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Ike’s gambit: The KH-8 reconnaissance satellite




Ike’s gambit: The KH-8 reconnaissance satellite



The recovery sequence for American film-return satellites during the 1960s and into the 1980s, developed before it was possible to beam useful images down to Earth. Although unusual, this method was highly reliable. (credit: NRO)

An Air Force officer walks into a bar…

No, this is not the beginning of a joke.

An Air Force officer walks into a bar in the early 1970s. The bar was in the officer’s club on an airbase in England, probably RAF Mildenhall. He was an American officer, apparently in England to attend the annual Farnborough air show, one of the largest air shows in the world. While tipping back a few beers, the officer hears a couple of other officers—it is unknown if they were American or British—discussing an object that a farmer had found on land near where one of the officers lived off-base. The local authorities had been called in to look at the object and had no idea what it was. But the person telling the story noted that whatever it was, “it had a lot of glass in it.”

The details of the story are sketchy, unconfirmed, and it is unclear if the visiting officer instantly knew what they were talking about. But what the farmer had found in his field were apparently pieces of a KH-8 GAMBIT high-resolution spy satellite that had fallen to Earth only a short time before. According to a cryptic entry in a declassified reconnaissance satellite history, intelligence officials knew that one of their spysats had unexpectedly fallen to Earth, but they did not suspect that it had actually come down on land, or that it had been found by a civilian. It was not the first time that a top secret spy satellite had been discovered by a farmer (see: “Spysat down!” The Space Review, February 18, 2008), but fortunately the officer’s intervention prevented the story from leaking.

For a top secret satellite, the KH-8 has a fascinating history.

There was good reason for the intelligence community to want the find to remain as secret as possible. The KH-8 was the highest resolution reconnaissance satellite ever built. Even today, it apparently holds the record for the best reconnaissance photographs returned from orbit by any spacecraft, a combination of both a powerful camera and the ability to dramatically lower its orbit, to “swoop” in over a target at altitudes of apparently only 70 nautical miles (130 kilometers). The KH-8 could apparently see objects on the ground as small as a baseball and had the ability to photograph people with enough resolution to see their arms and legs. Later satellites had bigger mirrors, but flew at higher altitudes and could not return pictures as good.

The fallen spysat story is only one of several fascinating anecdotes about the KH-8. There was the time that some Air Force officers used one to take a self-portrait. And the time that the National Reconnaissance Office used one to photograph the crippled Skylab space station. For a top secret satellite, it has a fascinating history.

Upgrading the KH-7

The KH-7 GAMBIT was initially limited by the amount of attitude control gas that the Orbital Control Vehicle (OCV) carried, meaning that a number of missions had to return before they had used up all their film because they were unable to continue pointing the camera. But as the program progressed the amount of film returned increased dramatically. Whereas mission 4005, launched in February 1964, made only 13 photo passes, mission 4025, launched in February 1966, made 74 photo passes.

An inherent limitation of film-return reconnaissance systems was that it took a long time for their pictures to reach the interpreters in Washington. This was a result of many factors, including the transportation time for getting the returned film from the Pacific Ocean far west of Hawaii a third of the way around the world to Kodak’s processing center in Rochester, New York, and also the time it took to process the film. The NRO had several efforts underway to reduce this time, including evaluating installing a film processing machine on board a C-135 transport based in Hawaii so that it could process the film in flight to Washington. But for unknown reasons such a capability was never developed.

Another limitation was that it took a long time to prepare a mission for flight. If a crisis occurred, by the time a satellite could be prepared for launch, put in orbit, return its film to Earth, and the film processed, the crisis might be over before anyone saw the photos. The NRO developed a goal to keep reconnaissance systems ready for quick launch. At least one KH-4 CORONA was kept in “R-7” status at all times, meaning that it was ready for launch in seven days. By summer 1965 the NRO had also demonstrated an ability to keep a CORONA vehicle in R-1 status—only a day away from launch—for extended periods of time. Although GAMBIT’s figures remain classified, it apparently had similar capabilities.

The early GAMBIT missions had ground resolution of approximately four feet (1.2 meters). This was on average about three times better than the CORONA search systems then in operation. By the later missions the resolution had been improved to approximately two feet (0.6 meters). This meant that the camera could produce an image that depicted objects on the ground that were at least two feet on a side.

