America's first operational reconnaissance satellite was launched in June 1960 under a cover so deep that its mission remained secret for nearly four decades. What also remained buried was the fact that the orbiting signals-intelligence snooper was a U.S. Navy craft, one of a series designed by the Naval Research Laboratory.
During the Cold War, American and Soviet mutual fear of nuclear attack made it imperative for each side to know as much as possible about the other's war-making capabilities. Faced with the challenge of the Soviet Union's closed society, the United States relied heavily on its more advanced technology. Initially, reconnaissance aircraft snapped photographs and recorded the electronic emissions of Soviet equipment from around the perimeters of the Soviet Union. Most of the flights were programmed to gather electronic intelligence (ELINT) from radar systems—critical information in case war broke out and American bombers had to attack the Soviet Union. The 20 or so years of spy flights cost the United States at least 30 aircraft shot down and more than 150 crew members lost. These Navy and Air Force efforts were complemented by naval surface and submarine missions.
However useful these all were, the United States needed data from deeper inside its Cold War adversary. This requirement led to such desperate efforts as the Genetrix program, which sent equipment-laden balloons floating across the Eurasian landmass. In June 1956, high-flying Central Intelligence Agency U-2 planes equipped with cameras and signals-intelligence recorders began overflying the Soviet Union. The flights ended abruptly when a Soviet missile downed a U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers on May Day 1960. The U-2's obvious replacement was the space satellite, not only immune to ground fire but also able to provide continual coverage of the land it passed over. A CIA—U.S. Air Force spy-in-space project, dubbed Corona, had been authorized in December 1958—about 14 months after the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. Corona quickly assumed a high public profile under the name Discoverer, ostensibly a biomedical scientific program.
Many months earlier that same year, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) had quietly proposed Project Tattletale, the launch of a series of ELINT satellites. Studied by several elements of the executive and legislative branches, the initiative won overwhelming approval. President Dwight Eisenhower gave his go-ahead on 24 August 1959. With security access limited to fewer than 200 officials, the NRL then moved forward with its GRAB (Galactic Radiation and Background) satellite program, which would be under the overall control of the director of naval intelligence. A cover story was prepared to explain it as an overt scientific experiment to study radiation from the sun, work in which the laboratory already had been engaged. Overseas ground stations were discretely established to receive signals to be sent by the satellites.
GRAB had its genesis in March 1958 when the NRL was seeking a military use for its Vanguard scientific satellite. Reid Mayo of the GRAB laboratory's Countermeasures Branch got the brainstorm that an ELINT submarine periscope antenna his branch had developed could fit and function in a space vehicle. The original calculations for the idea were done in the best Hollywood style—on a restaurant placemat. The research laboratory's Satellite Techniques Branch, headed by Martin Votaw, worked with the Countermeasures Branch to turn the idea into reality.
Four days after the Soviets downed Gary Powers' U-2, President Eisenhower approved the first launch of a GRAB satellite. Publicly known as SOLRAD I (Solar Radiation), it was touted as "the world's first orbiting astronomical observatory" designed "to study the sun's effects on the earth." Actually, this was true. It and subsequent GRAB satellites contained instrumentation to measure the sun's influence on the ionosphere. Not stated was the fact that this overt scientific purpose also had military implications, since solar radiation affected high-frequency radio communications. Adding to any confusion, GRAB also became known as GREB (Galactic Radiation Experimental Background) as well as Sunray.
At 0154 on 22 June 1960, GRAB I roared up over Florida's Cape Canaveral and southward over Cuba while riding piggyback on the Navy's third Transit satellite, inside the nosecone of an Air Force rocket. As history's first operational "double-header" launch gained altitude, the rocket's first and second stages separated. Moments later, the halves of the bulbous fiberglass nosecone fell away and a spring mechanism projected the two satellites into separate orbits. GRAB I's polar orbit carried it about 480 miles above the Soviet Union, passing it through the invisible beams of hundreds of active radar systems set up to track aircraft and missiles.
