WASHINGTON -- For 40 years, Pete Wilhelm wasn't allowed to tell anyone the real story behind the work he did at the Naval Research Laboratory.
His cover story was that he was helping to launch a satellite that would measure solar radiation. In fact, the satellite's real target was the Soviet Union.
In 1959, Wilhelm belonged to a team developing the nation's first spy satellite, GRAB (galactic radiation and background), whose existence was acknowledged for the first time yesterday at a news conference at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington.
The laboratory is celebrating its 75th anniversary and decided to declassify some GRAB documents as part of that commemoration.
"We can keep a secret around here," joked Wilhelm, now director of Naval Research Laboratory's Naval Center for Space Technology.
Tucked inside the tip of a rocket, the GRAB satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral on June 22, 1960. Within hours, it became the first U.S. spy mechanism to eavesdrop on the Soviet Union from directly overhead. Before GRAB, the U.S. had spied on the Soviets mainly by flying around -- and occasionally across -- its borders in U-2 reconnaissance aircraft.
One of those planes was shot down just days before GRAB was launched, and pilot Francis Gary Powers was captured; both events -- Powers' capture and GRAB's birth -- signaled a new era of high-tech intelligence gathering in the Cold War.
Radar signals gathered by GRAB were transmitted back to scores of rickety tin huts built around Soviet borders, where one- and two-man teams saved the information on magnetic tape.
The tapes were sent to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, which analyzed the data. An NSA spokeswoman said yesterday the agency is not ready to disclose the Soviet secrets gleaned during the two years GRAB circled the Earth. But Naval Research Laboratory officials said one of the more significant discoveries was that the Soviets had a radar system with the capability of assisting in the destruction of U.S. ballistic missiles.
"It was a milestone in the history of United States intelligence efforts," said Keith Hall, director of the National Reconnaissance Office, which has launched and operated dozens of U.S. spy satellites -- and whose existence was classified until five years ago.
While spying on the Russians obviously is old news, the significance of yesterday's declassification is that it peeled away another layer of Cold War secrecy.
GRAB and its offspring marked a turning point in warfare, which evolved from World War II's find-the-bad-guy tactics to today, "where these satellites are telling you where the bad guys are all the time," said John Pike, of the American Federation of Scientists.
And the announcement marked another step forward -- albeit a baby step -- in the plodding efforts to reveal dusty old secrets. The United States has declassified information on GRAB's successor, the Corona satellite, which took the first photographs of Soviet military sites.
Reid Mayo, the project engineer for GRAB, said yesterday the blips and bleeps he heard transmitted from the satellite were exciting, because he knew they were coming from the first contraption to look directly down on the enemy. But President Dwight D. Eisenhower was "very conservative about using it over the Soviet Union," Mayo said.
The satellite had to be activated each time it was to comb the air for Soviet signals, and Eisenhower made sure only he could authorize an activation. "He didn't want another U-2 disaster," Mayo said.
Mayo and Wilhelm were among about 20 GRAB project members at yesterday's event, including those who created the benign-looking charts and posters used in 1959 to persuade Congress to pay for the project. It was the first public recognition for their efforts.
"For many of the families here today, this is your first opportunity to know what your father or spouses or grandfathers were doing back when they were working for the Naval Research Lab," said Rear Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, the director of naval intelligence.
And while the technology of GRAB is obsolete, the concept of electronic bugs in the sky continues to grow as technological capabilities make satellites the spy tool of choice, Jacoby said.
"These are the kinds of things we're going to need to continue to do in the future," he said.
Pub Date: 6/18/98