The retired spies met regularly at the Danbury mall food court for lunch.
Before COVID-19’s arrival they’d gather at a table near the McDonald’s kiosk and talk about old times, current goings-on and golf. Beginning in 2011, they’d often repeat a word that for nearly a half-century they hadn’t dared even to whisper: Hexagon.
They weren’t really spies, not exactly, but they’d been cleared for top-secret work and long ago had crawled down a rabbit hole that led to the front lines of Cold War espionage.
On June 15, 1971, 50 years ago this month, the first Hexagon spy satellite launched into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California aboard a giant Titan IIID rocket. The heart and soul of this once top-secret satellite, also known as Big Bird, was its camera system. Light years ahead of anything else that existed, the optical system was built by the spies who met at the Danbury mall and a small army of men, and some women, like them. They worked for Perkin-Elmer, an aerospace company that specialized in optical systems, including a later satellite also starting with the letter “H” which gazed at galaxies and would be far more famous.
For about two decades, they toiled inside a windowless white building on a hill overlooking the Danbury Municipal Airport and what is today the Danbury Fair mall. They’d walk through air showers and enter clean rooms to work on machinery that required mind-bogglingly minute precision. They’d recreate the harsh conditions of space and the violent rattling of a rocket launch to ensure the camera system would continue to function during space flight. Some would meet regularly with high-ranking CIA and Air Force officials who would be referred to in company memos and conversations only by the cryptic moniker “the customer.”
The “spies” of Perkin-Elmer were really engineers and scientists, electrical whizzes and optical experts who accomplished digital-age wonders in the age of film and the slide rule. Almost by accident in many cases, they’d become math-savvy 007s in a real-world sci-fi espionage saga that was equal parts John Le Carré and Ray Bradbury.
This is their story.
The Other Space Program
Phil Pressel was hired by Perkin-Elmer in 1965. At the time, the mechanical engineer who had recently graduated from New York University had no idea what he’d signed on for. A Jewish native of Belgium, Pressel and his family fled to France and hid from the Nazis there for the duration of the war. Two decades later, the young Holocaust survivor would once again have a front-row seat to history.
The U.S. had two space programs, Pressel learned once he was cleared to work on the Hexagon program. One was run by NASA and had public funding and astronauts who appeared on the covers of magazines. The other space program was a world of code words and black projects mentioned only in whispers and rarely officially acknowledged. It was run by members of the CIA and Air Force who came together under the auspices of the shadowy National Reconnaissance Office, which had a larger budget than any other U.S. intelligence agency even though its very existence was classified until 1992.
The U.S.’s covert space program took flight in the late 1950s with the design and testing for Corona, the first-generation spy satellite. The Corona cameras covered a wide area of the Earth but only provided a resolution of about 20 feet, which means it could spot the outline of a 20-foot truck. One of its successors, the Gambit spy satellite, had a much higher resolution of two feet but could not cover large areas as the Corona could. “The Gambit program was also a film-based program providing extremely high-resolution black-and-white as well as color products,” says Phil Datema, a retired Air Force colonel who oversaw both the Gambit and Hexagon payload programs for the NRO. “But in comparison to Hexagon, it was like looking at a map through a soda straw.”
Corona would identify potential targets within the Soviet Union and elsewhere that the Gambit could then photograph in more detail. But by the mid-1960s, the CIA and Air Force wanted a satellite that could combine the search-and-locate capabilities of the Corona with the high-resolution details of the Gambit, and were seeking proposals for the camera system for this new generation of satellite.
Pressel was hired to help put together that proposal for the government and would later be tasked with designing the optical bars for the system. However, when he learned the requirements for the new satellite, he was skeptical it could be accomplished, as were many of his co-workers. The CIA wanted coverage of the whole landmass of the Earth in stereo, which meant heights of objects photographed such as missile sites could be determined. This new satellite needed to be able to stay in orbit for months and take thousands of photographs on film that would then be jettisoned back to Earth in re-entry capsules with parachutes that would be scooped up by Air Force planes. “We almost to a person said, ‘We can never do this. It’ll never happen. It’s almost impossible,’ ” says Pressel, whose book Meeting the Challenge: The Hexagon KH-9 Reconnaissance Satellite, was published in 2013.
