Spies in the Skies

Declassified documents prove NASA’s secret relations with CIA and US military agencies from the beginning, reveals SANJIB SINHA

When you think of NASA’s space shuttle program, what comes to your mind first? Space. The Universe and its dark mystery. Aliens, Blackhole, Dark Matter and ubiquitous Rocket Science; they are inscrutable, cryptic and deadpan! You might imagine of astronauts, floating in the air inside the spaceship; they spin in micro-gravity. Well, the incidents of disaster might come to your mind: Kalpana Chawla; The Columbia disaster. The Challenger explosion. Skylab crash in 1979. On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere and exploded, killing all seven crew members, one of them was Kalpana Chawla, who was the first Indian-born woman in space. This tragic loss reminded us of the disastrous event when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, which broke apart and killed the seven-member crew 73 seconds after the immediate liftoff in 1986.

However, an understanding and sympathy between you and NASA have developed in the meantime; it seems quite convincing to us, until now that what NASA has been doing, they are doing it for the good of mankind. They do a few commendable jobs. But, you may have never believed of associating NASA with spying, helping people who conduct reconnaissance using space. Isn’t it?

Declassified documents released by US government agencies like CIA, NRO are saying so. The truth has an official seal. NASA had designed shuttles that carried US spy satellites to orbit. Declassified documents depict a disgraceful relationship between NASA and CIA, the US Department of Defense (DoD), and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). These agencies took part in designing NASA’s Shuttles throughout the 1970s.

The number of declassified documents that depict the top-secret plans is more than a hundred if you add them together. They redacted a few parts of them; however, that was obvious, and we can hope they might appear many years later: but, those missing parts are meaningful too: you can read between the lines. Moreover, what we have accessed are enough to prove NASA’s Secret Relationships with US Defense and Intelligence Agencies.

It generated the first document (Source: CIA Mandatory Declassification Review, MDR Request) on 4th September 1958. CIA assistant director C.P. Cabell, General, USAF, wrote a letter to  Dr. T. Keith Glennan, Director, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It reached Mr. Glennan on 10th September.

Before NASA started their formal operations on 1st October 1958, CIA’s assistant director had offered to share intelligence on Soviet space programs with NASA’s director on this memo. At that time the Office of Scientific Intelligence had the primary responsibility within the CIA to produce this information.

Much later, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) released more declassified documents. Those documents would have shattered any moral ground in favour of a peaceful scientific space program which NASA had been supposed to do, if the US officials had kept them unclassified! This document was declassified by NRO on 14th June 2013 after 50 years. The document was originated on 28th August 1963 and they declassified it on 14th June 2013.

The US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and the Administrator of NASA, James E. Webb signed the document. The Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara served from 1961 to 1968 under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. He played a major role in escalating the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War acquiring a bad reputation.

We will come to the Reconnaissance part of NASA later in detail. Before that, a series of ghastly questions would arise between morality and immorality, social ethics and what is considered to be unethical. It is because the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established in 1958 by the US legislation that attempted to create separate and clear-cut civilian and military aeronautical programs. They were supposed to not to mingle with each other, through any means. The legislation directed NASA to conduct peaceful, scientific, and open aeronautical and space research and operations. The same legislation also directed the US Department of Defense (DoD) to perform these activities to military operations and defense.

The collection of released-declassified-documents is telling us something else. Science community suspected something sinister behind these space programs but their voice had sunk to a whisper till date; there was no proof of the NASA’s Secret Relationships with US Defense and Intelligence Agencies until recently the declassification took place.

The Secret side

The whisper became a deafening roar over the years, although the classification restrictions had kept most of the NASA’s secret activities out of the public eye for a long time. NASA’s secret activities may be summarised mainly in three categories: first of all, NASA has covered stories for covert operations by CIA and DoD. Secondly, they helped CIA and DoD monitoring Soviet missile tests, and thirdly, NASA supplied weather data to the US military. At the same time NASA’s scientific community did not always approve the way by which the Intelligence Agencies and Military Agencies tried to classify their joint agreement of working together in many projects. NASA wanted to make the joint effort remain unclassified but failed. The conflict went to some extents where it was even brought to the attention of the President of America.

