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Skylag image of Groom Lake
Photograph of the secret facility at Groom Lake taken by the Skylab 4 astronauts. (credit: NASA)

Secret Apollo

In May 1960 Francis Gary Powers fell out of a cold Siberian sky and into the flames of an international incident. But before the Soviet Union revealed that Powers was still alive, NASA implemented a cover story, rolling out a U-2 spyplane painted in agency markings and claiming that the missing airplane was a NASA aircraft on a civilian research mission. When the truth was finally made public, NASA was embarrassed and senior agency officials were outraged because they believed that they had been mislead by the intelligence community.

When a new NASA administrator took over in early 1961, NASA’s relationship with the intelligence community apparently improved significantly. But NASA’s mission of publicly proclaiming American technological capabilities and putting spacecraft and astronauts into Earth orbit created natural tensions with the agencies tasked with collecting information on America’s adversaries and obsessed with secrecy. Several incidents revealed in newly declassified documents from the Apollo era illustrate these tensions.

The Apollo program was carried out amid the klieg lights of the press on the world stage. That was, after all, the point—it had to be public, even the failures. However, there were aspects of Apollo that were classified. Relatively minor aspects, admittedly, but ones that still affected American national security.

There were aspects of Apollo that were classified. Relatively minor aspects, admittedly, but ones that still affected American national security.

In the event that an Apollo spacecraft was unable to leave Earth orbit, which could have happened if there had been a problem firing the third stage engine on the Saturn 5 which placed the Command and Service Modules and the Lunar Module on a lunar trajectory, or an early problem with the Lunar Module, the Apollo astronauts had a backup mission. They were supposed to circle the Earth and take photographs of the surface using the various cameras that they had aboard their spacecraft. Although this would have been a scientifically disappointing mission, and a major propaganda failure, it was NASA’s best attempt at salvaging something from the mission. For some of the later Apollo missions, the Command Module mounted a powerful camera intended for photographing the surface of the Moon. In Earth orbit, this would have produced relatively good photographs of the ground, better than any publicly released before—in fact, of a quality not publicly released until the 1980s.

Whenever the missions of government bureaucracies overlap government officials seek to coordinate their activities. This is to ensure that one agency does not do something that contradicts the policies of another agency, possibly causing embarrassment for the leadership and confusion for the public. In the case of NASA astronauts taking photographs of the Earth from space, this overlapped the jurisdiction of the US intelligence community, specifically the National Reconnaissance Office (or NRO), which was responsible for operating reconnaissance satellites for intelligence purposes. All American manned space missions starting with Gemini were coordinated with the intelligence community and astronaut photographs of the Earth were first reviewed by intelligence analysts before they were made public. In fact, in 1968 on the unmanned Apollo 6 mission, NASA planned on carrying an engineering camera to determine the orientation of the spacecraft in orbit, and sought intelligence community approval of this plan because the camera would take pictures of portions of the Earth at higher resolution than previously released.

In 1972, as NASA prepared for the last Apollo mission to the Moon, the agency sought to coordinate its plans for a contingency mission with the intelligence community, and created a bit of a stir in the process. The Apollo 17 spacecraft was carrying the Apollo Panoramic Camera, which had also been carried aboard Apollos 15 and 16. Previous photographs taken by astronauts with handheld cameras could not show much detail, but the new camera was much more powerful. More importantly, unlike previous missions, because of its unique trajectory, Apollo 17 could possibly overfly China and the Soviet Union, and the astronauts could return politically sensitive photography. NASA wanted the astronauts to take photographs of these areas.

The intelligence community was naturally sensitive to this issue. They were involved in a rather strange game of denying the obvious. Although it was widely known that the United States launched reconnaissance satellites, the official US government position was to not comment on the subject at all in order to not create any more questions, or international controversy, about the subject. In fact, the US government had even invented a euphemism—“national technical means”—in order to avoid referring to satellite reconnaissance in arms control negotiations. Photographs taken by American astronauts of the Soviet Union and China, some taken at relatively good resolution, could prompt awkward questions about American policies and capabilities. This was amplified by the particular capabilities of the Apollo Panoramic Camera.

Although it was widely known that the United States launched reconnaissance satellites, the official US government position was to not comment on the subject at all in order to not create any more questions, or international controversy, about the subject.

