ~ ScottinVA)
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To: wideminded

Reads here like they were encapsulated into dedicated re-entry vehicles, plopped into the ocean and grabbed by ship.


17 posted on 01/01/2012 6:02:34 AM PST by HiTech RedNeck (Sometimes progressives find their scripture in the penumbra of sacred bathroom stall writings (Tzar))
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To: neverdem

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.


18 posted on 01/01/2012 6:12:33 AM PST by Portcall24
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To: wideminded
Well, by the late 70's, we had the ability to track a single bolt or nut orbiting in space, so tracking Big Bird and her "eggs" was pretty much mathematically precise:

I once watched an entire lunar eclipse from the roof of this thing, ten stories high!

19 posted on 01/01/2012 6:55:01 AM PST by Alas Babylon!
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To: neverdem

Thanks for the post very interesting I would still like to see them declassify Echelon.


20 posted on 01/01/2012 7:06:03 AM PST by Rappini (Pro Deo et Patria)
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To: Alas Babylon!
Well, by the late 70's, we had the ability to track a single bolt or nut orbiting in space, so tracking Big Bird and her "eggs" was pretty much mathematically precise:
Well, not exactly ... we had capability earlier than that.

"[The] system ... known as the Naval Space Surveillance System (NAVSPASUR), which was commissioned as an operational command in 1961."

"The system concept of NAVSPASUR is that of a continuous wave (CW) multistatic radar. A high-powered transmitter generates a large fan beam of energy, commonly called the "fence," which reflects signals from an orbiting object back to separate receiving stations. These receiving stations use large arrays of antennas as an interferometer to determine the angle and angle rates of arrival from the reflected signals. By observing the target satellite from several stations, the position can be determined; using multiple penetrations, the orbit can be inferred. This rather simple concept led to a highly reliable system that could detect virtually any satellite coming within the transmitter's illuminated field."

www.fas.org/spp/military/program/track/spasur_at.htm

21 posted on 01/01/2012 7:07:34 AM PST by _Jim (Conspiracy theories are the favored tools of the weak-minded.)
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To: Alas Babylon!

What is that? A phased array radar site?


22 posted on 01/01/2012 7:10:46 AM PST by FreedomPoster (Islam delenda est)
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To: neverdem

What they don’t tell you is that the Russians were doing this long before we were.


23 posted on 01/01/2012 7:13:21 AM PST by WackySam (Obama got Osama just like Nixon landed on the moon.)
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To: Portcall24

Now how did the Soviets know where it was going to land?


24 posted on 01/01/2012 7:22:44 AM PST by Jack Hydrazine (It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine!)
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To: Portcall24

So I wonder how they knew where to be..?


25 posted on 01/01/2012 7:24:49 AM PST by Walkingfeather
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To: Alas Babylon!

Is that the one at Eglin AFB?


26 posted on 01/01/2012 7:32:57 AM PST by saminfl
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To: wideminded
I always wondered how they could manage to time the plane flights precisely enough to catch film dropped from space.

Reentry mathematics and mechanics were pretty well-known at that point, being used also in how we were able to target our ICBMs (and particularly the later Minuteman series with MIRVs) and land the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo space capsules so close to the recovery ships. All the planes had to do was orbit within a set coordinate box, then aim for the parachutes.
27 posted on 01/01/2012 7:37:20 AM PST by tanknetter
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To: WackySam

You have some non-Soviet documentation to support that?


28 posted on 01/01/2012 8:10:57 AM PST by X-spurt
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To: X-spurt
You have some non-Soviet documentation to support that?

Not in writing. But the man who told me was a retired AF Col. with a great deal of knowledge on the subject.
29 posted on 01/01/2012 8:20:48 AM PST by WackySam (Obama got Osama just like Nixon landed on the moon.)
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To: FreedomPoster

Check my profile. PAVE PAWS at Cape Cod AFS, Mass.


30 posted on 01/01/2012 8:30:39 AM PST by Alas Babylon!
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To: saminfl

No, this is the AN-FPS 115. The Eglin array is an AN-FP 85. The AN-FPS 115 was modeled from the earlier model Eglin phased array.

In fact, when we went operational in 1979 about half of the personnel came from Eglin.


31 posted on 01/01/2012 8:36:25 AM PST by Alas Babylon!
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To: WackySam
Scuttlebutt likely not limited to enlisted folks. Not saying its false info from your friend.

I tend to be very skeptical regarding Cold War hi-tech claims relating to USSR. They were definitely masters of deception, not necessarily advanced technology. Some of the deception was fostered by our Mil to enable increasing budgets.

32 posted on 01/01/2012 8:40:55 AM PST by X-spurt
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To: larryjohnson
My Dad did some classified work on radar, and was SAC rated early on. We barely made it back to the US before the Vietnam War ended. Never really new what he did, except for GCA work around the world.

We made a map of countries visited before he passed away. My map (thanks to the military postings) covered about 15 countries. His map must have covered 50 countries, and he still wouldn't talk about his adventures. Secrecy was treated much differently back then.

What was the source selection team?

33 posted on 01/01/2012 9:01:58 AM PST by texas booster (Join FreeRepublic's Folding@Home team (Team # 36120) Cure Alzheimer's!)
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To: Rappini
Thanks for the post very interesting I would still like to see them declassify Echelon.
Doesn't exist; find a real telco or 'switch' engineer in your church or social group and ask about their 'Echelon Trunk' back to wherever (Langley?) ... doesn't exist.

Or ask them about the 'Echelon racks' in their local telephone central office (CO) 'switching' exchanges ... they don't exist. Never did.

They didn't exist in our MTSO (mobile telephone switching office) either ... none. No trunks, no 'Ecehelon racks'.

