Spy Satellite Engineer's Top Secret Is Revealed | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Spy Satellite Engineer's Top Secret Is Revealed

Play associated audio

Every day for decades, engineer Phil Pressel would come home from work and be unable to tell his wife what he'd been doing all day.

Now, Pressel is free to speak about his life's work: designing cameras for a top-secret U.S. government spy satellite. Officially known as the KH-9 Hexagon, engineers called it "Big Bird" for its massive size.

Until the government declassified it last month, Hexagon had been a secret for 46 years.

"The challenge for this satellite, to design it, was to survey the whole globe," Pressel tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

It was a grand challenge for Pressel. Born in Belgium, he survived the Holocaust as a young boy when a French family hid him from the Nazis. Pressel says he never expected to come to America, much less become an engineer on a top-secret American spy satellite.

Hexagon's main purpose was, in a way, to prevent wars. It was designed to spot Soviet missile silos and troop movements.

"It permitted President Nixon, in the early 1970s, to sign the SALT-1 treaty, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty," Pressel says. Photos sent down from Hexagon enabled the U.S. to verify the Soviet Union's claims about its weapons stockpiles.

Those photos themselves were a technological marvel. Pressel says that even 40 years after its original launch, Hexagon is still one of the most complicated vehicles ever to orbit the earth because it used film.

"It was the last film-recovery system used for reconnaissance," he says. Each Hexagon satellite launched with 60 miles worth of film and an immensely complicated electromechanical system that controlled the cameras.

Once a reel of film was finished, it was loaded into a re-entry pod and sent back to earth. "And then at around 50,000 feet, a parachute would slow it down, and a C-130 airplane caught it in midair over the Pacific," Pressel says.

After all the film was sent back to earth, the satellite was abandoned, and a new one launched, he says. Nineteen of them went up before the program ended in 1986.

Pressel says he's immensely proud of the work he and his colleagues did on Hexagon. "We did all of this incredibly complicated work with slide rules, without microprocessors, without solid state electronics," he says.

"We used old technology, and it worked!"

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Can NBC's New Tiger Lily Overcome The Character's History?

Alanna Saunders, the actress cast to play Tiger Lily in NBC's forthcoming production of PeterPan, has Native American ancestry, one of many points of contention in previous castings.
NPR

California Cracks Down On Farmers' Market Cheaters

Did your local farmer really grow that heirloom apple he just sold you? California wants to know, so it's sending more inspectors out to make sure the produce sold at markets is really local.
NPR

Top Spending PAC Aims To Keep The Senate In Democratic Hands

Senate Majority PAC, run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Reid, is the top-spending superPAC in the midterm election season. Its donors are essentially a compilation of the party's big-donor base.
NPR

Tech Firms Chip Away At Credit Cards' Share Of Transactions

Companies including PayPal and Apple are competing to convince merchants and consumers to use their swipe-and-go mobile payment systems. Credit card breaches may speed up the use of digital wallets.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.