The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part 15: Agena – The Secret Space Truck, Ferret’s and Stanford

This post is the latest in the “Secret History Series.”  They’ll make much more sense if you read some of the earlier ones for context. See the Secret History video and slides as well as the bibliography for sources and supplemental reading.

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By the early 1960’s Lockheed Missiles Division in Sunnyvale was quickly becoming the largest employer in what would be later called Silicon Valley.  Along with its publically acknowledged contract to build the Polaris Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM,) Lockheed was also secretly building the first photo reconnaissance satellites (codenamed CORONA) for the CIA in a factory in East Palo Alto.

It was only a matter of time before Stanford’s Applied Electronics Lab research on Electronic and Signals Intelligence and Lockheed’s missiles and spy satellites intersected. Here’s how.

Lockheed Agena

Thor/AgenaD w/Corona

In addition to the CORONA CIA reconnaissance satellites, Lockheed was building another assembly line, this one for the Agena – a space truck.  The Agena sat on top of a booster rocket (first the Thor, then the Altas and finally the Titan) and had its own rocket engine that would help haul the secret satellites into space. The engine (made by Bell Aerosystems) used storable hypergolic propellants so it could be restarted in space to change the satellite’s orbit.  Unlike other second stage rockets, once in orbit, the CORONA reconnaissance satellite would stay attached to the Agena which stabilized the satellite, pointed it in the right location, and oriented it in the right direction to send its recovery capsule on its way back to earth.

The Agena would be the companion to almost all U.S. intelligence satellites for the next decade.  Three different models were built and for over a decade nearly four hundred of them (at the rate of three a month) would be produced on an assembly line in Sunnyvale, and tested in Lockheed’s missile test base in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Agena Ferrets – Program 11
As Lockheed engineers gained experience with the Agena and the CORONA photo reconnaissance satellite, they realized that they had room on a rack in the back of the Agena to carry another payload (as well as the extra thrust to lift it into space.) By the summer of 1962, Lockheed proposed a smaller satellite that could be deployed from the rear of the Agena. This subsatellite was called Program 11, or P-11 for short.  The P-11 subsatellite weighed up to 350lbs, had its own solid rockets to boost it into different orbits, solar arrays for power and was stabilized by either deploying long booms or by spinning 60-80 times a second.

Agena Internals

And they had a customer who couldn’t wait to use the space.  While the CORONA reconnaissance satellites were designed to take photographs from space, putting a radar receiver on a satellite would be enable it to receive, record and locate Soviet radars deep
inside the Soviet Union. For the first time, the National Security Agency (working through the National Reconnaissance Office) and the U.S. Air Force could locate radars which would threaten our manned bombers as well as those that might be part of an anti-ballistic missile system.  Most people thought the idea was crazy. How could you pick up a signal so faint while the satellite was moving so rapidly? Could you sort out one radar signal from all the other noise? There was one way to find out. Build the instruments and have them piggyback on the Agena/CORONA photo reconnaissance satellites.

But who could quickly build these satellites to test this idea?

Stanford and Ferrets
Just across the freeway from Lockheed’s secret CORONA assembly plant in Palo Alto, James de Broekert was at Stanford Applied Electronics Laboratory. This was the Lab founded by Fred Terman from his WWII work in Electronic Warfare.

“This was an exciting opportunity for us,” de Broekert remembered. “Instead of flying at 10,000 or 30,000 feet, we could be up at 100 to 300 miles and have a larger field of view and cover much greater geographical area more rapidly. The challenges were establishing geolocation and intercepting the desired signals from such a great distance. Another challenge was ensuring that the design was adapted to handle the large number of signals that would be intercepted by the satellite. We created a model to determine the probability of intercept on the desired and the interference environment from the other radar signals that might be in the field of view, de Broekert explained.

“My function was to develop the system concept and to establish the system parameters. I was the team leader, but the payloads were usually built as a one-man project with one technician and perhaps a second support engineer. Everything we built at Stanford was essentially built with stockroom parts. We built the flight-ready items in the laboratory, and then put them through the shake and shock fall test and temperature cycling…”

Agena and Ferret Subsatellite credit: USAF

Like the cover story for the CORONA (which called them Discoverer scientific research satellites,) the first three P-11 satellites were described as “science” missions with results published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Just fifteen years after Fred Terman had built Electronic Intelligence and Electronic Warfare systems for bombers over Nazi Germany, Electronic Intelligence satellites were being launched in space to spy on the Soviet Union.

Close to 50 Ferret subsatellites were launched as secondary payloads aboard Agena photo reconnaissance satellites.

Ferret Entrepreneur
After student riots in April 1969 at Stanford shut down the Applied Electronics Laboratory, James de Broekert left Stanford. He was a co-founder of three Silicon Valley military intelligence companies: Argo Systems, Signal Science, and Advent Systems,

In 2000 the National Reconnaissance Office recognized James de Broekert as a “pioneer” for his role in the “establishment of the discipline of national space reconnaissance.”

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5 Responses

  1. Great stuff … how quick we all forget

  2. Someone was kind enough to remind me that the Aft Rack Packages were pretuned simple receivers. The ELINT flights on the periphery of the Soviet Union told them what frequencies to look for.

    The Soviet radars were geolocated (to a rough location) by knowing the position of the satellite when a radar pulse was received. Overhead photos from CORONA helped find the exact location.

    steve

  3. I met the guy from Lockheed who claims to have been the initial designer of the Agena, but cannot now remember his name. I used to launch them on Atlases from VAFB, and we had fun discussing its origins. Do you know who this might have been?

  4. What about the manned space develop programs for spying from space (Russian & US) with high resolution film and optics that occured about 1962/63 in tandem with these programs. Were they cancelled on the success of these satellite programs?

  5. [...] the differences in culture, talent pool and ideology. However, they have one thing in common – both started and flourished due to government funding. What emerged from the government funding in SV was a community that combined academia, the [...]

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