Additional equipment was also incorporated into later missions. At some point a Stellar/Index camera manufactured by Itek Corporation and nearly identical to one carried aboard CORONA missions was also added to some GAMBIT missions. The Stellar/Index camera was used for taking broad images allowing photo-interpreters to identify key landmarks in higher resolution images. It could also be used for mapping.

After a GAMBIT SRV reentered and was caught in mid-air by a C-130 aircraft, the film would be transported to a processing facility, usually at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, although the Air Force also operated a facility in Maine. Duplicates were made and shipped to Washington, DC, where they were evaluated by photo-interpreters at the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC). The photo-interpreters specialized on specific targets and during their initial evaluations they looked for any changes since the last reconnaissance mission had photographed the area. A GAMBIT photo could reveal a tremendous amount of information about a target. New and noteworthy information was quickly sent to the Pentagon and CIA headquarters via secure cable. The rest was summarized in reports prepared over several days or weeks.

For example, in late May 1967 the last KH-7 mission flew for a week over various targets. When it returned its film NPIC produced a mission report that mentioned what was seen at each target. The satellite made three passes over the Tyura-Tam missile test centre in Kazakhstan, photographing targets that the CIA had designated Complexes F and G and Launch Groups K, L, M, and N. Complex G was a large multi-use facility that included launch pads for the Soviet Proton and Tsyklon launch vehicles. NPIC had designated the Tsyklon pads as G5 and G6. The mission report stated:

The 4-legged apparatus is positioned on pad G5 and a probable transporter and a long vehicle/piece of equipment are nearby. At least 8 vehicles are parked between the pads and one long vehicle/piece of equipment is on pad G6. Approximately 45 cylinders are positioned along the east fence line and the previously reported light-toned possible missile components are in the same position along the south fence line. The gantry is back near the end of its track.

Each mission report listed similar information for hundreds of separate targets, a deluge of data. On a regular basis, or by request, NPIC would produce detailed site reports for individual targets. For instance, starting in 1965 every October NPIC produced a report on the massive Complex J that served as the assembly and launch site for the N-1 lunar rocket, which the CIA had designated the “J vehicle” and which was designed to carry cosmonauts to the Moon.

All of these reports were incorporated into the highest level intelligence documents, the National Intelligence Estimates, or NIEs.

The last KH-7 GAMBIT was launched on June 4, 1967. Mission 4038 flew an eight-day mission. But long before this happened, the KH-7’s successor was already under development.

An early KH-8 GAMBIT satellite launch. The KH-8 initially had only one satellite recovery vehicle. A second was added later. (courtesy Jonathan McDowell)

First light for the new bird

On July 29, 1966 a Titan 3 launch vehicle lifted off of its pad at Space Launch Complex 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The tall and powerful Titan 3 carried a thinner Agena D and its cylindrical payload into the sky, looking much like a ballpoint pen aiming for the stars. This highly classified launch pushed the first KH-8 GAMBIT into orbit. Known as mission 1701, the spacecraft entered a 98 by 155 nautical mile (181 by 287 kilometer) orbit at 94.12 degrees inclination. Seven days later its single Satellite Recovery Vehicle (SRV) returned to Earth. This new spacecraft was also named Air Force Program 110 and although many of its components were new, it was essentially a direct upgrade of its predecessor, the KH-7. Today intelligence officials refer to the “GAMBIT program” as a whole, but the upgrades to the camera were clearly sufficient to justify a change in the KEYHOLE designation.

Although the KH-8 camera modifications remain unknown, what is known is that major changes were made to the spacecraft.

In 1964 the Air Force had initiated a GAMBIT upgrade program. One declassified document appears to indicate that at this time the NRO planned on improving the absolute resolution of the camera by 20%. Because little is known about the resolution of the KH-7 other than its initial and final capabilities, as opposed to its theoretical limits, it is impossible to determine what the resolution goal was for this upgrade. One CIA critic of the plan noted that although such an upgrade was possible, so many things affected satellite resolution that improvements in the theoretical limits of a camera system would not automatically correspond to an equivalent improvement in the resolution returned by the photographs.

