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Samos E-6 illustration
The second of the Samos recoverable satellites, the E-6. The development of this spacecraft threatened the Samos E-5. (credit: NRO)

From cameras to monkeys to men: The Samos E-5 recoverable satellite (part 3)

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Back in 1959, the first E-5 launch had been scheduled for June 1961. As of spring 1960, a total of seven E-5 launches had been planned. But all efforts to accelerate the schedule had failed. In the meantime, the shootdown of Gary Powers’ U-2 in May 1960 and the increased urgency for reconnaissance of the Soviet Union had ironically begun to erode the requirement for the Samos E-5, not solidify it.

In May 1961 Lockheed Missiles and Space Division, which was the overall systems contractor for the Samos E-5, produced a study for the Air Force on adapting its workhorse Agena B upper stage to the Titan II ICBM to provide a more powerful launch vehicle combination. One of the reference payloads that Lockheed engineers used for this study was a “modified Samos E-5 reconnaissance payload.” Although there is no other indication that Lockheed actually formally proposed such a spacecraft to the Air Force, clearly it was being discussed within the company and it is therefore reasonable to assume that Lockheed engineers envisioned upgrading the E-5. But any changes to the camera had to be accommodated within the fixed dimensions of the capsule. The film spools, which were packed inside the capsule like coins in a tube, could not be expanded any more to carry more film.

The Samos E-5 was essentially stuck in the middle of the two basic requirements established by the USIB: it did not have resolution high enough to provide the technical intelligence on Soviet ICBMs that the intelligence community desired, and it also did not cover enough area to search for new targets.

With the only other operational reconnaissance system, the CORONA, modifying the camera was relatively easy because the camera and the reentry vehicle were separate and therefore changes to one did not automatically require changes to the other. The designers could simply add another cylindrical extension to the top of the Agena to accommodate a bigger camera or more film. The camera was thrown away after each launch and did not have to fit within a cramped capsule. CORONA designers could expand the payload linearly, from nose to tail, and have no effect upon the reentry vehicle. But the Samos E-5 camera was already inside of its reentry vehicle, which had little room for growth, unless its designers changed the recovery capsule’s dimensions and made it wider, requiring further aerodynamic testing and significant redesign.

The cessation of U-2 flights had refocused the intelligence community on the subject of its requirements for overhead reconnaissance. In July 1960 the United States Intelligence Board, which established requirements for intelligence collection systems, called for development of systems with high resolution capable of providing technical intelligence assessments of Soviet ICBMs and capable of searching much of the Soviet Union during each mission. The Samos E-5 was essentially stuck in the middle of the two basic requirements established by the USIB: it did not have resolution high enough to provide the technical intelligence on Soviet ICBMs that the intelligence community desired, and it also did not cover enough area to search for new targets.

The USIB report led to the creation of two new satellite systems intended to provide this reconnaissance data. One of these, the Samos E-6, was a “search” system capable of photographing a large amount of territory in each mission. Air Force officials envisioned it as a better search system than the existing CORONA satellite and with resolution of around 10 feet (3.1 meters). The other system started in the late summer of 1960 was a satellite initially known as Program I, but later named the KH-7 GAMBIT. GAMBIT was intended to replace the U-2. GAMBIT could only photograph small areas, but it could take very high resolution photos. Although the Samos E-6 and the GAMBIT were both started by late summer 1960, the E-5 continued along because it was in a further state of development. But by late 1961 Joseph Charyk had more perspective on all of the reconnaissance projects then in development as well as the knowledge that the E-5’s development was not going to be trouble free. The fact that the spacecraft had no room for growth probably did not help its case.

It is also possible that the E-5’s design flaws, as opposed to simply its design limitations, were becoming more apparent to independent observers by late 1961. Jack Herther, the Itek engineer in charge of developing the E-5 camera, remembers that a top intelligence advisor to the government, Polaroid president Edwin “Din” Land, was never enthusiastic about the E-5, calling it “wacky.” Joe Charyk was also unhappy with the E-5, although he had pushed its development over other reconnaissance programs during early 1960, apparently viewing it as the lesser of several evils, at least better than the highly limited Samos E-1 and Samos E-2. On December 4, 1961, Charyk had canceled further E-5 flights after vehicle 2204. With 2203 now a failure, if E-5 was to have any future, its fate rested with the success or failure of vehicle 2204.

