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Space and Covert Reconnaissance, 1955


Part of the background of the Richard Russell sighting can be traced to events exactly one year earlier, when a group of eleven Americans headed by Lloyd Berkner met in Rome to map out a strategy for an earth satellite project. The scientists were delegates to a conference of the Special Committee for the International Geophysical Year, a body representing over sixty nations, created to coordinate global scientific observations planned for 1957-58.

Berkner and his colleagues agreed that a small scientific satellite would be an excellent addition to IGY projects, opening the way to enhanced measurements of the space environment as well as giving new data on the shape and structure of the earth itself. The American initiative was favorably received, and on October 4, 1954, the Special Committee voted to encourage participating governments to attempt to launch such a scientific satellite during the IGY. The Soviet Union announced in January 1955 that it too would soon orbit a scientific satellite.

For the US government, the IGY satellite project represented the tip of a massive Cold War iceberg. Interest in a military reconnaissance satellite dated back as far as the original RAND World Circling Spaceship report of 1946. RAND's Missile Division scientists, under the direction of James Lipp, continued to study satellite reconnaissance technology, and, enlisting the aid of experts like Luis Alvarez, gradually won over skeptical Air Force officials. By the end of 1953 the ARDC began to refer to these "Project Feed Back" reconnaissance satellite studies as Weapon System 117L.

1954 RAND "Feed Back" satellite and launch vehicle concept. Reconnaissance gear is in section just to right of tapered nose cone. The rocket was obviously a lineal descendent of the RAND World-Circling Spaceship concept of 1946.




RAND's analysts were deeply concerned over Soviet reaction to overflights by what would surely be perceived as a hostile spy satellite. The problem was similar to that faced by the Gopher balloon project and the CIA's U-2. One way to ease into the situation would be to orbit a small, innocuous scientific spacecraft. If that proved tolerable to the Soviets, their protests against military orbiters would be undermined. Another alternative would be to let the Soviets orbit a satellite first. On March 16, 1955, the Air Force finalized a requirement for WS-117L, "Pied Piper," or more formally, the Strategic Satellite System. Planners envisioned that the satellite would be a comparatively large, sophisticated vehicle launched atop the new Atlas ballistic missile. The orbiter would provide a stable platform for a high-resolution camera system capable of detecting vital targets such as airbases and missile facilities as well as returning photos of weather phenomena. It was expected that the vehicle would transmit its images to ground stations by secure radio downlink, providing near "real-time" observation data. WS-117L Project Officer was Colonel Frederic "Fritz" Oder, who had headed the "Project Twinkle" Green Fireball studies. Assistant Secretary of Defense Donald Quarles passed the Air Force plan up through channels for approval. In May, the National Security Council decided that the IGY satellite would effectively function as a "white world" door-opener for the "black" WS-117L reconnaissance program.

On July 29, 1955, a few days after the failure of Eisenhower's Open Skies proposal, the White House held a press conference at which National Academy of Sciences president Detlev Bronk announced that the United States would launch a small civilian scientific satellite during the International Geophysical Year. The next day, the New York Times' page one article by Russell Baker carried the banner headline "U.S. To Launch Earth Satellite 200-300 Miles Into Outer Space." The newspaper's Pulitzer prize-winning reporter Anthony Leveiro pointedly noted that the IGY satellite could have no military usefulness, as it would be unstabilized and too small to carry a camera. "It will have no utility for gaining terrestrial data that might be used as part of President Eisenhower's Geneva plan," Leveiro emphasized.

The IGY scientists touted the exciting new era of civilian space technology that a satellite would bring. Lloyd Berkner ranked the accomplishment of orbiting a satellite with the Wright brothers' first flight. IGY committee member Athelstan Spilhaus outlined the potential advances in atmospheric science. The scientists vowed to share the satellite's data with the world, and predicted a 1958 launch. It was also noted that the Soviets were probably working on a satellite. On April 15, a Moscow newspaper had reported that a committee of top scientists, including the famous nuclear physicist Peter Kapitza, had assembled to plan for a satellite vehicle. The device's announced objective, paralleling WS-117L, was to photograph clouds to aid in weather forecasting.

Congress reacted negatively to the White House's desire that the American IGY satellite's data be freely available to all nations. Missiles were missiles, and it seemed vaguely treasonous to give away rocket-related information. "A number of influential Democrats have joined in...expressing doubt about what they called 'sharing secrets,'" Russell Baker reported. "[L]ast night another powerful Democratic Senator, Richard B. Russell of Georgia...expressed 'grave doubts' about the wisdom of sharing information. Mr. Russell conceded, however, that it should convince the most skeptical of our peaceful intentions."

Wernher von Braun's Germans, now working for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, had a missile available - the Redstone, a direct descendant of the V-2 - which was capable of orbiting a small satellite, but the administration deemed it politically awkward to allow the German missile experts the honor of launching America's first space vehicle. To avoid offense to the Soviets, the American satellite would fly on a new civilian rocket. Built by Martin in Baltimore, the booster and its satellite would be known as Project Vanguard.

Inquisitive reporters uncovered one more interesting fact about the new project:

Satellites Not To Blame For Saucer Rumors

Washington, July 29 (AP) - Don't blame the satellite program for the 'flying saucer' rumors that have cropped up in the past. Officials were asked today whether satellite experiments could have given rise to the saucer reports. They replied that since no satellites have been launched they couldn't be the 'flying saucers.' Government experts have said that the great majority of flying saucer 'sightings' arise out of optical illusions (about 90 per cent of them), with jet aircraft and guided missile tests presumably accounting for most of the remainder.

In addition, the June 14, 1955 issue of LOOK magazine had featured a sensationalistic cover article on man-made saucers that contained speculation on the design and basing of the Avro saucers. On September 5, perhaps in reaction to all this satellite and man-made saucer publicity, the German newspaper Stuttgarter Tageblatt printed an article, datelined Oslo, that revived a far-fetched tale of a man-made saucer "crash-retrieval" that had surfaced three years earlier. The story had originated with the Berliner Volksblatt on July 9, 1952, and claimed that the Norwegian Air Force had discovered the wreckage of a gigantic, one-hundred-fifty-foot flying disk on the remote arctic island of Spitzbergen and recovered it for study. Analysis of the machine, the story claimed, revealed that it was a remote-controlled missile with a range of over 18,000 miles. It was designed to carry a powerful explosive warhead and was propelled in spinning flight by a series of forty-odd jet nozzles arranged around its rim. The strange saucer was allegedly fabricated of mysterious metals and, most significantly, the instruments in its guidance system carried Russian markings. The German press made a cottage industry of the fabrication of scare stories about Soviet technology, and they usually passed without much serious notice. ATIC had dutifully contacted the Norwegian government when the story originally broke for confirmation of the recovery, but a September 12, 1952 Air Intelligence Information Report concluded that the Norwegians knew nothing about it. Russell's itinerary shows that he was scheduled to arrive in Germany a day or two after the revived Soviet saucer story ran in the Stuttgart paper. Whether he or Hathaway saw or heard about it probably will remain an intriguing unknown.