Ultimately, Perkin-Elmer won the project and built 19 successful Hexagon spy satellites between 1971 and 1986. The 30,000-pound, 60-foot-long satellites carried miles of ultra-thin black-and-white and color film. The later satellites also contained mapping cameras that helped provide data that would enable the creation of the GPS systems, utilized by so many on a daily basis today.
The Hexagon had a resolution of at least two to three feet but its exact resolution remains classified. The intel gathered from the satellite was key in helping the U.S. triumph in the Cold War. It allowed the U.S. to monitor the capabilities of Soviet and Chinese ICBMs, monitor compliance of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and peer into denied areas of the globe for a wide range of intelligence purposes, from monitoring troops to assessing crops and economic conditions.
After winning the government contract for the secret spy satellite, Perkin-Elmer built a new facility in Danbury and hired more than 1,000 people to work on the program. Some were veterans of previous satellite operations, while others were new to the cloak-and-dagger world.
These new hires couldn’t work on the project or go near the Danbury building until they passed security clearance, an arduous process that took months. In the meantime, they showed up to work at a Perkin-Elmer office in Wilton where they did little odd jobs as they waited for clearance. Veterans of the program hated being assigned to that office, which earned the nickname “the mushroom tank” because while there you were kept in the dark. “It was kind of boring because you really didn’t know where you were going and what you were gonna do,” recalls Mike Ferrara, who was hired by Perkin-Elmer in the late 1960s.
But once they left the “mushroom tank,” they followed Alice down the rabbit hole. For much of the remainder of their careers they wouldn’t be able to talk about what they did, not even with their spouses or children.
Ferrara made up a cover story. “I work on washing machines,” he told people. Sometimes he’d have to go into the Danbury facility for overnights or get called in the middle of the night. Other times he’d travel to the West Coast for work related to the launches of the satellite. “Training on the new washer models,” he’d explain to his wife. If his wife had any suspicions about why a washing machine builder would need to keep such odd hours and travel so much, she never voiced them. For many who worked on the program there was an unspoken understanding of silence between them and their families.
When Bob Zarba was hired by Perkin-Elmer in the fall of 1970 he was no stranger to secret projects. He had previously worked on Gambit as well as the MOL (Manned Orbiting Laboratory) project, a secret plan for a manned reconnaissance spacecraft that was scrapped shortly before Zarba joined Perkin-Elmer.
Zarba was stationed in California for much of the Hexagon program, where he would be on site during Hexagon launches into space. After its construction in Danbury, each Hexagon camera system would be transported via police guard to Bradley International Airport and flown out West, where it would be assembled along with other Hexagon satellite components made by other companies. For Zarba, even saying he worked for Perkin-Elmer was forbidden. “People would ask you what you do. You had to come up with some kind of a story and it had to be fairly consistent because the next year they might ask you again,” the New Milford resident says. Keeping what he did secret from friends and acquaintances was easy, he says. Keeping the secret from his family was more difficult. “My kids would have been jumping out of their socks if they knew I was launching satellites and rockets, but I couldn’t tell them.”
Victor Abraham was hired by Perkin-Elmer in the early 1970s. He’d previously worked closely with CIA contractors for a company on Long Island that was building parts for the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane as well as conducting early work on another satellite program. He was still impressed with the audacity of the Hexagon program. “I was overwhelmed by the size of it, and the capability of it. Even though I was working on other CIA programs, I didn’t know about this program because everything was compartmentalized. I thought the program was tremendous. The size of it, the capability — for the country it was just amazing.”
Abraham was the program director from the mid-1970s until the Hexagon operation concluded in 1986. Keeping the program secret was the worry that kept him up at night. “Even though we had a full-time security department, and the government actually had security people at Danbury, security was always a problem,” says Abraham, who today lives in a Danbury retirement community with a view of the building from his balcony. “We had over 1,000 people who worked in the program, and several hundred in California at the site we launched at. We had employees at various subcontractors monitoring the development of electronic boxes and other equipment.”