One last gasp

Despite the December 1961 cancellation of the program, on March 7, 1962 a final E-5 launch took place, this one carrying the first operational E-5 camera. The Agena command and control system had been substantially modified to prevent the problems encountered on the two previous launches. The third Samos E-5 satellite to launch was placed into a 235 by 380 kilometer, 90.6 degree orbit.

The launch and orbit injection were “near nominal.” For the first 13 passes all went well. But then for some reason the New Hampshire tracking station sent improper reentry sequence commands. The Agena expended most of its control gas. Then the vehicle’s timer failed. A tracking station made an additional error communicating with the spacecraft. By pass 21 all the control gas had been exhausted.

With the control gas gone and the mission terminated, ground controllers apparently ordered the spacecraft to start its reentry sequence. But without control gas the Agena could not point itself in the right direction—backwards and down instead of forward. It fired its Bell rocket engine in the wrong direction, placing the E-5 reentry vehicle in a high apogee orbit.

By July 1963, over a year later, the satellite had decayed and was about to reenter. The Aerospace Corporation calculated the probable reentry path and impact point, determining that the vehicle would come down in the Arabian Sea. Finally, on July 17, it came down. With its batteries long dead, its parachute did not open and it impacted the water at high velocity and sank. The Air Force made no effort to search for it.

By this time the Samos E-5 program was long-dead.

Leftover hardware

At the time the Samos E-5 was canceled, numerous components for more camera systems were then in various stages of manufacture, particularly the lens elements. Initial Air Force plans had been for at least seven E-5 flights, apparently including the two diagnostic flights. Some sources have reported five camera systems left over from the program and placed in storage. But Jack Herther is sure that these were not five complete camera systems, and at most represented the lenses for five cameras, all in various states of grinding and polishing.

For at the same time it was developing the E-5 as a reconnaissance spacecraft, Air Force officials were also proposing other missions for their new pressurized spacecraft. These missions had nothing to do with gathering intelligence.

Herther had never been happy with the compromises forced upon Itek by the need to fit their camera inside a volume-constrained, pressurized reentry vehicle, but he had no idea why the Air Force had imposed those requirements. It was only four decades later, with the declassification of information concerning the E-5 and its origins in Lockheed’s October 1958 Sentry Man in Space proposal, that Herther thought the pieces started to fall into place. The Air Force was less interested in the reconnaissance mission than it was in developing the capabilities necessary for manned space flight. “I was naïve,” he admitted. But in retrospect, it all made sense. “As I now look at the documentation and understand why they wanted the camera to come back, which caused the pressurization, which caused the mirror, which caused the configuration to be so favorable to the recovery process that it compromised the reconnaissance ‘stable table’ notion…” Herther shook his head in disbelief. “It’s just the hard way to do it,” he said.

Other people involved in the E-5 program denied that acquiring military manned spaceflight capability was the reason for the Air Force’s development of the E-5. They claimed that it was Lockheed, not the Air Force, that had designed a spacecraft that was highly similar to its manned spacecraft proposal in fall 1958. The spacecraft configuration was simply one that Lockheed engineers had assured the Air Force they could build, and Air Force officers for legitimate reasons wanted a larger and more capable reconnaissance camera to satisfy requirements established in fall of 1958. But there were plenty of critics of the large E-5 capsule, ranging from members of ARPA in spring 1959 to members of the Directorate of Defense Research and Engineering in summer 1960. Furthermore, as E-5 camera designer Jack Herther has noted, if obtaining high quality, high-resolution reconnaissance photos had been at the top of the Air Force’s agenda instead of subsumed to the design of the recoverable capsule, the contract would not have stipulated a pressurized spacecraft but would have left that question to the camera designers.