Now you can have a look at the NASA’s secret side at the National Security Archive at The George Washington University (www.nsarchive.org). First, it came to light when James E. David, a curator in NASA’s Division of Space History, wrote a critically praised book Spies and Shuttles: NASA’s Secret Relationships with the DoD and CIA (University Press of Florida, 2015). David had first obtained the secret documents in the course of researching his book. Finally, he had compiled, edited and introduced more than 50 such declassified documents for public viewing at the National Security Archive at The George Washington University.

Apparently, the US Congress’s intention in forming NASA was different. The US Congress wanted to establish a purely civilian space agency. NASA was not supposed to be dragged into a bizarre relationship where it had to blend with such black programs run by the US military, intelligence, and spy agencies.

If you go through those declassified documents, you will find one thing for sure: there were constant disputes over several issues such as cost sharing, encryption of data originally intended for civilian use, access to classified documents. However, the tight cooperation had been right over there in proper place and there were several agreements between NASA and US military and intelligence agencies. After the Challenger explosion, there was a delay to the military satellite launches. Sometimes they came into conflict and difference of opinions was there but overall space shuttles were used to launch spy satellites for Reconnaissance purpose. That was quite evident.

We know CIA and NSA, but what is NRO? Nothing they (NASA, CIA, and DoD) have done together is designed to be heard: after all space shuttles are not meant for carrying spy satellites. But they did exactly that.

Here comes another journalist-Matt Novak, who wrote a fantastic investigative report on the same subject on 5/12/2017. The article he wrote is a must-read. From that article we came to know about another player, a big player indeed in space-spying business: NRO or National Reconnaissance Office. This organization is not as well-known as CIA and NSA. The handling of space Reconnaissance is not as popular concept as keeping surveillance on general people. CIA and NSA are directly related to common people’s interest, so everyone shouts with utmost strength about them. The profile of NRO, on the contrary, in this debate has been low; although this agency plays a pivotal role in keeping an eye on the planet for America’s intelligence community. You just cannot dream how advanced cameras and satellite are used in keeping tabs on the entire planet from above, and this folk NRO is responsible for that. According to Matt Novak’s investigative report, the NRO’s budget is highly secret, but it’s estimated to be at least ten billion dollars per year or it may be more.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is a highly valued Intelligence agency. It has a slogan in Latin: SUPRA ET ULTRA. It means ‘Above and beyond above’. This organization is the ‘America’s Eyes and Ears in Space’. In 1956 Soviet Union shot down America’s spy plane while it was taking photographs. After that the US felt the necessity of building a system which could conduct the space reconnaissance taking photographs of the whole world accurately and perfectly without the fear of getting shot. So, one after another, NRO successfully launched high-quality advanced spy-satellite camera to the space – U2, CORONA, GAMBIT-KH7, GAMBIT-KH8 and in 1971 the HEXAGON-KH9. In many cases NRO worked with NASA, we will see the documents in the later part of this article. Along with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA),
NRO has become one of the “big five” U.S. intelligence agencies.

Matt Novak had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the document with the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and received a 17-page document, which is titled “Declassifying the ‘Fact of’ the NRO’s Use of the Space Shuttle as a Launch Vehicle.” You will get the whole document in Scribd, where he has uploaded it. Although some vital parts are redacted as well and that is quite expected. But those redactions had made it more conspicuous by its absence. 

One of the main questions was whether the NASA’s space shuttles had been used for launching spy satellites? From the document that Novak had obtained through an FOIA request, it was not clear, neither it was clear whether NRO had helped design the shuttles to carry spy satellites. Although it was not clear from that document, later in the year 2011, Hexagon KH-9 was declassified by NRO and two former NRO employees Fred Marra, and Bob Zarba described, in presence of media, the camera operation of the Hexagon KH-9 secret spy satellite. This spy camera was launched using the NASA’s space shuttle.

