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McDonnell Space Hangar at Udvar-Hazy
The newly-opened space hangar at the Udvar-Hazy Center features a wide array of space artifacts, including the shuttle Enterprise, but no KH-9 spysat. (credit: J. Foust)

The invisible Big Bird: why there is no KH-9 spy satellite in the Smithsonian

Last week, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum officially opened its James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, near Dulles Airport. The hangar is filled with numerous space objects, the most notable being the Space Shuttle Enterprise. There is one object that was supposed to be there but is not: a schoolbus-sized KH-9 HEXAGON spy satellite, developed by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), whose headquarters is only a few miles down the street from the museum annex.

Many years ago, when the Smithsonian was still trying to raise money for what was then called the Dulles Annex, they produced a plastic model of what the facility would eventually look like. Small clear plastic markers were cut in the shape of aircraft, spacecraft, and other artifacts and placed inside the model. Off in one corner of the Space Hangar was a little blue object shaped like the Hubble Space Telescope and labeled “KH-9.” That model was occasionally displayed to the public at special events and was usually on display on the downtown museum’s third floor, where the offices are. A map of the Dulles Annex exhibits was also published in Air & Space Magazine, and it too had the KH-9 off in the corner. So now that the space hangar is finally open, some people may wonder why there is no KH-9 to be seen anywhere in the facility.

The KH-9 was the main intelligence workhorse for a decade and a half.

At one time, NRO and Smithsonian officials enthusiastically discussed donating a KH-9 satellite to the museum. One of the venerable spy satellites—probably a flight qualification model never intended for flight—currently sits in a classified warehouse. It is one of the most sophisticated and successful spycraft ever built. However, changing attitudes in the intelligence community have put the plans on indefinite hold, and a technological wonder that some senior intelligence officials once planned to unveil seven years ago remains classified and unseen.

The big bird

Between 1971 and 1984 twenty KH-9 satellites were launched into orbit. A twenty-first satellite launched in April 1986 never reached space—in fact, it barely made it off its launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base before its Titan 34D rocket exploded spectacularly, showering the area with debris. Remains of the satellite were swept up, placed in barrels, and buried at Area 51 in the Nevada desert.

The KH-9 was the successor to the CORONA reconnaissance satellite, over a hundred of which flew from 1960 until 1972. The KH-9, like its predecessor, was designed to photograph large areas so that analysts could search for new targets and count known ones like bombers at Soviet airfields and submarines in port. Other satellites with higher resolution would occasionally focus in on specific targets for technical assessment, but the KH-9 was the main intelligence workhorse for a decade and a half.

Only bits and pieces of information on the KH-9 have leaked out, including a few line drawings of its overall configuration. At the rear were solar panels and a propulsion system for maintaining the satellite’s orbit. In the center was the camera system, and forward were the reentry vehicles. The satellite was built by Lockheed and its sophisticated—and complicated—camera system was built by Perkin-Elmer. Two powerful cameras exposed long strips of nine-inch wide film that was returned to Earth in reentry capsules that were captured in air by C-130 aircraft. Camera resolution was probably about 50 to 60 centimeters, or approximately the same as current commercial imagery satellites. A dozen missions carried a mapping camera and a fifth reentry vehicle.

The KH-9 was massive, requiring the largest launch vehicle in the American inventory at the time, the Titan 3. This size earned it the nickname “the big bird” from the Air Force crews who launched it. Early satellites stayed in orbit for a month and a half, but later ones stayed up to 275 days. By all accounts, the KH-9 was a highly successful program despite its substantial complexity.

Emerging from the shadows

Spy satellites were long the most secret devices operated by the U.S. government. They were usually referred to only as “national technical means” in arms control treaties. The existence of the NRO, the organization that developed and operated them, was not even declassified until fall of 1992.

The NRO director visited the Air and Space Museum and enthusiastically discussed where they could put the KH-9 when it was declassified. There was not enough room downtown, but the new facility near Dulles was perfect.

In early 1995 President Bill Clinton signed an executive order that declassified the first successful reconnaissance satellite, CORONA. Clinton’s order was opposed by many within the intelligence community, including the leadership of the NRO. The organization had operated for so long in the black that shedding even the slightest amount of light on its activities produced howls from many of its officials. But the declassification of CORONA, including an academic conference that discussed its origins and achievements, brought the NRO and the intelligence community something that they rarely get: praise. A number of people within the agency changed their minds after seeing what a little openness could do for their reputation. A leadership change at the agency also led to greater enthusiasm for further openness.

Clinton’s order called for a review and declassification of remaining “obsolete, film-based” satellites within five years. This meant the two satellite projects that followed CORONA into service, known as the KH-7/8 GAMBIT and the KH-9 HEXAGON. According to newly declassified memos, by spring 1997 the senior leadership of the NRO advocated declassifying information about these systems in time for the agency’s Family Day in October. The NRO director proposed that his agency would take the lead on the declassification effort and work closely with the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). Certain aspects of the programs would have to remain classified, as would significant amounts of the imagery, particularly higher resolution KH-8 and KH-9 imagery from the 1970s and 80s. But the agency that had opposed declassification of CORONA now led the effort to declassify its successors.

The NRO director soon visited the Air and Space Museum and enthusiastically discussed where they could put the KH-9 when it was declassified. There was not enough room downtown, but the new facility near Dulles airport was perfect. After all, NRO employees could even visit it on their lunch break.

But then the secrecy environment changed and the trend toward openness at the NRO shifted. Exactly what caused this change is unclear. The declassification effort was stalled by fall 1997, possibly due to opposition among other intelligence agencies. The 1998 nuclear weapons tests by India and Pakistan, which reportedly involved semi-successful efforts to deceive American spy satellites, apparently sent a chill through the entire intelligence community. In order for the declassification of admittedly obsolete technology to proceed, many people had to say yes, but a single no could halt everything.

For the next four years no further progress was made on the declassification effort. The new Bush administration did not share its predecessor’s enthusiasm for government openness. A new director of the NRO also took a more secretive approach, seeking greater authority to restrict access to his agency’s historical records. The terrorist attacks of September 11 gave more strength to those who said that the government needed to protect information, even if it concerned long-obsolete technology.

page 2: a break in the shadows? >>