According to one person familiar with the KH-8, the primary mirror was not increased in size for the KH-8. Back in summer 1963 the CIA had initiated a special study of the requirements for future search satellite systems. That study, known as the Purcell Panel after its chairman, Dr. Edward M. Purcell, had evaluated the future of very large optics for reconnaissance purposes and determined that mirrors as large as 60 inches (152 centimeters) in diameter could soon be developed. By the late 1960s optics firm Perkin-Elmer had developed 72-inch (183-centimeter) mirrors for the KH-10 DORIAN camera system scheduled for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). But at least for the switch from the KH-7 to the KH-8 the camera apparently still maintained is 44-inch (112-centimeter) diameter primary mirror and 77-inch (196-centimeter) focal length.

Although the KH-8 camera modifications remain unknown, what is known is that major changes were made to the spacecraft. Probably around the same time that the NRO sought an improvement in camera resolution, the agency initiated a contract competition to select an upgrade to the Program 206 (KH-7) spacecraft.

General Electric apparently proposed a modified version of its existing OCV spacecraft. Lockheed Missiles and Space Division proposed using a modified version of its versatile Agena upper stage. Both would support the upgraded camera system. The requirements of this upgraded spacecraft are unknown, but probably predictable—longer operational lifetime, higher stability and pointing accuracy, greater film load, and higher reliability.

Lockheed’s program manager, Robert M. Powell, proposed using the Agena upper stage equipped with a roll joint at its forward end and an electric motor. This enabled it to rotate the payload to point the camera to either side of the ground track without expending control gas to do so. The idea was not new. In fact, the company had developed a roll joint to accomplish the same task on the panoramic KH-6 LANYARD, which had flown three times with one success. With the General Electric OCV no longer needed, much of its mass and volume could be traded for other things, such as greater film capacity and more control gas, both of which had been limited with the KH-7.

Determining the physical characteristics of the KH-7 and the KH-8 is difficult. One independent analyst has calculated that the KH-7, minus its recovery vehicle, probably had a mass of around 4,400 pounds (2,000 kilograms). How much of this was devoted to the camera system and its film is unknown, but eliminating the OCV would not eliminate the requirement for many of its systems such as batteries, control gas, and some structure. Such a change might have only freed up a few hundred extra pounds of mass.

Surprisingly, the upgrade to a Titan 3 Agena D launch vehicle—which lacked the massive solid rocket boosters common to other variants of the Titan 3—apparently added only a few hundred extra pounds of payload capability. A very rough guess is that the changes may have only freed up only about 800 pounds (363 kilograms) to use for other purposes. Years after the upgrade, the satellites could carry far more film as well as a second reentry vehicle, but for now the initial switch from the KH-7 to the KH-8 remains somewhat mysterious.

Lockheed won the contract for what was soon designated the KH-8 GAMBIT. General Electric had lost the Samos E-6 contract the previous year and now it had lost the GAMBIT. Lockheed’s win had the effect of further securing the company’s position as the primary manufacturer of reconnaissance satellites for the United States.

With the Agena capable of providing all of the functions of the General Electric Orbital Control Vehicle, General Electric was soon demoted from building the entire GAMBIT spacecraft and integrating all of its parts to manufacturing the GAMBIT reentry vehicle. Instead of prime contractor on a major reconnaissance project, GE was now a supporting contractor.

Ellis Lapin felt that the early GAMBIT missions that had kept the vehicle attached to the Agena had established that the Agena could perform the basic mission. The roll joint had made the choice obvious. He remembered that soon after the decision he was at a meeting of GAMBIT officials. “Logan Cowles, the GE program manager, and Jack Katzen, his assistant and I discussed the news. Jack commented ‘How can one compete a complete satellite against a couple of pulleys and some rubber bands?’” Of course the spacecraft did not really use pulleys and rubber bands, but the simplicity of the roll joint solution was obvious. The NRO was already paying for the Agena, so why pay for an additional spacecraft as well?

According to Lapin, the additional payload mass that was made available by the rocket upgrade and elimination of the OCV was used for a modified film transport, more expendables such as control gas and batteries, and Agena propellant. It was not used for a bigger primary mirror to increase resolution.