Getting all these employees to uphold their code of silence required some doing and monitoring. “Our personnel had to be polygraphed from time to time and sometimes we came up with some problems,” he says. “Drugs, gambling, chasing after other women, putting yourself in a compromising position to be blackmailed, these were all the things that we look at on a polygraph.”
In the late 1970s, Perkin-Elmer was awarded the NASA contract to build the optics for the Hubble Space Telescope. This helped some of those who worked on the Hexagon project come up with a cover story about what they actually did, but it also posed security problems. The building was now divided into a classified Hexagon section and an open Hubble area. Hexagon material was never supposed to leave secure areas of the building, but on at least one occasion a worker took documents over to the other side, Abraham says.
At other times, employees were fired for indiscretions that might leave them open to blackmail or bribes, but overall the secret of the project was kept, until the project was declassified a decade ago. “There was never a leak to the press, or to the public or anything like that. Security right up to the end of the program was great,” Abraham says.
“Hexagon was really the keeper of the peace and kept us out of the hot war during that whole period in time,” Datema says. “The Hexagon mapping system not only led to extremely accurate products, but also enabled the advent of today’s GPS products.”
As the Air Force payload manager for the Hexagon spy satellite program in the later days of the Hexagon, Datema was the person referred to as “the customer” by Perkin-Elmer employees. But like most of those men, he had never intended to embark on a clandestine career.
An Air Force officer stationed at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois in 1979, Datema got a call out of the blue recruiting him for a highly secret assignment to the still-classified NRO. “We’ve got a very special assignment for you if you’re willing to consider it,” they told him. When Datema asked for details, he received few. All he knew is that they were looking for officers in good standing, with command experience, and as it turned out, with a chemistry degree, which didn’t make sense. Datema didn’t like the idea of committing to something without being told what it was, and said he wasn’t interested.
But later in the day, a higher-up in his chain of command, a one-star general named Robert Herres who had been behind the security wall and knew a little about the story behind the phone call, told him that he would be foolish to turn down the offer. Datema quickly reconsidered and took the assignment.
As part of the deal, he was sent to get his master’s degree in imaging science and then to work at Kodak in upstate New York to learn more about photo imaging. All of this was done without him being told what his ultimate assignment would be.
Finally, after finishing his degree and the Kodak assignment, he was brought into the world of spy satellites. He now understood why Herres told him he would be making a mistake to turn down the assignment. Herres, now a four-star general, had been one of the astronauts assigned to the MOL project, the top-secret manned spy satellite program which never came to fruition.
The ability the U.S. had to spy from space was staggering to Datema. “I was just absolutely amazed at the state of technology and the things that could be done from space,” he says. “It was almost overwhelming to discover the state of the technology that existed at that point in time.”
Eventually, he got used to the technology and the secrecy that was needed in the field. “In those early years, just hearing the word ‘NRO’ would make you twitch,” he says.
Once he became established in the world of satellites and assigned to oversee the Hexagon program, Datema visited Danbury regularly to check in on the progress of new optical systems for new satellites. He stayed at a nearby Quality Inn and got to know the staff there. Though they knew he and the staff who traveled with him worked for the Air Force, no one ever suspected he was in town to check up on a top-secret project at the large complex at the top of the hill. He had a cover story ready about visiting Perkin-Elmer for some mundane contract, but he almost never needed it because no one was ever that curious about what had brought him to Connecticut. “People didn’t really ask, they didn’t really care so much, much to my chagrin,” the Tucson, Arizona, resident muses.
Zarba watched the launch of the first Hexagon spy satellite in June 1971. Rising from the launchpad, the rocket seemed not so much to fly as to float upon the fire and smoke it spit out in its wake. At this and two other launches he would witness, he was struck by the “fantastic throbbing” of the rocket’s engines.
Back in Danbury, Pressel listened to the launch from the “war room,” a large conference room with a map of the world covering one wall and instrumentation to track the satellite’s progress through space. Senior members of the Hexagon team listened to the countdown and the liftoff. Then there was silence. When word came that the satellite was in orbit, the room erupted in cheers.
