Chapter 16.  Enigma. 1986 – 1989

I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Winston Churchill 1939

Open the POD Bay Door Hal

I left Omaha to join the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).  The name, even the three letters and everything about it was classified.  I would be working for the Secretary of the Air Force Special Projects (SAFSP).  This was an organization outside the traditional Air Force Chain of Command.  SAFSP was the Air Force component of a hybrid organization comprised of Air Force, CIA, and Navy personnel.  Designated as Program A for the Air Force, Program B for the CIA, and Program C for the Navy, the NRO was formed to coordinate programs and budgets to reduce duplication.  Founded in August 1960, the NRO was and is responsible for building and operating our Nation’s network of spy satellites.  The NRO remained classified until 1995.  

Today, the early systems I worked on are declassified.  I guess I’m free to talk about them.  There is much available in the open press about the newer systems I worked on, but I can’t confirm or deny any of that wild speculation.  To be safe and out of an abundance of caution maybe you should just burn this blog after reading.  Better yet, this blog folds into a CDC compliant face mask.  Breath in, you’ll be fine.

I know that many of you are rolling your eyes and you’d wish I’d just put in a few more pictures of good-looking young people.  Hang in there, I’ll try and make this interesting.  Here is my perspective on how exciting it was to work on space systems back in the day.

HEXAGON Satellite on display at the National Museum of the Air Force

May 1961  Alan Shepard was the first American in space.  His suborbital flight lasted fifteen minutes.

June 1959 – October 1961  The CIA’s Corona Program launched twenty spy satellites with panoramic cameras.  Seven of the film capsules were successfully recovered in mid-air by a specially configured airplane.

1964 – 1985    Beginning in 1964 and for the next twenty-one years a total of 54 Gambit KH-8 satellites were launched.  This was one year after John Glenn’s first three orbits around the Earth.  Each satellite carried two film return buckets.  On the last mission, photo processing crews working for me processed the last set of images.  Gambit cameras could resolve objects on the ground as small as 2 inches.

GAMBIT Reentry Bucket
September 2011 at the NRO’s Fiftieth Anniversary Dinner

1971 – 1986  The KH-9 Hexagon Program successfully launched 19 broad area search satellites.  Each satellite was the size of a greyhound bus and contained four film return capsules, each the size of a small car.  In Omaha, my crews processed film from the last two successful missions.  The special aircraft bringing us the reentry vehicles had a higher priority than SAC’s Airborne Command Post.  

Catch a falling Star

1986  I was in the Mission Control Room in Sunnyvale California for the last launch of a Hexagon Satellite.  Shortly after clearing the tower, the Titan 34D rocket exploded.  Melted film littered miles of the California coast and Vandenburg AFB.  FYI, the NRO builds the satellites while the Air Force supplies the rocket.  It’s a tradition of the NRO to toast the Air Force for the ride into space.  Nobody made a toast that day.  In my forty years working for the NRO, first on active duty and then as a consultant, I never attended another launch.  I was often invited but I didn’t want to chance it.

HEXAGON Satellite

1968  Also in 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff.  Among the crew was the first private citizen and high school teacher Christa McAuliffe.  A relay communications satellite critical for future NRO missions and seven crew members were lost.

1987  The NRO cancelled all plans to place astronauts in space.  Two of my bosses and a few friends were in the USAF astronaut program.  

1989  With the fall of the USSR, the NRO had to completely rethink its mission.  Until then it had three goals, “spy on the Russians, spy on the Russians and spy on the Russians.  I was the most junior person selected to work on the new Headquarters Staff.

My first assignment with the NRO was in 1986 to the Satellite Ground Station located on Ft. Belvoir Virginia.  A Ground Station both flies the satellites and processes the data.  At satellite ground stations most of the attention is placed on the command and control of the vehicles and their collection of imagery.  My area of expertise was the processing and distribution of the data.  From 1986 until I retired from active duty in 1996, I worked for the NRO.  I was fortunate enough to work on CIA and Air Force programs as well as one for the Navy.

I’ll stop the wonky stuff now and just relay a few war stories.

War Story 37  The Purple Water Fountain.  Some say it’s a legend, others say myth.  I’ve seen it.  With my own eyes. Of the 685 water fountains in the Pentagon, only one is purple.  No one is certain of the origins of the fountain, it’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. My NRO boss while I was in Omaha worked in the catacombs, deep underground at the Pentagon.  Dave Anderson was a Lieutenant Colonel working for the NRO and one of his hardest jobs was as my “Control Officer.”  I say I worked for Dave because even though he wasn’t in my official “chain of Command,” he gave me money to get things done.  If we had a “re-entry bucket” coming in and we needed supplies, he gave me money.  If we needed to pay the hotel bills for folks who were visiting and nobody knew about it, Dave gave me money.  Before I joined the NRO officially, I worked for Dave.  I worked for the NRO as well as SAC.  Go down the C corridor steps into the basement of the Pentagon, when you get to the second level, you’ll see a purple water fountain.  Turn left.  You don’t have to knock.  A sentry will check you in.  Your name is on the list.  Seems that my name was always on someone’s list.