34 posted on 01/01/2012 9:03:08 AM PST by _Jim (Conspiracy theories are the favored tools of the weak-minded.)
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To: texas booster
Secrecy was treated much differently back then.

For some it still is. An open ended non-disclosure statement.

35 posted on 01/01/2012 9:08:29 AM PST by SLB (23rd Artillery Group, Republic of South Vietnam, Aug 1970 - Aug 1971.)
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To: neverdem

Ice Station Zebra

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-inOYbfFYNqs/Tq1TZrjHwnI/AAAAAAAAEgA/0_X7PIjqtkU/s640/Michel-Legrand-Ice-Station-Zebra-476897.jpg


36 posted on 01/01/2012 9:22:31 AM PST by Para-Ord.45 (+)
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To: wideminded

IIRC, that’s exactly how we recovered the first chimp we sent into space. (Able?)
A prop driven, Air Force plane either had a slingshot-shaped device on its nose or dragged a “U” shaped sling behind in order to snag the parachute shrouds in mid-air.


37 posted on 01/01/2012 9:42:21 AM PST by Roccus (POLITICIAN...............a four letter word spelled with ten letters.)
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To: LjubivojeRadosavljevic

You may not remember but in the beginning the recordings did not self destruct, they required manual burning. I think the auto destruct came with Peter Graves. Tape recorders were rather large too. {:-)

Of course some of us remember wire recorders.


38 posted on 01/01/2012 12:27:31 PM PST by itsahoot (Throw them all out! Especially the Frugal Socialists who call themselves Republicans.)
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To: Daffynition

I wonder how many of today’s engineers could accomplish the same feats with the same equipment.


39 posted on 01/01/2012 2:38:58 PM PST by R. Scott (Humanity i love you because when you're hard up you pawn your Intelligence to buy a drink)
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To: Walkingfeather; Jack Hydrazine

I’m not sure but I would guess either John Walker or perhaps Christopher Boyce. I’m pretty certain the Soviets learned how we did it with the classified information that Christopher gave them when he was working at TRW in Dominguez Hills, CA.


40 posted on 01/01/2012 2:58:35 PM PST by Portcall24
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To: _Jim

Maybe a little more research is in order. I’m thinking NSA.


41 posted on 01/02/2012 4:58:07 AM PST by Rappini (Pro Deo et Patria)
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To: Rappini
Maybe a little more research is in order.
What? The NSA is 'running' your local telco operation? (They don't run ours and DIDN'T run our MTSO switch when I was with ATT WS in the 90's ... if you would get out of the basement and get a real job in the real world you would not believe all these 'ccok and bull' stories fed your way.)

Sheesh ... some of you ppl are 'off the planet'.

Find a REAL person at the REAL phone company and ask them those questions I gave you earlier ...

I've worked in this field and seen the hardware; 99.999% of you have not.

Now, wiretaps (an individual 'number') and monitoring trunk circuits en mass in and out of the country are a different matter ...

42 posted on 01/02/2012 5:54:28 PM PST by _Jim (Conspiracy theories are the favored tools of the weak-minded.)
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To: _Jim

Since when is being a lineman a real job?


43 posted on 01/03/2012 5:19:17 AM PST by Rappini (Pro Deo et Patria)
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To: neverdem; Marine_Uncle; blam; NormsRevenge; SunkenCiv; SierraWasp; TigersEye
Fascinating stuff,...thanks for posting!

I was a college student studying math and physics when spuknik went up.

44 posted on 01/04/2012 10:36:42 AM PST by Ernest_at_the_Beach ( Support Geert Wilders)
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To: All
just dropping a link here...to Wikipedia:

KH-11 Kennan

************************************EXCERPT************************************

the KH-11 was the first American spy satellite to utilize electro-optical digital imaging, and create a real-time optical observation capability.[3]

45 posted on 01/04/2012 11:02:37 AM PST by Ernest_at_the_Beach ( Support Geert Wilders)
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More****************************EXCERPT**********************************

KH-11 was the first reconnaissance satellite equipped with Charge-coupled device (CCD) array technology for imaging. Data is transmitted through a network of communications satellites; the Satellite Data System.[1] The initial ground station for the processing of the electro-optical imaging was a secret National Reconnaissance Office facility in Area 58, located in the continental United States.[8]

46 posted on 01/04/2012 11:06:01 AM PST by Ernest_at_the_Beach ( Support Geert Wilders)
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More:

****************************EXCERPT****************************************

After the failure of the Boeing led Future Imagery Architecture program in 2005, NRO ordered from Lockheed two additional legacy hardware KH-11s. USA-224, the first of these two, was launched in early 2011 two years ahead of schedule, and US $ 2 billion under the initial budget estimate.[11]

Four generations of U.S. electro-optical reconnaissance have been identified:[12][13]

47 posted on 01/04/2012 11:09:05 AM PST by Ernest_at_the_Beach ( Support Geert Wilders)
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To: All

Implied links in my above postings will give code 404...go directly to Wikipedia ...se link at post # 45.


48 posted on 01/04/2012 11:11:55 AM PST by Ernest_at_the_Beach ( Support Geert Wilders)
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To: Ernest_at_the_Beach

The big eye ball in the sky. :)


49 posted on 01/04/2012 4:18:45 PM PST by Marine_Uncle (Honor must be earned.)
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To: Ernest_at_the_Beach
This program was significant in producing equipment/instruments (spin-offs) for improving the quality of micro-chips. Defects were reduced enormously.

See the Perkin-Elmer projection printer in 1973 (again in 1981) at this link.

50 posted on 01/04/2012 5:30:01 PM PST by blam
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