Some people in the Air Force were apparently concerned about the ability of the Agena to conduct this task, and in 1966 they asked a civilian official, the Air Force Chief Scientist, Bob Cannon, to review their plans. Cannon determined that there were no problems with the proposal.

Early (1959) photo of the General Electric built Satellite Recovery Vehicle that was initially designed for the CORONA satellites and later adapted for the KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT satellites. The recovery vehicle had to hold a roll of nine-inch-wide film for the GAMBIT satellites. Note the engineer holding the small "life cell" containing four mice. The mice later died on the launch pad. (credit: NRO)

Program 110

Although the KH-8 apparently did not have a larger primary mirror larger than the KH-7, various technological developments probably enhanced the GAMBIT’s resolving power. For instance, during the mid-1960s the Itek Corporation, which by 1966 had been shut out of developing new reconnaissance cameras for the Central Intelligence Agency, had an active optical research and development program. One of the projects that Itek worked on was a means to accurately determine the amount of image motion compensation (IMC) needed for a camera. According to the head of Itek’s R&D department, early reconnaissance spacecraft had been sent into orbit with several possible settings for IMC. Once ground controllers knew the precise altitude that a satellite had reached, they would then select the proper IMC setting for that orbit. But if the amount of image movement could be measured inside the camera while it was in orbit, then more precise IMC could be applied to the camera, reducing image smear even more. Whether or not Itek’s solution to this problem was incorporated into the KH-8 version is unknown, but it seems reasonable that precise control of the film through the camera was a good way to reduce image smear and increase sharpness and resolution.

Undoubtedly other developments, like improved optical coatings, also contributed to the KH-8’s better resolution. Whereas the KH-7 GAMBIT had started at 4-foot (1.2-meter) ground resolution and by 1966 had improved to 2-foot (0.6-meter) resolution, the KH-8 was reported to be far better. Several sources have stated that the KH-8 achieved an average ground resolution of around six inches (15 centimeters), but this may not have occurred until many years later. It seems more likely that at least initially the KH-8’s resolution was equal to or slightly better than the 2-foot resolution of late model KH-7 GAMBITs.

Although the satellite’s average resolution was apparently six inches, several sources have stated that the KH-8 eventually achieved accuracy as great as 2.5 inches (6.3 centimeters), and one source has indicated that the KH-8 was able to resolve golf-ball size objects.

In 2000 the NRO gave awards to forty-six pioneers in satellite reconnaissance. Two of these were apparently associated with the KH-8: Colonel Lee Roberts and Colonel James T. Mannen, both of whom started their careers in national reconnaissance in 1971, five years after the KH-8 entered service. Mannen’s citation read: “As director of a vital imagery satellite program, Colonel James Mannen introduced procedures that improved target tasking and significantly increased ground resolution and on-orbit system reliability.” Roberts’ citation read: “Colonel Lee Roberts directed improvements in an important Program A satellite reconnaissance effort that produced high-resolution imagery of the Earth’s surface.”

Although the satellite’s average resolution was apparently six inches, several sources have stated that the KH-8 eventually achieved accuracy as great as 2.5 inches (6.3 centimeters), and one source has indicated that the KH-8 was able to resolve golf-ball size objects. This is still insufficient to read license plates or newspapers, or to recognize faces, but it is far better than commercially available imagery today.

Current American reconnaissance satellites reportedly have mirrors far larger than the 44-inch (112-centimeter) mirror carried by the KH-7, but do not have the same resolving power as the KH-8. The reason is that current American spy satellites stay in orbit for years and in order to do this they must operate in higher orbits so as not to be dragged down by the tenuous upper atmosphere. The KH-8 was a disposable satellite and it achieved its high resolution by descending to a low perigee over its targets, but then had to be reboosted so that it did not reenter the atmosphere.

The NRO sought to develop a quick reaction capability for the KH-8, as it had for its predecessor. In September 1969 John McMahon, the CIA’s Deputy Director for Science and Technology, wrote the CIA’s Deputy Director for Plans concerning satellite scheduling for crises situations. The intelligence community had already learned a harsh lesson about the limitations of satellite scheduling during August 1968, when Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia. A CORONA satellite returned the second of its SRVs to Earth and its photos clearly showed Soviet troops massing for an invasion. But the film was not recovered and processed until after the invasion had already occurred, an event that had shocked the intelligence community.