So, every few weeks, while stationed in Omaha, while working for SAC, I would fly to DC and the Pentagon.  There I receive my next set of orders.  Never how to do something, but simply what the NRO needed to be done. It was left to me to figure it out.  Often, the hardest part of my last few years in Omaha was working for both organizations who often had conflicting priorities.  Getting hard things done with unlimited resources and an open checkbook was easy.  The hard part was doing them when two large and proud organizations with competing political objectives had conflicting interests.  Dave was a master instructor; my job was to thread the needle.  

The purple fountain is in the damp, dark basement of the Pentagon, today it’s encased in glass, a monument.  Back in my day it was just a waypoint.  Once in the basement, look for the fountain and turn left.  A beacon pointing the way to a set of rooms behind locked doors.  The doors to “our secret eyes and ears in space.”

If you were an official visitor of the NRO back in the day, you would know suite “4C100.”  Fourth floor, C corridor, Suite 1000.  Here the Deputy Secretary of the Air Force worked.  While there are boatloads of Assistant Secretaries, each service is allocated one and only one Deputy.  I know many of you non-government types might find this hard to believe, the Deputy Secretary of the Air Force, the number two guy in the USAF, ran an organization comprised of CIA, AF and Navy personnel.  The Director of the NRO was often selected from industry, usually with no government experience.  This is because the NRO relied on industry and the relationship with America’s industrial arm was instrumental to the NRO mission.  To navigate the government and get things done, the NRO Deputy was a career CIA civilian who knew how to turn all the levers.  

Jimmy Hill was to the America’s clandestine space program what Werner Von Braun was to NASA.  A career CIA officer with a USAF title. He’s an American Icon.  Occasionally, Dave would bring me in to sit with him.  The conversations were all the same.  He wanted to know, did I need anything else?  Is there someone he should call?  Has Dave given you the resources you’ll need?  Once and only once did I say I needed more.

Dave had given me money to build a tempest shell.  A new, highly secret technology was being field tested at our lab in Omaha.  At the time, to ensure no-one could eavesdrop, a hardened steel enclosure needed to be built to hide the super-secret device.  Given funds to hire contractors and build the hardened metal structure, one of my NCOs came to me and suggested, we could do it ourselves.  What do you mean you’ll do it?  “It’s not that complicated,” the Sergeant said.  The metal bolts holding the metal building together numbered in the thousands.  They offered to wear civilian clothes to work and do it on their free time.  I couldn’t pay them.  Just let us wear our own clothes and do it on our free time the sergeant said.  The NCOs were committed to the work they did for the NRO.  They were proud to be part of the mission.  They could move mountains.

Before I left Omaha, on one of my last trips to DC, I brought a fake cashier’s check for $100,000.  The amount of money we’d saved on the project.  I gave it to Dave in front of his boss, Brigadier General Tom Moorman and Mr. Hill.  I asked them to help Dave better manage his money.  In an open meeting with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, a Lt. Col called me – me, a new Captain, an ASSHOLE.  Isn’t life grand?  Because of my NCO’s, I’d saved that project a few bucks, but more importantly, I got to embarrass my NRO boss in public.  

The last time I spoke directly with Mr. Hill was when we flew together from California to DC.  This was the day after the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster.  A lot of time is spent on redeye flights if you work for the NRO.  Mr. Hill was the only senior government official to argue against placing NRO satellites on the Shuttle.  He was overruled because it would take huge commitments from all the Space systems to fund the needs of the Shuttle Program.  Mr. Hill argued against the risk of losing a Shuttle and having the next several NRO launches delayed as investigations and changes were made.  Losing a satellite cost you money and time, Mr. Hill would argue.  Lose a Shuttle and you lose lives and your whole program.  It would shut down whole industries.  Mr. Hill was right.  Sadly, he was right.

War Story 43.  After moving to Virginia, I was driving Jason to a doctor’s appointment at the military hospital on Ft. Belvoir.  As we passed the 70 ft radome which was clearly visible from the street, Jason, all of six years old, asked.  “How do you get in there, Daddy?”

War Story 52.  Shortly after arriving in Washington, I was awarded an Air Force Meritorious Service Medal for the work I had done for SAC in Omaha.  Scrambling to figure it out, my bosses quickly changed my career specialty from Intelligence Officer to Scientist.  The clandestine NRO cover would not allow them to have an Intelligence Officer working for them.  I had a B.A. in Psychology and a Master’s of Public Administration, but now it was official.  I was now an Air Force Scientist.  The award ceremony itself was deemed classified.  Lillian, Jason, and Jennifer couldn’t attend.

I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

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