CHANTILLY, Va. –
Visitors to the Rochester Museum and Science Center (RMSC) in Rochester, New York, can now view a piece of NRO and Rochester history—the optical system of NRO’s Gambit-1 (KH-7) satellite is now on long-term loan to RMSC’s Strasenburgh Planetarium. Rochester’s Eastman Kodak Company designed and manufactured Gambit-1’s then-classified optical system, enabling imagery with a resolution of two to three feet, ground-breaking technology in the 1960s.
On Feb. 4, more than 170 members of the public attended a panel event on Gambit-1 at RMSC. The Director of NRO’s Center for the Study of Reconnaissance (CSNR) Dr. James Outzen moderated the panel, which featured a CSNR senior scholar and four former employees of Eastman Kodak’s Research & Engineering (R&E) division.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, Rochester men and women worked in R&E developing camera, film, and film processing technology that allowed Gambit-1 to take photos from 130 miles above the Earth, while moving over 18,000 miles per hour, resulting in images clear enough to show trucks stored in a base. Due to the classified nature of the program, some people who contributed did not know they were working on a U.S. intelligence system. Following the program’s declassification in 2011, former Eastman Kodak employees have been able to recognize their contributions to the Gambit-1 program and share their stories.
R&E developed the satellite’s 77-inch focal length camera under daunting technical specifications, confronting a major challenge in designing large optical mirrors as flat as possible to accurately reflect images.
“The flat mirror in the front [of the optical system], the flatness of that 33-inch mirror, expanded to the size of New York State, there would be no deviation greater than two inches,” recalled John Shafer, one of the former optics testing engineers for Gambit-1.
R&E also developed Gambit-1’s film transport system. Unlike today’s digital data transmission, satellite technology in the 1960s returned film to Earth. Once the film was exposed, it was ejected from the satellite in a film return capsule, fell through the atmosphere and was recovered mid-air by specially equipped U.S. Air Force planes and flown to Rochester for processing.
“One of my favorite memories was the first film capture; I was there,” said Paul Haas, panelist and former R&E engineer.
“A voice came over the radio that said, ‘this is Chase-1’—Chase-1 was the name of the C-130 that was going to make the pass. I assume there was a Chase-2 and a Chase-3, just in case! Soon an authoritative voice came over the radio that asked, ‘Who’s the pilot?’ The aircraft responded with the Colonel’s name. And the Air Force officer in the room said, ‘That Colonel is going to change rank, it’s only a case of which way,’ ” recalled Haas.
Gambit-1 was a follow-on system to NRO’s Corona program, the first imagery satellite. While Corona was a “search” system, imaging huge tracts of land for analysts to look for unknown targets, Gambit-1 was a high-resolution “surveillance” system, designed to image known targets with enhanced resolution. Between 1963 and 1967, Gambit-1 flew 38 missions, and it was indispensable in giving U.S. decision makers insight into the Soviet Union’s military and industrial capabilities during the Cold War.
The name ‘Gambit’ comes from the namesake opening move in chess that undertakes high risk with the hope of high reward.
Gambit-1 satellites are on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the Air Force, but the optical system is inside the satellite and not visible to the public. You can read more about the Gambit-1 system on CSNR’s website here.
To learn more about the RSMC panel event, see these resources:
Top secret for years, Kodak-designed space-age spy camera returns to Rochester
Beth Adams for Rochester’s WWXI NPR Morning Edition
Declassified Cold War satellite camera returns home to Rochester
Rochester’s Ch. 8 / WROC
Rochester’s Ch. 8 / WROC