For over 10 years, Marty Yellin was a control systems engineer at Perkin-Elmer.
Starting in 1965, the longtime Westporter helped design key elements of Hexagon — a reconnaissance spacecraft that, one NASA official says, “helped prevent World War III.”
For over 4 1/2 decades, Yellin was forbidden to talk about any aspect of his work.
Until last Saturday.
That’s when — 25 years after the top-secret, Cold War-era mission ended — Hexagon, and 2 other satellite programs were finally declassified.
Last weekend Hexagon — along with Gambit and Gambit 3 — were open to the public. The one-day-only event was held at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum’s Dulles Airport center.
According to MSNBC.com, a throng of joyous National Reconnaissance Office veterans were “finally able to show their wives and families what they actually did ‘at the office’ for so many years.”
It was quite a lot.
MSNBC.com says, “the Hexagon’s panoramic cameras rotated as they swept back and forth while the satellite flew over Earth.” Intelligence officials called this process “mowing the lawn.”
“Each 6-inch-wide frame of Hexagon film captured a wide swath of terrain covering 370 nautical miles — the distance from Cincinnati to Washington — on each pass over the former Soviet Union and China. The satellites had a resolution of about 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to nearly 1 meter).”
The 60-foot long, 30,000-pound Hexagon carried 4 spools — a phenomenal 60 miles’ worth — of high resolution photographic film on its space surveillance missions. The spools weighed 3,000 pounds. Every few months a spool was dropped by parachute from the satellite to a waiting plane, which hooked it and reeled it in. The force of the giant film would drop the plane 10,000 feet.
From there, the film was sent to an ultra-secret Kodak lab. It was so sensitive to light that only blind people could work on it, Yellin says.
The developed film was sent to the Pentagon for analysis.
“The final launch in April 1986 — just weeks after the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion — also met with disaster,” MSNBC.Com says.
The Titan 34D booster “erupted into a massive fireball just seconds after liftoff, crippling the NRO’s orbital reconnaissance capabilities for many months.”
Of course, no one outside a small circle of political and military leaders ever heard about this catastrophe. Marty Yellin, his fellow engineers — and everyone else associated with the spy satellite program — was sworn to secrecy.
Until last Saturday.
This week, Yellin looked back with pride at his decade of work on Hexagon. He notes that the technology led directly to breakthroughs like the Hubble Telescope.
At the same time, he is awed and humbled by comments like this, from NASA’s Rob Landis:
“You have to give credit to leaders like President Eisenhower, who had the vision to initiate reconnaisance spacecraft. He was of the generation who wanted no more surprises, no more Pearl Harbors.”
In fact, Landis continues, “I think that Hexagon helped prevent World War III.”
That scares the hell out of Marty Yellin.
“I wonder,” he says. “What if it didn’t work?
“Would we all be dead now?”