Moreover, the document released by NRO (Figure 1) clearly define the role of NASA in Reconnaissance programs.

NRO’s Role in NASA’s Secret Missions

If you go to the NRO’s web portal (http://www.nro.gov), you will find hundreds and thousands of declassified data on NASA’s secret relationship with CIA, DoD, and NRO. Before going to explain NASA’s secret missions, let us first try to understand properly why NASA was established and with what missions and visions.

NASA was established in 1958; at that time it succeeded National Advisory Committee for
Aeronautics (NACA). It had a distinctly civilian orientation. It was formed to encourage peaceful applications in space science and general people were in complete darkness about its secret tie-up with US intelligence agencies like CIA or Department of Defense (DOD). Since its inception, NASA conducted most US space explorations. Many of which were successful and few of them failed; however, most space exploration efforts have been led by NASA including the Apollo Moon Landing missions, the Skylab space station and later the Space Shuttles. NASA was also supposed to help the International Space Station.

Considering its overall activities, NASA is quite big in operational parts: more than 17 thousand people work for NASA. Many people work with the agency as government contractors. It means, NASA pays many agencies to hire relevant people as NASA combines a workforce that needs a variety of jobs.

Therefore, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) stands on its on own feet as an independent agency of the United States Federal Government and NASA is responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. It was established for better understanding our mother Earth through the Earth Observing System.

Now we can go on writing thousands of words on NASA’s peaceful space exploration and scientific endeavour, as it merges various branches of astrophysics. So NASA’s role was very clear: it would conduct all non-military space activities.

And for the development of space technology for military applications, the  Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was established in February 1958.

Almost at the same time, during the 1960s, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) started its operations but it had been highly secret. Why? It was because at that time peering down into the activities of the Soviet Union and communist China, using very powerful satellites was necessary. It was important to count down how many strategic weapon systems the Soviets and Chinese governments had in their possession. What NRO was doing very simple, they tried to determine what the Communist blocks were doing. Were they capable to attack America any time? The US government had to find the answer.

It was clearly defined that the NRO would keep observing enemy country’s activities closely using space. According to the letter written on 28th August 1963, by the Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara to the administrator of NASA James E. Webb “DoD/CIA is represented by their joint operational unit, the NRO”. According to this brief statement, NRO is a great secret assortment of American Intelligence Agencies and Military Agencies. From 1963 to 2018, NRO should have acquired lots of power.

It was nothing new that the US was launching satellites into orbit to conduct espionage. However, admitting them was an altogether a different issue, because US government felt, quite rightly, admitting such espionage would attract unnecessary attention and possibly would encourage the Soviets to take countermeasures.

Now these NRO folks were specialists in their respective fields and they were no less capable than NASA engineers and scientists. They supplied the highly-capable reconnaissance technology to NASA for the Apollo program.

It is also mysterious at the same time. While this space reconnaissance program was highly secret, then why NRO had made it public? It really surprises the pundits about this revealed truth. Actually, the Lunar Mapping and Survey System was not classified and available on the Internet from the very beginning although that seemed quite logical as the US government tried to project NASA as a civilian space program.

However, the debate inside the US intelligence and military agencies was going on: being NASA a civilian space research organization would it be wise to give them such highly-capable advanced reconnaissance tools? It was quite evident that NASA would photograph the Earth orbit and in that case, a civilian agency would be going to have too much inside-information about American Reconnaissance program. National Air and Space historian Jim Davis has documented this debate.

We need to understand one point in a clear-cut way. NRO’s “SPYSATS” (spy satellites) were already taking pictures of Earth orbit for purely reconnaissance purpose and they didn’t have to let NASA use their powerful spy satellite camera around the moon. It was another mystery. Maybe after 50 years more declassification would see the daylight and we would come to know what was the reason behind that decision.

The NRO released declassified Project UPWARD records from their archives, in August 2014. NRO and NASA signed an agreement to transfer optical technology from the NRO to NASA and it was a joint program; the agreement was signed between them. In 1967, NRO and NASA jointly decided to cancel the project. Why? That was also not very clear at that point but almost 50 years later declassification has revealed many clues that interlace strands of missing logic.

