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):
"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!)