For some others who worked on the program, that first launch was less momentous. “There wasn’t much fanfare about the first one. Because we were busy, we were busy building others,” says Frank Finnerty, who was a reliability engineer and lives in Brookfield. “Maybe the front office had some champagne, but I didn’t have any.”
Champagne or not, the mission was mostly a success, though one of several canisters of film sent back to Earth was lost. Over the next 15 years, 18 more Hexagon satellites would be successfully launched into space. The 20th and final satellite in April 1986, however, blew up during launch, a depressing end to an otherwise stellar program, particularly coming just months after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
For many years after the program ended, the images the Hexagon had gathered remained classified, as the U.S. intelligence community didn’t want the world knowing just how good its spy satellites were. But finally, in 2011, Hexagon was declassified and those who worked on the project were free to tell their families and the world about it. Yet for many who worked on the project, it was still uncomfortable to say the word “Hexagon.”
Ferrara, now living in New Jersey, was informed via a phone call from a co-worker named John that Hexagon had been declassified. He hung up to go tell his wife at long last, but decades of secrecy didn’t melt away that easily. “I went back, I called John again, I said, ‘Are you sure?’ ”
Abraham was also stricken with disbelief. “Saying the word ‘Hexagon’ for the first time and seeing it in open print and people talking about it in the open, it was just unbelievable,” he says. When Abraham told his family the news, the revelation landed with a bit of a thud. “I told my family about the program; they were not impressed at all,” he says. “They said, ‘It’s just a camera. I have an iPhone, you know, with a camera and it takes pictures, and I can send it all over the place. What’s so great about your camera?’ ”
All jokes aside, those who worked on the program are immensely proud of the role it played protecting the U.S. and helping to stave off a potentially catastrophic war between two superpowers. Holocaust survivor Pressel knows well the terror of war and is perhaps especially proud of his role in Hexagon as a result. The San Diego resident notes that when it was flying, “There was world peace, there was peace in the world.” He adds, “President Reagan, when he said, ‘trust but verify,’ the cameras that verified what the Russians were doing were the ones that I was responsible for. So I’m very proud of that.”
What happened to the Perkins-Elmer lab? — The Danbury facility has seen a dizzying number of ownership changes since the Hexagon program shut down in the 1980s. Parent companies have included Hughes Aircraft, Raytheon Technologies and Goodrich Corp., among others. But the lab, which employs hundreds of workers, still works on precision optical systems that have both terrestrial and extraterrestrial applications.
Eyes on the Climate — The mission of the Hexagon satellite was to provide intel in the Cold War. But decades later, the massive cache of high-resolution images captured by the Hexagon from around the globe is being used for a far different purpose. After the imagery was declassified in 2011, scientists began poring over the photos to track the effects of climate change. For example, photos of 650 glaciers throughout the Himalayas were analyzed, including Hexagon images from the 1970s and ’80s, along with other satellite photos through the 2000s. The conclusion: the rate of current glacier melting has doubled in roughly the last two decades compared with the last century’s closing decades.
What Came Next: The KH-11 Kennen satellite — Five years after the first Hexagon spy satellite launched, the original KH-11 Kennen satellite rocketed into space. It was the first U.S. satellite to use digital imaging. Unlike its film-based predecessors, the KH-11’s images could be transmitted back to Earth in real time. Later generations of KH-11s are still flying today, and while most information around the satellites remains classified, some details have emerged over the years. In 2019, President Donald Trump shocked the intelligence community when he tweeted an image of an exploded rocket launch facility in Iran that is believed to have been taken by a KH-11 satellite. From this image, and other details that have emerged about the satellite over the years, it appears that the KH-11 does not have the wide-range image capabilities of Hexagon and is instead designed to photograph specific sites and areas.
As of January, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ database of satellites noted there are 3,372 satellites in orbit, 1,897 being U.S. satellites. Of those U.S. satellites, 212 are military, many of which we can assume are spy satellites. It is unclear if any have the wide-range image capabilities of Hexagon. “I’ve seen write-ups that some of today’s military leaders are sorry that they did not have more Hexagon missions, because they could have used the data,” says former Hexagon program member Phil Pressel. “For example, during the Middle East wars, we could have seen the whole theater of battle, which some of the digital cameras, at least in those days, could not see.”