The flight of the Big Bird (part 4)
The origins, development, and operations of the KH-9 HEXAGON reconnaissance satellite
In 1995 President Bill Clinton signed an executive order that declassified the CORONA satellite program and also called for a review of the declassification of other reconnaissance satellite programs. CORONA was declassified with much fanfare, including a well-attended historical symposium held at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. The CIA, and to a lesser extent the National Reconnaissance Office, received much positive publicity in the form of dozens of news articles, television segments, and a couple of documentaries on the CORONA program.
Although Clinton’s executive order did not name them, the other programs scheduled for declassification review were GAMBIT and HEXAGON. Over the next several years that review took place within several agencies of the intelligence community. Whereas the NRO leadership apparently had opposed the declassification of CORONA, new leadership at the NRO—namely NRO Director Keith Hall—favored the declassification of GAMBIT and HEXAGON and declared that the film-return technology used in these programs was no longer sensitive.
A number of people at the NRO, who believed that CORONA should not be declassified, had apparently come to believe that GAMBIT and HEXAGON, and even other aspects of the NRO’s work, no longer needed to be as highly classified as they had been. The security environment had changed after the end of the Cold War, and there was a new attitude emanating from the White House that technology developed for intelligence and national security should be disseminated to the civilian world. Some NRO employees looked forward to the day when they could actually tell their families and friends at least some of what they did in their jobs, and certainly some enjoyed the recognition for the intelligence community’s past achievements with CORONA.
As the declassification effort progressed, in 1997 NRO Director Hall paid a visit to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Hall told curators there that he had a couple of large objects that could be donated to the Smithsonian. (See “The invisible Big Bird: why there is no KH-9 spy satellite in the Smithsonian”, The Space Review, November 8, 2004.) One of these objects may be a GAMBIT satellite, although details about it are limited. The other object is the KH-9 HEXAGON engineering test camera. This camera was probably constructed in the mid-1960s before Perkin-Elmer engineers began work on the first flight hardware. It served as a working model for the flight camera. If Perkin-Elmer followed common spaceflight engineering practice, this camera was used on the ground to simulate problems experienced by HEXAGON cameras in orbit. For example, if a KH-9 satellite suffered from higher than normal temperatures in orbit, Perkin-Elmer’s engineers could expose their test camera to similar temperatures and see how that affected its performance. In addition, proposed upgrades to the camera system would have been incorporated into the test camera and tested prior to final approval to introduce them into the next KH-9 camera for flight. Considering that the KH-9 operated for a decade and a half, there were probably a number of upgrades introduced during its lifetime and tested on this device.
NRO Director Hall provided the rough dimensions for the artifact that would be donated to the Smithsonian and it was clear to the curators that there was no place to put it in the museum. Hall suggested that maybe it could be displayed in a tent in front of the museum, on the National Mall, but the curators nixed that idea. Washington’s summers are hot and humid and occasionally include violent thunderstorms, and irreplaceable artifacts can be damaged in such an environment. If the KH-9 test camera had been declassified, it is unclear where or if it could have been publicly displayed. Smithsonian curators indicated that the best place to display the KH-9 camera system was in their proposed Dulles Annex facility, then scheduled for construction by 2003. The museum had a plexiglass model of the new building and into it they had placed a number of figures for aircraft that would be put on display. The curators added a small one in the shape of the Hubble Space Telescope engineering model that was in the main museum, and labeled it “KH-9.”
For reasons that remain unknown outside of intelligence circles, the GAMBIT and HEXAGON declassification was not approved. The most likely explanation is that intelligence officials became concerned they were surprised when India detonated a nuclear weapon. This event was accompanied by news reports indicating that India had concealed test preparations from American satellites. This event may have lent greater weight to those within the intelligence community who argued that the United States needed to talk less about its intelligence capabilities and that there had already been too much discussion of satellite reconnaissance capabilities. The GAMBIT and HEXAGON declassification effort that had apparently been gathering momentum came to an abrupt halt.
In 2002 the government declassified most of the imagery from the KH-7 GAMBIT as well as the mapping imagery from the 12 KH-9 missions that carried mapping cameras. The declassification threaded a fine line—the words “GAMBIT” and “HEXAGON” were not declassified (although a government official did accidentally mention them during a public address). The NRO’s role in procuring, managing, and operating these satellites was also not acknowledged. A limited amount of programmatic information about the satellites was released, such as the mission numbers, i.e. the fact that KH-9 launches started with mission #1201. (See “A paler shade of black”, The Space Review, September 20, 2010)
Over the past several years, a few more details about both the GAMBIT and HEXAGON programs were gradually released. In particular, in early 2010, in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, the NRO released official histories of the development of both programs that revealed much more information than in the past. Technical and most programmatic details remain classified, but it was possible to outline the programs’ development in the 1960s, and the fact that this new information was released implied a decision to declassify these programs.
Later in 2010, in a decision that was not made public, the Director of National Intelligence approved declassification of the “fact of” the existence of the GAMBIT and HEXAGON programs. This was the first time that an unclassified government document revealed the names of these programs, and it signaled the first step in a process of declassifying them. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the formal creation of the National Reconnaissance Office, and the NRO is gearing up for an official declassification of GAMBIT and HEXAGON by September. Assuming that this does actually happen as planned, the NRO can be expected to release photographs of the spacecraft, some satellite imagery, and information on their operations. The icing on the cake will be the unveiling of the KH-9 engineering test camera at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport, and only a short drive from NRO Headquarters.
The KH-9 HEXAGON had a number of legacies. One of the legacies is that it developed hardware that was later adapted for the KH-11 electro-optical satellites. But a more important legacy was its role in monitoring Soviet military and political developments and validating arms control treaties during the Cold War. Although the last KH-9 flew over two and a half decades ago, we are still benefitting from its contributions to preventing the superpower struggle from flashing into conflict.