Secret exposed

The US legislation clearly directed NASA to conduct peaceful, scientific and open to all aeronautical and space research and operations. The tons of declassified documents, available now, show just the opposite. What could have been a guiding principle for NASA to conduct peaceful and scientific space research, was violated for several reasons according to James E. David, NASA’s space division historian who wrote the highly praised book: Spies and Shuttles: “NASA’s Secret Relationships with the DoD and CIA”.

David thought, NASA could not and did not always follow the mandate for several reasons. NASA and the US national security agencies needed each other’s help. They had to utilize each other’s hardware and facilities to accomplish their respective missions. This dependable reliance was necessary for several reasons.

NASA, CIA, DoD, and NRO were concerned about the foreign aeronautical and space programs. Although the legislation directed NASA to conduct peaceful and scientific research, the intelligence and military agencies had enough reasons to monitor and restrict certain NASA programs to eliminate threats to classified programs. The intelligence and military agencies like CIA, NRO, and DoD felt that it was important to deny the enemy countries from accessing the crucial scientific data.

Since this highly secret classification was in place at that time, it was impossible to know what was actually going on behind the curtain. How NASA had developed a secret relationship with CIA and DoD was not clear at that time.

Thanks to the declassified documents available now; most were declassified by those agencies under the automatic and systematic declassification review program. Some were acquired through declassification requests.

The 17-page document that journalist Matt Novak had obtained against the filing of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), is redacted in some parts but it had enough materials to show that NASA had a very interesting relationship with the NRO and the military agencies.

According to Novak, “Air Force and NRO officials participated in the design of the Shuttle throughout the 1970s, in particular, the sizing of its manned orbiter payload bay to accommodate anticipated spacecraft growth. The Air Force also contributed funds to its development during this time. The Space Shuttle was expected to meet the launch requirements of both NASA and the Department of Defense (DoD). In January 1977, President Ford’s departing Deputy Secretary of Defense Clements executed a ‘NASA/DoD Memorandum of Understanding’ that pledged the Defense Department to use the Space Shuttle as its ‘primary vehicle for placing payloads in orbit.’ President Carter’s incoming Air Force Under Secretary, Hans Mark, who favored plans to use the Space Shuttle as the primary launch vehicle for National Reconnaissance Program (NRP) payloads, further reinforced this sentiment.

But it’s not long before we get to the stuff that’s still classified. For instance, the date when the NRO launched its first satellite on the space shuttle? Redacted.”

Moreover, during this time, after the cancellation of the project UPWARD, the US military agencies started rethinking the whole process. Whether using the space shuttles is dependable or not, the agencies officials started debating over that. Using NASA space shuttles to get their assets into space could bring their plans into open space.

So the NRO and DoD had to start rethinking and making some secondary plans.

Missing links

There is a good deal of distinct features and elements in the NASA’s participation in Cover Stories and Acquisition and Use of Classified Technologies in its Lunar Exploration Program.

We are not in a position to quote every declassified document (ranging from 1 to 51), however, we can give a screen-shot of document 18 where NASA and the DoD signed the “DOD/CIA-NASA Agreement on NASA Reconnaissance Programs” in August 1963.

According to The letter written by Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara to the administrator of NASA James E. Webb, it was understood that NASA could acquire and use classified cameras for Lunar photography. McNamara wrote to Webb: “Dear Jim, By this note, I am transmitting to you the signed agreement between NASA and DOD/CIA (the latter as represented by their joint operational unit, the NRO) concerning NASA (this part is redacted) programs. (letter continued)”.

At that time, NASA needed high-quality photographs to select the Apollo landing sites on the Moon. For that reason, NASA officials contacted the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and asked about how would they use the classified cameras like  Kodak’s SAMOS E-1 film readout system. Although it was cancelled later in 1961. At that time there were several agreements between NASA, DOD/CIA and NRO. For Apollo missions NASA used many types of classified highly-capable advanced cameras, such as E-1 camera; although the 1963 agreement was later modified the following year because NRO feared that NASA could not maintain security under it.

