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Samos E-5 illustration
The Samos E-5 spacecraft. The mirror at left would have jettisoned before reentry. The Air Force sought to develop this pressurized capsule with the intention of later adapting it for manned use. (credit: NRO)

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

The Samos E-5 reconnaissance satellite had always been a stepchild—not unwanted, but never loved as much as its siblings, certainly not by the Air Force and its powerful Strategic Air Command. In late August 1960, when the Samos film readout satellites E-1 and E-2 were effectively demoted by the White House, another project, the Samos E-6 recoverable broad-area search satellite, was approved and soon it rivaled the E-5 for attention. And of course there was always the E-5’s covert cousin, with whom it shared a common genealogy, the CORONA.

Despite its inherent design flaws, the Samos E-5 camera and the spacecraft were considerably more advanced than the CORONA, which flew its first operational vehicle—and failed—only 16 months after formal program start, in mid 1959. In fact, that ultimately became one of the reasons for the E-5’s downfall—the E-5 took so long to get ready that before it could fly it was OBE, in the words of Washington decision-makers, “overtaken by events.”

By August 1960, members of the Samos Program Office in Los Angeles became concerned about prime contractor Lockheed’s work on the E-5 program. In particular, the office chief, Colonel Bill King, was concerned that temperature effects on the mirror, lens, film platen, and supporting structures might limit operations. In addition, the camera was already 150 pounds (68 kilograms) overweight.

Despite its inherent design flaws, the Samos E-5 camera and the spacecraft were considerably more advanced than the CORONA, which flew its first operational vehicle—and failed—only 16 months after formal program start, in mid 1959.

In September 1960 Colonel King suggested that the overlapping of E-5 and E-6 performance—they both covered broader areas of ground at higher resolution than the CORONA—could force the cancellation of one or the other. By October, Lockheed proposed accelerating the E-5 program toward an April 1961 diagnostic flight and a launch rate of one satellite each month. Doing so would provide a high-resolution reconnaissance system at least a year ahead of the first Samos E-6. On October 17, the Air Force authorized Lockheed to redirect the E-5 toward an accelerated effort, known as “Tornado,” which was apparently not an approval of an April launch, but did move up the date when the satellite would become operational. But by February 1961, Air Force Undersecretary Joseph Charyk, who had overall civilian authority for the Air Force reconnaissance effort, indicated that the E-6 had priority over any other satellite in the E-series, which was in effect a demotion for the E-5.

Around this time, noted RAND Corporation reconnaissance pioneer Amron Katz proposed flying the E-5 at a much higher altitude. This would lower its resolution, but increase its area coverage. The proposal was not accepted, probably because raising the orbit increased the stabilization and pointing requirements for the spacecraft, requiring new and more sophisticated systems.

By the end of 1960, Lockheed and its subcontractors began testing the large recoverable capsule’s parachute system. The Samos E-5, like CORONA, would be snagged in the air by a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft trailing a cable equipped with grappling hooks. In November 1960 Lockheed began full-scale tests of the parachutes. The E-5 had three different chutes, designated stabilization, main, and air pickup. The stabilization chute would deploy high in the atmosphere to slow down the capsule and prevent it from tumbling. The main and air pickup chutes would then deploy. Unlike the small Discoverer/CORONA reentry vehicle, the E-5 capsule was so big—nearly the size of NASA’s Mercury manned spacecraft—that it needed a big parachute. But this would not fit between the two booms suspended from the C-130 that held the retrieval cable. So the air pickup chute was added. It was small enough to pass between the two poles while the main chute passed beneath. At the time, Lockheed’s plan was to conduct initial drop tests over Point Mugu, south of Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast, pushing simulated capsules out of the back of a C-130 transport at 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). Six more drops were scheduled using a B-52 bomber that would drop the capsule from 55,000 feet (16,800 meters).

Changes and problems

Late in 1960 or in early January 1961, Lockheed made a major design change to the spacecraft. Up until that point, the Samos E-5 was supposed to operate for 30 days in orbit, using solar panels mounted to the Agena’s “aft rack,” an area alongside the engine, forward of the engine bell. The solar panels would recharge batteries. For unknown reasons, but obviously with the concurrence of the Air Force, the company eliminated the solar panels and rechargeable batteries. This dramatically reduced the satellite lifetime from 30 days to only 5 days.

Why the Air Force and Lockheed made this decision remains unknown. Around the same time that the company made this change, an independent review of the entire Samos E-5 system by the ARINC Corporation determined that there was a very high chance of mechanical malfunction in orbit before the 30-day mission was complete. Lockheed challenged the group’s conclusions—as did camera designer Itek, where Jack Herther thought their calculations were flawed. But it is unknown if Lockheed and Air Force program managers also became concerned about the possibility of the satellite breaking before it could complete its mission and therefore decided upon a shorter mission life.

