Washington, DC, April 10, 2015 – Furnishing cover stories for covert operations, monitoring Soviet missile tests, and supplying weather data to the U.S. military have been part of the secret side of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) since its inception in 1958, according to declassified documents posted for the first time today by the National Security Archive at The George Washington University (www.nsarchive.org).
James E. David, a curator in NASA's Division of Space History, obtained the documents in the course of researching his critically praised book, Spies and Shuttles: NASA's Secret Relationships with the DoD and CIA (University Press of Florida, 2015). David has compiled, edited and introduced more than 50 of these records for today's posting.
Even though Congress's intention in forming NASA was to establish a purely civilian space agency, according to David a combination of circumstances led the agency to commingle its activities with black programs operated by the U.S. military and Intelligence Community. This often tight cooperation did not, however, keep disputes from bubbling over on issues such as cost sharing, access to classified information, encryption of data originally intended for civilian use, and delays to military satellite launches caused by the Challenger disaster.
Over the years, classification restrictions have kept most of the story of NASA's secret activities out of the public eye. Today's posting brings to light previously unpublished primary source material that underpins Spies and Shuttles and other important literature on the subject. The records were acquired through agency declassification review procedures, specific declassification requests, and archival research.
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NASA's Secret Relationships
By James E. David
The legislation establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 attempted to create separate and distinct civilian and military aeronautical and space programs. It directed NASA to conduct peaceful, scientific, and open aeronautical and space research and operations and the Department of Defense (DoD) to perform these activities related to military operations and defense.
This mandate was a guiding principle for NASA and the nation's political leaders concerning its spaceflight programs. These programs were promoted as demonstrations of America's use of space for peaceful and scientific purposes. However, NASA could not and did not always follow the mandate for several reasons. These included the need for NASA and the national security agencies to utilize each other's hardware and facilities to accomplish their missions, the reliance on one another for data and expertise concerning foreign aeronautical and space programs, and the requirement to monitor and restrict certain NASA programs to eliminate threats to classified programs or deny important scientific data to the nation's adversaries.
Because of classification, very little of the story of NASA's hidden relationships with the DoD and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the spaceflight area has been made public until now. The documents presented here were obtained in the research and writing of Spies and Shuttles: NASA's Secret Relationships with the DoD and CIA. Most were declassified by agencies under the automatic/systematic declassification review program or acquired through declassification requests. They are grouped into the following categories:
- NASA as a consumer of intelligence
- NASA's assistance to analyzing intelligence on foreign aeronautical and space programs
- NASA's participation in cover stories
- NASA's acquisition and use of classified technologies in its lunar exploration program
- Restrictions on NASA's remote sensing programs
- NASA's application satellites and national security requirements
- Space Shuttle
NASA as a Consumer of Intelligence
As has been discussed in earlier Archive postings and several works, Soviet civilian and military space activities were a critical intelligence target during the Cold War.NASA and the nation's political and military leaders required timely and accurate information on the Soviet efforts. Because of the secrecy surrounding them, the intelligence agencies were the only source of this data.
Even before NASA formally began operations in October 1958, the CIA offered its leadership Office of Scientific Intelligence reports and briefings on the Soviet space program (Document 1). Access to this information was quickly given to selected working-level officials (Document 2). National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) and Special National Intelligence Estimates (SNIEs) published by the U.S. Intelligence Board were the highest-level reports on the Soviet space program and other issues. A prior Archive posting has all seven NIEs published from 1962 to 1983 that focused solely on the Soviet space program. NASA received the first of many NIEs and SNIEs on this and related topics shortly after beginning operations (Document 3).
The CIA established the Foreign Missile and Space Analysis Center (FMSAC) in 1963 as the primary office to analyze all foreign space and missile programs. It produced a wide range of publications (including some on a daily or weekly basis) and conducted briefings of CIA, NASA, and other officials. By 1966, NASA's leadership was receiving both FMSAC's publications and regular briefings by its personnel on the Soviet space program (Document 4).
NASA continued to receive intelligence reports and briefings into the 1980s (Document 5). Although there are no records on point, it undoubtedly has received them since.
