Top Secret for years after the project was completed.

In the 1970s, during the heights of the Cold War, more than 1,000 engineers worked on a project so secret that they couldn’t tell their wives and children decades after it was over.

In September 2011, the project – a series of spy satellites so advanced that it could see objects about 2 feet wide from space (mind you, this was in the 1970s before the ubiquity of computers so the satellites were built with slide rules), was declassified and with it, the stories of the men who kept their secret for 45 years…

“Ah, Hexagon,” Ed Newton says, gleefully exhaling the word that stills feels almost treasonous to utter in public.

It was dubbed “Big Bird” and it was considered the most successful space spy satellite program of the Cold War era. From 1971 to 1986 a total of 20 satellites were launched, each containing 60 miles of film and sophisticated cameras that orbited the earth snapping vast, panoramic photographs of the Soviet Union, China and other potential foes. The film was shot back through the earth’s atmosphere in buckets that parachuted over the Pacific Ocean, where C-130 Air Force planes snagged them with grappling hooks.

The scale, ambition and sheer ingenuity of Hexagon KH-9 was breathtaking. The fact that 19 out of 20 launches were successful (the final mission
blew up because the booster rockets failed) is astonishing.

So too is the human tale of the 45-year-old secret that many took to their graves.

Helen O’Neill of the AP has the fascinating story:

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