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Apollo in lunar orbit
An Apollo spacecraft in lunar orbit. NASA, in partnership with the NRO, studied equipping some Apollo missions with modified reconnaissance satellite cameras to provide high-resolution lunar images. (credit: NASA)

Black Apollo


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During the height of the race to the Moon, NASA and the top secret National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) planned a series of Apollo missions to carry a large reconnaissance satellite to lunar orbit where astronauts would photograph the lunar surface and map out landing sites for later manned landings. But these were not mere plans—NASA actually started construction of four spacecraft, each 1.5 meters (5 feet) (1.5 meters) in diameter and 5.5 meters (18 feet) long. They were based upon the then operational KH-7 GAMBIT high-resolution reconnaissance satellite. But in the end the spacecraft proved unnecessary and the project was canceled in spring 1967.

It is apparent that NASA and the NRO had a second agreement to cooperate on a backup plan to Lunar Orbiter to provide the data necessary for conducting lunar landings, and actually started construction of hardware.

During the early planning phases of the Apollo lunar landing program, NASA engineers were concerned that they knew relatively little about the lunar surface. Considering that the astronauts would be flying an untested and finicky vehicle, they needed as much data on the lunar terrain as possible. So NASA undertook a series of precursor robotic missions that would characterize the lunar surface, providing vital data on the size of surface features, the smoothness of terrain, and especially the slope of the terrain. The Lunar Orbiter and Surveyor missions were developed essentially to support Apollo and made limited contributions to lunar science.

It has been publicly known for many years that Lunar Orbiter in fact benefitted from access to classified spy satellite technology as a result of an agreement between NASA and the NRO. Now, according to Vance Mitchell, writing in the latest issue of the journal Quest, it is apparent that NASA and the NRO had a second agreement to cooperate on a backup plan to Lunar Orbiter to provide the data necessary for conducting lunar landings, and actually started construction of hardware. Unlike Lunar Orbiter, this hardware would be operated by Apollo astronauts in lunar orbit. Mitchell is currently writing a classified history of NASA-NRO relations, and has access to still-secret NASA and NRO documents. Until the GAMBIT program is declassified—which could happen next year—we are unlikely to obtain much more information on this agreement or the hardware that was produced. (See “A paler shade of black”, The Space Review, September 20, 2010.)

The backup project was known as the Lunar Mapping and Survey System, or LM&SS (sometimes also known as the Apollo Mapping and Survey System), although it probably had a classified code-name as well. According to Mitchell, NASA and NRO signed an agreement on LM&SS in April 1964, when Lunar Orbiter was still in its infancy. In May 1964 NASA transferred $800,000 to the Department of Defense to cover contractor studies of which existing NRO camera systems might be useful for Apollo. The people studying the issue quickly focused upon the KH-7 GAMBIT reconnaissance camera, which had first entered service in summer 1963 and consisted of a 196-centimeter (77-inch) focal length camera using mirrors to achieve high-resolution from low Earth orbit. At the Moon, the camera could be used at 55 kilometers (30 nautical miles) altitude to provide high-resolution images of the ground, or from 370 kilometers (200 nautical miles) altitude to provide broader area coverage.

The initial plan called for mounting the large optics system in bay number 1 of the Service Module. They would build four test units and two flight units for $36 million. How this could have been physically accomplished considering the incredible size of the optics is unclear. Later in the Apollo program, NASA would take a slightly modified aerial camera developed for the U-2 and SR-71 (known as the KA-80A and a variant known as the IRIS II) and mount it in the scientific instrument module (SIM) bay of the service module and fly it on several missions. (See “Making lemons into lemonade”, The Space Review, May 26, 2009.)

The new plan was to carry the OCV with its powerful camera system along with the Apollo command and service modules atop a Saturn V rocket, with the OCV in the compartment reserved for the Lunar Module.

