The Space Review

 
KH-9
The KH-9 HEXAGON on display at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. (credit: D. Day)

Eyes of the Big Bird


Bookmark and Share

In 2004, I wrote an article about why there was no KH-9 HEXAGON reconnaissance satellite on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Museum near Washington Dulles International Airport (see: “The invisible Big Bird: Why there is no KH-9 spy satellite in the Smithsonian”, The Space Review, November 8, 2004). The first HEXAGON launched in 1971 and the last in 1986, and the huge satellite had earned the nickname “big bird.” It used high-speed film to record images that covered vast amounts of territory, returning the images to the Earth in film-return capsules. In the late 1990s the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was actively working on declassifying the HEXAGON and the GAMBIT satellite programs, but that effort had ground to a halt.

Shortly after I wrote that article I received a phone call from a man named Phil Pressel. “Are you the person who wrote the article in The Space Review?” Yes, I replied. “I’m the guy who built that thing!” he said. He wouldn’t say the name of the “thing” or even what it did. But he said he had worked for the Perkin-Elmer Company, had helped design the “payload” on the satellite, and that he was writing a history about it.

Phil Pressel’s history has now been published by AIAA Press. Titled Meeting The Challenge: The Hexagon KH-9 Reconnaissance Satellite, it is a detailed, behind-the-scenes account of designing the most complex mechanical device ever flown in space, and one of the most powerful reconnaissance cameras ever built. It is a great read.

Shortly after I wrote that article I received a phone call from a man named Phil Pressel. “Are you the person who wrote the article in The Space Review?” Yes, I replied. “I’m the guy who built that thing!” he said.

During that 2004 phone call, Pressel wondered if I had any idea about when the program might be declassified. I thought it would not happen soon. I told him that it was originally supposed to happen in the late 1990s, but had been put on hold. Ever since then, there was no indication that it was likely to happen. Furthermore, the Bush Administration had clamped down on the declassification of even old historical records. The NRO’s fiftieth anniversary was in 2011 and government agencies like to throw parties on their big anniversaries and they like to have something to show off at them. So my best guess was that the earliest it would be declassified was sometime in 2011.

Pressel was disappointed, but said that he was going to ask his contacts in the government if they had any information as well. A month or two later he called me again and said that he had confirmed that there were no plans to declassify the program anytime soon, but he was going to continue working on his history of the program.

I offered some advice. My suggestion was that he avoid writing a textbook. Nobody wants to read a history book filled with equations and calculations. What people will want to know about are the technical challenges the designers faced and how they solved them. Who were the people who managed the project, made the key decisions, and designed the hardware? Readers would also want to know what it was like to work in a highly classified environment. Did their building have windows? How did they communicate with their customer? What could they tell their spouses about what they did?

Over the years I kept in touch with Pressel and suggested resources he could look at and subjects he might try to address. He mentioned that he had interviewed his former coworkers or even former government officials. Again, he never mentioned the name of the project, and it almost became a joke between us that he could tell me he had finished another chapter, but not tell me what it was about. Eventually, in early 2011, I told him that there were rumors that “two major satellite programs” would be declassified by the end of the year. He talked to his sources and confirmed this. He said that he was hopeful that when the program was declassified he could get the manuscript through the CIA’s Publications Review Board—which would ask for any sensitive material to be removed before they would clear it for publication. He also asked if I would be willing to help him edit the manuscript once it was released and before he sent it to potential publishers. I agreed.

They soon began referring to the vehicle as “The Savior,” because people who saw the massive spacecraft for the first time would exclaim “Jesus Christ!”

