The NRO emblem has evolved through several different designs, dating from a 1965 design for the seal of a space academy to the current emblem that was officially adopted by the NRO in 1994. Throughout these changes, the names and the color schemes have changed, but the primary design element symbolizing an NRO satellite orbiting the globe has remained.
According to the second NRO Staff Director, Maj Gen John L. Martin, USAF (Ret), the NRO emblem began as an "official seal" that appeared on a space reconnaissance "academy certificate" awarded to NRO director Brockway McMillan on the occasion of his farewell party in Sep. 1965. Presented on behalf of the Secretary of the Air Force Special Projects Office (SAF/SP, also known as NRO Program A), the seal of this mythical academy featured a globe of the earth with a tiny circular satellite in orbit around it, the globe itself balanced on the nose of a skunk standing on its hind legs. Arching over the globe appeared the name of the awarding academy: Special Academy For Space Progress. The symbolism of the skunk, presumably, had to do with the term "Skunk Works," a nickname for Lockheed's top secret aircraft experimental facility in California.
A second, similar certificate and seal, showing a globe of the earth with a satellite in orbit around it, with the name of the same space "academy" arched over it-but this time without a skunk in the supporting role-was awarded to General Martin at his retirement party in Jan. 1970. As General Martin recalled, "the design was made at SP, but I don't know who made it."
By 1973, the academy seal had become the unofficial emblem of the NRO Pentagon headquarters. It featured a satellite in orbit around the earth with a star-studded dark-blue firmament in the background. The continents appeared in light yellow, with a light yellow band embracing the circular emblem. On the band appeared the words: "Secretary of the Air Force, Space Systems" (SAF/SS), which was the unclassified name of the NRO that then appeared in the Pentagon's telephone directory and other records. (See figure 1)
By the mid-1980s, a slightly revised version of the NRO emblem appeared on the cover pages of various classified NRO reports and histories. This time the words "National Reconnaissance Office" appeared in place of SAF/SS on a circular off-white colored band around the emblem. The band enclosed a blue and pink globe of the world, again with a satellite in orbit around it, against a black deep space starry background. This penultimate emblem appeared on classified NRO publications at least until 1994. (See figure 2)
By this time, however, the "fact of" the NRO had been made public, and the NRO had applied to the U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry to formally register its disc-shaped emblem so that copies could be made for internal use and provided to other organizations that wished to display it. Acting for NRO Director Martin Faga, Capt Renee Strickland, USAF, submitted the last rendering of the emblem to the Institute of Heraldry, which approved and registered it in mid-1993. This emblem substituted dark blue in place of off-white in the outer encircling band, replaced the starry deep space background around the earth with an interior white band, changed the earth's continents from pink to forest green, and added the words "United States of America" at the bottom of the disc. (See figure 3) This is the NRO emblem that we recognize today, which began life 39 years ago as the seal of a make-believe space reconnaissance academy.