We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Spying from Space

Constructing America's Satellite Command and Control Systems

By David Christopher Arnold; Foreword by Forrest S. McCartney

Publication Year: 2008

On August 14, 1960, a revolution quietly occurred in the reconnaissance capabilities of America. When the Air Force C-119 Flying Boxcar Pelican 9 caught a bucket returning from space with film from a satellite, the American intelligence community gained access to previously denied information about the Soviet Union. The Corona reconnaissance satellite missions that followed lifted the veil of secrecy from the communist bloc, revealing, among other things, that no “Missile Gap” existed. This revolution in military intelligence could not have occurred without the development of the command and control systems that made the Space Race possible. In Spying from Space, David Christopher Arnold tells the story of how military officers and civilian contractors built the Air Force Satellite Control Facility (AFSCF) to support the National Reconnaissance Program. The AFSCF also had a unique relationship with the National Reconnaissance Office, a secret organization that the U.S. government officially concealed as late as the 1990s. Like every large technology system, the AFSCF evolved as a result of the interaction of human beings with technology and with each other. Spying from Space fills a gap in space history by telling the story of the command and control systems that made rockets and satellites useful. Those interested in space flight or intelligence efforts will benefit from this revealing look into a little-known aspect of American achievement. Those fascinated by how large, complex organizations work will also find this an intriguing study of inter-service rivalries and clashes between military and civilian cultures.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Centennial of Flight Series


pdf iconDownload PDF (29.0 KB)
pp. vii

List of Illustrations

pdf iconDownload PDF (22.1 KB)
pp. x

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (39.9 KB)
pp. xi-xiii

For the past fifty years, an important part of space history has been missing. It’s not a glamorous part of space history, and it’s been lying in the background, waiting for someone to tell its story. Finally someone has been willing to dig through the technical documents, talk to the people who built the military’s system of satellite command and control, and uncover this piece of space history. This book isn’t a story about rockets or satellites but is instead a story about a command and control system that made rockets and satellites useful...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (48.5 KB)
pp. xv-xix

In August, 2000, my house became a satellite tracking station. Sears sold mean eighteen-inch satellite dish in a box, and a subcontractor (of course) stuckit up on the side of the house. Then, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, thetelevision had 157 channels but there was still nothing on. That diminutivedish turned the house, for less than two hundred dollars, into a passive...

read more

Introduction: “Goldstone Has the Bird!”

pdf iconDownload PDF (200.1 KB)
pp. 24-29

SOCIETIES SEND ARTIFICIAL satellites into orbit to collect data. Today, satellites perform a variety of data-related tasks: science, reconnaissance, navigation, weather observation, and communications. To accomplish long-distance relay of data, engineers and scientists use telemetry, which is simply the transmission of data from the satellite to Earth using electromagnetic signals such as radio waves. Satellite telemetry tells the amount of propellant remaining on board a satellite or the voltage level in its batteries; it can reveal the temperatures of certain critical parts or advise us when the engine starts or stops. Telemetry may also include mission data, such as pictures of far-away lands, or telephone calls, or navigation signals. “Satellite...

read more

1. The Inescapable Premise: Inventing Satellite Command and Control

pdf iconDownload PDF (115.8 KB)
pp. 30-51

IN THE EARLY days of space operations, sending satellite telemetry over telephone lines—the most common means of transmitting data from the remote tracking stations to engineers in California—challenged engineers almost as much as launching the satellites themselves.1 Telemetry in the1950s and the 1960s, as it does now, contained important facts about systems status or for calculating a satellite’s orbit, and engineers required the data for troubleshooting. The data, which were frequency modulated onto sine...

