Talk #89, 10/1/14

Meeting the Challenge: The Hexagon KH-9 Reconnaissance Satellite

Phil Pressel
Project Engineer and Author
Perkin-Elmer Corp. (retired)

25 years after its final mission, the Hexagon KH-9 reconnaissance satellite program was declassified on September 17, 2011. Phil Pressel discussed Hexagon’s development, history, how it worked, and its importance in United States intelligence and history.
The Hexagon KH-9 spy satellite was the last film based orbiting reconnaissance camera for the United States government. It was a marvel of engineering achievements that resulted in a fine optical instrument that was able to distinguish objects two to three feet in size from an altitude of 100 miles above the earth. It was acknowledged to have been an invaluable asset providing valuable intelligence information throughout its 15 years of operation and was responsible for President Nixon signing the SALT treaty.
The first launch was on June 15, 1971 and the last of 19 successful missions unfortunately exploded 800 feet above the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base on April 18, 1986 just a few months after the Challenger tragic explosion.Phil Pressel was the project engineer in charge of the design of the Hexagon KH-9 cameras for the Perkin-Elmer Corporation and was on the program from its beginning. The customer was the Central Intelligence Agency and all of the work was Top Secret. The initial study was presented to the CIA at night in a deserted looking safe house in Washington, DC in 1966.
Each satellite contained four re-entry vehicles into which the film was stored after photography. As each re-entry vehicle was filled it was sent back to earth and an Air Force C-130 plane caught its parachute and landed it. Out of 19 missions and 76 re-entry vehicles, only one was lost. Its parachute failed to open and it sunk deep in the Pacific Ocean. Its highly secret recovery was planned and executed by the CIA, Perkin-Elmer, and the Navy using the deep submersible Trieste.
The Hexagon satellite has been described as “the most complicated system ever put up in earth orbit.”
Phil brought a few copies of his book, which is for sale through Amazon, and some people bought a copy and got it signed by the author.