NASA's Assistance to Analyzing Intelligence on Foreign Aeronautical and Space Programs
As set forth in Document 2, the CIA recognized the valuable contributions NASA could make to analyzing intelligence. NASA's assistance was initially on an ad hoc basis, such as commenting on draft NIEs (Document 6). To provide it on a more permanent basis, the CIA and NASA agreed in 1964 that two engineers from the Office of Manned Space Flight would be detailed full-time to FMSAC (Document 7). This arrangement continued at least into the late 1960s, but other than generally helping to analyze the Soviet human spaceflight program their exact contributions are unknown.
To obtain NASA's expertise in a wider range of aerospace fields, the CIA and NASA agreed in 1965 to establish eight joint CIA-NASA advisory panels that would meet once or twice a year (Document 8). One of the few declassified records is the agenda and summary minutes of the first meeting of the Lunar and Planetary Panel (Document 9). It is not known how long the panels remained active.
In the early 1970s, NASA obtained membership on the U.S. Intelligence Board's Guided Missiles and Astronautics Intelligence Committee. Formed in 1956, the committee's duties included reporting on significant foreign missile and space intelligence to the Board, developing missile and space intelligence objectives, and evaluating the ability of collection systems to meet them. NASA continued to be a member of the successor Weapons and Space Systems Intelligence Committee (Document 10). Virtually all the post-1970 reports and other products of these two committees remain classified.
The CIA created the Space Intelligence Panel in 1965 to advise the director of central intelligence (DCI) (Document 11). Among other things, its mandate was to review intelligence community assessments on foreign programs and recommend improvements in analytical techniques and collection capabilities. All the initial members came from outside the CIA and included two NASA officials. By the time their four-year terms expired these two individuals had left NASA and were working in industry. Whether any other NASA employees ever sat on the Panel is unknown. The agenda to a November 1968 meeting is one of the few declassified records of the Panel (Document 12).
Beginning in 1963, the CIA requested assistance from NASA's Langley Research Center in analyzing the aerodynamic properties of Soviet aircraft, missiles, and spacecraft. A small group of engineers frequently used classified photography to make models of the vehicles and then tested them in the Langley wind tunnels under secure conditions. They prepared reports and gave briefings, including one to the DCI in 1968 (Document 13). Before the project ended in the 1980s, the NASA engineers gave numerous briefings to other intelligence agencies, the armed services, and contractors.
NASA's Participation in Cover Stories
Hugh Dryden, who served as director of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics from 1947-1958, played a critical role in developing and maintaining the cover story for the U-2 as a weather reconnaissance aircraft starting in the mid-1950s (Document 14). Dryden and selected other NASA officials continued participating in the cover story after NASA assumed the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics in 1958. This caused it great embarrassment after the shoot-down of Gary Powers' aircraft in May 1960, but NASA continued providing confidential advice on cover stories for other projects in the following years.
Dryden advised the CIA on the cover story for the A-12, the CIA's successor to the U-2 (Document 15). To improve the procedure to develop and disseminate cover stories for overhead reconnaissance vehicles, the intelligence agencies established the Interdepartmental Contingency Planning Committee in 1963. Robert Seamans, then NASA's associate administrator, was a consultant (Document 16). Although the Committee was still in existence early the following decade, there is no information available on what it did or how long NASA participated in its work.
NASA's Acquisition and Use of Classified Technologies in its Lunar Exploration Program
To acquire the high-quality imagery needed to select Apollo landing sites on the Moon, NASA officials contacted the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) beginning in 1961 about using classified cameras in lunar probes. NASA eventually selected Kodak's SAMOS E-1 film readout system as the best candidate. The E-1 had flown several times before all SAMOS film readout systems were cancelled in late 1961 (Document 17).
NASA and the DoD signed the "DOD/CIA-NASA Agreement on NASA Reconnaissance Programs" in August 1963 establishing the procedures under which NASA could acquire and use classified cameras for lunar photography (Document 18). Shortly thereafter, NASA and the NRO signed a Security Annex establishing the classification levels of about 40 types of information relating to the agreement (Document 19).
