Historically Significant Documents

NRO 60th Anniversary

Air Force Special Projects Production Facility History:

While those interested in the study of national reconnaissance devote a majority of attention to satellite vehicles and associated sensors, they also can find compelling history about the ground processing of the raw data obtained by reconnaissance satellites. The NRO is releasing a three-volume history that affirms the importance of what occurs on the "ground" with respect to the success of national reconnaissance programs. In 1976, the staff of the Air Force Special Projects Production Facility produced this history to document the organization's 16 year history of reconnaissance film processing, evaluation, and duplication functions at Westover Air Force Base, MA, as well as photoreconnaissance camera system evaluation efforts. The Westover facility first supported film processing and duplication efforts for the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft program. As the United States developed photoreconnaissance satellites, the facility assumed similar responsibility first for Corona imagery from space, and later space-based imagery obtained from the Gambit and Hexagon programs. Along the way, the Westover facility developed expertise in evaluating new and evolving camera systems that were essential for gaining even better images and coverage of the Soviet Union and other Cold War adversaries. Readers will discover that space reconnaissance programs are complex systems, requiring near perfect execution of operations both in space and on the ground. The individuals who supported these activities are some of the less known, but nonetheless significant forces that helped win the Cold War.

The Gambit Reconnaissance System Handbook:

The Gambit photographic satellite systems were developed to provide high-resolution spotting capability to complement the Corona broad area imaging satellite whose ground resolved resolution was six to eight feet on average. The Gambit (KH-7) satellite produced high-resolution images in the order of two to four feet and the follow-on, Gambit Cubed (KH-8), provided even higher resolution images in the "better-than-one-foot" category. The Gambit satellites flew from July 1963 to August 1984 and were a vital asset in providing our government with critical high-resolution access to denied areas during the Cold War. This reference handbook is a first-time release and provides an inside look at the inner workings of the Gambit system.

The SIGINT Satellite Story

The SIGINT Satellite Story is an important contribution to the preservation of national reconnaissance satellite history. Previous senior NRO leaders commissioned historical studies of early NRO programs to include Corona, Gambit, and Hexagon, which have since been declassified. Because the NRO had no authoritative histories of SIGINT satellite programs, NRO Founder Jimmie Hill commissioned The SIGINT Satellite Story. Unlike the earlier studies that focused on a single program, The SIGINT Satellite Story covers all signals satellite collection efforts from prior to the establishment of the NRO through the mid-1970s. The declassification of major elements of this history will allow more insight into satellite programs that provided enduring contributions to the preservation of U.S. security and securing of peace in the Cold War era.

The declassified version of The SIGINT Satellite Story offers insight into NRO efforts to develop and operate signals collection satellites in low earth orbits (LEO). Until the declassification of this history, the public has had limited insight into those programs. U.S. Intelligence Community members previously released details about the Samos, Grab, and Poppy signals collection efforts. This history will reveal more details about those important programs and their contributions to national security.

Readers of the declassified SIGINT Satellite Story will also learn about additional LEO signals collection efforts. The NRO recently declassified details about signals collection sensors flown on the Agena booster and control vehicle used with the photo reconnaissance satellites. These sensors gave us important insight into the USSR's ability to track U.S. satellites, as well as insight into radar coverage of the denied areas controlled by the USSR and its allies. The SIGINT Satellite Story also reveals efforts to maximize launch and space vehicle assets. In many instances, both imagery and signals collections capabilities were integrated into early missions. This integration testifies to both the ingenuity and frugality of early national reconnaissance personnel and leaders.

The conclusion to the history is largely intact after redactions and provides insight into efforts to maximize all potential orbits for national reconnaissance collection efforts. Details about programs launched into geosynchronous orbits are largely redacted, as well as more recent efforts to maximize signals collection from low earth orbit. Nonetheless, the summary of the history appropriately helps readers understand that satellite collection programs are not developed in isolation. Instead, they are developed to work in cohesive manner to assemble as comprehensive understanding of the intents and capabilities of U.S. adversaries as possible. Over time, additional information will be released concerning national reconnaissance programs and their contributions to winning the Cold War in years before and securing peace in the years ahead.


History of Agena

Along with the release of signals collection documents (see Declassified SIGINT Phase II Records - November 29, 2017, under Major NRO Programs and Projects), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is also releasing a lightly redacted multi-volume collection on the Agena control vehicle. The Agena was originally designed by Lockheed Corporation for use in the Weapons System 117L (WS-117L) program. Agena would go on to be used extensively for control and stabilization of national reconnaissance satellites including CORONA, GAMBIT, and the SAMOS related signals collection satellites. The NRO previously released the Agena volumes, but recent declassification decisions have permitted the NRO to reveal their contents almost in their entirety. In doing so, the documents further reveal the essential role that the Agena played in the success of the United States' pioneering national reconnaissance satellites.

James D. Outzen, Ph.D.
NRO Historian
Chief, Historical Documentation & Research
Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance


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