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Military Satellite Systems: A History — Part One

IN THE BEGINNING… The Dance of the Acronyms
The Space and Missile Systems Center is the birthplace and cradle of military space and the central hub of military space acquisition excellence. SMC’s mission is to deliver unrivaled space and missile systems to the joint warfighter and our nation, producing innovative, affordable, and operationally effective space systems.

The Space and Missile Systems Center traces its ancestry back to the Western Development Division (WDD) of the Air Research and Development Command (ARDC). WDD was activated on July 1, 1954 and was redesignated the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division (AFBMD) on June 1, 1957. The organization’s original mission was to develop strategic missiles for the Air Force, but ARDC added the responsibility for developing the first military satellite system in October of 1955. The accountability for strategic missiles remained with AFBMD and its successors through the decades that followed, but the Department of Defense (DoD) continued to modify and add to its space mission responsibilities.

In February 1958, the Eisenhower administration activated the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and placed it in charge of all military space programs during their research and development phases. In September 1959, ARPA lost its dominant role. Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy divided responsibilities for developing military satellites among the three services. The Army was to develop communication satellites; the Navy, navigation satellites; and the Air Force (in effect, AFBMD), reconnaissance, and surveillance satellites.

Only the Air Force, however, was to develop and launch military space boosters. This arrangement continued until March 1961, when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara gave the Air Force a near monopoly on development of all military space systems, ending the role of the Army and the Navy, except under exceptional circumstances.

Some important exceptions to this developmental monopoly occurred during the next 40 years. For example, the development of reconnaissance satellites and related systems soon came under the authority of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and the Navy developed the first, successful, space-based navigation system.

However, the Air Force continued to exercise a predominant responsibility for military space efforts. DOD’s Commission to Assess U.S. National Security Space Management and Organization recognized the Air Force’s predominance in its report published on January 11, 2001. The report was translated into policy when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, acting on the Commission’s recommendations, assigned to the Air Force the “responsibility for planning, programming, and acquisition of space systems” in his assessment of the Commission’s report provided to Congress.

By 1961, AFBMD had two parallel missions to perform, but it was not necessarily clear those two missions actually belonged together. Over the next several decades, the missile and space functions were separated and rejoined repeatedly, causing numerous reorganizations and redesignations.

Due to the increasing importance of space systems, the space and missile functions were separated on April 1, 1961, when AFBMD was inactivated and replaced by the Ballistic Systems Division (BSD) and the Space Systems Division (SSD). The space and missile functions were reconsolidated on July 1, 1967, in the interest of economy. BSD and SSD were merged to form the Space and Missile Systems Organization (SAMSO).

On May 5, 1990, BSD was redesignated the Ballistic Missile Organization (BMO) and realigned under SSD. On July 1, 1992, SSD was redesignated the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), the name it is known by today. Finally, in September 1993, BMO was inactivated and absorbed by SMC, recreating the situation that had existed in the 1950s and again in the 1970s, when a single organization was responsible for both space and missile programs.

Military satellite projects were added to the mission of the Western Development Division in the mid-1950’s and came to play an increasingly important role in the activities of the Division’s successors. The first satellite program was known as the Military Satellite System, or Weapon System 117L (WS 117L).

The commander of Air Research and Development Command transferred responsibility for the program from Wright Air Development Center to WDD on October 10, 1955. WS 117L was, in concept, a family of separate subsystems that could carry out different missions. These included photographic reconnaissance and missile warning. However, by the end of 1959, WS 117L had evolved into three separate programs: the Discoverer Program, the Satellite and Missile Observation System (SAMOS), and the Missile Defense Alarm System (MIDAS). SAMOS may have been made into an acronym after the name had been selected to go with MIDAS. Discoverer and SAMOS were to carry out the photographic reconnaissance mission, and MIDAS was to carry out the missile-warning mission.

Under the WS 117L program, the visual reconnaissance payloads (which became the Discoverer and SAMOS programs) were known as Subsystem E. The infrared reconnaissance payload (which became the MIDAS early warning program) was called Subsystem G. The spacecraft, which finally became the Agena upper stage, was called Subsystem A for the airframe and Subsystem B for the propulsion elements.

Rediscovering Discoverer
The Discoverer program aimed at developing a film-return photographic reconnaissance satellite. The satellite would carry a camera that took pictures from space as it passed over the Soviet Union and China. Film from the camera would be returned from orbit in a capsule; a parachute would be deployed to slow the descent of the capsule; and the capsule would be recovered either in mid-air or in the ocean.

However, Discoverer’s photoreconnaissance mission was not revealed to the public at the time. It was, instead, presented as an experimental program to develop and test satellite subsystems and explore environmental conditions in space.