The satellite's multiple antennas picked up the radar pulses and transponded corresponding signals to the small NRL receiving huts on the ground. There, the signals were taped and flown to the NRL for evaluation and processing. GRAB's data then were duplicated and sent to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland, and to the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Force Base outside Omaha, Nebraska. The volume of data provided initially inundated the security agency's ability to analyze it. Nevertheless, the NSA was able to discover that the Soviets had radar that enabled their defense systems to destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Air Force used the Navy data to define the characteristics and sites of Soviet air-defense equipment.
Mindful of the international reaction to the downing of the U-2 less than two months earlier, however, the president limited GRAB's signal interception times. Reid Mayo, one of the NRL engineers, later recalled that "Eisenhower insisted that we be able to turn the system off if he said [the satellite] was over [the Soviet Union]." During the three months following GRAB's activation, "Eisenhower only let us turn it on 23 times," he added. "He never let us turn it on on successive passes" over the Soviet Union.
The GRAB II launch was destined to be the program's most sensational. In November 1960, at a time of more modest Pentagon budgeting, NRL personnel drove from Washington to Florida with technical components for the GRAB II launch loaded in the trunks of their own cars. Flying had been ruled out because of the rash of skyjackings to Cuba during that period. The 14-man team under Votaw moved into a hangar on delta-shaped Cape Canaveral's west side to set up a temporary ground station and prepare the satellite for launch. The Air Force booster (first stage Thor No. 283 and second stage Able-Star 006) was erected nearly three miles away at launch pad 17B.
On 21 November, NRL technicians were at the top of the rocket service tower running checks on their satellite when they paused to watch a test at nearby launch complex 26. A Mercury-Redstone rocket launch was scheduled to be an unmanned dress rehearsal for America's first man-in-space shot. As the Mercury countdown reached zero, fire and noise erupted from the rocket's base, but just as quickly died. Then a loud swoosh was heard, as the three miniature rockets of the 15.5-foot escape tower atop the Mercury space capsule ignited, breaking free of the capsule and arcing several thousand feet into the air.
The tower was designed to pull the one-man capsule to safety in case the rocket malfunctioned during launch but in this case had left the capsule behind. The Redstone stood unmoved, a clear liquid drooling down its slender side as the seven original American astronauts grimly watched nearby. An official prophetically remarked that the test failure "may have forfeited the nation's last chance to beat Russia in the race to send the first man aloft." One of the NRL onlookers hoped it was not an omen for the GRAB launch scheduled for nine days later.
Weather along Florida's east central coast on Wednesday, 30 November was the answer to a northern tourist's dream: sunny and mild. GRAB II—a 40-pound, 20-inch diameter aluminum sphere with six circular solar panels and protruding antennas and sensors—resembled a sea diver's helmet as it sat atop the larger silver-and-white-striped Transit IIIA on the tip of the Thor Able-Star booster. Minor glitches caused the hours-long countdown to be interrupted by a number of holds. There were enough tension-creating delays that the NRL team instituted a $1-per-man pool as to when the countdown finally would end. It reached 5 at 1449 and 55 seconds, then 4-3-2-1-0.
White-hot flames burst in a shrieking roar from the bottom of the 80-foot rocket. Tons of cooling water spraying into the flame deflector at the base of the concrete launch pad turned to clouds of steam. Then, with an earth-shaking crackling rumble, the 50-ton booster's 150,000 pounds of thrust overcame its weight and sent the missile ever faster into the cloudless sky. Clear of the launch site, the white Thor Able-Star gracefully rolled and pitched toward its azimuth of 146 degrees to carry it out over the Atlantic along the Florida coast, past Miami Beach and over eastern Cuba. The Thor engine was programmed to burn for about 163 seconds before cutting off nearly 60 miles from Cape Canaveral at an altitude of more than 40 miles. Instead, it died prematurely, affecting speed and trajectory. Explosive bolts automatically separated the two rocket stages. As the unpowered Thor passed southeastern Florida and started to arc downward, the Able-Star containing the satellites ignited.
