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Saturn V and Skylab at Davidson Ctr
Albert “Bud” Wheelon was responsible for several major satellite initiatives while at the CIA in the 1960s. (credit: CIA)

The Wizard

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Albert “Bud” Wheelon died on September 27 at the age of 84. Wheelon was probably more responsible than just about any other person for building the Central Intelligence Agency into a science and technology powerhouse in the 1960s. Intelligence author Jeffrey Richelson referred to the CIA’s Science and Technology Directorate as “the wizards of Langley” in his 2002 book of the same name. Wheelon was the Head Wizard.

Wheelon was, according to practically everybody who knew him, brilliant.

Wheelon was hired at the CIA in 1962. In spring 1963 CIA director John McCone asked Wheelon to head up the CIA’s science and technology division after it became clear to McCone that planning for the nation’s intelligence satellite program was in disarray and the CIA was increasingly being outmaneuvered by the Department of Defense. Wheelon was born in Illinois and raised in California, and according to Richelson, he chose to attend Stanford after he realized that West Point was “not interested in those with eyeglasses.”

Wheelon was, according to practically everybody who knew him, brilliant. He received a Ph.D. in physics from MIT by the age of 24, then went to work on satellite and missile systems for Ramo-Woolridge (later Thompson-Ramo-Woolridge—TRW). He published a number of scientific papers as well as conducted assessments of intelligence data on Soviet ballistic missiles. This brought him to the attention of the CIA’s science and technology advisory board and the CIA director.

I met Wheelon soon after the declassification of the CORONA reconnaissance satellite program in 1995. He was soft-spoken, polite, and gentlemanly; charming, even. He may have mellowed over the years, because during his time at the CIA Wheelon had earned a reputation as someone who did not suffer fools gladly, or, as one person put it, was “an acerbic son of a bitch.” In addition to his brilliance, he had a tremendous energy level and knew how to fight bureaucratic battles in Washington.

His skill at bureaucratic infighting served him well. In the 1950s the CIA had developed the U-2 spyplane and the CORONA reconnaissance satellite (both with substantial assistance from the Air Force.) It had also started the A-12 OXCART Mach 3 reconnaissance plane. But during the early 1960s, the agency’s technical capabilities were languishing, and the creation of the National Reconnaissance Office within the Department of Defense (technically the US Air Force) meant that the center of gravity for strategic reconnaissance was shifting to the DoD. Some senior intelligence advisers viewed this with alarm, believing that the military would be biased in how it developed collection systems and certainly in how it would interpret their data.

Wheelon told McCone that he wanted to talk to his predecessor before agreeing to take the job. Before he finally came on board, he sought McCone’s assurance that the director would back him up in what he expected to be a tough fight with the Department of Defense and Secretary Robert McNamara. When I talked to Wheelon in 1996, he said that he was rather surprised that McCone had kept his word. As another intelligence official once told me, McCone had a reputation for “always being out of town” when major decisions were being made. But Wheelon learned that McCone had his back.

Wheelon certainly engaged in a lot of battles at the CIA while heading the Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T). He was only there for three years, but his influence was substantial. His activities could be divided into two broad categories: building and defending turf for the CIA’s role in technical collection of intelligence information, and developing new collection systems. Both were important. One of the things that Wheelon quickly realized was that if the CIA was going to oversee the development of new technologies, it needed smart people working for the government. Industry already had them, and without smart, technically trained people at the CIA, the contractors could overcharge the government or push systems that would not work. The problem was that contractors could easily poach the CIA’s best talent. So Wheelon secured the ability to pay competitive wages at the CIA to the people he hired. By the time he left, he had built up what many people who knew about it considered to be an outstanding science and technology workforce. In many ways this placed the Air Force at a disadvantage, because its civilians could not be paid comparable wages, and its military officers often got transferred to new jobs just as they were becoming proficient.

If they could put a sensitive satellite in geosynchronous orbit, he thought, perhaps it could gather the signals transmitted by Soviet ballistic missiles during their flight tests.

Wheelon started the ball rolling on three major programs while he was head of DS&T. One of the things he told me was that when he started he thought that people were talking about developing new reconnaissance satellites, including upgrades to the CORONA, without understanding exactly what kind of capabilities were needed by intelligence analysts. So he initiated a study of what kind of information a photo-interpreter could gather from aerial photos at different levels of resolution—for instance, at some point an interpreter could tell the difference between a tank and an armored personnel carrier, but what level of resolution was required to tell the difference between two different versions of the same type of tank, and did that matter? With the results of that study in hand, Wheelon started a new reconnaissance satellite to replace CORONA in the search role. The system, eventually named HEXAGON and entering service in 1971, was able to scan huge amounts of territory onto film that was then returned to Earth in satellite reentry vehicles. HEXAGON was one of the true marvels of intelligence collection, and is probably the most sophisticated mechanical device ever launched into space.