McMahon noted that neither the CORONA nor GAMBIT “provides more than one payload at a time which could be used in advance of a scheduled launch date.” He also pointed out that processing times—including the time to transport the exposed film to the processing center and then the photo-interpreters—also imposed delays. “As an example, the minimum time from the taking of a photograph in China to viewing of the film is about two to two and one-half days.” Another problem was that the KH-8 had to have a pre-selected orbit before launch, with the targets upon which the orbit was selected provided 17 days prior to launch. CORONA was much more flexible and could be targeted on-orbit from a general-purpose orbit.

If the intelligence community was going to get more timely intelligence about what an adversary was planning, what they classified as “indications and warning intelligence,” they would need to change from the recoverable film technology to something better. This became one of the major quests of the satellite reconnaissance community during the 1960s.

The Lockheed Agena upper stage under construction. The Agena proved to be a highly reliable upper stage that boosted satellite payloads into orbit and was used to provide power and stabilization during their lifetimes. It formed the basis for most American reconnaissance satellites during the 1960s and well into the 1980s. (credit: NRO)



In the summer of 1966 the NRO initiated the study of a new reconnaissance satellite to try and satisfy the requirement for indications intelligence. Known as Film Read-Out GAMBIT and abbreviated as FROG, the system was to use the KH-8 GAMBIT camera and a modification of the read-out technique developed for the Samos E-1 and E-2 programs. The film would be developed in flight and scanned and then transmitted to a receiving station on the ground. It would produce ground resolution of three to five feet (0.9 to 1.5 meters). The satellite would have a lifetime of 30–90 days in orbit.

Depending on the target, the satellite could return photographs as quickly as 20 minutes after it had taken them, or as long as five days later. In August 1966 the plan was to start formal development in fall 1966, with an initial operational capability in November 1968.

Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird approved FROG despite its limited capabilities. Several of the scientists who advised the CIA and the NRO, as well as the CIA’s Director of Science and Technology, Carl Duckett, vigorously opposed Laird’s decision. They felt that approving a limited system at the time would postpone a far more capable “near-real-time” reconnaissance satellite that they felt could be achieved in several years.

Although FROG had received top endorsement, it did not become ready by 1968. In fact it was not even ready in June 1971 when a top-level meeting of President Nixon’s intelligence advisors ultimately led to the cancellation of what had become a $2 billion program. Whether the delays with FROG were due to technology or bureaucratic politics remain unknown.

A Satellite Recovery Vehicle (SRV) of the type used to carry exposed KH-7 and KH-8 film. Early KH-8 satellites had only one SRV. Later satellites had two. (credit: NRO)

Extending the life of the KH-8

In the early 1970s three young Air Force officers at the Air Force Satellite Control Facility in Sunnyvale California, more popularly known as “the blue cube” for its large blue glass building easily visible from Route 101, were on a covert mission, a mission so secret they were the only ones to know about it.

Why not program a photograph of Sunnyvale, and then stand out in the parking lot as the satellite took the picture? They would take the first self-portrait from space!

The officers had the job of tasking reconnaissance satellites. Back in Washington a special committee picked the targets for the satellites to observe and that list was sent to Sunnyvale, about an hour south of San Francisco. There these officers turned the target lists into a series of commands for the satellites and transmitted them to the satellites such as the KH-8. The commands told the satellites when to turn on their cameras, where to point them, and then when to turn the cameras off.

It was common for the satellites to also take test photographs of known targets which could be used to indicate how well the cameras were working. A common target was Sunnyvale.

One of the officers had an idea: why not program a photograph of Sunnyvale, and then stand out in the parking lot as the satellite took the picture? They would take the first self-portrait from space!

So according to one of the former Air Force officers, that is what they did. They put in a request to their superiors for a test photograph of Sunnyvale. It was approved. They programmed the commands and transmitted them up to the satellite. At the appropriate time, when the sun was at a low angle casting long shadows, they went outside and stood in the parking lot, spreading their arms and legs in order to cast distinctive shadows.

A few weeks later they had the photograph of Sunnyvale, nice and crisp. And visible in the parking lot were three figures casting long shadows.