Back at the Cape, the range safety officer (RSO) sat at his console in the Range Control Center following the sequence of events on banks of instruments. His job was to disarm or destroy a rocket he believed threatened life or property. Reacting to the Thor's premature engine cutoff, he flipped two toggle switches—arm and destruct—on his console to destroy the rocket stages. Radio signals beamed into the ionosphere, and explosive charges detonated inside the rockets. One NRL engineer, who had labored long hours to put his "bird" in space, grumbled that the RSO should have let the Able-Star continue, that it would have made it into orbit.
A shower of varying sized debris resulted, gravity pulling it to earth. Pieces unexpectedly streaked down on Cuba's Oriente Province, northwest of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay. The Cuban Army post at Holguin reported fragments falling along a 200-square-mile-long swath. According to the post's report, "two complete sphere, two apparatuses in the form of cones and various cylinders" with English inscriptions were picked up. One item was described as a "sealed sphere of some 40 pounds."
If indeed GRAB II landed virtually intact, it was no surprise; an earlier NRL satellite had survived a launch pad Vanguard rocket explosion to bounce on the ground and faithfully continue beeping its electronic signal. However, should the Russians lay their hands on it, there were potentially serious security problems. The gathered pieces were trucked to army headquarters at Palma Soriano. According to a 1988 Beijing document, Cuba sold some of the recovered debris to the People's Republic of China, which used it to design the second stage of the CSS-4 intercontinental ballistic missile.
More fallout was to come. In what somewhat inaccurately became known as "the herd shot around the world," some of the falling rocket debris apparently splattered on a Cuban farm and killed a cow. "This is a Yankee provocation," accused Revolucion, an official Cuban publication, insisting that the rocket was deliberately exploded over the country. Government radio stations cited the incident as further proof that the United States was trying to destroy the regime of Cuban President Fidel Castro. One cow was even paraded in front of the U.S. Embassy in Havana wearing a placard reading "Eisenhower, you murdered one of my sisters."
Castro filed a complaint at the United Nations, and Washington sheepishly conceded the possibility that "fragments from the rocket booster" could have landed in Cuba. CIA Director George Tenet later quipped somewhat tastelessly that it was "the first, and last, time that a satellite had been used in the production of ground beef." Further launches overflying Cuba were postponed, and improvements were made to the Cape Canaveral range-safety system. In any case, it was a dejected NRL group that returned to Washington.
GRAB's third appearance came as part of two space firsts: the launch of three satellites atop one booster, and the use of nuclear energy to power a space vehicle. The trio was intended to go into a near-circular orbit 575 miles above the earth with an inclination of 67.5 degrees to the equator.
Installed first at the tip of the familiar Thor Able-Star, the Transit IVA navigation satellite was a 16-sided, 43-inch-diameter polygon. A grapefruit-size nuclear generator called SNAP (Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power) was attached to Transit's underside to provide electrical current to instrumentation and to two transmitters inside the satellite. There had been considerable discussion in Washington over sanctioning the use of SNAP, since it would overfly Cuba and central South America.
The second satellite—Injun—was hoisted atop Transit. A 40-pound drum-shaped device, it was a Navy-contracted State University of Iowa project to study cosmic radiation and investigate auroral phenomena. Finally, to top off Able-Star 008's wedding-cake arrangement, came GREB—reportedly called this because of a typist's error—which was publicized as SOLRAD III. It had the same appearance as, and missions similar to, the earlier GRABs but weighed 15 additional pounds due to its internal configuration.
In the blackness of 28-29 June 1961, powerful searchlights gave the satellites' white launch vehicle an ethereal glow as the second phase of the countdown neared its end. About an hour earlier, the red and white steel framework gantry had finished moving back on its rails. After being delayed by an unscheduled 29-minute hold, the booster thundered in a fiery cloud from its pad to arc out over the ocean. Its incandescent tail was visible to the southeast for three minutes. At a postlaunch press conference, the Navy's research and development chief said, "This looks like the most successful launch we have ever had." But as the satellites, Able-Star, and seven pieces of miscellaneous material circled the earth every 104 minutes, ground-station personnel soon realized that, while Transit IVA was "working perfectly," GREB and Injun had not separated.