Not surprisingly, NASA selected Boeing's bid which incorporated the E-1 camera for the new Lunar Orbiter program. The 1963 agreement was modified the following year because of fears that NASA could not maintain security under it (Document 20).
In case the Lunar Orbiters did not produce the necessary photography to select landing sites for Apollo, NASA planned to use another classified camera in manned lunar orbital missions to acquire it. NASA and the NRO signed the unclassified "DoD-NASA Agreement on the NASA Manned Lunar Mapping and Survey Program" in April 1964 establishing the project (Document 21). It had codeword annexes, which remain classified today. Under the project, which carried the classified codename of UPWARD, the GAMBIT 1 high-resolution camera was selected. After the five Lunar Orbiters flown in 1966 and 1967 met NASA's requirements for selection of Apollo landing sites, NASA briefly considered using the cameras in Earth-orbital missions for remote sensing before cancelling the project in 1967 (Document 22).
NASA also used classified cameras in the manned Apollo missions to image the Moon. Apollo 13 and 14 service modules carried the Hycon lunar topographic camera, which was a modified Air Force KA-7A camera flown on an unknown reconnaissance aircraft. Apollo 15, 16, and17 service modules flew the more capable Itek panoramic camera and a Fairchild mapping and stellar camera. 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 known whether these instruments were acquired under either of the above agreements.
Restrictions on NASA's Remote Sensing Programs
NASA's remote sensing programs held the promise of collecting scientific data important to many disciplines and promoting international cooperation. At the same time, however, the national security agencies had two major concerns about them. The first was that such actions as releasing imagery of sensitive foreign sites might result in a renewed Soviet effort to limit observing from space. Second, they were worried about the overt use of classified technologies or their equivalent that would reveal U.S. reconnaissance capabilities, assist other nations in improving theirs, or help them in developing countermeasures. As a result, except for weather satellites that produced very low-resolution photographs all of NASA's space-based Earth-imaging activities were closely monitored and subject to numerous restrictions.
The NRO and NASA reached an agreement in August 1965 limiting the capabilities of NASA's space-based image-forming sensors used to photograph the Earth to the equivalent of 20 meters from low-Earth orbit. It also required the NRO to review all of NASA reconnaissance-related activities as broadly defined in the agreement (Document 24).
Astronaut photography of sensitive sites in the Gemini program led the DCI in December 1965 to establish a review process by the intelligence agencies of all astronaut photography before public release (Document 25). This remained in place through Apollo-Soyuz in 1975. There is very little information available on what images were withheld through the years. Additionally, beginning with Apollo 6 in 1968 NASA was required to submit its proposed photographic experiments to the intelligence agencies before each mission. This also continued through Apollo-Soyuz in 1975. The intelligence agencies occasionally imposed restrictions on the proposed experiments, as in the case of the Earth Terrain Camera carried on Skylab (Document 26).
At the direction of the secretary of state, the interagency National Security Action Memorandum 156 Committee examined NASA's plans to carry image-forming sensors in the Apollo Applications Program which exceeded the 20-meter limit (Document 27). Its July 1966 report reaffirmed the technical limits in the August 1965 NASA-NRO agreement but also endorsed a carefully managed space-based remote sensing program because of the many potential scientific and political benefits.
In September 1966, NASA and the DoD signed the "DOD-NASA Coordination of the Earth Resources Survey Program" to monitor NASA's programs (Document 28). The two committees mandated under the agreement to do this were very active in the roughly four years they met, particularly the joint NASA-NRO Survey Applications Coordinating Committee (Document 29).
The Apollo Applications Program lost White House and congressional support during the late 1960s and NASA turned to the development of the robotic Landsat satellites to conduct systematic remote sensing, the first of which was launched in July 1972. Both this and the subsequent ones carried multispectral cameras that were well within the 20-meter limit of the August 1965 agreement and the new 10-meter limit established in Presidential Directive/NSC-37 of May 1978 (Document 30).
