Practicing Openness—Secretly

September 19, 2011

Historain Mark Stout

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the agency which flies America’s spy satellites, celebrated its 50th anniversary this last weekend with a gala at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport.

 As a part of the celebrations, the NRO declassified two satellite systems, GAMBIT (KH-7 and 8) and HEXAGON (KH-9).  GAMBIT was a high resolution system while HEXAGON was a so-called “broad-area search” bird.  Both got their images back to earth by dropping film “buckets” into the atmosphere, like the earlier CORONA system had done.  These systems were operational into the mid-1980s.

It’s great to see secrets declassified when it’s safe to do so but I couldn’t help but chuckle at very discreet way in which the NRO practiced its openness.  After several days of rumors and apparently changing plans, it was announced with no fanfare on Friday 16 September, that the next day a KH-9 would be in the Udvar-Hazy parking lot for public viewing for a grand total of two hours. 

 Apparently the satellite will be sent to the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, but it could be a very long time before it’s on display there.  So, if you missed your two hour opportunity to see the KH-9, you are out of luck…except for the fact that some visitors have posted pictures and videos.  Enjoy!

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