The Apollo Panoramic Camera was a derivative of an aerial reconnaissance camera known as the IRIS II, which was itself a derivative of the KA-80 camera. The KA-80 was originally designed for use on the SR-71 spyplane and later the U-2. It was what was described as an optical bar design, which enabled it to photograph a long thin image on a long strip of film at high resolution, and yet still remain compact enough to fit within the camera bay of an airplane or a spacecraft. It had a 61-centimeter focal length and from a 425-kilometer orbit could produce ground resolution of between 7.6 to 10.7 meters, meaning that a photographic interpreter could spot and identify large objects like buildings and some ships. At the time, American reconnaissance satellites fell into two general categories: “search” systems with resolution of about 2–3 meters and “spotting” systems with resolution as good as 15 centimeters. But the Apollo camera would have returned pictures far better than any ever made public before.

In October and November 1972, NASA contacted the National Reconnaissance Office and sought permission to take photographs of China and the Soviet Union using the Panoramic Camera and other cameras during an Apollo 17 contingency mission. A letter by Major Harold S. Coyle Jr. to the Director of the National Reconnaissance Office John McLucas from November 9 indicates that the NRO had reservations about NASA’s proposal. According to Coyle, the Office of the Secretary of Defense also was concerned about the proposal and recommended that NASA take a “more conservative approach”—i.e. not take any photographs of the Soviet Union or China during an Apollo contingency mission. NASA also approached both the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency for their comment. The latter agency was concerned that NASA’s plan could impact the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks—NASA was, after all, proposing something that would prompt questions about “national technical means.”

In addition to proposing something that made intelligence agency officials nervous, NASA also apparently ruffled some feathers by not following the proper procedures and submitting its plan to each agency separately rather than via a coordinating committee that had been created for just such requests. In fact, by this time NASA apparently had a reputation for “going out of channels” for such requests, which annoyed those in the intelligence community.

In response to the various concerns expressed by several agencies, NASA redrafted its proposal, but still sought to take images of so-called “denied areas.” They then took their revised proposal to a special committee involved in approving all overhead photography plans. Unfortunately, those records have not yet been publicly released, so it is unclear if NASA obtained final approval of its plans to photograph parts of China and the Soviet Union if Apollo 17 was unable to go to the Moon.

Of course, Apollo 17 did go to the Moon, meaning that the debate was essentially moot—except for any hard feelings it may have left among those in the intelligence community who believed that NASA occasionally acted against their interests.

This was not the first time that NASA had annoyed the intelligence community with its astronaut photography, and it certainly would not be the last. In 1974, astronauts aboard the Skylab 4 mission had photographed the top secret airfield at Groom Lake in Nevada. Groom Lake, often euphemistically referred to as “Area 51”, is the site of classified aircraft research and is where both the U-2 and SR-71 spyplanes were first flown. Despite apparently explicit orders not to do so, the astronauts had taken a photograph of the airfield. This prompted a debate within the government after the film was returned to Earth. NASA wanted the photograph released in keeping with its mission of being open and public about its activities. Members of the intelligence community wanted the photograph classified because it depicted a secret facility. Other members of the government questioned the precedent of classifying previously unclassified material. (See “Astronauts and Area 51: the Skylab Incident”, The Space Review, January 9, 2006).

What these various incidents highlight is that the relationship between NASA and the intelligence community was not always a smooth one.

In my previous article on this subject I stated that the photograph in question had not been publicly released. This was untrue, and the result of sloppy research on my part (I assumed that because numerous Area 51 buffs had not previously located the photograph, it was not in publicly accessible archives—I broke one of my own research rules and never bothered to search myself. Then again, nobody’s perfect, and this isn’t the first time that the Internet has perpetuated an untruth…) It turns out that the photograph was placed in NASA’s archive of Skylab photographs. But nobody had noticed. So NASA won its argument with the intelligence community over the photograph. The photograph is published above.

What these various incidents highlight is that the relationship between NASA and the intelligence community was not always a smooth one. They could coordinate their activities if necessary, but they did not always agree—NASA espoused openness and peaceful use of space, whereas the intelligence community believed that national security required carefully guarding the capabilities of American cameras and other intelligence collection systems. And although these episodes illustrate examples where members of the intelligence community were unhappy with NASA, the civilian space agency had been burned by that intelligence community in a very public way back in 1960. How long any ill feelings remained at NASA over the U-2 incident is still unknown—but perhaps can someday be answered.