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The optical systems donated by the NRO have the same diameter as the primary mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope (above) but have a wider area of view that could be useful for some proposed astronomy missions. (credit: NASA)

Out of the black


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Last week NASA made a surprise announcement that it had obtained two sets of optical systems from the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the organization responsible for managing and procuring intelligence satellites. These are large optics, obviously built for reconnaissance satellites. They are the same diameter as the Hubble Space Telescope, but since they have different optical features NASA could not use them to simply replace the Hubble. They could, however, be used for other space telescope missions.

The NRO agreed to make four Gambit-1 reconnaissance cameras available to NASA for use in a classified program known as UPWARD, with the unclassified name Lunar Mapping and Survey System, or LM&SS.

This was not the first time that the NRO has provided technology assistance or hardware to NASA. In fact, the organization has helped NASA several times since the beginning of the space age, has donated large optics to the astronomy community, and even helped rescue a NASA space mission. For a secretive spy agency, the NRO has been a generous benefactor.

From rocky beginnings to a rocky Moon

NASA was created several years before the NRO, but the agency had an early relationship with the CIA, one of the component organizations of the NRO. In the late 1950s NASA provided cover for the CIA’s U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. This later resulted in major embarrassment for the civilian space agency when Gary Powers was shot down in his U-2 over the Soviet Union. At Edwards Air Force Base, an agency U-2 was quickly repainted with NASA markings and displayed to the press. The cover story collapsed when Gary Powers turned up alive and admitted that he worked for the CIA and not the civilian space agency. NASA’s administrator, T. Keith Glennan, was reportedly furious, and believed that his agency’s reputation had been tarnished.

The relationship between NASA and the CIA was repaired when James Webb became administrator in 1961 and soon met with intelligence officials. According to a declassified CIA document, Webb expressed interest in working with the intelligence community and sharing technology.

An opportunity to cooperate came a short time later when NASA needed to take high-resolution photographs of the lunar surface in support of the Apollo program. The newly-created National Reconnaissance Office—with the approval of the Department of Defense—agreed to share the technology developed for the film-readout version of the Air Force’s Samos reconnaissance satellite. Samos had evolved to a film-return program, just like its more successful cousin, Corona, before it was ultimately canceled. The film-readout technology was developed by the Air Force and Eastman Kodak, and they shared it with NASA for the Lunar Orbiter program. Lunar Orbiter used a different camera than Samos, but in many ways it was a better use for the film-readout technique, which took images and developed the film onboard before scanning it and beaming the images back to earth. One of several drawbacks of film-readout for earth reconnaissance was that it could not produce and transmit many images to the ground because the satellite was only in sight of ground stations for a short period of time. Lunar Orbiter could communicate for longer periods with the ground, and it did not need to beam back as many images as a reconnaissance satellite.

The goal of Lunar Orbiter was to produce not only imagery of potential Apollo landing sites, but also information on the ground slope at those sites. If Apollo astronauts landed their Lunar Module on ground that was tilted too steep, it could tip over. But NASA management was not convinced that Lunar Orbiter would provide reliable data on ground slope, and so in April 1964 they struck another agreement with the NRO to make use of a more sensitive piece of equipment, the camera system from the KH-7 Gambit-1 reconnaissance satellite.

The Gambit-1 first launched in 1963 and was superseded by the Gambit-3 in 1966, with the last Gambit-1’s flying in 1967. It was a truly powerful camera with a 196-centimeter (77-inch) focal length, capable of taking images on the ground as good as approximately 0.6 meters. The NRO agreed to make four Gambit-1 reconnaissance cameras available to NASA for use in a classified program known as UPWARD, with the unclassified name Lunar Mapping and Survey System, or LM&SS (see “Apollo: secrets and whispers”, The Space Review, December 6, 2010). LM&SS would use the camera system without the Satellite Control System. It would be launched atop a manned Saturn V, taking the place of a Lunar Module. Apollo astronauts would head toward the Moon, turn their Command and Service Module around, dock with the LM&SS, and pull it out of the Saturn V third stage. The astronauts would then orbit the Moon while LM&SS took high quality photographs on wide format film. At the end of the mission an astronaut would open the hatch between the Command Module and the LM&SS, remove the film canister and bring it into the spacecraft. After landing, the film would be processed on the ground, providing better quality imagery of potential Apollo landing sites.

