Monday, December 6, 2010

The Space Review: Apollo secrets & whispers

Illustration of an Apollo Command & Service Module docked to the NRO Lunar Mapping and Survey System [Space Review/G. de Chiara].

Dwayne A. Day
The Space Review

During the 1960s, the existence of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which managed America’s spy satellite programs, was highly secret. It is difficult to understand why this was so, but the ability to use powerful satellites to peer down into the Soviet Union, count strategic weapons systems, and determine what the Soviets were doing was highly valuable and therefore prized. Although the Soviet government and the American public knew that the United States was launching satellites into orbit to conduct espionage, US government officials felt that even admitting that these activities were being conducted would attract more attention to them, and possibly encourage the Soviets to start shooting at them in peacetime (everybody expected them to shoot at American satellites in wartime). This intense secrecy is the main reason why the revelation that the NRO made then-current, highly-capable reconnaissance satellite technology available to NASA for the Apollo program is so surprising.
The existence of the Lunar Mapping and Survey System was not classified, and actually appeared in an open source publication, a space encyclopedia aimed at kids that was produced in the later 1960s.
As revealed by Vance Mitchell in the current issue of Quest, and discussed here last week (see “Black Apollo”, The Space Review, November 29, 2010), beginning in 1964 the NRO and NASA collaborated to allow NASA to use a modified KH-7 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellite on manned Apollo missions to photograph potential lunar landing sites. These missions were planned to occur in the event that the robotic Lunar Orbiter photographs were insufficient to determine if it was safe enough for an astronaut to land a Lunar Module on the surface. The KH-7 was then one of the two primary American reconnaissance satellites in service. NASA soon employed contractors Lockheed, General Electric, and Kodak to begin work on what was known as the Lunar Mapping and Survey System, or LM&SS. Details of the plan remain sketchy, but parts of hardware for four cameras were constructed before the program was canceled in summer 1967, after NASA determined that the Lunar Orbiter photographs were good enough to pick safe landing sites.

Read the full article, HERE.