NASA planned to fly a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) — the first to be openly flown in space — on the SEASAT-A satellite scheduled for launch in 1978. (The NRO had tested a SAR during late 1964 in Project QUILL. It reportedly launched its first operational SAR satellite in 1988.) The Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded that the SAR did not involve sensitive technologies but that it could conduct surveillance of U.S. military forces. Although NASA successfully opposed demands that the uplinks and downlinks be encrypted to prevent unauthorized use, in the end it agreed to incorporate an enabling/disabling device to achieve this, to give the DoD 24-hour advance notice of imaging plans, and to accept restrictions on the acquisition of imagery over the United States (Document 31).
By the early 1970s, the two committees mandated under the September 1966 DoD-NASA agreement to monitor NASA's remote sensing programs were no longer meeting — for unknown reasons. Accordingly, the DoD, CIA, and NASA signed an agreement in August 1975 establishing the Program Review Board and two committees under it to perform these functions (Document 32). Although few of their records are declassified, it appears that they reviewed all the proposed remote sensing and other civilian experiments for the early Shuttle missions (Document 33).
The pre- and post-mission review processes by the intelligence agencies were not routinely used during the Shuttle program. Nevertheless, in response to concerns about the open dissemination of imagery from late 1983 flights the White House directed that NASA work with the national security agencies in reviewing imagery from later missions (Document 34).
NASA's Applications Satellites and National Security Requirements
NASA's weather, geodetic, and remote sensing satellites acquired a wide range of data that met civilian requirements and, on occasion, national security requirements. Discussed below are the contributions its geodetic and remote sensing satellites made to satisfying the latter.
Civilian scientists needed geodetic data to determine the size and shape of the Earth and for other purposes, while the DoD required it primarily for the targeting of long-range missiles. Because satellite geodesy resulted in much more accurate measurements than traditional ground, sea, and air surveys, the DoD and NASA established the joint ANNA geodetic satellite program in 1960 to help meet their needs. However, NASA refused to participate until the DoD agreed that most of the data would be unclassified (Document 35).
The DoD and NASA established the follow-on National Geodetic Satellite Program (NGSP) in 1964 (Document 36). Both DoD and NASA acquired data from the five satellites launched from 1964-1968, but the DoD also obtained it from measuring devices on its own satellites such as CORONA and SECOR. For the most part, the DoD refused to share with NASA the raw data from its own satellites and processed data more accurate than could be derived solely from the NGSP. The resulting conflict between DoD and NASA over these practices was brought to the attention of President Johnson in 1968, but there is no indication that it was resolved (Document 37).
NASA planned on launching the Geodynamics Experimental Ocean Satellite-3 (GEOS-3) with a radar altimeter whose data would generate more accurate gravity models than any measuring devices previously flown. The data would be used to meet civilian requirements and by the U.S. Navy to improve the accuracy of its submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Because it also had the potential to be used by the Soviets for the same purpose, the DoD requested NASA to encrypt the data, limit the acquisition of data over the ocean areas where Soviet ballistic missile submarines operated, or delay the planned April 1975 launch until the issue could be resolved. It also requested encryption of the data from the even more capable radar altimeter planned for SEASAT-A. NASA rejected these requests but quickly agreed to restrict the dissemination of the GEOS-3 data collected over the regions where Soviet ballistic missile submarines operated (Document 38).
NASA and the DoD continued to fight over encrypting the SEASAT-A radar altimeter data. In 1976, NASA proposed changing the orbital inclination to avoid encryption, but the DoD rejected this on the basis that the original orbit would result in the best data for improving SLBM accuracy (Document 39). Once the new DoD civilian leadership took the position that the Soviets would not benefit from either the GEOS-3 or SEASAT-A radar altimeter data, President Carter ordered in May 1977 that all of it be openly disseminated (Document 40).
The multispectral data acquired by the Landsat remote sensing satellites was initially assessed to have little intelligence value (Document 41). However, with the growing importance on improving intelligence estimates of the Soviet wheat crop the CIA soon began routinely using the imagery for this purpose (Document 42).
NASA, the National Security Agencies, and the Shuttle
NASA's longest and deepest cooperation with the defense and intelligence agencies was in the Shuttle program. For the only time in its history, it used their requirements to determine the size and capacity of a spacecraft, flew classified missions, gave priority to them, utilized a secure command and control system, and withheld mission information from the public.
