The KH-11/CRYSTAL program had progressed to the point where it would soon become America’s sole satellite imagery system. An image of a Communist Chinese jet bomber taken by an NRO KH-11 spacecraft flying at more than 200 miles altitude illustrates the reconnaissance capability of the 35,000 lb. spacecraft.
On the morning of December 19, 1976, a Titan 3D rocket blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Its mission was to propel yet another KEYHOLE satellite into orbit. Through December 18, there had been 296 days of satellite coverage that year. Although there had been no crises equivalent to the Middle East wars, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, or the Cuban missile crisis to monitor, U.S. spy satellites certainly had not lacked targets.
The first indication of what KH-11 optics could do came nearly 10 years after the first mission was launched when Jane’s Defense Weekly published highly classified satellite imagery of Soviet ships under construction at the Nikolaev shipyard on the Black Sea.. The images taken from more than 200 mi. high were leaked to the magazine by U.S. naval analyst Samuel Morison who spent 16 years in prison for providing the images to the news media. Jane’s never checked whether publishing the images would cause harm. It did by telling the Soviets that the KH-11s had the capability for image resolutions of 3.9-6 inches and excellent slant range capability.
The launch went smoothly, with the Titan 3D sending its payload into a polar orbit. Seemingly, yet another KH-9/HEXAGON had been lofted into space. But close observers noted at least one difference. The new satellite had a markedly higher perigee and apogee than previous KH-9 satellites, coming no closer than 165 miles to the earth’s surface—as compared with the normal KH-9 perigee of a little over 100 miles. In an article published in early 1978, space expert Anthony Kenden noted: “A Big Bird was launched on 19 December 1976 into an unusually high orbit, from [153 to 330 miles]. . . . This new type of orbit may indicate that it was the first test of a Program 1010 vehicle.”
Indeed, the payload that was placed in orbit on December 19 was the first launch of the KENNAN program (designated 1010 by Lockheed, the primary contractor), which had successfully produced a spacecraft with an electro-optical system—known as the KH-11. The specific spacecraft bore the designation 5501 to specify the particular satellite and mission number.
The KH-11 was launched within two months of the target date, and despite reports to the contrary, it came in substantially under budget. Before Dirks’s tenure would end, another three KH-11s would be successfully launched—on June 14, 1978, February 7, 1980, and September 3, 1981. In addition, the code name for the program would be changed from KENNAN to CRYSTAL in 1982.
In general, no two versions of any imaging satellite are necessarily identical, because modifications are often made to sensors and other equipment. The basic dimensions of the KH-11 remained the same from the initial launch—the cylindrical spacecraft measured about 64 feet long and 10 feet in diameter and weighed about 30,000 pounds.
The optical system, however, underwent a major change between the first and subsequent satellites. The first satellite relied on light-sensing diodes to collect the light reflected from the target. By the time the second spacecraft was constructed, Lockheed was able to turn to charge-coupled devices, or CCDs. The CCD originated at Bell Telephone Laboratories in the late 1960s when two researchers, William S. Boyle and George E. Smith, invented a new type of memory circuit—a development that had been in the works for most of the decade. The researchers quickly realized that the tiny chip of semiconducting silicon they first demonstrated in 1970 had a variety of other applications, including signal processing and imaging (the latter because silicon responds to visible light). By 1975, scientists from the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Arizona were using a CCD in conjunction with a 61-inch telescope to produce a picture of Uranus, about 1.7 billion miles from earth.
The optical system of the KH-11 (and its successors) scanned its target in long, narrow strips and focused the light onto an array of CCDs with several thousand elements. The light falling on each CCD during a short, fixed period of time was then transformed into a proportional amount of electrical charge. In turn, the electrical charge was read and fed into an amplifier, which converted the current into a whole number, between 0 and 256, representing a shade of color ranging from pure black to pure white. Thus each picture was transmitted as a string of numbers—one from each element.
More specifically, the CCD captured particles of energy, visible light, in an array of picture elements known as pixels. The pixels automatically measured the intensity of the particles and then would “send them on their way in orderly rows until they are electronically stacked up to form a kind of mosaic.” The standard CCD used in the Hubble Space Telescope has a total of 640,000 pixels arranged in an 800-by-800 format and occupies less than half a square inch.
The KH-11’s charge-coupled devices could not, however, do the job alone. Without a good mirror in front of them, even the best CCDs produce photographs with poor resolution. But the mirror for the first KH-11 was quite good and quite large—seven feet, eight inches wide. (Subsequently, mirror size increased). The secondary mirror, greater than one foot in diameter, narrowed the image coming off the primary mirror and sharply focused it.
Another key to the KH-11’s ability to produce high-quality photographs was its computer. About the size of a sleek VCR, the computer was fundamental to maintaining the KH-11 in a stable position, pointing the mirror and obtaining photographs of the desired targets.
Once the visible light was collected and transformed into an electrical charge, the signals were then transmitted to one of two Satellite Data System (SDS) spacecraft as the relay spacecraft passed slowly over the northern Soviet Union. The SDS orbit was identical to that first employed by Soviet Molniya satellites. Orbiting with a 63-degree inclination, the satellite approached to within 250 miles of earth when passing over the Southern hemisphere, and it moved as far away as 24,000 miles as it drifted over the Northern Hemisphere. A spacecraft in such an orbit took eight to nine hours to pass over Soviet territory, leaving it available to receive and transmit imagery for long stretches of time.
