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Cold War in Space: Top Secret Reconnaissance Satellites Revealed

During the Cold War, the U.S. relied on photo reconnaissance satellites to track adversaries' weapons development, especially in the Soviet Union and China. From the early 1960s to mid-1980s, photography from space was often the only way to get critical data about nuclear threats.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), Department of Defense (DoD), U.S. Air Force, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and industry worked together to create amazingly complex and capable satellites. Intelligence gained from these systems proved critical in winning the Cold War.

These satellites' powerful cameras used long rolls of thin plastic light-sensitive film to make photo negatives -- the cameras were not digital like many of today's cameras. Negatives exposed in space came back to earth in film return capsules to be developed and studied.

Satellites on Display
There are three satellites on display: GAMBIT 1 KH-7, GAMBIT 3 KH-8 and HEXAGON KH-9. "KH" refers to the "Keyhole" code name for satellite camera systems. All three used specially-designed film and cameras to take pictures in orbit.

The vehicles on display are among the most important U.S. photo reconnaissance systems used from the 1960s to the 1980s. The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force wishes to thank the National Reconnaissance Office for loaning these significant satellites to the museum.

No More "Pearl Harbors"
In the late 1950s, little information about nuclear arms was available from the Soviet Union and other communist nations. Communist "closed societies" posed a real -- if unknown -- threat to the U.S. and other democratic nations. Many Americans believed a nuclear attack by the USSR was possible and even probable.

Americans remembered the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and feared a similar attack from the Soviets. The U.S. gained intelligence on early strategic nuclear capabilities by flying camera-equipped aircraft over denied territory, but this tactic proved dangerous and hampered American diplomacy. After the USSR shot down a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft in 1960, overflights of the USSR ended.

Why Did We Need Satellites?
Satellites replaced aircraft overflights after 1960. They gave the U.S. information that could not be gathered in any other way. Finding out about adversaries' strategic missile development drove the early need for reconnaissance satellites, and arms treaty verification became important later in the program.

Passing in space high over their targets behind the communist "Iron Curtain," satellites could not be shot down and risked no harm to crewmen. It was a challenge, however, to create cameras, film, launch vehicles, spacecraft and other systems needed to make space reconnaissance effective.

Who Made and Used GAMBIT and HEXAGON?
The NRO has overall responsibility for US reconnaissance satellites. The DoD and the CIA formed the NRO in 1961 to manage U.S. space reconnaissance, combining government agency and military efforts.

The NRO traces its roots to the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. In the late 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower urged the DoD to consolidate several national reconnaissance programs. The Kennedy administration authorized the NRO, which added CIA programs to the unifying effort.

After its formation, the NRO assumed management of the first U.S. imagery satellite program. Code-named CORONA, it started as a CIA program with help from the Air Force. The NRO also managed follow-on efforts called ARGON, LANYARD, GAMBIT and HEXAGON. All these used photographic film and re-entry vehicles to return the exposed film to earth. Later satellites, including those used today, transmit data electronically from space. The NRO continues to manage reconnaissance programs, contributing greatly to national security.

The Air Force Role
The U.S. Air Force has played a key role in space reconnaissance from the beginning. The USAF began working on satellites as early as 1956, and tracked and recovered film-carrying re-entry vehicles from the earliest CORONA missions in 1960 to the last HEXAGON flight in 1986. A special USAF unit collected satellite film in midair near Hawaii and returned it to the mainland for processing.

The USAF also provided launch, tracking, control and range safety services for reconnaissance satellites throughout the entire Cold War, and it continues these activities today. Many NRO satellites have been launched by the USAF from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., into north-south polar orbits necessary for imaging missions. The Air Force Satellite Test Center at Sunnyvale, Calif., monitored and controlled orbiting satellites.

Value to National Security
Reconnaissance satellites have played a critical role in maintaining U.S. national security since 1960. They dispelled U.S. fears of a "missile gap," proving the U.S. had not fallen behind the USSR in weapons progress in the 1950s and 1960s. Accurate information from satellites allowed defense officials to act on facts, not speculation.

Over the years, satellites captured images of every new and existing Soviet strategic missile silo. This helped the U.S. confidently verify arms control agreements and track conflicts. The CIA described the value of such knowledge as "virtually immeasurable."

Click on the following links to learn more about these satellites.

GAMBIT 1: KH-7 Reconnaissance Satellite
GAMBIT 1: KH-7 Film Recovery Vehicle
GAMBIT 3: KH-8 Reconnaissance Satellite
HEXAGON: KH-9 Reconnaissance Satellite
HEXAGON: KH-9 Film Recovery Vehicle
HEXAGON: Mapping Camera

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Find Out More
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Reconnaissance Satellites Now on Display (00:01:35)
Dr. Robert McDonald & Dr. James Outzen: "Space Reconnaissance" (01:02:22)
Other Resources
National Reconnaissance Office