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D-21 Declassified: NRO Technology Ahead of its Time Finds a New Home

By Staff National Reconnaissance Office

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Stealthy, sleek, able to fly at speeds over Mach 3.3 at an altitude of over 90,000 feet, the NRO’s D-21 drone, 1960’s technology ahead of its time, landed in a new home at the Southern Museum of Flight (SMF) here.

On March 21, 2019, the Museum hosted historians from NRO’s Center for the Study of Reconnaissance (CSNR) in an event about the D-21 drone that was recently unveiled in the museum’s new Cold War wing. The reconnaissance drone is on long-term loan to the SMF from NRO. The event coincided with the release of 97 recently declassified NRO documents about the drone program.  The D-21 foreshadowed the unpiloted aircraft of the 21st century everyone is familiar with today.  The drone was carried and launched from a modified A-12 CIA high-performance reconnaissance aircraft and then later from a modified USAF B-52.  Born of the Cold War, it tested the limits of technology available in the time period as a way of collecting reconnaissance imagery over denied territory.

Dr. James Outzen, D/CSNR, Director Emeritus Dr. Robert McDonald, Senior Curator

Trisha Aquintey, Chief Research Officer Patrick Widlake and others spoke on various aspects of the D-21 drone, from its place in reconnaissance history to the legacy of the artifact.

Dr. Outzen and Mr. Widlake also gave a presentation about the history of the D-21, and it’s role as the predecessor of the drones we know today, to a group of 80 second graders visiting the museum. When asked if any one of them owned a drone, the speakers were amazed when approximately half the children excitedly raised their hands and told stories of taking pictures with their drone or just flying them around their neighborhoods.

Though the D-21 program was cancelled in 1971, it was a bold technology for its time and its influence is evident in later technology used in NRO, Air Force and NASA vehicles, military drones, and even the drones used by second graders.