Apparently Air Force officials decided to reduce the spacecraft’s planned orbit from 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) to approximately 125 nautical miles (230 kilometers) in order to increase its resolution to somewhat better than the planned five feet (1.5 meters). This decision was probably prompted by the cessation of U-2 flights over the Soviet Union in May 1960 and the wholesale reexamination of reconnaissance satellites that was taking place within the upper reaches of the White House and the Air Force starting in the spring of 1960. With no more high-resolution aerial photos coming out of the Soviet Union, the Samos E-5 offered the nearest possibility for filling the gap. Dropping the satellite’s orbit could have increased its resolution. Alternatively, the Air Force and Lockheed could have become concerned about the E-5’s ability to achieve its five-foot resolution goal from the higher orbit. Jack Herther does not remember the orbit change decision, although it certainly would have affected the operation of the camera, requiring changes in the Image Motion Compensation settings as well as a more active use of the camera, which would have to take all its pictures in five days instead of thirty.

No matter what the reason, it seems likely that the Air Force chose to lower the orbit first and the other decisions then followed. Lowering the orbit naturally reduced the satellite’s lifetime and eliminated the need for solar panels. Any problems with spacecraft reliability then became much less serious because there was less time for something to break.

By late 1960 Lockheed and Air Force officials made another major decision that had a bigger impact upon the camera designers. In summer 1960 the Samos E-5 program consisted of a total of seven planned flights. In its October proposal for program acceleration to the Air Force, Lockheed had suggested launching a “diagnostic” flight by April 1961, probably without any optical equipment at all. This was apparently rejected by the Air Force at that time. But proposals for diagnostic missions continued and by December Joe Charyk had approved flying early diagnostic missions using degraded E-5 cameras to get telemetry data, prove out payload operation, and demonstrate the recovery system.

For the CIA, every mission, every single one, was supposed to have a working camera on it if one was available. The Air Force took a more engineering-oriented philosophy towards its projects, whereas the CIA had a more operationally-oriented philosophy.

Itek was told to develop two dummy cameras for “diagnostic” flights. “They will function. They’re functional,” camera designer Jack Herther explained. “The lenses will scan, a dummy weight. But not even glass in it. It will go back and forth and the film spools will do their thing. It was a working unit and we would thermally monitor it and it was weight-balanced and functioned.” These dummy cameras would hopefully prove that the camera would work in orbit and allow the Air Force to test the overall spacecraft and its complicated recovery system.

At first glance this appeared to be a wise decision. Logical. Conservative. After all, except for the winged Dyna-Soar spaceplane, the Samos E-5 was the most complex spacecraft that the Air Force was developing, and a more incremental testing approach seemed to make sense. If the spacecraft was going to be ready before the camera, then why not test it, and its pressurization and recovery system first?

But for the Itek engineers, building non-operational cameras was an added burden and in Herther’s opinion it actually set the schedule back. Itek’s team had to suspend work on the operational flight cameras to build the working models, slipping the first Samos E-5 operational flight even further.

While there were valid arguments to both sides, the decision to fly diagnostic flights and push back the operational debut of the camera highlighted the different way that the Air Force approached the reconnaissance mission compared to the CIA. This was not at all the way that the CIA operated with CORONA, the approach that Itek was used to. The CIA had originally planned for several development flights for the CORONA until the camera became available. But once the cameras were available, the CIA immediately began flying them, suspending the development flights despite the fact that the spacecraft was still unproven. For the CIA, every mission, every single one, was supposed to have a working camera on it if one was available. The Air Force took a more engineering-oriented philosophy towards its projects, whereas the CIA had a more operationally-oriented philosophy. Neither approach was necessarily better, but the competing approaches, combined with the fact that the Air Force had additional priorities for the E-5 besides reconnaissance—such as using it as part of a manned spaceflight program—was an omen of later clashes between the CIA and Air Force.

C-130 airborne capture
Poor quality image of a C-130 about to snag the small bubble at the top of the parachute intended to enable it to recover larger and heavier spacecraft from orbit. (credit: USAF)

Vehicle 2202 takes flight

Other problems persisted throughout 1961. In April 1961 the program office had canceled a requirement for a secondary propulsion system that had originally been included in the vehicle design. This system was scheduled for use in the Samos E-6 and the Midas vehicles. It was included only in vehicle 2201, the first one scheduled for flight, because it was by then nearly finished. The reasons for the cancellation are unknown. The secondary propulsion system was also later used for NASA’s Gemini Agena Target Vehicle.