One day, while reading about the Syncom geosynchronous communications satellite, Wheelon realized that a communications satellite was, in essence, a microphone in the sky, receiving a signal and sending it back down to another location. If they could put a sensitive satellite in geosynchronous orbit, perhaps it could gather the signals transmitted by Soviet ballistic missiles during their flight tests. In particular, such a satellite might be able to send back the signals that a missile transmitted just before it left the ground, such as how much fuel was in its tanks and what pressures they were operating at. He started a program to develop such a satellite, which was named RHYOLITE and first launched in 1970.

Inspiration came to Wheelon another time while watching a live football game being played on the other side of the country. The television signals, Wheelon realized, were being relayed live via satellite, not stored on the satellite itself. Previous efforts to develop imagery satellites to return their pictures shortly after they took them involved developing film on the satellite, processing it, scanning it, and then transmitting the image to the ground. This resulted in a complex satellite with lots of challenges and limitations. But if the satellite taking the images sent the data immediately and did not record it onboard, that could dramatically simplify the entire process. Wheelon set his people to study how such a system might work. Initially their idea was to use imagery satellites in low Earth orbit relaying data through a series of communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit. But that required multiple relays and would have taxed the technology of the time. Wheelon admitted that a later director of the National Reconnaissance Office, Alexander Flax, eventually developed the solution of putting the relay satellites in highly elliptical high inclination orbits that would be simultaneously in view of both the imagery satellite over Russia and a ground station in the United States. The imagery satellite was named KENNEN and entered service in 1976. Versions of it remain in operation today.

Only HEXAGON has been declassified, in 2011. But Wheelon was willing to talk to researchers about all of them—in general terms—even in the mid-1990s. He didn’t use their actual names, nor talk of their specific capabilities, but he acknowledged their existence and his responsibility for making them happen. Of course many other people, most of them still anonymous both within and certainly outside the intelligence community, turned Wheelon’s big concepts into real devices. The Wizards of Langley were very busy in those years. Wheelon came up with the spells, but other people had to cast them. Wheelon left a lot of sore feelings, particularly within the National Reconnaissance Office and the DoD, but without him, several highly successful intelligence collection programs never would have happened.

The next time the National Reconnaissance Office launches a descendent of the KENNEN imagery satellites or one of the relay satellites that send the data back, they should name it Bud.

In 1966, he left the CIA to take a job running Hughes. At that company, which was then building communications satellites, Wheelon got them into the development of military satellites as well. Hughes won a contract in the mid-to-late 1960s to build a signals intelligence satellite called JUMPSEAT that intercepted the emissions from Soviet ballistic missile radars—although it is unclear what role Wheelon played in that contract. JUMPSEAT first launched in 1971. By the mid-1970s, the company had won a contract to build data relay satellites to bend the information fired up from KENNEN imagery satellites back down toward satellite dishes on the ground outside of Washington, DC.

Back in 1996 or so, I visited Wheelon at his home outside Santa Barbara, California, where he talked about his time at the CIA, primarily about the battles over CORONA and the struggle for control of national reconnaissance. The one subject he said he would not discuss (he volunteered this) was “the nuclear thing with China,” which he did not elaborate upon. I later determined that this was a reference to a CIA effort to put sensors inside of China to monitor their atomic weapons testing.

Around noon, he suggested that we go to lunch at a restaurant near the ocean. While discussing various subjects over salads he casually mentioned a program called “Isinglass.” Then he paused. “You know what that was, don’t you?” Rather than answer, I just sipped my iced tea. He then explained that ISINGLASS was a Mach 20 rocket-powered aircraft that would have been dropped from a B-52 and flown a semi-ballistic trajectory over the Soviet Union. It was intended to replace the OXCART (and its successor, the SR-71). There was another program named RHEINBERRY as well. They were primarily Air Force programs, but they did not progress to flight testing. Either Wheelon did not remember much more or he decided not to tell me. It was a major scoop—but I could not get any other confirmation or details, and so I couldn’t publish anything. A few years later the CIA released a declassified history of the OXCART program that contained a short mention of ISINGLASS and RHEINBERRY—and apparently confused the two. Despite the fact that I’ve now written about ISINGLASS (see “A bat outta Hell: the ISINGLASS Mach 22 follow-on to OXCART”, The Space Review, April 12, 2010) and gathered a fair number of documents about it, the program remains somewhat confusing, both in terms of programmatics (did the programs overlap or follow one another?) and technology. A recently declassified document that is itself perplexing may explain why the CIA historian may have mistaken the two. The details are irrelevant, but the incident demonstrates that Wheelon was full of surprises and secrets.

The next time the National Reconnaissance Office launches a descendent of the KENNEN imagery satellites or one of the relay satellites that send the data back, they should name it Bud, to honor the man who came up with the idea while watching a football game half a century ago.