They had to wait of course because the KH-8 returned its film to Earth in reentry vehicles, and only after the reentry vehicles had filled up. The KH-8 initially had only a single reentry vehicle.

Three KH-8s were launched in 1966 and seven in 1967 while the older KH-7 was still operating. Eight were launched in 1968 and six in 1969. But starting in October 1969 with the 23rd KH-8 launch, the last of the year, the KH-8 began operating with two SRVs. For simplicity, this author has arbitrarily designated this dual-SRV spacecraft the KH-8A, just as the dual-SRV CORONA was designated the KH-4A, but it is not known if this was the official designation.

Two SRVs would have allowed the KH-8A to operate much like the KH-4A CORONA satellites. CORONA would usually operate for a day taking photographs and return its first SRV. It would then enter “zombie mode” with its systems shut down for up to two weeks. At the end of this period it would be reactivated and take additional photographs before ejecting its second SRV. The result was that the intelligence community gained twice the capability for the cost of only a single satellite.

The lifetimes of KH-8 satellites had steadily increased over the years to approximately two weeks by late 1968. But in January 1970 the second KH-8A operated for 18 days in orbit, and the third KH-8A, launched in April 1970, operated for 21 days. Over the next several years KH-8A mission times increased slowly, from 21 days in spring 1971 to 22 days, 25 days, and finally to 33 days by December 1972. However, this longer lifetime most likely would have required the addition of solar cells to provide power, because a satellite could not have operated on batteries alone for three weeks or more. The KH-8A therefore probably had at least a single solar panel of the kind carried as an experiment aboard CORONA Mission 1115 in September 1971.

In 1974 the NRO increased the lifetime of the KH-8A again. The agenda for the February 21, 1974 meeting of the Committee on Imagery Requirements and Exploitation, known as COMIREX, included a briefing on “Improved Orbital Capability for [deleted] Satellites.” This was undoubtedly a discussion of upgrading the KH-8, because the next mission had a lifetime 44% longer than its predecessor. A mission launched on June 6, 1974 spent 47 days in orbit, and a mission launched in March 1976 spent 57 days in orbit.

The most obvious requirement for longer orbital life would have been more fuel for reboosting the satellite’s orbit, plus an increase in the amount of nitrogen control gas carried aboard the Agena. The Agena maintained its stability by using nitrogen gas jets and would have required more nitrogen during a longer orbital stay. Other changes are less obvious, but probably included other consumables such as longer-life batteries. And of course all of the hardware would have had to be tested and certified for longer time in orbit, such as more heating and cooling cycles.

The next major leap in KH-8A mission duration coincided with the 48th launch, in March 1977. That spacecraft spent 74 days in orbit. The missions that followed steadily increased in duration as well: 76 days, 90 days, 112 days, 128 days, and 118 days. These increases would have required further hardware changes.

The increase in mission duration was undoubtedly prompted by the debut of the KH-11 KENNAN real-time reconnaissance satellite. The KH-11 was the first electro-optical reconnaissance satellite, providing a capability that the American intelligence community had sought ever since the mid-1950s. Unlike its predecessors, the KH-11 was not limited by the amount of film or the number of recovery vehicles it carried. Instead, the KH-11 could operate in orbit for years, beaming photographs back to the ground electronically. The KH-11, which was approved by President Nixon in summer 1971, had effectively slain the FROG (Film Read-Out GAMBIT) and assumed the job of providing indications intelligence.

The KH-11’s debut led to a major change in GAMBIT operations. GAMBIT remained in service for over seven years after the KH-11 became operational because it still provided high resolution photos of a quality that the KH-11 could not achieve from its higher orbit even with its bigger mirror. But the KH-11 could provide photographs of fairly high quality nearly instantaneously. It was used to cover many more of the GAMBIT’s targets, and the KH-8 was then used much more carefully to photograph only those targets where its high resolution could be of greatest value.

There was probably another factor weighing against the KH-8 besides its technological obsolescence. By the early 1970s the Air Force had tentatively agreed to launch its satellites on the Space Shuttle. This meant that the satellites had to be compatible with the shuttle; able to handle the different noise levels and forces that would affect them during a shuttle launch and capable of surviving a landing inside the shuttle’s payload bay during a launch abort.

