OBSERVATION BALLOONS AND RECONNAISSANCE SATELLITES

Created: 12/31/1960

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OBSERVATION BALLOONS AND RECONNAISSANCE SATELLITES

Donald E. Wclienbach

Balloons rank among man's oldest methods of aerial surveillance. By the time of Ihe American Civil War and th* Franco-Prussian War ofbserver* were using hot-air balloons lo get up in the skyetter view of the "other side of theiih the advent of photography. balloons could carry cameras into the sky Io record the disposition of enemy forces and emplacements.

The appearance of the airplane as an implement of war in Worldelegated balloons to ihe lowly task of supporting barrage nets and wires in an attempt to prevent bombing by enemy aircraft. No longer was the balloon looked uponigh altitude camera platform. Its most noble effort during the next three decades was in lifting meteorological packages, known as radiosondes, to extreme altitudes in Order lo measure air pressure and temperature and wind velocities.

Hardly anyone gave balloon-borne cameras another thought until the Iron Curtain descended across Europe after World War II and restrictedbetween the Soviet bloc of nations and the rest of the world.

Meteotologisls were still using balloons in their research, however, and in the summerhe US Air Force's Cambridge Research Center began an experiment along lines suggested by Rand Corporation meteorologis! William W. Kellogg. Known by its codename Moor Dicx. this effort involved floating hundreds of large, helium-filled, polyethelene balloons, carrying gondolas filled with scientific instrument, from west tocast across the continental Uniled States at altitudes00eet) in order to measure high-altitude wind fields. These balloons, known asT. were manufactured by General Mills, Incorporated. They wereeet) tall when inflated and carried automatic ballasting systems and beacon transmitters that emitted signals every two minutes. By tracking the radio beacons. Air Force meteorologists could plot each balloon's course and speed as it transited the nation. The Moby Dicx effortnapped the iet streams whose vagaries so affect our weather systems.'

Moby Dicx gondolas were equipped with pressure-sensing devices so that, when they descendedeet) to where they might icopardiie civil aviation, the gondolas could bc cut loose from the balloons and float to earth onh gondolalacard promising, in largeeward to anyone who reported its whereabouts to the Air Force. Some Moby Dicx balloons, of course, never fell to earth in the United States, but kepi righl on floating, out over the Atlantic, some as far asew as far as the Soviet Union.

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From Meteorology to Intelligence

ill Kellogg had worked on the idea ol high altitude, camera-carrying balloonsas eiriy is0 He undertook the protect, known ast the request of the Aircientibc Advrsorv Board Kellogg postulated that fcallooro released close to USSR borders might Boat all the way across the vast Soviet landman, taking ptetures as they went, and fetch up somewhere along the Pacific Unocal, preferably neir Japan. The camera-carrying balloon idea appealed lo planners in Air Force headquarters who. in1 simultaneous with the Most Dick effort, directed Wright AirCommand (WaDC) in Dayton. Ohio, lo produce ar. operational plastic camera-earning balloon lo Ov over the USSR Subsequenllv, Air Force Coloneloddard. an aerialeil at WADC, approached Professci Duncan Macdonald of the Boston University Optical Research(BUOrtL} aboutamera thai could be turned on at dawn and off at dusk and be capable of filming the earth from varying altitudes.

The Air Force refetred to this prolect as Weapon Syslem-llQL and gaveew codename. Grandson. It was undertaken with the encouragement and participation of Edwin H. Land, inventor of the Polaroid biter and camera and long-time member of numerous US governmentdvisory panels.

Parts of the system were carried over from the Moby Dicx operation, primarly the gasbag, the automatic ballasting device, ndio beacon, automatic release device, and parachute The payloadnch formal framing camerainch) lens. It hadupplieshoto-cell device to turn it on and off. The entire payload weighed00 pounds) of which was the camera pay!oad.

Considering the size of the cameraand heavier than athe value of film to be exposed over prime Soviet targets, Air Force planners had toethod for tetrieving them before they struck the ground or landed in water. Working with the twin-boom Fairchild9 transport aircraft. WADC designersevice that was attached to the rear of the airplane. Il wasimp slingshot,rappling hook at the endteel cable strung between the two arms of the unit. The cable was threaded along one arm and attachedinch inside the plane. The strategy was to use this device lo snag Ihe descending Grandson gondolas before they fell to earth.