read more

2. Of Vital Strategic Importance: Developing a Satellite Command and Control System

pdf iconDownload PDF (1.3 MB)
pp. 31-62

IN THE EARLY 1950s, nobody knew how to build antennas capable of tracking a low-Earth-orbiting satellite; the air force and its contractors learned as they went along. During construction of the earliest ground stations to support the national satellite reconnaissance program, mechanical problems plagued the command and control antennas on the ground. Because the analog transmitters on board the satellites sent only weak signals, the tracking stations needed big reflectors to acquire the transmissions. Enormous ...

read more

3. Getting Off Dead Center: Innovating for a Single Customer

pdf iconDownload PDF (833.4 KB)
pp. 63-90

THE FIRST ATTEMPT to launch a reconnaissance satellite on board a Thor/Agena booster came on Januar y 21, 1959. While the Thor booster sat quietly on the launch pad, the Agena upper stage malfunctioned when small, solid rockets that forced propellant into the rocket engine’s fuel inlet fired prematurely. After inspection, the Agena turned out to be a total loss. Engineers referred to this launch attempt as Discoverer...

read more

4. Too Many Fingers in the Pie: Growing into a Satellite Control System

pdf iconDownload PDF (2.0 MB)
pp. 91-115

ON DISCOVERER 14’S seventeenth orbit, a controller at the Kodiak re- mote tracking station transmitted the eject command to the spacecraft. Three hundred miles above Earth, explosive bolts fired and separated the film-carrying reentry vehicle from the Agena vehicle, beginning the goldplated bucket’s fiery journey back to Earth. At 50,000 feet the capsule’s parachute opened, and the capsule began transmitting its automatic radio beacon. As the capsule’s descent slowed to 1,600 feet per second, air force Capt. Harold Mitchell and the crew of Pelican Nine, a recovery-equipped, C-119 Flying Boxcar, caught up with the descending capsule in plenty of time. Mitchell...

read more

5. Unbounded Faith: The Technological Style of the Air Force Satellite Control Facility

pdf iconDownload PDF (1.7 MB)
pp. 116-139

WHEN THE U.S. Air Force began studying satellite command and control, very few people had any idea how to track a satellite or predict an orbit. The mathematical model for calculating orbital parameters, known as an ephemeris, remained a matter of great mystery. One Lockheed programmer finally developed the computer software for taking antenna tracking angles, developing an ephemeris, and then pointing an antenna at a satellite. Retired air force Col. Thomas O. Haig called the program “the most monstrous pile of punched cards” he had ever seen. This engineer patched and repaired the software so many times the total number of cards sent through the computer amounted to “four or five times” the number actually...

read more

6. The Pressure Cooker: Overcoming Momentum

pdf iconDownload PDF (100.7 KB)
pp. 140-157

WHEN BRIG. GEN. William G. King Jr. became the commander of the Air Force Satellite Control Facility in September, 1966, he introduced a system for the remote tracking stations to score their performance in supporting the National Reconnaissance Program. The senior members of his staff resisted the idea as “too complicated” and possibly even damaging to morale, but King implemented the system over their objections. He ordered the scores to be sent by teletype to all of the stations so they could compare themselves with each other. In his mind, the satellite programs that were using the AFSCF needed this performance information. Showing the stations their weaknesses also helped them improve their...

read more

Conclusion: Inveniemus Viam vel Faciemus

pdf iconDownload PDF (342.9 KB)
pp. 158-167

THIS STORY ENDS in 1969 because in that year the Air Force Satellite Control Facility became a complete satellite command and control system. After 1969, the changes in the system became less qualitative, more regular, and to some extent...

Glossary of Acronyms

pdf iconDownload PDF (28.8 KB)
pp. 169-172


pdf iconDownload PDF (134.6 KB)
pp. 173-192


pdf iconDownload PDF (85.5 KB)
pp. 193-202


pdf iconDownload PDF (67.4 KB)
pp. 203-209

E-ISBN-13: 9781603443999
E-ISBN-10: 1603443991
Print-ISBN-13: 9781603440431
Print-ISBN-10: 1603440437

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 25 b&w photos.
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Centennial of Flight Series