"I built spy satellites for a living"

 Wikipedia Commons F Fd Kh-9 Hexagon Satellite

KH-9 Hexagon was a series of Cold War spy satellites that the United States launched in the 1970s and 1980s. Declassified in September, the program, known as "Big Bird," fed as many as 1,000 people and their families in Danbury, Connecticut. The Associated Press recently sat with a group of retired Perkin-Elmers Corp employees who worked on Big Bird and now get together for weekly coffee. From the AP (images from Wikipedia):

 Wikipedia Commons D D8 Kh9 Hexagon Integration

"My name is Al Gayhart and I built spy satellites for a living," announced the 64-year-old retired engineer to the stunned bartender in his local tavern as soon as he learned of the declassification. He proudly repeats the line any chance he gets…

Waiting for clearance was a surreal experience as family members, neighbors and former employers were grilled by the FBI, and potential hires were questioned about everything from their gambling habits to their sexuality.

"They wanted to make sure we couldn't be bribed," Marra says. Clearance could take up to a year. During that time, employees worked on relatively minor tasks in a building dubbed "the mushroom tank" — so named because everyone was in the dark about what they had actually been hired for.

Joseph Prusak, 76, spent six months in the tank. When he was finally briefed on Hexagon, Prusak, who had worked as an engineer on earlier civil space projects, wondered if he had made the biggest mistake of his life.

"I thought they were crazy," he says. "They envisaged a satellite that was 60-foot (18-meter) long and 30,000 pounds (13,600 kilograms) and supplying film at speeds of 200 inches (500 centimeters) per second. The precision and complexity blew my mind."

Several years later, after numerous successful launches, he was shown what Hexagon was capable of — an image of his own house in suburban Fairfield.

"This was light years before Google Earth," Prusak said. "And we could clearly see the pool in my backyard."

"Decades later, a Cold War secret is revealed" (Thanks, Bob Pescovitz!)


  1. I’m surprised they didn’t come up with a better cover story about what they did than “don’t ask”

    1. He could’ve used one you hear a lot these days from people in the intelligence community: “I’m a journalist.”

      Seriously, you’d be surprised how many people wear both of those hats.

  2. My father worked as an optical engineer for Perkin Elmer in California for many years.  I remember him having to go to Connecticut on business from time to time.  Guess I have some questions to ask now!

  3. If anyone’s interested in the development of the KH-9 (and its predecessors, and space tech in general) I find Dwayne Day’s articles in The Space Review great. http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1761/1 

  4. I never saw this myself but it was claimed in the overflights of Cuba prior to the missile crisis that not only could the Russian techs be seen but that brand on a package of Russian cigarettes could be identified.
    Decades later a satellite eavesdropped on Bresnev’s car phone.

  5. I got really confused when it said supplying film at 500 cm per second – that would be 432 km of film in a day – but then I realised that it would only need to supply it for short periods for individual photos, not constantly like I first thought.

    Does anyone know what kind of film speeds they used for satellites like this? How fast were the lenses? 

    1. The film moves to match the ground speed during an exposure. As the camera moves, the image would be blurred, so you move the film to compensate. For something like an SR-71 spy plane, it moved continuously, three cameras photographing a swath of ground 120 miles wide, as long as the film and fuel lasted. Each strip of film was 11″ (28cm?) wide.

  6. What absolutely fucking FLOORS me is the vanishingly short duration of these satellites’ missions.  Most of the missions listed in the Wikipedia article don’t seem to be more than two or three months before the satellites decayed (I presume this refers to their orbits. 

    What could account for such short mission lengths?  Did they just run out of film that quickly?

    1. THE LOWEST ORBIT POSSIBLE for highest resolution possible with that technology.  They simply couldn’t do it any other way.  Plus, it was non-digital film, and therefore a finite amount of it could be exposed and returned to earth, so it was easiest to end the mission, crash the thing into the ocean and launch a new one, rather than try to refill the film canisters with manned missions.

      These were the most expensive disposable cameras in human history!

  7. “Well, kids, getting the film back from one of these was the easy part…Now, loading it up with new film….That is a whole different classified (curved) ball game….if you catch my orbital drift”

  8. I sometimes wondered if the Shuttles “We must be able to manually repair satellites” mission requirement originally came from these birds.  By the time the shuttle actually launched they were obsolete, but the requirements process for the shuttle goes way back and includes an awful lot of spooky stuff. 

    1. Yes, the shuttle was 3x larger than NASA wanted, so it could put these in orbit. Then with all the delays, the AF built their own rockets to do it, so a big chunk of why the shuttle was as big as it was went away.

    2. Repairing satellites was part of it, but there was even a “being able to capture” satellites goal at one point!

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