For 25 years Y’s Men member Marty Yellin “built spy satellites for a living” and helped “prevent World War III.” For 45 years that was his secret – one he could not share even with his wife. The Top Secret program he worked in began in 1965 and was declassified only in late 2011. Last Thursday he shared his story with fellow Y’s Men.
Yellin was recruited to Project Hexagon, or Big Bird, as it came to be called, in 1966, seduced to Perkin-Elmer by an offer that doubled this recent college graduate’s salary to $16,000. He was to be part of what grew to be a 1,000 person team tasked with designing a camera to be mounted in a “reconnaissance spacecraft” to take photographs of areas of interest to the CIA.
As he listened to the initial briefing he asked himself “How on Earth is this going to be possible?” Five years on the team had made it happen. Big Bird flew. They had designed and built a camera that that was housed in a 60 foot long, 30,000 pound vehicle.
Each mission began with four film capsules housing a total of 60 miles of film. The vehicle orbited the Earth every 90 minutes, the film drawing through the camera at 200 feet per second, snapping “vast, panoramic photographs of the Soviet Union, China and other potential foes,” including “close-range pictures of Soviet missiles, submarine pens and air bases, even entire battalions on war exercises.” Big Bird also assisted Israel during 1973’s Yom Kippur War by photographing Egyptian troop movements.
The photos covered a 370 mile wide swath of terrain – the distance from Cincinnati to Washington. It simultaneously took photographs of stars to enable intelligence analysts to precisely locate the subject matter.
Because of the program’s secrecy Yellin traveled under aliases. When a member asked how he obtained a passport he responded “I can’t tell you” – after issuing the standard “if I tell you…” And to this day the CIA has made no official announcement about Hexagon’s total cost.
The personal downside to Yellin was that the obsessive secrecy became a part of his divorce.
“The technical intelligence Big Bird produced was incredible.” It helped us understand what our foes were doing and where they were doing it – in particular if they were preparing to invade Western Europe.
“Hexagon created a tremendous amount of stability because it meant American decision makers were not operating in the dark.”
Hexagon program managers launched 20 satellites between 1971 and 1986, all from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California. Every mission but the first and the last was successful. All the others produced acres of film for the CIA’s intelligence operatives to study.
Getting the film back was another complex task. Once a roll was full it was dropped from the satellite over the Pacific Ocean. A hook on its parachute caught on a wire suspended between two C-130 Air Force planes.
Eastman Kodak processed the film, which was so light sensitive it could only be handled by blind technicians. Yellin underscored the point, telling the group the “signs were all in Braille.”
The developed film was sent to the National Photographic Interpretation Center in Washington, D.C. – a huge building with blacked out windows where hundreds of analysts pored over the photo stream.
The first of Hexagon’s missions ended when the reentry vehicle’s parachute failed and the package landed in 16,000 feet of water in the Pacific Ocean. It was discovered nine months later by Bob Ballard, the man who discovered the Titanic, but no useful photos remained.
And the last blew up on the launch pad, something Yellin believes was due to sabotage by the U.S.S.R.
Yellin called Hexagon, also known as KH-9, the “most complex system put into space” to that time. But even as its technology was being developed, Hexagon was being superseded by the next generation, KH-11, an electro-optical system that provided real time observation capability. Today all spy satellite systems are entirely digital, as anyone who has seen Zero Dark Thirty knows.
After 25 years in what must have felt like a witness protection program Yellin was released and went on to contribute to the development of the Hubble Telescope – something he is more than eager to discuss.
Photo by Bill Balch