The KH-11, which was approved by President Nixon in summer 1971, had effectively slain the FROG (Film Read-Out GAMBIT) and assumed the job of providing indications intelligence.

In 1973 Lockheed had proposed carrying up to three Agena spacecraft inside the space shuttle’s payload bay. This configuration would only be viable if the payloads were all headed for the same initial orbit. But the Agena itself would no longer be required to place a reconnaissance satellite into a low polar orbit, only to support it once there. In addition, flying three reconnaissance satellites simultaneously would have presented other problems, such as the requirement to store one or more of them in orbit for a long period of time until needed. Thus the KH-8 was not ideally suited for shuttle launch unless it was substantially redesigned, or the Agena was flown without much fuel. Carrying three KH-8s in a shuttle’s payload bay was an inefficient way to operate.

The details of NASA-NRO negotiations over use of the Space Shuttle during the 1970s remain shrouded in secrecy (see “The spooks and the turkey”, The Space Review, November 20, 2006). The two agencies probably jointly agreed not to adapt the Agena upper stage for Space Shuttle use, although other satellites such as the KH-9 HEXAGON and the KH-11 KENNAN were clearly more adaptable to the shuttle. That decision to phase out the Agena would have started the clock ticking on the GAMBIT’s remaining years of operation.


The crippled Skylab space station. In 1973 an American KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellite was used to photograph Skylab in orbit to help plan a rescue mission. The image was reportedly small and blurry (unlike this later NASA photo), but still useful. (credit: NASA)



From ASATs to Skylab

In addition to photographing ground targets—including junior Air Force officers—the KH-8 GAMBIT also demonstrated a unique capability. On May 14, 1973 NASA launched the Skylab Orbital Workshop atop its last Saturn V. During liftoff the workshop’s meteoroid shield broke loose and ripped off one of its two main solar panels. The space station entered orbit severely damaged.

Major General David Bradburn, who was then the head of the Office of Special Projects, NRO’s Program A, proposed that a GAMBIT spacecraft planned to be launched on May 16 be used to take a photograph of Skylab to assist NASA in planning a repair mission. The manned Skylab 2 mission, which had now become a repair mission, was scheduled to launch on May 25, which probably meant that the first phase of the GAMBIT’s photographic mission would have to be cut short in order to return the photos earlier so they could be used for planning the repair mission.

According to Bradburn, who spoke about the incident during an Air Force history symposium in 1995, he made the argument that Skylab was an American project and it was in the best interests of the nation that it not fail. This justified using an intelligence satellite to help save it, even if that undermined some of the intelligence collection. Bradburn’s proposal was approved by his superiors in the NRO and presumably by the Director of Central Intelligence and the Secretary of Defense.

Bradburn was able to propose this mission because for approximately six months a group of junior Air Force officers in the Special Projects Office had been developing computer algorithms for using a GAMBIT to photograph Soviet spacecraft. Their effort had been instigated by Soviet tests of an anti-satellite capability. They wanted the capability to take a photograph of a Soviet ASAT vehicle if one ever approached an American spacecraft. Because the computer programs were ready, the NRO was able to respond quickly to the Skylab problem—something that Bradburn could tell his superiors.

Bradburn made the argument that Skylab was an American project and it was in the best interests of the nation that it not fail. This justified using an intelligence satellite to help save it, even if that undermined some of the intelligence collection.

According to one person who saw the photograph, the Skylab was only a small spot in the frame. It was also slightly blurry but still identifiable, and the photography was apparently still useable for NASA’s rescue mission. Considering that the GAMBIT strip camera had been designed to photograph a moving ground target, matching the film speed to a moving spacecraft in an entirely different orbit must have been challenging. But the mission contributed to the rescue of a billion-dollar space project—and it also demonstrated that not even Soviet satellites could hide from the prying eyes of American spysats.

After this event, the United States would retain so-called satellite-to-satellite (or “sat-squared”) imaging capability. It was placed in a special security classification compartment known as “RUFF SENSITIVE,” or “RSEN” for short. In addition to sat-squared imagery, RSEN included other unusual and exotic capabilities demonstrated by American reconnaissance satellite cameras.

