How a Secret Spy Satellite's Camera Found a Second Life Mapping the Moon

"SAMOS' new mission was out of this world."

As the Cold War settled into a deadly balancing act after the Korean Armistice, the Soviet Union's hostile opacity coupled with its sheer size and remoteness presented a terrific challenge to American military planners and intelligence agencies.

Conventional aerial reconnaissance over the USSR proved too costly in blood and equipment. During the 1950s, engineers and analysts sought new ways to understand the size and shape of the Soviet threat. What they came up with—spy planes and spy sats—still serve us today.

Lockheed's U-2 surveillance aircraft heralded a breakthrough not only in espionage, but also in aerospace production. So secret was the plane that its design, fabrication and testing created the brand and the infrastructure of the U.S. hi-tech spy system. This kind of particularly American government-industry teamwork proved enormously successful.

In the mid-1950s, Dr. Edwin Land—the founder and CEO of Polaroid and one of Ike's scientific advisors—proposed a TV eye in the sky. From an Earth-orbiting satellite, a television camera hooked up to a powerful telescope pointed at the planet below could transmit what it saw in real time to waiting receivers on American soil.

Land's concept become part of the U.S. Air Force's reconnaissance satellite program WS-117L, but little movement occurred until October 1957. Amidst the consternation and activity following the launch of Sputnik 1, President Eisenhower transferred one of WS-117L's components to the CIA/USAF team that had developed the U-2.

The project had to deliver fast. The CIA/USAF/industry team dropped the too-advanced television idea. After photographing a swath of ground below, their satellite—code-named CORONA—rolled its exposed film onto spools aboard a space capsule, which carried the film back to Earth like a falling meteor to be caught in mid-air by special aircraft.

All through 1959 and 1960, CORONA flights blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California disguised as "Discoverer" science probes. Heavy secrecy concealed many failures as the team learned the techniques of space flight by trial and error.

When Premier Nikita Khrushchev dramatically cancelled the May 1960 Paris Summit over a shot-down U-2, President Eisenhower and the United States lost much more than international face—a plane and its pilot. Without overflights, America was suddenly blind to a quarter of the Earth's surface, home to armies, bombers, missiles and nuclear weapons ready for war.

Fortunately, the CORONA program began showing results only one hundred days after the U-2 shootdown. But imagery analysts had to wait until a CORONA satellite's film was exposed, its capsule recovered and the film processed.

All along, Edwin Land's original idea stayed alive within the Air Force's umbrella WS-117L plan as a program called SAMOS. The SAMOS system delivered near-real-time imagery from space. Eastman Kodak made a special bi-pack film that was developed within the company's camera. A CBS-invented scanner converted the film emulsion into flickering light and electrical pulses. The satellite beamed the signal to receiving stations on Earth where the imagery developed much like a wire photo.

Remarkable as SAMOS was, it was still pretty primitive. It had limited onboard film supply, limited bandwidth, no way to store or resend an image if it didn't come through and unencrypted transmission. Its image quality was adequate, but already less than what leaders and analysts required.

The Pentagon killed SAMOS in 1961. Apart from the usual booster explosions, propellant leaks and wrong orbits, SAMOS' technology offered no advantages over CORONA and more headaches. Soon the new Kennedy administration demanded more and better photos and ordered the next-generation GAMBIT film-based satellites. America wouldn't launch another near-real-time spy sat for twenty years.

The USAF office set up to run SAMOS as a nonmilitary national asset akin to the U-2 became the National Reconnaissance Office. Having built, launched and operated an eye in the sky it no longer needed, the NRO now sought a home for it. Another government agency also needed to photograph a very remote place. SAMOS' new mission was out of this world.

In the summer of 1963, NASA solicited industry bids for a satellite that would orbit the Moon and take high-resolution pictures of potential Apollo Program landing sites. A satellite couldn't return film capsules from the Moon, so a CORONA capsule system couldn't work.

Eastman Kodak got the NRO's permission to offer their SAMOS camera to NASA as part of Boeing's winning Lunar Orbiter design. For its space odysseys, Eastman Kodak modified the SAMOS camera into a dual-lens configuration adjusted for a lunar orbit of 30 miles altitude.

Between August 1966 and August 1967, five Lunar Orbiter spacecraft successfully imaged all the landing sites used during the Apollo missions. During their extended missions, they nearly mapped the entire lunar surface—at spy sat resolution. The successful, swiftly-built Lunar Orbiters used off-the-shelf technology. Just how off-the-shelf wasn't declassified until the 1990s.

Steve Weintz is a writer, filmmaker, artist, animator. Former firefighter, archaeologist, stuntman.

Image: Flickr/NASA