Spies and Shuttles

The National Security Archive’s Electronic Briefing Book on the topic encouraged me to find a copy of James E. David’s book, Spies and Shuttles: NASA’s Secret Relationships with the DoD and CIA. David has assiduously used CREST and FOIA and MDR requests to track down as much information as possible, but to a large extent the book is defined by the limits of what has been declassified. Much of the book’s focus, aside from recounting the oft-told story of DoD’s love-hate relationship with the shuttle, is on the tension between NASA’s charter obligations of openness and internationalism and DoD and the intelligence community’s demands for secrecy. Nowhere was that clearer than in the case of imaging from space, where it seems like the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) would have been happiest if NASA tried to smother the idea of photography from orbit entirely.

David’s book also has a great deal more information on US geodesy projects, including how DoD worked to ensure that NASA’s policy of openness did not lead to foreign countries having access to the same geodetic data as the US military.

The first clash came over the joint NASA-DoD Project ANNA (Army, Navy, NASA, and Air Force), which was supposed to provide a comparative test of various methods of satellite geodesy, including visual tracking and doppler and phase shift of radio signals. When it came to deciding whether the results would be open or classified, NASA won the first round. ANNA’s data would be publicly and internationally available. The same was mostly true of the project’s successors in the joint National Geodetic Satellite Program, whose goal was to tie together all the existing surface datums in a global system with an accuracy of ten meters and to create a more precise model of the Earth’s gravity field. The National Geodetic Satellite Program was responsible for a mix of NASA satellites using the same techniques as were used on ANNA, including Beacon Explorer 1 and 2, Geodetic Earth Orbiting Satellite (GEOS) 1 and 2, and the Passive Geodetic Earth Orbiting Satellite (which was, I kid you not, a thirty-meter plastic balloon coated with aluminum so it could be easily tracked by ground-based cameras).

However, the National Geodetic Satellite Program was not the entirety of the US satellite geodesy effort: the Navy was putting Doppler transmitters on its Transit navigation satellites and the Army was preparing loft what would become a series of thirteen satellites equipped with SEquential Collation Of Range (SECOR) distance-measuring equipment. (Interested in the technical details? There’s a good summary in a report online at DTIC.)

Part of the reason why DoD maintained these programs, David reports, was so that they would have data superior to what was publicly released. DoD gravity models that were superior to those created by the National Geodetic Satellite Program thus remained classified, preserving what presumably was a US military geodetic advantage.

The same tension applied to the final satellite of the National Geodetic Satellite Program, GEOS-3, which was also the first equipped with a radar altimeter. The NSA Electronic Briefing Book included some of the papers related to the debate between NASA and DoD about restricting the resulting data, the upshot of which I discussed here, but Spies and Shuttles has more information, including the fact that the State Department and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) opposed the NASA-DoD agreement. Those agencies argued that the restrictions would hurt NASA’s image of openness and hinder future cooperation with civilian scientists.

Though the collaboration over GEOS-3 was successful, with both sides finding use for the data they collected, subsequent joint projects did not fare as well. Though the US Navy went ahead alone for its subsequent geodetic satellite, GEOSAT, DoD and NASA collaborated on a multi-sensor follow-on to NASA’s SEASAT. The proposed National Oceanic Satellite System (NOSS), would be funded 25% by NASA (the lead agency), 25% by NOAA, and 50% by DoD. Data uplinks and downlinks would be encrypted, something NASA had successfully resisted on previous satellites, but the data would be distributed to civilian scientists without restriction in peacetime. The instruments were descended from those previously carried on weather satellites as well as from the geodetic program: a radar altimeter, a scatterometer (to measure surface wind speed), a scanning multichannel microwave radiometer (to measure sea surface temperature, moisture, and ice content), and a coastal zone colour scanner (to measure, well, ocean colour).

Problems about the NASA-NOSS-DoD cost-sharing led to NOSS’s cancellation, at which point it was reinvented as the DoD’s Naval Remote Ocean Sensing System (NROSS), with essentially the same instruments. The new program was Navy-led, but with required contributions from the US Air Force, NOAA, and NASA. Once again cost-sharing issues led to cancellation. In an interesting shift for what had been a national military asset, the scatterometer which NASA had been building for NROSS ended up flying on Japan’s ADEOS I satellite.

The NASA-DoD relationship clearly required compromises on both sides, with NASA restricting the openness of its scientific information-gathering and DoD accepting a lower level of classification and more dissemination of the data collected. It didn’t always work: the first joint attempt at a weather satellite went so poorly that DoD went ahead and ran their own parallel black project, which ended up feeding back into the civilian weather satellite program. And the troubled relationship between the two agencies over the shuttle is well documented in David’s book. Still, at least when it came to geodesy the combination of military urgency and scientific opportunity meant both sides got the job done.


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