Later more declassified documents provided details about other high-quality cameras like  GAMBIT 1 high-resolution camera, Hycon lunar topographic camera, which was a modified Air Force KA-7A camera flown on an unknown reconnaissance aircraft.

Apollo 15, 16, and 17 service modules needed more high-quality cameras so the more capable Itek panoramic camera and a Fairchild mapping and stellar camera were flown in. The former was a modified IRIS II optical bar camera used in U-2s (Document 23), and the latter was a modified Dual Image Stellar Index Camera carried by CORONA satellites from 1967-1972. It is not clear whether these instruments were acquired under either of the above agreements. Whereas it is quite clear that NRO helped NASA to acquire such classified items which were allegedly meant for spying purposes.

Ethics and conclusion

Let us ask one simple question before concluding this article. Since Space Shuttles were used to carry spy satellites ( most of these items are still classified and are shrouded with mystery ), does that mean NASA plays an active role in intelligence operations? The answer is: NO.

One cannot and should not accuse NASA of taking part an active role in spying operations, whereas it is also true that NASA had secret relationships and tie-up with intelligence agencies like CIA, and military agencies like DoD and NRO. They had a very tight co-operation in many classified fields and at the same time, they had bickered a lot on many issues such as geodetic and geometric data.

The geodetic data are needed to determine the size and shape of the Earth and for other purposes, so civilian scientists need such data. On the contrary, the Department of Defense ( DoD ) requires it for the exact targeting of long-range missiles to kill people.

Since it is a common platform NASA and DoD came to an agreement to build such satellite. The declassified document 35 is the proof that NASA and DoD established the joint ANNA geodetic satellite program in 1960 to help meet their joint needs. However, it was also true that NASA refused to enter into that agreement and refused to participate until the DoD agreed that most of the data would be unclassified.

It resulted to the National Geodetic Satellite Program (NGSP) in 1964, whereas the constant tussle between these two agencies, one was supposedly civilian and the other was military, made their relationship messy and untidy. According to the declassification and document 37, this resulting conflict was brought to the attention of President Johnson in 1968 where it was written: “ …two differing forces attempting to achieve same data validity for seemingly different purposes bot with and without classification of data. The Department of Defense continually strives to reduce geodetic and gravimetric errors for purposes of improving our target accuracy in our weapon systems and thereby classifies both the processes involved and results achieved. The scientific community spearheaded by NASA, on the other hand, is attempting to derive similar geometric and geodetic data with similar accuracies, on an unclassified basis, …”

Why the conflict? DoD refused to share the raw data from their own satellites such as CORONA and SECOR. We can guess the reason. Intelligence agencies and military agencies never trust a supposedly civilian space research agency like NASA.

Finally, I would like to question the motivation of NASA’s scientists and engineers; the motivation, which is based on ideas of right and wrong: ethics. More than 17 thousand people work for NASA on various levels, among them, many are academic people attached to reputed universities. Do they play an active role in espionage or any intelligence related operations? No. Definitely not. But they are part of a system that passively perpetrates those actions.

Were they forced to take part? I don’t think so. Could they leave midway? Yes, there are lots of NASA whistle-blowers — former employees. They didn’t like what was going on inside NASA. I think these academic people take part for two reasons – one is money and the second is respect and social status. Not only to the American people, to the rest of the world NASA is next to God. NASA people are always special, they do amazing things.

It is now partly true. The declassified document shows us one of the most amazing secret relationships in the world. We are stunned to know that NASA has a secret relationship with Intelligence, Spying and Military agencies like CIA, DoD and NRO!

The writer is an author and data journalist. As a published author, Microsoft’s community contributor award winner Sanjib Sinha has written several books, including the best selling security books like Beginning Ethical Hacking with Kali Linux and Beginning Ethical Hacking with Python for Apress.


Reference links