There were also other signs that the Air Force was less interested in the reconnaissance mission than it was in the manned spaceflight mission. For at the same time it was developing the E-5 as a reconnaissance spacecraft, Air Force officials were also proposing other missions for their new pressurized spacecraft. These missions had nothing to do with gathering intelligence.

Of monkeys and men

The establishment of NASA in October 1958 had resulted in several separate manned spaceflight programs—including Man In Space—being canceled or consolidated into what was soon named Project Mercury. The Air Force still continued studies of an advanced spaceplane that was eventually named Dyna-Soar. Dyna-Soar was sexy. Dyna-Soar had wings. And it was clearly the spacecraft that many in the Air Force wanted to build. But this craft was many years away from its first flight. In the meantime, NASA was conducting biomedical spaceflight experiments and gaining experience, leading up to a planned suborbital Mercury flight in early 1961.

There was no clearly defined military space mission that required a man. But Air Force space officials, particularly Lieutenant General Bernard Schriever, who by 1961 ran the Air Force’s powerful Systems Command, were interested in developing a military manned spaceflight capability. Their words and their actions—usually in secret—demonstrate a firm commitment to seizing this new high ground for the military. Schriever had headed the ballistic missile development effort and then taken over Air Research and Development Command, which was responsible for Air Force space and missile programs, transforming it into Systems Command with separate divisions for missiles and space. Even if Schriever had not been directly behind the large, pressurized recoverable satellite vehicle, it was perfectly in keeping with his stated desires for a vigorous Air Force manned space program.

Schriever also had a barely concealed disgust for President Eisenhower and his advisors and their “space for peace” policy. “Space for peace” was a publicly stated position by the Eisenhower Administration that the United States would not introduce weapons into space and that its primary emphasis was civilian space exploration. In practice, this also meant that many of the more bellicose military space plans were canceled before they ever received significant funding. Many of these projects, like the Orion nuclear-powered spacecraft and military bases on the Moon were technologically impractical and militarily illogical.

The Eisenhower Administration took this position largely for two reasons. First of all, it valued satellite reconnaissance above every other space mission and did not want to provoke the Soviet Union into shooting down American reconnaissance satellites once they started operating. Second, Eisenhower did not want to start yet another expensive and potentially destabilizing arms race in orbit. He and his advisors knew that unless the American military was kept carefully in check, it would begin building all kinds of space weapons systems that Air Force officers were currently dreaming about.

Although the civilians wanted manned spaceflight to be conducted by NASA for the near future, many people in the military felt that the Air Force needed to investigate the potential of manned space operations.

Schriever viewed this attitude as ridiculous and tended to become more enraged at the “space for peace” rhetoric than the actual decisions by the White House. He thought it was idiotic to try and preserve space as a pristine sphere free of weapons. Space was just a medium for operations, like the air or the oceans. Nobody talked about keeping weapons off the oceans. So why space? In addition, while Schriever acknowledged that satellite reconnaissance was important, he did not value it as much as the administration. There were many other things that he thought the Air Force should do in space, and flying humans was one of those missions. Finally, Schriever had become frustrated at the steady dilution of the Air Force’s authority in the military space field. The creation of ARPA in February 1958 had been the first blow, followed by the creation of NASA later that year. Even though the Air Force regained some of its authority from ARPA in late 1959, Schriever discovered that virtually all Air Force space decisions were reviewed—“micromanaged” many would say—by the Deputy Director for Research and Engineering, a civilian Department of Defense official. By 1960, the Undersecretary of the Air Force, another civilian, was also exerting greater control over the Air Force space program. The White House-level major review of the Samos program that occurred in summer 1960 resulted in the uniformed Air Force losing complete control of the reconnaissance satellite program. Clearly Schriever’s ability to run the Air Force space effort as he thought it needed to be run was severely diluted by late 1960.

