Today satellite images of the Earth and even satellite maps have became regular things. During the Cold War even the existence of satellites that were able to make high resolution pictures of the earth’s surface was denied by both super powers – the United States and the Soviet Union. Both countries were using space spy satellites, but neither of them had admitted that. Only in 2011 the United States declassified the Hexagon KH-9 program (a.k.a. “Big Bird”). Hexagon KH-9 was the space spy satellite joint operation of the CIA and the US Air Force. The program started in 1971 and continued until 1986. During this time frame twenty launches of spy satellites were performed. All of them, but the last one, were successful. During the twentieth mission the booster rocket failed and destroyed a satellite.
Everything was special about this 60-foot long and 30,000 pounds satellite built by Lockheed Martin. The “Big Bird” journey began after the first rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force base in California on June 15, 1971. Each Hexagon had a state-of-the-art panoramic camera developed by the Perkin-Elmer Corp. Images were captured at speeds of 200 inches per second on 60 miles of specialized Eastman Kodak film. This film was returned from outer space using a one-thousand pound re-entry vehicle built by McDonnell Douglas Corporation. The landing sight was near the Hawaiian coast in the Pacific Ocean. After being slowed down by a parachute the re-entry vehicle (a.k.a. “bucket”) was supposed to be snagged in mid-air by a passing C-130 Air Force plane equipped with a special grappling hook.
In case the C-130 plane was unable to catch the load, the “bucket” would be floating on the ocean surface for another day waiting for U.S. Navy ships. In order to prevent that top-secret load from being picked up by Soviet Navy submarines, the re-entry capsule had a salt plug in its base. Within twenty four hours salt plug would completely dissolve, and the “bucket” would go down to the ocean floor. The main satellite’s life was in average of 124 days at the beginning of the program and up to 250 days at the end. After all four re-entry vehicles returned to Earth, Hexagon’s operational lifetime was close to the end. Eventually the satellite would leave the orbit and submerge in the Pacific.
Hexagon wasn’t the first spy satellite. Corona and Gambit were the first, but neither of them reached the level of resolution or sophistication of Hexagon. “Big Bird” was able to deliver close-range pictures of Soviet missiles silos and military bases. Every single frame of Perkin-Elmer’s camera covered 370 nautical miles.
The Hexagon program started in 1966. It took more than a year for the employees of companies awarded with the top-secret government contract to receive security clearances. It took five years to launch the first satellite. It took forty five years for people, who were involved in the program, to be able to speak freely about their jobs.
All in all, the hexagon project was an excellent outcome and is a great example of what teamwork is capable of where everybody has an equal contribution towards the cause of science while certain people have nothing to do than to sit in an apartment of Gwenah Mine and whine at their misfortune than do hard work to achieve their goals.