When the iron curtain descended over the world, pitting capitalist versus communist, secrecy became a necessity to survive and intelligence a weapon to thrive. As Americans adopted the mindset of inevitable nuclear war — building bombs shelters, teaching nuclear emergency protocols in school and weeding out potential spies — the government worked to protect the nation at all costs.
To defeat the Soviet Union, the U.S. and its allies needed to know what threat their enemies posed. This meant using any advantage necessary to see what the enemy was doing and stay ahead of both the technological and militaristic trends. The first step in the process: Chart the grounds the enemy stands on.
In the early 1960s the government contacted Kodak and its employees, nestled in the heart of Rochester, to work on classified imaging systems. Intended for spy satellites, these systems would document the actions of the Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold War, Kodak would continue to analyze the threat posed by the Russians, and also develop the cameras used in the space race.
LOOKING DOWN ON EARTH
On May 1, 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia, and photographs of secret military bases were recovered from the pilot, according to the Cold War Museum. The incident forced the U.S. government to reveal the plane’s purpose as a covert surveillance vehicle and strained relationships between the already hostile nations.
One year later, the government contracted Kodak to design and produce cameras capable of photographing territory from satellites in space. A team in Rochester would work on the Gambit, Gambit 3 and Hexagon satellite programs, which ran from the 1960s to the 1980s, with over 120 combined launches.
The project was classified until September 17, 2011, when its details were declassified as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
According to a letter sent from Arthur Simmons of Kodak to Joseph Charyk of the Air Force at the Pentagon, the operation was known only by a select few at Kodak as “Blanket,” and its goal was to create a “recoverable reconnaissance system.”
Also outlined in the letter is a camera system which would produce finer ground resolution shots, known as “Sunset Strip.” To this day, the exact resolution of the photographs remains classified.
To the more than 1,000 Kodak employees involved on the project, all of whom were sworn to secrecy for the past 50 years, the challenges of developing such a complex camera system were numerous. Engineers and designers had to account for extreme weather shifts, a violent launch and film recovery methods.
The Hexagon satellite in particular carried 60 million feet of film, so engineers had to ensure that the capsule’s parachute would deploy and remain intact for the recovery team.
Once the camera was in space, engineers at Kodak would manually calibrate angle, exposure and focus, and then individually shoot targets: no small feat when the satellite is moving at four miles per second. According to guidelines released by the NRO, these targets remain classified.
Other information that remains classified includes “management data related to sensitive budgetary details and trends, classified contracting methodologies and measures, identities of individuals under cover, or still-sensitive relationships and facilities.”
Kodak’s work helped turn the tide in negotiations with the Soviet Union in America’s favor since the photographs proved that a missile gap did exist. America had more missiles than Russia, and it was now fact.
However, for many Kodak employees, the secretive nature of the work was exhausting and stressful on their relationships. Members of the project had to often fly to the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where the satellites were launched, to check on production. On these trips, employees were not allowed to tell anyone where or why they were going or who they worked for.
The oath of secrecy meant that for the last 50 years, employees could not tell their loved ones what they were working on, only that it was for the good of the nation.
“Although it was exciting and, we all agreed, important, it was very hard on the families, we couldn’t talk about what we were doing, we couldn’t even tell out spouses. My wife … feels it hampered our social interaction,” said Ed Cattron, a former Kodak system engineer, in a documentary on the “Black Gambit” project.
On September 30, 2011, according to the Democrat and Chronicle, a private event at the George Eastman House was held to honor the contributions of those who worked on the projects.
LOOKING UP AT THE MOON
By the mid-60s, as the government was launching Gambit satellites into orbit, the space race had exploded and captured the world’s attention. Before the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) could start sending astronauts into space, it needed to know every detail of the moon and prepare a way of documenting mankind’s voyage into space.
Kodak was involved in many of the significant breakthroughs of putting a man on the moon. A Kodak-developed cameras were used to record the reactions of John Glenn, the first man to orbit the Earth, and to document the Apollo 11 mission.
In preparation for the lunar mission, NASA launched five lunar orbit shuttles to photograph the surface of the moon. The missions successfully photographed 99 percent of the moon.
According to the Kodak history archives, the camera was designed to take photographs, process the film, convert it to a continuous video signal and transmit the feed to Kodak servers. In addition to the low resolution topography shots, the camera also took high resolution images, through which one could see an object the size of a card table from the distance of the space shuttle.
Years later, when man first landed on the moon, they brought Kodak cameras. The company’s archives describe the specially crafted stereoscopic color camera as the size and shape of a shoebox, with a trigger on an extended handle for easy use with the limited mobility of the space suits.
The camera was capable of photographing extreme close-ups of rocks, dust and other minute details of the moon’s surface. In particular, photographs taken of lunar soil, by Neil Armstrong himself, allowed scientists to study soil patches smaller than two one-thousandths of an inch in size, says the archives.
Today, Kodak continues to provide resources to the exploration and understanding of space. Their imaging systems were used on the Sojourner Rover that traveled the surface of Mars in 1997. Kodak also supplied precision optics for the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the James Webb Space Telescope.
At a time when the future of the world seemed uncertain, and the threat of nuclear war was on the mind of every household in America, information became an invaluable asset. From allowing the government to see behind the iron curtain to helping show the world America’s dominance as they reached the moon, Kodak’s imaging systems and cameras provided key information that helped to change the face of the Cold War. And now, after 50 years, the company can finally brag about it.
For declassified documents pertaining to the projects discussed, visit http://nro.gov/foia/declass/GAMBHEX.html.