The SDS spacecraft, the first two of which were launched in June and August of 1976, performed a variety of functions. In addition to transmitting the KH-11 digital signals, they relayed communications to any B-52s flying on a polar route, served as communications links between the various parts of the Air Force Satellite Control Facility, and carried nuclear detonation detection sensors. Those other functions, Bud Wheelon noted, were “strictly a sideshow,” a nice bonus if they worked but a minor loss if they did not.
The SDS satellite then transmitted the KH-11 signals for initial processing to a ground station at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, about twenty miles south of Washington. The Mission Ground Site—a large, windowless, two-story concrete building—was given the cover title of Defense Communications Electronics Evaluation and Testing Activity and also was designated as Area 58.
Its method of transmitting data permitted the first KH-11 to remain in orbit for over two years—770 days. The next three lasted 1,166, 973, and 1,175 days, respectively. The KH-11 was not limited, as were the KH-8 and KH-9, by the amount of film that could be carried on board. In addition, it had a higher orbit, approximately 150 by 250 miles, that reduced atmospheric drag on the spacecraft.
The new system had one serious initial limitation. Although it could transmit its data instantaneously, it could do so only for two hours per day. So much power was required to transmit the data to the relay satellite (via the KH-11’s traveling wave tube amplifier) that the system drained power far faster than it could be replaced by the satellite’s solar panels. Thus, the new model of the spy satellite fleet could be used only sparingly at first.
The KH-11 operated along with KH-8 and KH-9 satellites for several years before becoming America’s sole type of photographic reconnaissance satellite. Only a few, very select government officials were permitted to know of the KH-11’s existence or even see its product. The KH-11 was treated with even greater secrecy than usual in the black world of reconnaissance satellites—the photographs and data derived from them were not incorporated with data from the KH-8 and KH-9 systems. The decision to restrict the data to a very small group of individuals was taken at the urging of senior CIA officials, including COMIREX chairman Roland Inlow, but it was opposed by military officers who wanted the information to be more widely distributed throughout the armed forces.
Among the officials who did know about KENNAN in early 1977 were president-elect Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. The latter had been briefed extensively on the new system after Carter’s election in November. On December 30, 1976, Enno Henry “Hank” Knoche, the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, along with John McMahon and other CIA representatives, met with Brzezinski. As part of the briefing, which covered human and technical collection operations, McMahon described the KENNAN system “at some length.” Knoche suggested to Brzezinski that he think of the new real-time capability in the context of new approaches to crisis management. He noted that a KH-11 could be tasked by crisis managers, “made responsive to live needs,” and be the “basis for re-thinking the organization of current crisis management.”
In the month between its launch and Carter’s inauguration, the KH-11 underwent checkout and testing and that day finally transmitted its first photos. By this time, Knoche was the CIA’s acting director, pending confirmation of the new President’s choice for DCI. George Bush had wanted to remain as DCI, but Carter would not extend the stalwart Republican’s tenure, not even until his own choice could be confirmed. Until that happened—and confirmation took longer than usual because Carter’s first nominee, former Kennedy White House aide Theodore Sorensen, withdrew when it became clear he could not win approval—Knoche was head of the world’s most technically accomplished intelligence establishment. Among Knoche’s first roles was to show Carter the capabilities of America’s newest spy satellite—one way of demonstrating the CIA’s value to the new President.
The most dramatic demonstration would have been for Carter to see the photos within moments of their arrival. But he was busy on Inauguration Day—taking the oath of office, strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue in subfreezing weather, and attending the various traditional celebrations. In addition, to have the most dramatic effect would have required either that Carter make the trip to Ft. Belvoir or that Ft. Belvoir come to Carter, neither of which was feasible. As a result, Knoche decided to wait a day before visiting the new President.
So it was 3:15 in the afternoon of January 21 when Knoche and Admiral Daniel J. Murphy, the DCI’s deputy for intelligence community affairs, began a fifteen-minute meeting with Carter and Brzezinski in the White House’s second-floor Map Room. Knoche had a handful of six-inch square black-and-white photos with him. McMahon had told Carter what the KH-11 could do; now Knoche would show him. Carter examined the photographs that Knoche spread on the map table. The photographs did not reveal some secret, nefarious activity on the other side of the world, but provided an overhead perspective of something much closer to home—Carter’s inauguration. After peering at the photos for a few moments, Carter looked up at Knoche, grinned, and then laughed appreciatively. He congratulated Knoche and Murphy on the apparent quality of their latest reconnaissance system and requested Knoche to send over some more samples for the next day’s National Security Council meeting, his first as President. “Of course,” Carter said as he turned to Brzezinski, “this will also be of value in our arms control work.”
Carter and Brzezinski knew they had something of immense value. Indeed, it was more obvious to them than to some in the CIA, for it was the president and his advisers who might be pressed in a crisis to make crucial decisions that could dramatically affect the fate of the United States. Now they would be able to make those decisions with timely information.