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NRO artifacts at Spy Museum answer 60 year old questions

By Staff National Reconnaissance Office

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Former CIA Director Allen W. Dulles said that “intelligence is probably the least understood and most misrepresented of the professions”, but the re-opening of the International Spy Museum (ISM) on May 12, 2019 dispels some of that mystery with the help of artifacts loaned by NRO’s Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance (CSNR). 

When CSNR learned that the historian and curator of the ISM planned to expand the technical intelligence collection capabilities exhibit in the new building and call it “How Do We Get Higher, Faster, and Clearer?,” they found another opportunity to highlight NRO’s contribution to the nation’s defense through its artifacts.  Discussions between CSNR and ISM identified the SR-71 Technical Objective Camera (TEOC) and the Hexagon Film Take-up Reel as excellent NRO representational artifacts to loan the museum. After signing of the agreements, both items were transferred to the museum in January.

The TEOC was mounted on each side of the supersonic SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft and took high-resolution pictures of the ground from a height of 90,000 feet in the air while the plane flew at over Mach 3. Designed and developed in the 1960’s by Hycon Corporation in partnership with the Lockheed Skunkworks, the camera is one of only 36 made and provided the United States critical photographic intelligence of hard-to-reach areas.

The film take-up reel was a component of the Space Recovery Vehicle (SRV) on the Hexagon (KH-9) imagery satellite. Hexagon had four SRV’s that each contained a film bucket that held up to 15 miles of 6.6-inch-wide film containing images taken by Hexagon’s two panoramic cameras. During a mission, exposed film, covering 40 to 50 days of intelligence target images, was loaded onto the large film take-up reel. At the end of the reel, the film was cut and the SRV was ejected from the KH-9 satellite. The SRV’s retro rockets slowed its re-entry from space, and a parachute deployed upon entry to Earth’s atmosphere. An on-board homing signal alerted Air Force recovery aircraft crews of the general location of the returning bucket. After the Air Force planes caught the SRV in flight, the film was sent to Kodak for processing and then to intelligence analysts to exploit.

The new International Spy Museum joins the ranks of the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the National Cryptologic Museum, the London Science Museum of Flight, and the Southern Museum of Flight as recipients of NRO artifacts that educate the general public about NRO’s many contributions to the security of the nation.