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A missile during a May Day Parade in Red Square. In 1969, NASA sought a role in arms control negotiations between the US and USSR.

The National Aeronautics and Space and Arms Control Administration (NASACA)?


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Nineteen sixty-nine was a key turning point for NASA. In July, the agency landed Apollo 11 on the Moon, a stunning achievement that culminated more than eight years of frantic effort. But by that time the agency’s future was already in question. The Nixon administration had begun questioning the agency’s budget and looking for ways to cut it. Advisers had indicated that there were major policy issues to address about what would happen after Apollo landed on the Moon, and soon some in the administration would question if NASA was even necessary. It was in the midst of this uncertain environment that NASA Administrator Thomas Paine made a surprising suggestion that has been classified for 50 years: NASA could become the key US government agency for monitoring arms control agreements. Newly declassified documents are now shedding some light on this previously unknown proposal, but they raise many questions requiring further study.

NASA was proposing “the development and utilization of an open satellite system designed for the single purpose of verifying US and USSR adherence to treaty conditions.”

In mid-May 1969, Thomas Paine wrote a top-secret letter addressed to the Secretaries of State, Defense, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Administrator of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He indicated that he was sending them a paper summarizing “a possible new Administration initiative in the field of strategic arms limitations.” The paper was also labeled top secret and was to be handled by the special Talent-Keyhole security control system that referred to satellite reconnaissance.

The NASA paper stated that a major problem for developing strategic arms limitation agreements was that of creating a “credible means for verification.” At the time, there was discussion of relying upon “national means of verification,” meaning existing US reconnaissance satellites. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) then operated two types of photographic satellites: the CORONA area search system and the GAMBIT-3 high-resolution satellites. CORONA essentially found and counted Soviet weapons systems. GAMBIT-3 would take high-quality photos that could be used to assess their size and characteristics, providing insight to their performance capabilities like range and maneuverability.

The problem, according to the NASA paper, was that relying on these highly-classified reconnaissance satellites for arms control monitoring placed them at risk for exposure. NASA was proposing “the development and utilization of an open satellite system designed for the single purpose of verifying US and USSR adherence to treaty conditions.” This approach “would not require the disclosure by either the US or the USSR of the existence, scope, utility, or sophistication of the present overhead reconnaissance programs of both nations. The concern over international confrontation on this issue could thereby be minimized, while both parties could rightly claim to be acting in the spirit of using space for peaceful purposes.” The NASA paper added that “the existence of an overt system would provide a reasonable basis for the possible challenges that might become necessary in the event treaty violations were discerned through any cover means.”

Although NASA did not propose a specific technical approach, the paper stated that “image quality must be sufficiently good to offer a basis for public interpretation of the conditions felt or known to exist, yet should not reveal actual or projected covert system capabilities.” This could include a “readout” system like that used for current meteorological satellites.

By having NASA perform this function, “it would underline the US commitment to peaceful uses of outer space, and it would appear publicly credible as a verification means both at home and abroad.” The paper concluded by stating that “NASA might offer a logical instrumentality for the technical and operational aspect of the system, with ACDA [Arms Control and Disarmament Agency] providing interpretation. These agencies would, of course, work in concert with and under the policy guidance of other appropriate government departments and agencies.”

A few days after Paine wrote his letter, Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms responded that the subject was discussed by the end of the NSAM 156 Committee, which was responsible for considering political aspects and general policies on satellite reconnaissance. Helms’ response implied that the proposal was still under consideration within the relevant committees. But that was apparently not true, and NASA was already out of the picture.

Was Paine seeking to be helpful at a time when arms control was being increasingly discussed within a new administration? Was he looking for a new mission and new money for his agency? Was he seeking—grasping?—to prove that NASA could be relevant and contribute to the administration’s goals?

Two months later, in July 1969, an Air Force officer who was involved in keeping track of initiatives and proposals within the satellite reconnaissance community informed his boss that NASA was looking for a response to their proposal and seeking support from the Department of Defense. But the DoD officials realized with a bit of embarrassment that they had left NASA with the impression that the proposal would be considered when it had essentially died as soon as it was made back in May. They decided that somebody at DoD needed to call somebody at NASA and offer an explanation, and an apology.

This event raises a number of questions. For starters, what was Paine trying to achieve? Was he seeking to be helpful at a time when arms control was being increasingly discussed within a new administration? Was he looking for a new mission and new money for his agency? Was he seeking—grasping?—to prove that NASA could be relevant and contribute to the administration’s goals? The answer could be all of the above. What is also not known is how and why the NASA proposal was rejected. Had the intelligence community already decided that they would only use classified reconnaissance satellites for arms control monitoring and worked out the complicated policy implications of this decision? Or did they simply reject out of hand any possibility that a civilian agency could be involved in such a sensitive subject?

In an odd and confusing postscript to this story, the newly-released documents also include a portion of a larger, unnamed report that probably addressed NASA use of equipment left over from the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program which was canceled in June 1969. This includes a recommendation that NASA and the Department of Defense “undertake a joint experiment program to develop and fly on NASA AAP [Apollo Applications Program] the acquisition and tracking system developed for the MOL for the purpose of obtaining definitive data on man’s capabilities, limitations and the definition of his role in future spaceflight missions.”

AAP evolved into the Skylab program. The Skylab workshop launched in May 1973. The acquisition and tracking system for MOL was an optical telescope that would have looked out of the MOL spacecraft at the ground and been used by the astronauts to identify targets for the much larger MOL/DORIAN camera system to photograph. Was the proposal to use that system on what became Skylab part of the NASA proposal to involve the agency in arms control monitoring? Or was this just a spurious association?

No matter what the connection was, NASA did not use the MOL system on Skylab, nor did NASA become involved in arms control monitoring. Over the next several years NASA found itself the target of Nixon’s budget cutters who not only eliminated later Apollo missions—at one point even proposing canceling Apollo 15—but even entertained the possibility of shutting down NASA entirely. NASA needed a new purpose, but arms control was not it.


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