- Spying from Space: Constructing America’s Satellite Command and Control Systems
Although much has been written about the CORONA photoreconnaissance satellites since the program’s declassification in 1995, very little has been published on the ground-based command-and-control network that was essential to their success, a network operated by the Air Force Satellite Control Facility (AFSCF). Without the AFSCF’s radars for tracking, antennas for receiving telemetry and sending commands, computers for processing data, and trained personnel to operate the equipment, the satellites would have been useless objects in orbit.
David Christopher Arnold, an active-duty Air Force officer, goes a long way in filling this gap with Spying from Space. Beginning with an overview of the system’s origins in the studies of RAND and others, the book next focuses on the planning, construction, and operation of the earliest stations in 1958–1960 to serve the nascent CORONA program. Arnold then details the network’s growth and transformation in the 1960s that enabled it to service other reconnaissance satellites in addition to CORONA. Changes in the system during the following decades are only briefly described.
A key strength of the book is its analysis of AFSCF’s relationships with other Air Force components, contractors, and agencies. One significant early controversy concerned who would manage the system, the Strategic Air Force Command (a combat command and one user of the CORONA product) or a service organization. In the end, a new service command received the assignment. Tensions also emerged at the highest levels between the Air Force and the chief contractors, Lockheed and Philco, over staffing of the network’s stations. The Air Force wanted to use its own personnel exclusively to maintain and operate the stations, whereas the two firms insisted that their employees must also participate in day-to-day operations. Because of the personnel demands of the Vietnam War, difficulties in training and retaining qualified operators, and other factors, the stations were never staffed entirely with “blue-suiters.” This arrangement, however, rarely caused problems, and civil-military relations at the stations were for the most part professional and close. Perhaps the most crucial relationships were with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and, beginning in 1961, with the newly established National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The CIA provided much of AFSCF’s funding and was heavily involved in CORONA’s development and operations, and the NRO had management responsibility for the National Reconnaissance Program, which encompassed all reconnaissance satellites and strategic reconnaissance aircraft. As a result, the AFSCF served both organizations. The bitter battles in the early 1960s over the NRO’s attempts to decrease CIA participation in the covert programs placed the AFSCF in a difficult position. Against this backdrop, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in November 1963 ordered that the AFSCF be consolidated with the two missile range organizations into a new National Range [End Page 151] Division under the Air Force. The NRO vigorously opposed the incorporation, believing that the AFSCF should remain independent because of its critical role in the National Reconnaissance Program. Within the Air Force, the AFSCF and the Space Systems Division to whom it reported were pitted against the National Range Division. In 1964 the issue was settled, and the network remained independent of the new organization.
Arnold also does a commendable job of explaining the vital technologies of the AFSCF, enabling readers without a technical background to understand them easily. This is particularly true in the case of two important upgrades, the first of which was the Multiple Satellite Augmentation Program. Initiated in 1962, this was designed to permit the network to support operations of two or more satellites over long periods by standardizing station equipment and improving data handling and control. As a result, a truly centralized system was created for the first time from the seven stations. The second upgrade was the Space-Ground Link Subsystem, implemented in the late 1960s. This greatly improved the communications between the ground controllers and spacecraft and also eased the task...