The trick was to capture the parachute shroud lines rather than the gondola itself or the fabric of the chute. This was not an easy task. Despite considerable practicing and training, by1 WDC technicians considered theisaster9 aircrew had almost crashed and the program washalted Before it resumed in the springhe protect wasto the Cambridge Researchtmospheric Devices Laboratory in Massachusetts and placed under Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Paul Worthman Byne of Worthman's colleagues. Major Eugene Duff, succeeded

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perfecting the tcchniQue lhat permitted the carnure of parachuting gondolas before either they or the aircraft hit the ground :

Ceding permission to sendalloons across the USSR wasore difficult challenge First, the Air Force had to prove that the balloons could actually transit the extensive Asian landmass Inrotect called Cravbacx. Air Force personnel launched eight Moby Dicx-type balloons from Scotland expecting them lo Qoat On the let-stream currents across Europe and the Soviet Union. None did. They all went south and ended up making lazy circles over North Africa and Yugoslavia. Another attempt was made inut none of these balloons stayed aloft.

At this point, the Central Intelligence Agency became involved, but nol officially. The Agency's Assistant Director (Collection) for Scientific Intelligenceetired Marine colonel namedtrong. He liked to ferret out every new idea he could find in either the Agency or the Pentagon. In (hose days, his Agency office wasemporary building near the Reflecting Pool on the Mall, but he alsoeskoom at the Pentagon. Colonel Strongember of several Air Force scientific advisory groups, and through this connection he had learned of ihe vicissitudes of theroject. Strong was also aware of several proiecls within the Agency's Directorate of Plans (now the Directorate of Operations) which involved targe balloons. He discovered that DDPhadalloon from Scotland across the Soviet Union and retrieved it near South Korea. Strong reported this to the Air Force and also handed over some photos which had been taken by the new BUORL camera, developed for theroject,igh-altiiude balloon telhered over southern California.3

Air Force officials used both Strong's evidencealloon could make the passage across the Soviet Union and the BL'ORL camera photographs to persuade President Eisenhower, onoreen light to theffort, now renamed Project Cenethix.

The Cescthix effort was carried outday period in January and6 with results far short of expectations. Onlyayloads were recovered initially from amongexctrix balloons launched and justf these had usable photography. Most of those recovered were found in the sea aroundh payload wasear later; it had drifted to Adak in the Aleutian Islands Although much of the photography from the recovered cameras was of clouds, there were also some worthwhile results. Dodonovo, the vast nuclear refining facility in Soviet Siberia, was discovered in Genetbix photography. CIA's Photo Intelligence Division, then headed byundahl.hofointerprefer to Ihe Air Force Aeronautical Chart and Information Center at Si. Louis to help exploit Cenethix photography.

CrOunds for Irritation

While theecovered balloon payloads produced some useful results, those that were not recoverediplomatic flap of embarrassing

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proportions Hundreds of the balloons either fell or were shot down over East Europe and the Soviet Union. This brought formal protests not only to the United States but also to Ihe International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)complained to ICAO that at night the Cenetimx balloons sank so low in the atmosphere as lo endanger civil aviation The USSRarge display ot CcNrraix cameras, equipment, and photographs onebruaryn the courtyard of Sptridonovka Palace, the residence of Foreign Ministerolotov The nctl day. in protest notes to Washington. Bonn, and Ankara, the Soviets accused the United States of carryingbrink of war- policy.*

These repercussionstrong reaction from President Eisenhower who concluded that 'the balloons gave more legitimate grounds for irritation than could be matched bv the good obtained fromke ordered an end to Proiect

The demise of Project Cenetrix was not the end of espionage balloons. During the lale springhe Air Force's Air Weather Serviceuirk in >el-it ream activity.ix-week penod in May and June, (he normal west-to-easi flow of Ihe jet stream, at altitudes0eeO. ended inan anomaly over ihe Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska. During this brief period, these swill moving air currents, as :hey approached the Alaskanurned sharply upward0 meters, reversed direction, and began moving from east to west at an altitude00 feet).

Believing that they alone were aware of this let-nrcam anomaly, officials a: the Cambridge Research Center's Atmospheric Devicesew balloon program, this one known asWhen the Cenetrix balloons had drilled Over the Soviet Union at altitudes up0 meters, the Soviets tracked them with their radars and often could see them. Air Force planners believed 'hat if objects of similar size were lo Boat twice as high they would be invisible and. hence, beyond interdiction.