A more dramatic form of NRO assistance to NASA came in 1973 when the Skylab space station was crippled during launch. The NRO quickly determined that one of its Gambit-3 reconnaissance satellites already in orbit could be used to image Skylab.

Although UPWARD was the classified cover name, the LM&SS program was public, although not highly publicized. At least one illustration of it was published in an encyclopedia, although it simply looked like a tube, and the illustration revealed nothing of the optical system. UPWARD was in essence an insurance program for Lunar Orbiter. It would have been a program of last resort in many ways, because it required a Saturn V and Apollo spacecraft to perform its mission. Lunar Orbiter 1 was launched in August 1966, followed by Lunar Orbiter 2 in November. Both missions were successful and at least one NASA official claimed that the missions “certified” several Apollo landing sites. By April 1967 NASA had determined that Lunar Orbiter was providing sufficient imagery that the LM&SS was not required. But the equipment already existed, with four systems constructed or in advanced stages of construction when they were declared unnecessary for Apollo.

At some point, possibly before they were even ruled out for Apollo, NASA officials began considering flying LM&SS in Earth orbit. The agency considered attaching the powerful camera system to a NASA space station as part of the Apollo Applications Program, or possibly even flying it attached to a Command and Service Module. Those NASA plans undoubtedly raised alarms within the intelligence community. After some negotiation between the NRO and NASA, all further plans to use LM&SS for civilian use were canceled. The hardware was probably destroyed, although it may exist in a classified warehouse somewhere.

The last several Apollo missions carried a powerful reconnaissance camera to the Moon located in their Scientific Instrument Module (SIM) bay. That camera was adapted from a camera developed for the U-2 and Blackbird spyplanes. The NRO may have been involved in making the equipment available to NASA.

Mirrors for astronomers

In the mid-1970s, an astronomical observatory in Arizona surprised astronomers when it announced that it was building a new Multi-Mirror Telescope using seven donated precision optical mirrors. As astronomers soon learned, the mirrors had come from the military, and they were remarkably lightweight by ground-based astronomy standards. Observers soon speculated that they were left over from the canceled KH-10 DORIAN program, the name for the optical part of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program canceled in summer 1969 by President Nixon (see “Mirrors in the dark”, The Space Review, May 11, 2009).

While this was not an NRO donation to NASA, the MMT example demonstrated that reconnaissance mirrors could have value for astronomers, although the mirrors were not ideal for astronomical use and the MMT configuration was later replaced with a single large mirror. There have been other cases where military and intelligence astronomical and other equipment has been donated to civilian astronomy programs. For example, the infrared sensor for the canceled Teal Ruby spacecraft was reportedly donated to an astronomy program for use in a ground-based telescope.

Brothers in arms

During the 1960s NASA engineers and technical experts provided analytical help to the intelligence community, primarily assessing intelligence on the Soviet space program. Although information on this collaboration is scarce, it appears that most of the assistance concerned the Soviet human spaceflight program, meaning that NASA personnel were helping assess intelligence that, in turn, aided NASA in its race to the Moon.

Has NASA ever paid back the intelligence community? Or has it simply said thank you and accepted the generous gifts from the men in black?

A more dramatic form of NRO assistance to NASA came in 1973 when the Skylab space station was crippled during launch. The NRO quickly determined that one of its Gambit-3 reconnaissance satellites already in orbit could be used to image Skylab. That capability had recently been developed by some Air Force officers working in the “Blue Cube” satellite control facility in Sunnyvale, California, for imaging Soviet spacecraft. But it had never been tested. The Skylab situation offered an opportunity to the NRO to assist in saving an expensive space mission and also demonstrating an important intelligence capability. The spacecraft took its picture and returned its film to earth earlier than originally planned, and the mission was apparently valuable for NASA in planning Skylab repairs.

Conclusion

What all these examples demonstrate is that there is a long history of the National Reconnaissance Office helping out NASA. What is unclear is how much the civilian space agency has reciprocated. Has NASA ever paid back the intelligence community? Or has it simply said thank you and accepted the generous gifts from the men in black?


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