Image of the Air Force wings with the museum name underneath

Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
FREE Admission & Parking

GAMBIT 1 KH-7 Film Recovery Vehicle

GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites returned exposed film to earth in re-entry vehicles or “buckets” that separated from the satellite, fell through the atmosphere, and descended by parachute. US Air Force aircraft plucked the buckets from the sky at around 15,000 feet. This GAMBIT 1 return capsule’s parts are separated to show its inner mechanism.

Returning film safely and accurately from space was not simple. The re-entry vehicle had to be maneuverable, vacuum-sealed, temperature-controlled, lightweight, strong, and recoverable. It included a retro-rocket to slow the capsule into a precise descent and smaller thrusters to spin-stabilize it during its fiery fall to earth.

The outer cover of high-temperature resin charred away to carry off heat during re-entry. Another thermal cover, plus an array of thermostats and sensors, kept the film at the correct temperature in space and less than 150 degrees F during descent. Once the capsule reached about 55,000 feet, parachutes slowed its fall.

Battery-operated radio signal emitters helped aircraft locate the buckets, and they could float if they landed in the ocean. General Electric built the film recovery vehicles.

This artifact is on loan from the National Reconnaissance Office (Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance).

Film load:
3,000 feet
Film weight: 52 lbs.
Vehicle weight: 376 lbs. (at ejection with film)

Click here to return to Cold War in Space: Top Secret Reconnaissance Satellites Revealed.


Find Out More
Related Fact Sheets
GAMBIT 1 KH-7 Reconnaissance Satellite
Note: The appearance of hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the National Museum of the USAF, the U.S. Air Force, or the Department of Defense, of the external website, or the information, products or services contained therein.