In October 1960 General Schriever proposed flying a primate on a Discoverer mission. Mice and monkeys had been part of the original Discoverer program, to mask the true mission of the satellites with their CORONA reconnaissance cameras. But the primate life support system had been delayed and once the CORONA cameras became available in June 1959 the CIA immediately incorporated them into the satellite. Program directors abandoned the life sciences research and work on the primate life support system for Discoverer was canceled. Now, with CORONA operating and the primate cover story dormant, General Schriever wanted to fly the small primate mission to obtain information for future manned missions.

Undersecretary of the Air Force Charyk, the chief civilian Air Force official with responsibility for space programs, immediately squashed Schriever’s proposal. Any primate mission would naturally detract from the CORONA reconnaissance missions, because it would use up hardware that could otherwise carry a camera. Furthermore, as Charyk pointed out, the Air Force was not in the manned spaceflight business. That was NASA’s responsibility.

But although the civilians wanted manned spaceflight to be conducted by NASA for the near future, many people in the military felt that the Air Force needed to investigate the potential of manned space operations. In December 1960 the Office of the Assistant for Bioastronautics at the Air Force’s Air Research and Development Command—ARDC, the Command that General Schriever was in charge of—issued a report titled “Bioastronautics Capability and Requirements for Manned Space Operations.” The report was a justification for putting a military man in space. It stated somewhat awkwardly: “Space vehicles, too, in some cases those with missions already foreseen, will undoubtedly be substantially improved, if past experience is any guide, in usefulness, feasibility, and reliability by the presence of man.” The report concluded by declaring: “…if the Russians go there, we’ve got to get there, too, in order to keep an eye on them. In the light of the foregoing considerations it is clear that failure to explore the potential of manned military space systems is a prohibitively dangerous gamble with National security.”

Clearly there was a strong view among some officers at the Air Research and Development Command that the Air Force needed a manned spacecraft. It was undoubtedly spurred on by Schriever’s own beliefs. In April 1961, only three days after Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth, the Air Force Systems Command, which Schriever had recently molded from ARDC and Materiel Command, issued a proposal for a “Bioastronautics Orbital Space System,” or BOSS. BOSS was to use a Samos E-5 capsule to carry a large primate—a chimpanzee—on a long-duration flight up to fourteen days. It would be a relatively high altitude mission, exposing the test subject to the radiation belts. According to the proposal, a mockup of the life support system was already built and the Air Force was seeking permission to build a test vehicle.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Craven wrote the report and General Schriever and Major General Osmond J. Ritland, the commander of Space Division, which was part of Systems Command, approved it. In the introduction Craven bluntly stated: “This is not a biomedical program to collect a great amount of data from animal orbital flights, but is a system to determine the feasibility of manned military operations in space.”

The “life cell” carrying the chimpanzee inside the E-5 capsule was a cylinder with an inner diameter of 27 inches (68.6 centimeters) and an outer diameter of 36 inches (91.44 cm) and an overall length of 64 inches (162.6 centimeters). The total weight of the life cell with the chimpanzee inside was 350 pounds (158.7 kilograms). The life cell would have an environmental control system. The data system would consist of an FM/FM telemetry link modified from the Discoverer primate program, magnetic tape storage, sequence-timed still photography, and a real-time television observation system. A tape recorder data storage system would be used when the satellite was out of communication. The television transmitter would be a UHF Wide Band Data Link Transmitter originally developed for the Agena upper stage.

The BOSS proposal was apparently approved in June 1961—probably by the Air Force’s military leadership and not its civilian leadership. But BOSS was not funded and it went nowhere. Meanwhile, NASA launched Al Shepard and Gus Grissom on short suborbital flights in a frantic attempt to regain some of the prestige lost to the Russians and their impressive orbital mission. And by late 1961, Undersecretary Charyk canceled the Samos E-5.