GREB was nevertheless considered a success since it remained in orbit and was receiving and sending signals as it passed over almost all the world's countries. Interestingly, when cosmonaut Gherman Titov lost contact with the ground while in orbit in August 1961, the Soviets obligingly switched on virtually all of their tracking radars, including their new antiballistic missile system, and GREB was there to pick up the signals.
The NRL's next GRAB space venture was as part of another multisatellite effort. Named Composite I (and aptly nicknamed Buckshot), the launch consisted of five satellites: four arranged in a cluster would separate and one would remain attached to the Able-Star second stage. In addition to the 58-pound SOLRAD/GRAB IV, two of the other satellites were NRL projects. LOFTI II (Low Frequency Trans-Ionospheric), a follow-up to one sent into orbit in February 1961, was to study very low frequency radio-wave propagation. The first NRL LOFTI was short lived because it failed to separate from the Transit IIIB atop which it had been attached. However, before leaving its too-low orbit to burn up in the earth's atmosphere, LOFTI I provided valuable data for both communicating with submerged submarines and space navigation.
Buckshot's other NRL satellite, SURCAL I (Surveillance Calibration) was packaged in a 5.5-inch diameter, 5.5-inch long cylinder. It sought to improve the accuracy of the NRL-developed Space Surveillance System, seven stations stretching across the southern United States to detect and track radio-silent satellites. An eight-pound package, SURCAL would remain attached to Able-Star during its revolutions around the globe. The third satellite, Injun II, was to carry out the studies of the earth's Van Allen Belt radiation thwarted when the first Injun and GREB failed to separate the previous June. The Army's SECOR I (Sequential Collation of Range), Buckshot's final satellite, was a 20-inch diameter, 36-pound sphere designed to gather geodetic information applicable to military use. All four satellites were to be placed in a north-south orbit about 575 miles above the earth.
Composite lifted off from Complex 17 at 0430 on 24 January 1962 in the familiar blast of fire, smoke, and steam. Observers on the ground watched the rocket's fiery trajectory carry it over the Atlantic. As the Thor reached its scheduled 160.4-second main-engine cutoff, they saw several pulsating flashes, then nothing. The Able-Star apparently misfired and sent its 219-pound payload tumbling into the ocean. The mission was the sixth time the Navy had used the piggyback concept and the second time it had completely failed.
That week, luck also ran out on other heavily publicized Cape Canaveral launches. The Ranger 3 unmanned lunar probe lifted off two days after Composite, but shot past the moon instead of landing on it. The drawn-out countdown for the launch of Marine astronaut John Glenn's Mercury MA-6 manned orbital flight—the first for the United States—was in progress when Composite was launched. Scheduled to go on 27 January, it endured a number of scrubs before finally succeeding the following month.
The final launch in the GRAB program came in April, but "booster failure" doomed the effort. On 14 June 1962, the NRL's GRAB series was transferred to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had established to take charge of all spy satellites. GRAB continued as SOLRADs VIIA and VIIB in January 1964 and March 1965, respectively, and the program went on through 1967 under other codenames. The NRL's satellite technological knowhow also lived on under the NRO umbrella with such projects as the White Cloud ocean-surveillance program.
Although the spy satellite program had passed out of its hands, the Naval Research Laboratory could take pride in GRAB orbiting the earth in June 1960, two months before the Corona/Discoverer space vehicle that many history books, past and present, credit as being America's first spy satellite. It was not until 1961 that a non-NRL electronic-intelligence space effort was attempted.
The historical record was finally corrected on 17 June 1998 during the NRL's week-long 75th anniversary celebration. Praising the laboratory's many years of accomplishments, National Reconnaissance Office Director Keith Hall announced the declassification of the GRAB satellite program, which he termed "a milestone in the history of the laboratory and in the history of U.S. intelligence."
A Home for Navy Research
Located on the Potomac River's east bank in southwest Washington, D.C., the Naval Research Laboratory arose from the observation of inventor Thomas Edison that the Navy needed a research organization to improve the United States' defense capabilities. Edison, however, was piqued that Washington was selected as the site of the Naval Experimental and Research Laboratory instead of a location near his workplace at Menlo Park, New Jersey, and said the lab would become a "home for incompetent naval officers" who would snatch the work out of the hands of scientists. (He later retracted those words when he recognized its many accomplishments.)