The E-5 also had a significant design requirement that no other spacecraft had: a secure command system, meaning that the telemetry links to and from the spacecraft were encrypted. The secure system was required because Air Force officials, particularly Undersecretary Charyk, feared that the Soviet Union could intercept the spacecraft signals and possibly even command it to land inside the Soviet Union. Because the Samos E-5 reentry vehicle included both the film and the camera system, this would have been a major intelligence loss, and nobody wanted a repeat of the U-2 incident, where top-secret equipment fell into Soviet hands. But the encrypted command link was presenting problems by early 1961 and Air Force officials reluctantly deleted it by October 1961.

Vehicle 2201 was to be the first to fly, but Lockheed engineers determined by March 1961 that it could not be converted to a diagnostic configuration. They instead proposed upgrading the second vehicle, 2202, and pushing it to launch readiness by September 15. The Air Force approved this switch by the summer and 2201 was phased out of the program.

In early September 1961 an Atlas-Agena carrying a Samos E-2 film-readout satellite rose off of Launch Pad 1 at Point Arguello Launch Complex and then quickly fell back to the pad, exploding in an orange fireball. The Samos E-5 was scheduled to use the same launch pad and the program directors immediately slipped the first E-5 launch to December 12. But after they realized that the launch pad damage was less than anticipated and after the Air Force directed Lockheed to work as hard as possible to speed up the schedule, they moved the first launch up to November 22.

Finally, after over two and a half years of start-and-stop development and camera design compromises forced by the requirement to use an overly complex recoverable capsule design, the first Program 101B/Samos E-5 reconnaissance satellite, known formally as vehicle 2202, roared off its launch pad. On November 22, 1961, the Atlas-Agena B with its odd mushroom-headed payload lifted off from Point Arguello Launch Complex 1, the southern part of Vandenberg Air Force Base, on California’s cragged central coast. Inside was a “diagnostic” payload, a dummy camera hurriedly manufactured by the Itek Corporation to test various subsystems. In addition to the limited payload, the vehicle’s test agenda had been scaled back. For instance, no Agena steering maneuvers were scheduled for the initial E-5 flight because if they failed the capsule could not be recovered.

But it was not the Agena that caused problems on the first flight. It never really got the chance. The Atlas first stage pitch control failed four minutes and four seconds into the flight, as the rocket roared south over the Pacific. It pitched the rocket upward 160 degrees before the Agena separated a little over a minute later. As a result, the Agena was pointing down and backwards at separation, and fired itself down toward the ocean. It entered what some Air Force officers, with grim humor, called an “ocean-synchronous orbit.” The only targets that could be photographed from such an orbit were fish.

Despite its overall weakness in those early days and its inability to tell the CIA what to do, the NRO consolidated the civilian Air Force leadership’s control over military space projects at the expense of the uniformed leadership.

This launch was the first fully classified Samos launch, thanks to a new policy imposed by President Kennedy. Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was wary of the military’s ability to keep a secret. He also did not believe that the military could or should conduct “black” or covert intelligence programs. But despite myths to the contrary Eisenhower did not insist upon absolute secrecy in all matters of intelligence. Although many aspects of Samos were secret, its existence was not classified during the Eisenhower administration. The military was allowed to issue press releases on the program and military officers regularly testified in front of Congress on the project’s progress. The Samos E-5 had been more classified than its predecessors, but it was still only classified at a “secret” level and its existence had leaked to the press in fall of 1960, although no details were revealed.

President Kennedy, who took office in January 1961, had a more rigid view of secrecy than Eisenhower. He imposed a much higher level of secrecy on all military space programs, particularly the reconnaissance projects. As a result of all these changes during the first few months of 1961, this November 22 E-5 launch was the first Samos launch that was not publicly identified. The launch was popularly dubbed “Samos 4” in the press, but independent observers, who did not have access to the launch site, were unaware that it used a different nose shroud than earlier Samos E-1 and E-2 launches, indicating a new payload.

This Samos launch also fell under the purview of a new bureaucratic organization. In September 1961, after much negotiation between CIA official Richard Bissell and Undersecretary of the Air Force Joseph Charyk, President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara signed an order formally creating the National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO. Bissell had opposed the organization, but had succeeded only in watering down its organizational structure and reducing its authority. The NRO was formed out of several components, including the Air Force’s Samos Program Office in Los Angeles, which was responsible for the E-5; and the CIA’s Office of Special Activities at the CIA’s Langley Headquarters outside Washington, which managed the CORONA payload as well as the U-2. The NRO was a highly classified organization, and even its name was secret. The Director of the NRO, or DNRO, who was also an Air Force official and had additional Air Force duties (or “dual hatted” in military lingo), was located in the Pentagon, away from the NRO’s component offices, and had a staff comprised of Air Force officers. The DNRO was ostensibly in charge of managing satellite reconnaissance programs, but he lacked much of the authority needed to ride herd over the CIA’s Office of Special Activities. The Samos office was renamed the Secretary of the Air Force’s Special Projects office, or SAFSP for short.