But the system adapted for the Lunar Mapping and Survey System was not the same as that later used by Apollo, because the NRO soon decided to abandon plans to try to modify the camera system for the SIM bay and instead chose to use the camera inside what Mitchell refers to as the Orbiting Control Vehicle (OCV), which was 18 feet long and 5 feet in diameter—the same diameter as the Orbital Control Vehicle used by the KH-7 GAMBIT, and therefore apparently a modified KH-7 GAMBIT camera system. Mitchell’s article had to go through a declassification review and as a result many details are left out. But it is clear that the camera system was from the KH-7 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellite, which first became operational in 1963. Many details of the KH-7 remain classified, but some have been released and Mitchell’s description of the spacecraft diameter and length are consistent with the known dimensions of the KH-7. The KH-7 used a strip reconnaissance system, meaning that the film was pulled past a small slit aperture so that it moved at the same rate as the moving image, sort of like looking out the side of a speeding car but moving your head to stay pointed at a single spot.

The KH-7 was at the time the most powerful camera system ever carried into space. It had a 112-centimeter (44-inch) primary mirror and a 196-centimeter (77-inch) focal length. (See “Ike’s Gambit: The development and operations of the KH-7 and KH-8 spy satellites”, The Space Review, January 5, 2009.) The new plan was to carry the OCV with its powerful camera system along with the Apollo command and service modules atop a Saturn V rocket, with the OCV in the compartment reserved for the Lunar Module. The Apollo CSM would detach from the stack, turn around 180 degrees, dock with the OCV, and pull it free. Although details remain scarce, it seems that the easiest way to modify the KH-7 for Apollo use would be to remove the Satellite Recovery Vehicle at the front of the spacecraft and mount the film takeup reel within an unpressurized cylinder with a docking adapter on the front. The Apollo astronauts could then depressurize the capsule, open the hatch, reach into the OCV, and detach the film takeup reel—sealed to prevent accidental exposure—and pull it back into the Command Module, all without ever leaving their spacecraft. After they resealed the hatch and repressurized the Command Module, they could detach the OCV and head home.

The KH-7 camera was manufactured by Kodak. Lockheed built the Satellite Recovery Vehicle, as well as the Agena upper stage that placed the KH-7 in orbit. The OCV was manufactured by General Electric. In an apparent upset, in June 1965 Lockheed won the contract to adapt the camera system for Apollo use, although there may have been a certain logic to this: in addition to the SRV, Lockheed also may have been responsible for the film takeup system inside the SRV, and this would have required modification so that it could be handled by an astronaut. In the fall of 1965 the system design was finalized. Lockheed’s contract required that it deliver the first OCV unit in July 1967, with a flight test in low Earth orbit in December. Although it was not until 1967 that the Apollo program developed the Apollo A thru J designations for the different steps in the program, an Earth orbit test would have essentially been the equivalent of an Apollo D class mission. It is difficult to speculate which Apollo mission number or crew would have flown this mission in late 1967.

At least one of the missions would be conducted in Earth orbit to test the equipment. But after that mission, the next one would involve launching a Saturn V to the Moon. After the Saturn S-IVB stage had fired to place the spacecraft into trans lunar injection, and the Saturn Launch Adapter panels surrounding the spacecraft ejected, the Apollo Command Module pilot would have separated the Command Service Module from the stack, turned the vehicle around, docked with the reconnaissance spacecraft, and then pulled it away from the S-IVB. The two vehicles then would have continued on to the Moon. Upon reaching the Moon, the Service Module engine would have fired, braking the spacecraft into orbit. The reconnaissance camera then would have begun operating, taking photographs of proposed landing sites, presumably initially in lower resolution broad area coverage, and then after lowering the orbit substantially, in high resolution detailed coverage.

As work was progressing on these top secret spacecraft for Apollo, NASA began launching the Lunar Orbiter missions. Lunar Orbiter 1 launched in August 1966, followed by Lunar Orbiter 2 in November 1966. Both missions were successful, and a NASA official concluded that these missions had “certified” several Apollo landing sites. But not everybody in NASA agreed, with several persons arguing that the Lunar Orbiter photographs had not provided sufficient data on the slope of the terrain at the potential landing sites.