The laboratory was established in July 1923 "to conduct scientific research and development in the physical sciences and related fields." Many things now taken for granted owe their origin to its scientists and engineers: shortwave radio, radar (the British coincidentally developed radar at the same time), sonar, regularly scheduled radio broadcasts, and everyday items such as specialized paints and rain repellents. The facility, whose name was shortened to Naval Research Laboratory, was the first government institution to undertake nuclear-energy research, and it performed pioneering work with rockets, earth satellites (including the Global Positioning System and spacecraft communications), radio astronomy, and drone aircraft.
In the early 1960s, the NRL occupied 92 buildings on 59 acres in Washington and had other special-purpose sites in neighboring Maryland and in the Panama Canal Zone as well as a floating laboratory, the USS Rockville (EPCER-851). Approximately 1,500 men and women were assigned to the laboratory's 13 research divisions. Its original site now enlarged, the NRL continues to provide the research and development necessary for the U.S. Navy to maintain its global supremacy.
-Wilfred P. Deac
The NRL's Ill-Fated Monster DishMany of the Naval Research Laboratory's post–World War II activities were inevitably directed against the Soviet Union. One of the laboratory's most ambitious projects, contemporaneous with the GRAB program, involved the moon and construction of the world's largest moveable structure—a radio telescope. Again, the primary objective was electronic-intelligence gathering.
During the summer of 1958, contractors shaved the top off a knoll in a secluded West Virginia valley near the town of Sugar Grove, 170 road miles west of Washington. A 20-ton, 74-foot-long beam, the first metal for the structure, was lifted into place in July 1960. A January 1960 Scientific American article described the projected concave reflector as being "as big as a stadium" with "a diameter of 600 feet, a circumference of nearly a third of a mile and a reflecting surface of more than seven acres" rising "to the height of a 66-story building." The article highlighted the telescope's "power to gather radio waves and resolve celestial radio sources" and its promise of "important advances in the knowledge of the universe." This, of course, was the story for outside consumption to cover a spy project designed to capture Soviet electronic emissions radiating into space and bouncing off the moon back to earth. It was appropriately codenamed Project Moonbounce.
The cover, however, was less than perfect. As early as 1957, the 19 August issue of Newsweek revealed plans for a "king-sized radio antenna" to "assure jam-proof global communications by bouncing signals off the moon." Then, in mid-1958, a Navy official confirmed to a congressional committee that the United States had the capability "to use the moon as a reconnaissance satellite." Finally, a congressman boasted that the NRL telescope would "enable the United States to monitor the entire area behind the Iron Curtain."
Sugar Grove's high-tech spy project, located in an area where local women still handwashed clothes in a mountain stream, eventually faced two insurmountable obstacles—the availability of cheaper and more advanced satellite technology, and critical engineering problems—and was cancelled in 1962.
-Wilfred P. Deac
Official Naval Research Laboratory publications: NRL, booklet produced for 5th Navy Science Symposium, 1961; Meet Your Neighbor, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, pamphlet, 1960; GRAB, April 2000; Solar Radiation Satellites, no date; "GRAB Satellite Declassified," press release, 17 June 1998; Radio Astronomy & the 600-foot Dish, no date; Radio Telescope at Sugar Grove, W. VA., no date.
Martin Collins, ed., After Sputnik (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2007).
J. G. Hubbel, "The Navy's Amazing Problem Solvers," Readers Digest, April 1960.
Naval Research Reviews, Washington, DC: Office of Naval Research, Vol. XVI, No. 8 (August 1963).
"Navy Uncloaks a Secret," Washington Post, 18 June 1998.
A. Hoyt Taylor, The First Twenty-five Years of the Naval Research Laboratory, Department of the Navy publication NAV EXOS P-549, 1948.
"Thor in Space," Douglas News (Douglas Aircraft Corporation, issue no. 3 (1962 revision).