Final days and HIGHER BOY

KH-8 GAMBIT satellites continued to fly throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. But on January 21, 1982 the Air Force launched a Titan 23B Agena D rocket into a 553 by 646 kilometer orbit. The perigee of this orbit was nearly three times as high as its predecessors.

The unusual orbital parameters of this spacecraft led independent satellite observers to misinterpret this mission. One highly skilled British observer, the late Anthony Kenden, speculated that this was a test of a new radar reconnaissance satellite. But it was not a new satellite at all, and in fact was rather old. In reality, this was a launch of a specialized KH-8 satellite that had been sitting in storage for a decade and was now refurbished and launched as the program wound down.

In the early 1970s NRO officials became concerned that the KH-9 HEXAGON area search satellite then under development to replace the CORONA might be late or not perform as planned once it reached orbit. They had already decided to stretch out the launch of remaining KH-4B CORONA satellites to cover the gap. But to guard against a potential interruption of search area coverage, the NRO also initiated a program called “HIGHER BOY” to fly a KH-8 GAMBIT at high altitude. At this high altitude the satellite would observe more area at lower resolution. A spacecraft modified to conduct this mission was produced and placed in storage. A decade later the NRO launched it into orbit.

The overall success of the HIGHER BOY mission is unknown, but what is known is that one of the spacecraft’s two reentry vehicles failed to come down properly. From its higher orbit it lacked the power to reenter and stayed in orbit for a long period of time.

The last GAMBIT was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on April 17, 1984 and operated for 118 days. It was the fifty-fourth KH-8 launch, and the twenty-ninth KH-8A launch. One KH-8 and two KH-8As had failed to reach orbit. Thirty-eight KH-7s had been launched, with two failing to reach orbit and three others failing to return imagery. The CORONA program had involved over 140 launches between 1959 and 1972. GAMBIT had involved 92 launches over nineteen years.

GAMBIT’s legacy

For a decade now the intelligence community has sung the praises of its CORONA spacecraft. But it has been silent about the success of GAMBIT, which in some ways was more successful than CORONA, operating for nearly two decades as an effective counterpart to other lower-resolution search systems. According to several sources GAMBIT still holds the record for the highest resolution photographs taken in Earth orbit.

In summer 1997, following upon the success of the CORONA declassification which had brought the American intelligence community in general and the National Reconnaissance Office in particular some much-needed positive publicity, the NRO leadership endorsed the declassification of the technical and programmatic details of the GAMBIT and HEXAGON programs. The NRO officially declared the film-return and other technology used in these programs obsolete and said that there was no further reason that they should remain classified.

One can only hope that a relaxation of arcane and archaic secrecy rules will allow President Eisenhower’s other great intelligence achievement, the GAMBIT satellite, to finally take its place in the sun alongside the U-2, the CORONA, and the signals intelligence satellite.

But a declaration that there was no reason for something to remain classified is not the same as a declaration to declassify it and it is always easier for bureaucrats to deny something than to approve it. This recommendation languished for years and finally died, resulting only in the declassification of KH-7 imagery in 2002 and no technical or managerial details of either program. Such are the bizarre bureaucratic rules governing secrecy that today the designation KH-7 is unclassified, but the name “GAMBIT” is still classified, and although the KH-7’s product can now be viewed in the National Archives, the organizations that built it and its method of operation are still hidden from view.

There may be many reasons for this secrecy, including continued opposition by Kodak to declassifying intelligence systems that the company helped build, continued opposition within the intelligence community to revealing even long-obsolete intelligence equipment, as well as an increased general atmosphere of secrecy started in 1998, but increased both by Bush administration policy and as a result of the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001.

The Obama administration has promised change in a number of areas of government operations. One can only hope that a relaxation of arcane and archaic secrecy rules will allow President Eisenhower’s other great intelligence achievement, the GAMBIT satellite, to finally take its place in the sun alongside the U-2, the CORONA, and the signals intelligence satellite.

Source: http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1283/1







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Since 1962 I doubted on Newton's laws. I did not accept the infinitive speed and I found un-vivid the laws of gravity and time.

I learned the Einstein's Relativity, thus I found some answers for my questions. But, I had another doubt of Infinitive Mass-Energy. And I wanted to know why light has stable speed?




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