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Thor-Agena rocket
Thor-Agena preparing for launch with a top secret payload, 1959. (credit: Paul Gatherer)

The Cold War in space

The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society has been published for over seven decades, making it the oldest space-related journal in existence (see http://www.bis-spaceflight.com/). JBIS is published monthly and usually contains articles on advanced concepts and technologies—its most famous article appeared in the late 1930s and outlined a manned mission to the Moon using many of the same techniques ultimately developed for Apollo three decades later. For the past four years JBIS has also published a supplement known as Space Chronicle, which addresses more general subjects. Space Chronicle is published twice a year and past issues have focused on the history of the Soviet space program, among other topics. The next issue, due to be released soon, is dedicated to Cold War military space history.

This is not the first time that JBIS has turned its attention to the Cold War. In the late 1990s, the Journal published four issues on Cold War military space programs (June 1997, December 1997, August 1998, and November-December 1999). The current issue of Space Chronicle will pick up where those issues left off, exploring various Cold War space projects that have received little attention elsewhere. I was the editor of those issues and am the guest editor of the upcoming issue.

History unveiled, history recloaked

Those earlier issues were inspired by an era of glasnost—openness—that flourished during the mid-1990s both in the United States and Russia. Previously highly secret programs were declassified in both countries. In particular, in the United States several government agencies declassified substantial numbers of documents and made them publicly available. In 1995 the CIA led the declassification of the first American photo-reconnaissance satellite program, CORONA, and sponsored a public symposium on its achievements that apparently helped convince many within the intelligence community that discussing previously classified space achievements could bring positive publicity to a much maligned community. The CIA and National Reconnaissance Office released tens of thousands of pages of documents and photographs over the next several years. The US intelligence community also released information on the first signals intelligence satellite program, known as GRAB. A number of notable books were published during this time, including David Spires’ history of the Air Force in space, and Jeffrey Richelson’s history of missile launch warning.

Within Russia the situation was slightly different. Documents were declassified and many details of previously unknown subjects began to appear in the Russian space press. But there were no formal efforts by the Russian government to draw attention to this newly released information. Much Russian scholarship concerning formerly secret Soviet space projects emerged in the form of memoirs and diaries, not traditional historical scholarship.

Earlier issues were inspired by an era of glasnost—openness—that flourished during the mid-1990s both in the United States and Russia. Previously highly secret programs were declassified in both countries.

Unfortunately, starting around 1998, the trend reversed in the United States. Government declassification efforts that were planned for 1998–2000 were canceled. These concerned the KH-7, -8, and -9 reconnaissance satellite programs, and other subjects such as the POPPY signals intelligence satellites. These declassification efforts eventually happened in far reduced form years later (the KH-7 and KH-9 mapping camera imagery was released, but few details of the satellites that took them were made public; similarly, POPPY’s existence was revealed, but no details of its operations over three decades ago were declassified). Although started during the Clinton Administration, the imposition of new secrecy restrictions and the rollback of declassification efforts gained momentum during the Bush Administration, which viewed the release of government information as a diminution of executive power.

The situation in Russia was, again, slightly different. There the issue is less the release of records than an overall political environment that intimidates researchers, coupled with a lack of researchers to exploit the available resources. In Russia, much historical research focuses on memoirs and interviews, with very few scholars researching document collections that are surprisingly revealing about previously secret space projects. Because several researchers in non-space fields were arrested or otherwise intimidated for publishing or collecting information based upon unclassified data, those inside Russia who normally wrote about military space topics became far more reluctant to research and publish.

There have been some positive developments, however. The Central Intelligence Agency has released a large volume of declassified documents to the National Archives and Records Administration at the Archives II facility in the Washington, DC suburb of College Park, Maryland (known as the CREST collection). These records include a huge number of documents concerning satellite programs during the 1950s and 1960s. Many of them are devoted to the CORONA program, but some also refer to other satellite projects, as well as the utilization of satellite intelligence data, including photo-interpretation of Soviet targets such as missile sites and weapons manufacturing facilities. The US Air Force has produced several books on Air Force space activities, notably David Spires’ two-volume documentary history Orbital Futures and Mark Erickson’s Into the Unknown Together.