This new Air Force effortarger gasbag, (aeioitat) and changes io the gondola in order to protect the camera payload from ihe intense cold at use edge of the earth's atmosphere. More important, an entirely new camera was needed, one that would have greater acuity than theCiNrraix device and which could return usable imagery from twice the Cenetrix altitude. Once again, the Air Force turned to BUORLs Duncan Macdonald for assistance. One of Macdonald't colleagues. Walter Levucn. same up with the idea toh-century panoramic camera technology byens tubeegree arc and focusing its imageurved piecem. Bvonger lens than the Cenetrixnches) insteadmevison believed that high-acuity photographs could be obtained from altitudes greater0 meters Work on the6 andhen some lest result) from the new device were shown to Rand Corporation camera expert Amrom Katz later that year, he nicknamed it the HYAC (high-acuity) camera. Proiect7 and halfy this timead

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made occasional deep penetration* ol Soviet airspace and there was no interest alall in balloons. In laci. President Eisenhower was irritated at the mere mention ol balloons

Events in the late summer and autumn" weie unsettling toInhe Soviet Unionsuper long-distanceintercontinental ballistichich Tass said made it "possible to send missiles to any part ol theess than six weeks later, to America's consternation. Tass announced the orbiting of Sputnik J. the first earth satellite In earlyhe Soviets launched Sputnik-I(og named Laikaelevision camera

US tests of the Atlas missile had been annoymgiy unsucceuiul and the Navy's Vanguaid protect torapefruit-sued satellite was on hold when these three start line Soviet successes occurred. Congress began holding hearings. Before the year was oufc.'ihere was "missile gap" talk

In the autumnhortly afterommittee ol scientists assured President Eisenhower that our missile effoits were not behind the Soviets, and that we could haveatellite before the Soviet Union, had our priorities been different. Deputy Defense Secretary Donald Queries told Ike that "the Russians have in fact doneood turn, unintentionally, inthe concept of freedom of internationalisenhower then asked Quailcs about the prospectseconnaissanceatellite that could take pictures and beam them back to earth. Quarles replied that the Air Forceesearch program in that area that was coming alongoreover. Eisenhower was trying hard to get the Soviets lo the bargaining table to discuss surprise attack, arms control,est-ban treaty. From the President'shis efforts to negotiate with the Soviets were hindered by balloonsversights of the USSR. Everyeep-penetration flight over Sovietthough such Sights wereUSSRtrong protest note and sometimes followed up with an aide-memoire detailing tbe flight paths. The Soviets were to0 Down. also, would come the Eisenhower-Khrushchev summit in Pans

Eisenhower had authorized deployingnnly three months alter the Cenitsux balloon project. He did so because his advisers led him to believe that the high-Dying aircraft might prove "invisible" to Soviet radars and that onlyery minor percentage" of these flights would be pickedhis was not the case. As early asnly two weeks after the But successful overflight ofhe President told Allen Dulles lhat he had lost "enthusiasm" forrotect."

President Eisenhower's increasing skepticism explains his order3omplete stand-downverflights of the Soviet Union following

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its of the USSR were not solely responsible for Eisenhower's growing ik -im There were other incidents such as the downing of aner Soviet Armenia onS. an Airas also shot down over Soviet Armenia. Eisenhoweritude toward deep-penetration overflights of the Soviet Union on several ions8nession of the President'}f Consultants on Foreign Intelligence Activities, Eisenhower questioned "continuation of the overflighl reconnaissanceskingntelligence which we received from this source is worth the exaceibat:nternational tension which1 Inhe PresidentChief of Sfatf Nathan Twining. Defense Secretary Neil McElrov, andly, Donald Quarles,verflights constituted "unduee added that "nothing would make him request authority to declare wm more quickly than violation of our airspace bv Soviet aircraft.y this timead madeeep-penetration flights over the Soviet Union and numerous flights along Soviet borders. When McElroy urged Eisenhower to permit more overflights to get more pictures, the President demurred. He said he thought that reconnaissance satellites were"comingalongnicely"andights "heldinimum depending on the availability of this newhat is, the satellites.13

Quest for Invisibility

On the other hand, President Eisenhower's enthusiasm for the reconnaissance-satellite program directly reflected his hope that some mearu could be found to collect intelligence on the Soviet Union without upsetting his efforts to negotiate agreements with the Soviets on surprise attack andHe looked favorably on any technoloaical effort that promised "invisibilityThti was precisely the approach the Air Force used on6 when it asked permission to deploy its newalloons which would float at twice the altitude of the earlier Cenetsux devices snd were sure to go unseen bv the Soviets Deputy Defense Secretary Quarles told Eisenhower that this Lsrger balloon's chance of being detected was rather small snd the chance of identincaiion or shootdown practically nil."

