US Spy Satellites: 1959 Onwards (All Missions, All Models) Owners’ Workshop Manual by David Baker (book review).

October 27, 2016 | By | Reply More

Throughout all forms of warfare, knowing what your opponent is planning or doing gives an edge. Not necessarily to go on the attack sometimes, but to deter the opponent from doing so. Watching them doing it ensures up-to-date information and probably the best way to draw intelligence information. When hot air balloons came on the scene in 1794 between the French and a coalition between Great Britain, Hannover, the Netherlands and Habsburg, the former wanted every advantage it could get. Balloons were later used in the American Civil War (1862-65) with a similar telling effect as both sides used them. It was no wonder, as technology progressed, that the higher you could watch things from, the bigger your advantage. More so, if your opponents didn’t think you were doing it. At least, not at first.


David Baker’s book, ‘US Spy Satellites: 1959 Onwards (All Missions, All Models) Owners’ Workshop Manual’ looks at the development of the American spy satellites, spurred on when Russian got the first Sputnik into orbit in 1957. This wasn’t to say the US military weren’t working on such satellites themselves, that had already started, just that they hadn’t been in that much of a hurry. With finance one of the constraints, the US Army and US Navy worked together to finance the operation. As disclosed in this book, they then later found themselves running against the CIA, who wanted their own satellites.

Something that becomes apparent from reading this book is President Dwight Eisenhower deciding from the start that civilian and military operations should be kept separate and the latter launches were carried out from the Vandenberg Air Force Base, which was land-locked and away from public observation. This also disguised how advanced their payload size was coming, especially from the Russians who thought the Americans were lagging behind when they launched Sputnik. Seeing the scales of payload against the size of a man puts this in context shows how quickly these developed.

A lot of the information is joining the dots. Lockheed, through Kelly Johnson, were very much involved in creating surveillance cameras, although later the likes of Eastman also produced them as well. Everything recorded was on film and had to be returned to Earth and caught by planes in the atmosphere. It was publicised at the time. Do you remember that skyhook aeroplane used in the James Bond film ‘Thunderball’ (1965), same thing only in the upper atmosphere.

Eisenhower was continually worried about Soviet developments in nuclear weaponry but the results of the satellite surveillance revealed that they weren’t so advanced in ballistic missiles. Reading the Cuban Crisis in that light, it’s no wonder President John Kennedy shooed the Russians off because he had a loaded deck of cards. If you know how history related to espionage, you will find a lot of things being connected which Baker covers in the appendixes.

This doesn’t mean surveillance satellites weren’t cheap and big a hole in the military budget which resulted in two at a time going up in a rocket. When you see the comparison of size and development of the payload, you do have to wonder how much information was passed between the NACA and NASA, although the military did fly at lower orbits.

Two things that I see as significant was the changes in cameras that enabled 3D photographs because that added depth to the detail and also got around the fuzziness caused by weather conditions. Seeing sample photographs from over the decades, the difference is very apparent. Digital photography was a lot slower but when computer memory was 512kB per photograph before being transferred onto an equally small hard drive before being transmitted back to Earth, the resolution couldn’t compete with film. When you take a photo these days, the normal resolution is a 5.2mB JPG which is massive in comparison. Mind you, this did encourage advances in computer development and look where that went.

It’s difficult to decide where to stop when reading this book. If you have an interest in espionage, then you will find a lot to learn here. I would love to see a companion book showing the likes of Russia’s spy satellite programme but I doubt if they would be so open. One thought I had after reading this book is if most of this material is now declassified, you have to wonder what is in orbit that is superior today.

This book is essentially a history of modern day surveillance and how the information has probably saved some wars taking place over the decades. If you’ve ever had any misgivings about those eyes in the sky or space then you’ll realise that there are some prices that are worth paying.

GF Willmetts

October 2016

(pub: Haynes. 188 page illustrated indexed large hardback. Price: £25.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78521-086-0)

check out website: www.haynes.co.uk

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Category: Books, Science

About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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