There are several works that give very good overviews of the NASA-DoD interaction. With little support for its proposed space station or Mars mission, NASA soon focused on a reusable Shuttle as the major post-Apollo program and worked closely with the DoD to ensure it met all of its requirements. These mandated a larger Shuttle, cargo bay, payload capacity, and cross-range than NASA needed, but it endorsed them to ensure DoD's support for the project. Nixon approved development of the full-sized Shuttle that met DoD's specifications in January 1972, with the first operational mission scheduled for 1978.
The DoD quickly studied possible employment of the Shuttle in a variety of missions (Document 43). It initially planned to fly about 20 Shuttle missions annually from 1978-1990 and would transition all of its payloads from expendable launch vehicles (ELVs) to the Shuttle once it proved reliable and economical.
Although NASA paid the vast majority of the program's costs, the DoD had substantial outlays for such items as building the Vandenberg Air Force Base launch complex and the Inertial Upper Stage to place payloads into higher orbits. When the Office of Management and Budget proposed in 1977 to scale back the program because of cost overruns and technical problems, the DoD initially argued that both the Vandenberg and Kennedy Space Center launch complexes and five orbiters must be built (Document 44). However, after the DoD decided that a complete fifth orbiter was not crucial President Carter directed that both complexes and four orbiters be built, with an option to acquire a fifth orbiter in the future (Document 45). As it always had, the DoD refused to pay any costs of the orbiters.
The DoD planned to transition all payloads to the Shuttle at both complexes and to end a backup launch capability on ELVs by 1985. It also planned to begin flying on the Shuttle that year new satellites that because of their configuration or weight could not be launched on existing ELVs (Document 46).
The Carter administration again addressed the continuing cost overruns and technical problems in 1980, which had forced the delay of the first orbital flight. The DoD's civilian leadership continued to strongly support the program and agreed to provide the needed extra funds out of the Air Force budget (Document 47).
Columbia flew the first orbital mission in 1981. However, it was soon evident that the program could not meet the revised schedule of 34 flights through 1985 because of technical problems and that none of the orbiters could meet the performance requirements of launching 65,000 pounds (with an upper stage) into low-Earth, low-inclination orbits from Kennedy or 32,000 pounds into low-Earth, high-inclination orbits from Vandenberg. Problems with Shuttle availability caused the DoD to delay transition of some satellites to it and the performance shortfalls led NASA to study thrust augmentation measures to eliminate them (Document 48).
The defense and intelligence agencies became increasingly worried about the shortfalls, particularly with respect to the Shuttle's inability to launch any reconnaissance satellites from Vandenberg. After a long battle with NASA, the DoD got President Reagan's approval in 1985 to acquire ten new ELVs (ultimately designated Titan IVs) that could launch payloads the same size and weight the Shuttle was designed to handle (Document 49).
Before the Challenger accident in January 1986, the Shuttle carried several DoD unclassified and classified experiments and launched satellites in two dedicated, classified missions. Because both NASA and the DoD had so few ELVs at the time and the Shuttle did not fly again for almost three years, the accident caused great delays in launching their payloads. NASA also cancelled virtually all the performance-enhancing measures for safety reasons, and thus the Shuttle was still incapable of carrying any reconnaissance satellites from Vandenberg and selected payloads from Kennedy (Document 50). President Reagan directed in 1986 that the DoD acquire more Titan IVs and new medium-lift ELVs (Document 51). After the eight dedicated, classified Shuttle missions from 1988-1992, the DoD no longer used it to place satellites in orbit and began launching all of them on ELVs once again.
Document 1: CIA, C.P. Cabell, General, USAF, Acting Director, Letter to Dr. T. Keith Glennan, Director, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 10 September 1958. Confidential.
Source: CIA Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) Request
The CIA's acting director offers to share intelligence on Soviet space programs with NASA's administrator in this memo written before NASA started formal operations on 1 October 1958. During this period, the Office of Scientific Intelligence had the primary responsibility within the CIA to produce this information.