The President reluctantly agreed to the new balloon project. He added that he did not decry the value of the special information thus obtained, except when it cost embarrassment and increased tension. Having gained presidential approval, ihe Air Force moved swiftly. The balloons had to be deployedavy aircraft carrier in the Bering Sea, beneath the area where the iet stream changed altitude. Each payloadiming device lo separate the gondola

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from (he gasbag after ihe balloon had transited Asia and arrived over West Europe, where il could be snagged in midair as it parachuted lo earth.

This east-to-west trip wasa led toours ar aboutavs Launch was sethe second anniversary of theverflight of the Soviet Union An Air Force technician aboard the aircraft carrier set the timers during the 6nal checkout of the payioads before the launch. When launch-time arrived, gale-force surface winds forced rwstoonementuly, and then again the next two days.

hree of the huge gasbags lifted off the carrier's Sight deck and began their westerly journey across tbe northern Soviet Union, according toNo one aboard the carrier had rememberedeset the liming devices, which had already been running aboutours when the balloons were launched

Nothing was heard fiom oi about the balloons until Monday,n that date the United Statesirong note ftotn the Polishprotesting the overflightmade, camera-carrying balloon that had fallen to earth In central Poland. The nextimilar note was received from the Soviet Union protesting the passage of theL balloons through its airspace. Stephen Ambrose, in his recent biography of President Eisenhower, tells how Ike responded to this news-Eisenhower tried to get Secretary McElroy on the phone, but he had gone home, so the President talked to his deputy. Ouarles. instead As (Ike's secretary Ann C) -Whitman recorded his end of theEisenhower "complained, in salty language, about (he laxity in ihc defensesaid he would have, if he had done some of the things (hat have been done in the lasthe President suggestedewsaid (hat people in the service either ought lo obey orders or get Ihc hell out of the service."

Eisenhower followed this upormal memorandum lor the Secretary of Defense, telling himere is disturbing evidenceeterioration in che processes of discipline and responsibility within the armede cited, in particular, "unauthorized decisions which have apparently resulted in certain balloons falling within the territory of the Communistndlights over routes "that contravened my standing orders" He wanted action taken, "ato tighten discipline. Five days later. Eisenhower groaned and cursed in helpless anger when John Foster Dulles reported to him yet another protest from the Soviets about balloons 11

Ike also ordered General GoodpaHer to tell the Air Force lhat Protectis io be discontinued at once and every cenl lhat has been made available as part of any protect involving crossing (he lion Curiam is lo be impounded and no further expenditures are to be4

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one of the threeayloads was found, but notear later in Iceland Balloons, once again, sank into obscurity, which was jusl where President Eisenhower wanted them to be. Little did he realize tha: had if not been for his trials and tribulations with both of the balloon efforts, his much hoped for reconnaissance satellite might not have succeeded as soon as it did.

This was so because each balloon effort provided an essential pari of the reconnaissance-satellite project PrOiect Cenethix orishbone or limp slingshot device attachedor snatching theayloads This very device was used to snag theapsule from space almost fouralf years later, onnd there is more to the Story than just the air-snatch technology.

A better camera for the higher Ovingalloons led lo theof theison HYAC camera With its great acuity and lighfwcighl design. HYAC could be adapted for use in the 6rs: generation of photosatelliies lis focal length was increased and the film supply mechanism was made more complex, but the concept of the pivoting lens tube andath was the same.'"

Thus the 6rst space-based photo-reconnaissance system evolved not from systems developed for use in aircraft but from the oldest aerial technology, balloons.

And the reconnaissance satellite was. at least diplomatically, "invisible" as President Eisenhower had hoped. It became possible to begin negotiations on disarmament. strategic arms limitation, nuclear nonproliferation. and test bans. Then, having lessened tension and made negotiation possible, the reconnaissance satellites began providing verification of Soviet compliance with the terms of the various agreements.

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