Space Chronicle

The new issue of Space Chronicle contains six essays on the subject of Cold War military space history spanning from the 1950s to the 1990s. Continuing a trend started in the earlier JBIS issues, several of the essays are memoirs of people who participated in the events, whereas others are academic historical accounts.

Unfortunately, starting around 1998, the trend reversed in the United States. Government declassification efforts that were planned for 1998–2000 were canceled.

Larry Edwards played a key role in the development of the Agena upper stage rocket, particularly the development of the Standard Agena that served so successfully for over two decades. He recounts his work in print for the first time. In the early 1960s one of Edwards’ engineers proposed a method of restarting the Agena’s engine in flight by trapping the fuel behind a mesh screen in front of the engine inlet. Edwards then demonstrated that this could work by filling a pickle jar with water, poking holes in its lid, and suspending it upside down over his desk for a month, proving that the surface tension at the small holes could hold a liquid in place. This capability eliminated the requirement for ullage rockets to push the propellant to the engine inlet. Edwards also introduced the use of zipcord to cut holes in the vehicle for devices such as horizon sensors, thereby eliminating the need for hatches that could decrease structural strength. But Edwards’ most important achievement was standardizing the design of the vehicle, making it capable of handling a wide range of payloads. The Agena was flown over 350 times in a career spanning three decades.

George Sutton developed the ablative reentry technology that was utilized on early ballistic missiles and soon migrated to spacecraft reentry vehicles. Dr. Sutton discusses the technical history of that important development. As Sutton explains, he began developing this technology at General Electric in the mid-1950s for a data capsule that was designed to be ejected from an Atlas ICBM reentry vehicle at high altitude. He experimented with phenolic resins that provided a lightweight alternative to heat-sink technology, proving that they could work at reentry velocities. Ablative materials were so promising that the Air Force shared the technology with the other manufacturer of reentry vehicles, Avco. Ablatives were adapted for spacecraft use and eventually were used to protect the Apollo capsule from the intense heat of reentry after returning from the Moon.

Robert Kennedy served on the staff of the House Science Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives in the mid-1990s at a time when the United States was beginning the conversion of Cold War technologies like reconnaissance satellites to serve commercial needs. Kennedy tells the humorous story of a congressional hearing that was held to force the US government into making this technology more commercially available. Despite their best theatrics, the forces of darkness managed to resist allowing American industry to license higher-resolution satellite imagery. That did not happen until years later. Kennedy also discusses his thwarted effort to plan the first group photograph taken from space.

Sébastien Matte la Faveur reports on an interview he conducted with a senior officer in the French Forces on France’s abortive early efforts to develop a reconnaissance satellite starting in the late 1960s. According to la Faveur, high cost, limited utility, and bureaucratic politics all coincided to delay and then kill this proposed project by the early 1980s.

Chris Manteuffel recounts a 1960s-era dispute between agencies of the US intelligence community over the detection via satellite of a missile launch site inside the Soviet Union, near Tallinn, Estonia. US Air Force officials argued that the site could be used to shoot down ballistic missiles, but CIA analysts believed otherwise. Ultimately, it took many years before the dispute was resolved and military and civilian intelligence agencies agreed that the site was intended to shoot down high-altitude aircraft such as the SR-71 and the XB-70.

In Russia, much historical research focuses on memoirs and interviews, with very few scholars researching document collections that are surprisingly revealing about previously secret space projects.

Finally, this issue of Space Chronicle includes a short history of the early Satellite Data System relay satellite program (written by myself). The SDS relayed imagery and telemetry from American reconnaissance satellites to the continental United States starting in the 1970s. The satellites were developed by Hughes using a variant of the commercial Intelsat IV bus. Seven satellites were produced before the Air Force and intelligence community purchased a much larger and more capable satellite designed to be launched on the Space Shuttle.

Although the flow of information on Cold War military space programs has slowed, it has not stopped, and future scholars will undoubtedly continue to explore this subject in the pages of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.


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