GAMBIT and HEXAGON were declassified in September 2011, and Pressel attended the anniversary party at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Museum where the HEXAGON was displayed for only a day. He was finally able to say the word “Hexagon” and delighted in explaining how it actually worked, including the complex film path and how the film zipped through the cameras at immense speed. He still was not sure what he could say about the technical details, however. Within days, the National Reconnaissance Office also released a huge amount of documentation about the programs, including several official histories. I sent copies of all of this released material to Pressel, who was amazed at what they had finally declassified. He was also thrilled that the material was consistent with his memory and the interviews he had conducted, although very little of the declassified material discussed the difficult design challenges of the camera system itself, which was the primary focus of his book. His manuscript had a lot more information about not only what happened, but why it happened, he explained. He reviewed the declassified documents and incorporated their information where necessary, but they did not change his fundamental story.

Pressel’s manuscript still had to undergo security review, however. Once it emerged, he could finally send it to me. With all honesty, I was concerned that when I finally saw the manuscript that it would be too technical and not readable. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was extremely readable and filled with the kinds of things that rarely get discussed in official accounts of complex technology developments. For example, when Perkin-Elmer was first preparing to bid on the contract, they drew a full-size illustration of their proposal on large pieces of paper affixed to a wall inside one of their buildings. They soon began referring to the vehicle as “The Savior,” because people who saw the massive spacecraft for the first time would exclaim “Jesus Christ!”

The book contains a detailed description of the different parts of the complex camera system, including such vital subcomponents as “the twister,” the complicated rotating device that enabled film to slide through the camera while also rotating. The film not only traveled a convoluted path, it also had to go a long distance, from giant film supply reels at the rear of the spacecraft all the way to big takeup reels inside of each of four large reentry vehicles. It was an engineering feat, and one that Pressel describes step by step.

It was not simple working in such a secretive environment. Pressel describes clandestine meetings in CIA safehouses, document handoffs in suburban parking lots, and how even the littlest slip-up, like carrying a pencil with the company logo on it, could tip off the KGB, which was trying to gather information on the development of the spy satellite. Even covert contracts could have their quirks, as Pressel’s company Perkin-Elmer sought to hide its activities from its subcontractors, sometimes by buying subcomponents separately and through front companies.

Pressel describes clandestine meetings in CIA safehouses, document handoffs in suburban parking lots, and how even the littlest slip-up, like carrying a pencil with the company logo on it, could tip off the KGB, which was trying to gather information on the development of the spy satellite.

Pressel also discusses how the vehicle operated in orbit and how it evolved over twenty years. One time, during a mission launched years after the program became operational, a camera system suddenly stopped operating in orbit. Not only did Perkin-Elmer’s engineers have to figure out what went wrong, but they ended up in a bitter dispute with Eastman Kodak, the company that had manufactured the film and whose engineers quickly blamed the malfunction on Perkin-Elmer’s camera. Pressel’s coworkers were able to successfully demonstrate to their customer, the CIA, that a manufacturing flaw in the film, amplified by the large size of the film supply (the supply reels were over two meters in diameter), had caused one camera to stop working. Perkin-Elmer’s camera was not responsible for the malfunction and the company was able to gather a performance award on their contract.

Pressel also recounts the last flight of the HEXAGON, in April 1986, when its Titan rocket rose off the pad and then blew up. Perkin-Elmer employees who had worked on the system for many years, and who viewed this as their swan song, were devastated. The loss also had a major impact on many people who had expected to continue working analyzing data while the vehicle operated in orbit and they now found themselves without a job. After this, the company still tried to convince the government to fly the remaining engineering camera system on a Space Shuttle mission, but found no takers. Surprisingly, a few years later Pressel was asked to work on a highly classified study about whether the camera system could be sent to Mars. Now that camera is on display in the National Museum of the US Air Force (and not the Smithsonian).

There is a lot of detail in Pressel’s book, but it is also incredibly readable thanks to the work done by AIAA Press, which assigned a professional editor to the manuscript. It features numerous drawings and photographs, many never seen before. In the coming weeks I’ll recount some of the more interesting stories from the book and further explain what made the HEXAGON such an amazing piece of engineering, and a major component in the effort to monitor the Soviet Union during the Cold War.


Home

Subscribe

Enter your email address below to be notified when new articles are published: