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Hidden Benefits of NRO “Spy” Technology Revealed in Hill Briefing

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 12-Jul-2014
Updated: 12-Jul-2014 08:25 PM

While “spying” is getting bad press lately, society has derived multiple benefits from intelligence-gathering technology developed by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), said speakers at a Friday briefing on Capitol Hill.

The event, hosted by the Space Foundation, featured Dr. Robert McDonald and Dr. James Outzen from the Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance within the NRO. McDonald and Outzen described the political context leading to the establishment of the agency in 1961 and gave examples of how approaches and technology developed by the agency have seeped out of the intelligence-gathering world and into daily life.

Outzen identified three events – the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949, and the movement of the North Korean army into South Korea in 1950 -- as driving the shift in mindset that the United States “could not afford” to be surprised by the activities of its adversaries.  It was formalized during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, who said at the time “no more Pearl Harbors.”

McDonald and Outzen grouped the NRO’s contributions to society into four areas: organizational, intelligence-related, technological and data-related. The organization of the NRO itself was “unique” and “innovative,” and so were the agency’s early leaders, they explained.  Of note is Edwin Land who, in addition to creating the Polaroid instant camera, is credited with a phrase that characterized the goal of reconnaissance: “see it all, see it well, and see it now.”

Alluding to the NRO’s long history of success in answering intelligence questions – many of which could not be disclosed at the briefing – Outzen offered a couple of examples from the Cold War. The Soviets, said Outzen, were carrying out a “fabulous deception” about the extent of their offensive capabilities. Intelligence gathered by U-2 aircraft and later by the CORONA program, the first U.S. photo reconnaissance satellites, helped defray fears of “the missile gap” and inform U.S. decisions about how best to use resources during the Cold War. Outzen explained that intelligence gathered by NRO satellites has also contributed in areas as diverse as treaty verification and assessments during humanitarian and environmental crises, such as hurricanes Rita and Katrina in the United States.

By enabling the “massive collection of information,” McDonald reiterated that aerospace technologies have been “very critical” in answering intelligence questions. He explained the dramatic mechanical and technological improvements as early reconnaissance satellite programs evolved, as well as the development of the first military meteorological satellite to improve the efficiency of imaging satellites in cloudy and nighttime conditions.  He and Outzen also pointed to advancements in photography – such as the development of digital photography --  as well as systems engineering and other improvements that supported reliable launch capability, as key contributions from NRO activities. McDonald commented on the “staggering” number of NRO launches in the height of the Cold War, with one or two successful launches almost every month.

The final area of contributions the speakers commented on was data. Thinking about intelligence questions as data problems – dependent on the ability to gather the right data at a fast rate – helped drive innovations in data acquisition, integration, and processing. While much of these data remain classified, some of the long-term records are helping answer questions in other fields. In response to a question about the role of historical data in environmental research, McDonald noted that imagery collected by the CORONA satellites has been declassified and is available through the National Archives and the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS’s) Earth Resources Observation Systems (EROS) Data Center. He said that because these records allow researchers to examine conditions before NASA’s land remote sensing satellites began launching in 1972, they have been “invaluable” in environmental studies.

Lessons learned from NRO’s history and activities are captured in the National Reconnaissance Journal produced by the Center.  Three issues have been published, in 2005, 2009 and 2012.


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