Despite its overall weakness in those early days and its inability to tell the CIA what to do, the NRO consolidated the civilian Air Force leadership’s control over military space projects at the expense of the uniformed leadership. The increased secrecy associated with the creation of the NRO meant that the agency could restrict information and insulate programs from the uniformed Air Force leadership such as the Air Force Chief of Staff. Thus Charyk had more power within the Air Force after September 1961 than he did before.

On December 4, Charyk directed that all work on the Samos E-5 program be halted except for that in support of the two scheduled launches of vehicles 2203 and 2204.

A second try

After the first Samos E-5 failure, the Air Force quickly tried again. The second Samos E-5 launch, also with a diagnostic payload, took place on December 22. The satellite was intended for a 125 nautical mile (230 kilometer) circular orbit, but the secondary engine cutoff for the Atlas occurred late, adding additional velocity. As a result, the satellite entered an orbit of 125 by 350 nautical miles (230 by 650 kilometers), inclined 89.6 degrees to the equator. The dummy camera operated successfully, but the mission was still doomed.

The spacecraft flew nose first in its orbit, with its dummy image-reflecting mirror at the front, outside the pressurized capsule underneath a sunshade. The fake panoramic camera yawed back and forth just behind the optically clear quartz window that held in the spacecraft’s nitrogen atmosphere. Deeper into the spacecraft, the focal plane shutter slid back and forth along the film platen, containing previously exposed film for test purposes. The film advanced through the camera, came off the supply reel, moved over the platen, and wound up on the takeup reel.

After only six orbits, the Agena’s command programmer, which determined what systems would operate on the spacecraft and when, erroneously went into recovery mode. The dummy reflecting mirror at the front of the spacecraft was jettisoned as planned. The Mendelson Mod pulled the heavy lens assembly down from the nose of the spacecraft closer to the heat shield in order to lower the capsule’s center of gravity. The Agena pitched nose down, rotating through greater than 90 degrees, so that it now faced down and slightly backwards. Small solid propellant ullage rockets at the base of the Agena fired briefly to push propellant to the rear of the vehicle. Then the Agena’s Bell 8048 engine fired just long enough to slow the vehicle so that it would fall back to earth after a specific distance. The Agena then pitched itself the rest of the way through its rotation so that it now faced backwards along the direction of flight. The E-5 capsule’s own internal programmer then switched on and shortly later explosive bolts fired and small springs pushed the E-5 off the Agena.

But the capsule did not come down.

Because the spacecraft was in a higher orbit than intended, the Agena did not possess enough fuel to bring the spacecraft all the way out of orbit. Both the Agena and the E-5 capsule stayed in space, preventing a test of its recovery system and capsule retrieval.

The Canadians were suspicious. That area was underneath a major training route for American strategic bombers and the Canadians suspected that the Americans might have lost a nuclear weapon and wanted to retrieve it quietly.

The Agena was the bigger of the two objects and it experienced more atmospheric drag and came down first. It reentered south of Borneo on December 31, 1961. The E-5 capsule was smaller and continued in orbit. Its batteries were dead and its parachute system would not operate, but it was still conceivable that the vehicle could survive relatively intact. Other objects had fallen to earth from extreme altitudes and still stayed intact. If the same happened for this spacecraft, and if the vehicle fell into the wrong hands, it could represent a loss of secrecy about the project. The Air Force therefore closely monitored the orbit of the dead spacecraft.

During the second week of January 1961, the tracking stations reported that the capsule passed over the northernmost tracking screen, but had not been detected by the radars of the next belt southward. The members of the Program Office in Los Angeles determined that the spacecraft had probably come down in northwestern Canada. Lieutenant Colonel Lon Berry and a recovery crew flew a C-119 Flying Boxcar into Great Falls, Montana. They stopped there to get Canadian permission to enter Canadian airspace to search along the satellite ground path for their satellite.

The Canadians were suspicious. That area was underneath a major training route for American strategic bombers and the Canadians suspected that the Americans might have lost a nuclear weapon and wanted to retrieve it quietly. Air Force Headquarters ordered Lieutenant Colonel Berry and his crew back to base while officials in Washington carefully explained the situation to the Canadian government. Later a pair of U-2s flew along the suspected reentry path and photographed the area, but the expert photo-interpreters at the National Photographic Interpretation Center back in Washington, DC were never able to spot the capsule in the rugged terrain. It is possible that its rusted hulk remains buried in the mud and snow there today.

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