News | April 8, 2021

The NRO Time Capsule: Acknowledging the Future

By Staff

NRO employees probably passed by it numerous times as they walked through the Westfield’s main lobby. They may actually have stood near it and never knew it was there. NRO has a time capsule.

 Sealed and dedicated on September 6, 2001 at the closing ceremony of a series of events commemorating NRO’s 40th anniversary, the time capsule contains 115 items from all the directorates and offices of the NRO at that time. The date marks the 40 years after then Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara officially established the NRO as an agency of the Department of the Defense and we mark as our anniversary date.

After much debate as to burying the time capsule or placing it inside the building, the 40th Anniversary Committee decided a fitting place was inside the building with an appropriate NRO artifact above it, a Corona bucket. Inside the capsule are small unclassified items representing a significant sampling of NRO’s first 40 years, each wrapped for preservation along with a catalog of all the items to help NRO employees in 2061 identify what they are. A marker to the right outside the Corona bucket display signifies the time capsule is there.

Time capsules are a long-established way for people of the past to communicate with those in the future. The oldest known time capsule in the United States is in the Massachusetts State House, placed in the cornerstone by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere to mark the building’s construction in 1795. Adams was the Governor and Revere did the silver plaque for the capsule. The term “time capsule” was coined by George E. Pendray, a Public Relations consultant for Westinghouse Electric Company in describing the company’s capsule in their exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Those alive on Earth in 6939 will know all the contents, though some are listed on the plaque: 22,000 pages of microfilm, 15 minutes of newsreel, an alarm clock, bifocals and (if you can believe it) carrots. 

It is not surprising that NRO chose to place a time capsule in its building. A time capsule signifies the acknowledgement of a future. As Director of the Center of the Study for National Reconnaissance Dr. James Outzen recently stated in an interview about the 60th anniversary, “this celebration helps the workforce better understand this legacy of innovation and innovators that keeps the paths open for the NRO’s current and future efforts.”

Sixty years ago, NRO began its storied journey, twenty years ago it solidified its beginnings and looked toward the future with a time capsule, and at its 60th anniversary NRO continues to build upon that heritage of innovation with its compass still pointing toward the future, which will inspire the 2101 NRO workforce as they open the capsule 40 years from now.