Meanwhile, NASA had been evaluating proposals for modifying its Mercury spacecraft in 1960. By January 1961, NASA evaluated several “Follow-on Mercury” projects, including a 7–14 day primate mission. Mercury program managers determined that this “Life Sciences” mission would “probably require a new control system, telemetry, new instruments, other system revisions, use of the Agena, etc. It could be paralleled by a manned build-up to a long-time mission which would definitely require the Agena. High-apogee radiation shots would also require the Agena.” By February, NASA was evaluating adding a second stage or rocket unit to the Mercury to increase performance. In addition, NASA engineers were considering adding more consumables, such as oxygen, to the spacecraft to increase its time in orbit. These would have been added in a new equipment module fitted to the back of the Mercury capsule. Over the summer, these advanced Mercury proposals coalesced into what NASA officials soon called “Mercury Mark II.” By the end of the year, the project had evolved into a two-man spacecraft named Gemini.

Simply put, NASA was already planning to do what some members of Air Force Systems Command wanted to do with BOSS—and NASA, unlike the Air Force, already had an ongoing manned spaceflight program. The Air Force had to develop a sufficient justification for developing their own program independent of NASA.

Craven added a bit of military hyperbole: “It is apparent that manned military space flights are useful, at least to the Soviet Union, and eventually will be essential to man’s very existence.”

In January 1962 General Schriever tried again. Lieutenant Colonel Craven revised the BOSS proposal, which had now been designated “Space Program 698AA.” The revised plan called for six chimpanzee test flights lasting up to 14 days, which Craven called “an advance over Mercury capability.” He also stated that, “Straightforward logical progression in design will make it possible to build a manned-size life capsule suitable for extended military space flights. [emphasis added] This affords necessary support to the Dynasoar vehicle program as well as all other manned space programs.” In other words, Program 698AA could easily lead to a manned E-5 spacecraft, just as Lockheed had intended back in October 1958 when it had first proposed Sentry Man In Space—and apparently as some members of the Air Force had intended all along.

In addition, the BOSS research was clearly intended to support a manned military space program in general. The revised plan’s language attempted to justify a manned military program on the basis of a military astronaut gap:

The Soviet Union now has in its possession information of critical importance regarding (1) the effects of the low-orbit space environment on man, and (2) the ability of man to carry out certain types of purposeful activities during space flight. It is apparent that the Soviet interest in manned space flight is keen and directed toward military space systems. Their cosmonauts have readily admitted that their craft could have carried thermonuclear warheads, and they have been required to wear uniforms of the Soviet Air Force during visits to the capitals of the world. It is perfectly clear that the Soviets have found a military use for man in space while the United States limits manned space explorations to NASA interests.

Craven’s argument was illogical. Cosmonaut comments about the possibility of carrying nuclear warheads in their spacecraft were simply propaganda. It was not possible for a cosmonaut to open the hatch over Washington, DC and drop a bomb on the Pentagon. But Craven did not stop there. He added a bit of military hyperbole: “It is apparent that manned military space flights are useful, at least to the Soviet Union, and eventually will be essential to man’s very existence.”

From E-5 to Blue Gemini

Craven’s arguments apparently convinced nobody other than Generals Schriever and Ritland, for BOSS never progressed, although the details of its demise remain mired in obscurity. But Air Force officials clearly did not abandon their interest in manned space flight. NASA’s plans for Gemini naturally involved a great deal of Air Force participation. The Air Force would provide the Titan launch vehicle and Agena target and members of Space Systems Division began thinking about adapting Gemini to Air Force missions. In February 1962, only a month after the second BOSS proposal, during congressional hearings on the Air Force space plan, Air Force officials proposed purchasing Gemini spacecraft to explore the military role of manned spaceflight. This was more sensible than producing a separate spacecraft developed from the E-5.

Over the next year Air Force interest in Gemini increased. Space Systems Division officers envisioned “Blue Gemini” as an interim step to gain experience before the first flight of the Dyna-Soar. At first, Blue Gemini consisted of a series of Air Force Gemini missions, some shared with NASA. These flights were primarily medical in nature, and it was difficult for the Air Force to justify putting a military astronaut on a Gemini mission when it could simply use the data that NASA collected on its missions. Soon the Air Force decided that Gemini would be used to access a military space station known as MODS, for Military Orbital Development Station. In late 1962, NASA and the Department of Defense argued over control of the Gemini program, with NASA finally winning the argument by demonstrating that Gemini was vital to its manned lunar landing goal. By late 1963 Dyna-Soar was canceled and MODS was renamed the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). But the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, insisted that the Air Force first demonstrate the utility of man in space before committing to an expensive operational program. Over five years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, MOL was canceled, without a single Air Force astronaut flying as part of a military space mission.