Nevertheless, some Discoverer missions carried experimental payloads instead of, or in addition to, their normal reconnaissance payloads. Mission 3 carried biological experiments, and mission 2 carried simulated experiments, but both were lost in launch failures. Missions 19, 21, 49, 52, 57, 73, 92, and 99 gathered infrared background data for the MIDAS program. Other missions carried geodetic payloads.

The Discoverer Program carried out 38 public launches and achieved many technological breakthroughs. Discoverer I, launched in February of 1959, was the world’s first polar orbiting satellite. Discoverer II, launched in April of 1959, was the first satellite to be:
  • Stabilized in orbit in all three axes
  • Maneuvered on command from the earth
  • Separate a reentry vehicle on command
  • Send its reentry vehicle back to earth
Discoverer XIII, launched in August of 1960, ejected a capsule that was subsequently recovered in the Pacific Ocean, the first successful recovery of a manmade object ejected from an orbiting satellite.

Discoverer XIV, launched in August of 1960, ejected a capsule that was recovered in mid-air northwest of Hawaii by a JC-119 aircraft, making it the first successful aerial recovery of an object returned from orbit. The capsule from Discoverer XIV was the first to return film from orbit, inaugurating the age of satellite reconnaissance. Satellite reconnaissance filled a crucial need, because President Eisenhower had suspended aerial reconnaissance of the Soviet Union just three months earlier after the Soviets had shot down the U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers.

The Discoverer Program officially ended after the launch of Discoverer XXXVIII in February of 1962. In reality, however, the program continued in a clandestine form until May of 1972 (the date of the last film recovery), carrying out 145 launches, including the 38 Discoverer launches, under the secret code name Corona. At the direction first of President Eisenhower and later of President Kennedy, the direction and management of Corona and other satellite reconnaissance programs passed to a new DOD agency, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), when it was created in 1961.

In August of 1960, Secretary of the Air Force Dudley C. Sharp created an Office of Missile and Satellite Systems. Reconnaissance programs under that office reported to the secretary of the Air Force through an undersecretary, Joseph V. Charyk. On September 6, 1961, the new Kennedy Administration established the NRO.

Corona + SAMOS Recover Intelligence
Corona’s first major accomplishment was to provide photographs of Soviet missile launch complexes. Corona also identified the Plesetsk Missile Test Range, north of Moscow, and provided information about what missiles were being developed, tested, and deployed by the U.S.S.R. These and other accomplishments became known when the CORONA Program was declassified in February 1995.

SAMOS, the second program that evolved from WS 117L, aimed at developing a heavier reconnaissance payload that would be launched by an Atlas Agena booster, rather than the Thor Agena which was used to launch Discoverer. The payloads were intended to collect photographic and electromagnetic reconnaissance data. Cameras in the Agena spacecraft, like the Corona payloads, would collect the photographic data. However, the film would be scanned electronically in orbit and transmitted to ground stations.

SAMOS had three unclassified launches from the west coast in 1960 and 1961. Only the launch in January of 1961 was successful. In 1962, a veil of secrecy was drawn across the SAMOS program and the Air Force halted information releases. After several more classified launches, it was apparent that the technology for the electro-optical film readout system was not yet sufficiently advanced—Air Force undersecretary Joseph V. Charyk canceled further work on the payload. However, the technology was secretly transferred to NASA, which used it successfully in its Lunar Orbiter imaging lunar satellites.

Although SMC did not directly manage the development of imaging reconnaissance satellites at this point, it did manage programs that were linked to them, or their products. One of the most important was the Defense Dissemination System (DDS), whose broad outlines were declassified in 1996.

The Defense Dissemination Program Office (DDPO) was established at SAMSO in July 1974 to develop a means to securely and rapidly provide reconnaissance imagery in nearly original quality to strategic and tactical users. The DDPO developed a system consisting of segments for processing, transmitting, and receiving. The system was deployed to four strategic sites during 1976-1978, providing the first electronic dissemination of digital imagery for targeting and strategic threat assessment.

The DDS went through three more generations of increasingly sophisticated improvements for compressing, transmitting, receiving, and reconstructing imagery for military users in the field. One of the third-generation DDS units was deployed to the Persian Gulf to support Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Fourth-generation DDS units were fielded to 70 strategic and tactical users by 1998. However, the DDPO itself ceased to exist as a program office on October 1, 1996, when it was combined with other agencies to create the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). As an organization, the DDPO was characterized by unusually high esprit de corps and received a larger number of Air Force Organizational Excellence Awards than any other program office in SMC’s history.

To Be Continued…
Please join us in the next issue of MilsatMagazine as we continue with the history of military satellites, courtesy of the U.S.A.F.’ Space and Missile Center’s History Office, Los Angeles Air Force Base, El Segundo, California