Star Points: Eyes in the sky on display at National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Star Points: Eyes in the sky on display at National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
Commemorative “challenge” coin honoring the 50th anniversary of the National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO). (Curtis Roelle Collection)

During the recent Memorial Day weekend, I paid another visit to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force (NMUSAF) at Dayton, Ohio. There were several new exhibits since my last visit, including the Apollo 15 command module nicknamed “Endeavour.” There is also a collection of previously classified U.S. reconnaissance or “spy” satellites. Although not a typical topic of astronomy, these “space telescopes” are the subject of this month’s column.

The “cold war” was waged following World War II between the communist nations dominated by the Soviet Union and the free countries primarily in western Europe, Pacific Asia and the United States. The mutual distrust required keeping tabs through technological means which led to the development of the U2 aircraft introduced in the mid-1950s. The U2 was able to operate at an altitude of 70,000 feet, beyond the range of most surface-to-air missiles, allowing the U.S. to deny the spy flights. That is until one piloted by Gary Powers was shot down.


Decades before NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the Corona spy satellite program, aka. KH-1 through KH-3 and cover named Discoverer, flew from 1959-1962. These satellites had telescopes onboard. But unlike HST, these telescopes were pointed downward rather than upward.

Updated versions followed including Mural (KH-4) from 1961-1962, Argon (KH-5) from 1961-1964, and Lanyard (KH-6) in 1963. Subsequent versions are on display at the NMUSAF. Improvements in film, camera and satellite technology resulted in improving image resolution and type. The images were used for observing military, technological, political and even agricultural developments and also facilitated the development of detailed maps.

A couple of related items are worth mentioning in this context. Things I have read but don’t recall the exact source, but believe they are factual.

First is that the resulting U.S. overhead reconnaissance debunked previous assessments by Department of Defense and other government agencies of a massive Soviet advantage in terms of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with nuclear weapons pointed at the U.S. This was a relief to the Eisenhower administration because conventional wisdom at the time was that the Soviets held a significant nuclear advantage. That view was reinforced by the public perception of Soviet superiority in space – first satellite, first man in space, first woman in space, first spacewalk, etc. This misperception allowed John F. Kennedy to campaign on the apparent impotence of the Eisenhower administration in allowing a nuclear disparity to become a crisis during his tenure. But because the intelligence information revealing that the U.S. actually held an advantage in deployed nuclear weapons was classified, Vice President Richard M. Nixon was unable to dispute Kennedy with the actual facts and lost the election. Upon his election, Kennedy was briefed by Eisenhower regarding the reality of the situation.

The second is that perhaps Eisenhower purposefully allowed the Soviet Union to beat the U.S. in launching the first artificial earth satellite, named Sputnik 1. The rationale is that Sputnik set a legal precedent in being the first nation to overfly other countries from space. News of the day reported on Americans observing Sputnik 1 or its booster rocket passing over the U.S. at night or listening to the “beep beep” of its transmitter via radio.

Eisenhower may have concluded that had the U.S. had been first to launch a satellite that the Soviet Union would have protested the fact that the satellite violated the “airspace” above its territory leading the United Nations to issue a global ban on satellite overflights. Sputnik set a precedent for overflight that would eventually allow the U.S. to launch spy satellites over the Soviet Union who would be left without a leg to stand had they wanted to complain. Thus, with Sputnik 1, the U.S. was free to begin launching its spy satellites.

The satellites on display at the NMUSAF are later generation spy satellites, and the last to use actual film media. The museum has two unflown Gambit satellites (KH-7 and KH-8) launched from 1963 through 1984, and the very large Hexagon (KH-9) aka “Big Bird” launched from 1971-1986.

All of the KH satellites returned big spools of exposed large format film. Like the film in a terrestrial camera, the film isn’t developed until the entire roll has been exposed, unless urgent events required the film’s early return to earth. The film capsules had to be jettisoned, reenter earth’s atmosphere and, as it descended on parachute would be captured in mid-air by an air force airplane. The film then had to be flown to a lab for processing. There was no instantaneous transmission of images.

The latter Gambits had two return capsules. This extended the mission as the satellite could eject a capsule and continue imaging. The latter Hexagon was loaded with four film return capsules.

The missions were designed and managed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and launched by the U.S. Air Force. The Gambit and Hexagon programs were declassified in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of NRO.

If you’re in the Dayton vicinity I recommend visiting the MNUSAF. It has a unique collection of aircraft and space vehicles and the admission is free.

In local news, Bear Branch Nature Center is having its next planetarium program at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 9. The Westminster Astronomical Society (WASI) will have telescopes on hand after the one-hour-long program at the co-located B.F. Roelke Memorial Observatory. The nature center is located at 300 John Owings Road, Westminster. There is no cost for the telescopic observing, but reservations are required for the planetarium program by calling 410-386-2103.

WASI will also have telescopes at the Milkhouse Brewery near Mount Airy for a happy hour observing session on Friday, June 22 from 5-9 p.m. Telescopic targets will include the sun, moon and planets Venus and Jupiter. Brewery address is 8253 Dollyhyde Road, Mount Airy.