Despite the clear desire by Air Force officials like General Schriever to develop a military manned spaceflight capability, civilian officials such as Undersecretary of the Air Force Joseph Charyk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara were always wary. They fought Air Force plans to develop an operational military manned space program before the service had demonstrated what military missions a human could accomplish in space that justified the expense of placing him there. They would not even approve experimental missions as long as NASA was returning significant data on human spaceflight experience.

Although the Blue Gemini and MOL stories have been recounted elsewhere—admittedly not totally accurately—the hidden motives of the Samos E-5 effort were shrouded in secrecy due to the spacecraft’s reconnaissance payload. Usually cover stories were created to mask reconnaissance programs, but the E-5 remains an unusual example where the reconnaissance mission masked the Air Force’s true intention, which was to find some way, even by using the back door, of getting an Air Force “blue suiter” into orbit. Rather ironically, while the manned spaceflight aspects of E-5 would die out, its reconnaissance camera would be revived in the KH-6 LANYARD program.

The Air Force’s interest in developing a manned spaceflight capability at the expense of reconnaissance was also not lost on CIA officials, who saw it as proof that the Air Force space program did not clearly place reconnaissance above all other space missions.

But the Samos E-5 also has an additional bureaucratic legacy as well. The August 1960 White House led review of the Air Force’s Samos program had essentially resulted in the cancellation of the Samos E-1 and E-2 readout satellites. A committee of the nation’s top reconnaissance experts had concluded that the film-readout satellites simply could not provide the quality and amount of intelligence data that was most vital to national security at a reasonable cost. A little over a year and a half later, after the failure of the first operational Samos E-5 satellite, that project was also canceled. Hundreds of millions of dollars had been expended on three satellite programs—Samos E-1, E-2, and E-5—and none of them were successful. Not only had none of these Air Force systems proven themselves, but independent experts concluded that even if they worked they would not provide useful intelligence. This succession of failures was duly noted at the Central Intelligence Agency, which still had responsibility for the payload portion of the CORONA satellite—the only successful reconnaissance satellite so far.

The Air Force’s interest in developing a manned spaceflight capability at the expense of reconnaissance was also not lost on CIA officials, who saw it as proof that the Air Force space program did not clearly place reconnaissance above all other space missions. The CIA’s primary mission was intelligence collection. The Air Force’s primary mission was strategic warfare. But the Air Force’s internal culture was biased towards pilots, and the desire of some Air Force officers to develop a manned spacecraft was merely an extension of this culture. To some members of the CIA, the Air Force development of the Samos E-5 was a two-strike lesson in why the Air Force could not be trusted to lead in satellite reconnaissance—not only had the Air Force failed again to produce a useful reconnaissance system, but it had allowed its other priorities to get in the way of reconnaissance requirements.

In a 1965 internal memorandum titled “A Summary of the National Reconnaissance Problem,” an unnamed CIA official stated: “In the satellite field, the Air Force began with a clear monopoly in Samos and ended in disappointment with no photography. Some of this may be due to the fact that it was a large, unwieldy program with no strong project control. It is also undoubtedly true that successive versions of Samos attempted too much—technically—in response to unrealistic, multiple Air Force requirements. For instance, one version of Samos (E-5) was warped around to provide a space vehicle capable of supporting a military man into space in competition with NASA’s Mercury program.” This, the official argued, demonstrated that the Air Force should not be trusted with overall responsibility for satellite reconnaissance within the National Reconnaissance Office. This argument was increasingly made within the highly classified satellite reconnaissance community. By the mid-1960s it had flared to a raging fire. Thus, one of the legacies of the Samos E-5 program was fuel for criticism of the Air Force’s record in satellite reconnaissance.