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Origins of the U-2

In the early 1950s, Soviet military and economic developments were a mystery to the United States because the USSR was a secretive, closed society. Americans feared a rising threat from a nation they knew was developing long-range nuclear missiles and bombers. Before reconnaissance satellites were available, aircraft taking pictures with powerful cameras over Soviet bases was the best way to find out what they were doing.

Such flights were dangerous, and the U.S. needed a new and unique aircraft that could fly high enough to avoid being shot down over Soviet territory. Overflights had been made before, but with vulnerable aircraft. Lockheed's secret "Skunk Works" plant in California, under the direction of designer Kelly Johnson, proposed a new jet called the Model CL-282. The design had very long, high-efficiency wings, and was lightweight enough to carry heavy cameras to altitudes over 70,000 feet, or about 13 miles. The unarmed CL-282 would carry a single pilot on flights of nearly 3,000 miles over the USSR, without fear of interception because no fighter or missile at the time could reach an aircraft at 70,000 feet.

The CIA accepted the CL-282 design, codenamed "Aquatone." The first example of the new airplane flew in 1955, and with U.S. Air Force collaboration, was tested in great secrecy. Soon after, the USAF adopted the aircraft and called it the U-2. "U" stands for "utility," which was deliberately misleading about the airplane's true top-secret intelligence role.

The U-2 needed special new cameras to get clear, sharp photographs from very high altitudes. At first, old cameras were modified with new lenses and lightweight frames to make them suitable for the U-2. The new lenses greatly improved image resolution. A completely new camera also was developed using a single pivoting lens to photograph the landscape from horizon to horizon. Eastman Kodak developed lightweight film that allowed the new cameras to photograph vast overflight areas.

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