Intelligence community officials were uncomfortable with any public acknowledgement even of the existence of satellite reconnaissance, and would have been completely opposed to revealing any information on satellite cameras that was not vital to the success of Apollo.

By April 1967, NASA Associate Administrator Robert Seamans, who had been the primary point of contact with the NRO, discussed the future of the Lunar Mapping and Survey System program with DoD and NRO officials. Seamans had also ordered a comprehensive review of basing the landing decision on the imagery returned by Lunar Orbiter. The DoD and intelligence community officials discussed three options: cancellation, continuation without testing in Earth orbit, and continuation with testing in Earth orbit. The Earth orbit testing option would have been particularly problematic because it would have resulted in the production of high-resolution images of the Earth and attracted a great deal of attention to the classified reconnaissance program.

Seamans also proposed an additional option of converting the LM&SS to scientific exploration of the Moon, presumably for an Apollo mission after the initial lunar landing. The problem with Seamans’ proposal is that it still would have required revealing the existence of the LM&SS and its powerful optics system, raising potentially embarrassing questions about the nation’s top secret reconnaissance program. Presumably, in addition to the LM&SS hardware, NRO and NASA officials had drafted a cover story and procedures for revealing the existence of the camera system. Intelligence community officials were uncomfortable with any public acknowledgement even of the existence of satellite reconnaissance, and would have been completely opposed to revealing any information on satellite cameras that was not vital to the success of Apollo.

In the meantime, Lunar Orbiter 3 had flown in February and Lunar Orbiter 4 had flown in May and both returned useful pictures. By summer 1967, the Apollo Program Office concluded that the Lunar Orbiter and Surveyor landing missions had provided sufficient data for a manned landing and the Lunar Mapping and Survey System was therefore unnecessary.

There was an additional problem: Kodak was discontinuing the KH-7 camera system in favor of the upgraded KH-8. The first KH-8 had flown in July 1966. The last KH-7 launched in June 1967. With the KH-7 retired, any work on KH-7 derived camera systems like that used for the LM&SS would have had to bill all the costs to the LM&SS, meaning NASA’s costs would have risen substantially. So on July 25, 1967, Seamans informed senior NASA officials that he planned on canceling LM&SS. But he waited until after the successful launch of Lunar Orbiter 5 before informing the NRO of his decision.

Unlike other proposals for use of Apollo hardware, the Lunar Mapping and Survey System was a plan for a real series of missions and resulted in the production of actual hardware.

Seamans ordered that the classified hardware produced for the LM&SS be placed in storage awaiting further decision on what to do with it. This consisted of “four units in various stages of development,” according to Mitchell. Apparently somebody at JPL later proposed that the camera system be carried on lunar landing missions, but the system was simply too big and heavy to be carried with any mission that included a lunar lander.

The article also raises an interesting question about the Lunar Orbiter program. Specifically, was the contract competition rigged? Several companies competed to build the spacecraft, each of them proposing a spacecraft/camera combination. Boeing, which had no prior space experience, won the contract. But the competition was held after NASA and the NRO signed an agreement to share the technology from an obsolete Samos reconnaissance satellite. Did this agreement result in Boeing gaining access to classified and proven camera technology whereas the other competitors did not?

NASA explored a number of potential Apollo missions during the mid-1960s as part of the Apollo Applications Program and studies known as Apollo X. But those were paper studies. The real difference is that the Lunar Mapping and Survey System was a plan for a real series of missions and resulted in the production of actual hardware. What happened to that hardware remains classified. The hardware was highly sensitive. At least initially it would have been stored by the contractor, either Lockheed or Kodak. But contractors do not store equipment for free, and at some point NASA probably either transferred the remaining LM&SS hardware to the NRO, or ordered it destroyed. Even if it was transferred to the NRO it probably did not survive, for the NRO apparently destroyed other major pieces of classified hardware.

But what this new information reveals is that forty-one years after the Moon landing, the story of Apollo is far from complete—Apollo still has its secrets.


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