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On April 19, 1967, a spacecraft that looked somewhat like a fat, winged dart reentered the Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. As it dipped into the upper reaches of the ionosphere it began to glow and was surrounded by a fiery plasma. But rather than traveling in a straight line as most reentering spacecraft did, the glowing craft began banking at hypersonic speeds, finally slowing and deploying a parachute at a point more than 1,100 kilometers off its orbital path. A JC-130 aircraft grabbed its parachute lines high above the Pacific and the crew winched it inside. The experimental spacecraft, known as the X-23 PRIME, was not a classified project. According to the US Air Force, it was intended to test the ability of a spacecraft to travel crossrange from its entry orbit, something that many years later would be incorporated into the design of NASA’s space shuttle.
But what was not public at the time was the fact that the X-23’s silent sponsor was an agency that normally operated in the shadows, and its very existence was then classified. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) operated the nation’s fleet of intelligence satellites, many of which returned images of Soviet military facilities on film contained in reentry vehicles that were recovered over the Pacific Ocean by the same C-130 aircraft involved in the PRIME recovery. Those reentry vehicles fell ballistically from orbit, which meant that they could fall anywhere within a sizeable reentry ellipse and thus had to be recovered over the ocean, far from where their exposed film would be processed and analyzed. The NRO was interested in reducing the time that it took to get the film from orbit to photo-analysts in Washington, DC, who would peer through microscopes at light tables and try to discern what was happening inside the Soviet Union. Vehicles such as PRIME could potentially make it possible to land that film inside the continental United States, something that intelligence officials considered doing ever since the early 1960s but had never committed to, due to technical and political limitations.
The connection between PRIME and the NRO is mentioned in a declassified letter written in 1965 by then NRO Director Brockway McMillan to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. McMillan referred to a task that McNamara had recently given him to “Propose a plan to develop the capability for instantaneous satellite reconnaissance with at least G[AMBIT] resolution for various uses (particularly in relation to Titan-III) such as monitoring the arms control agreements, tactical uses, etc.” PRIME was one of a whole suite of options that the NRO was then investigating to reduce the time to get imagery to decision-makers, but it was one of the most visible, hiding a research project for satellite reconnaissance in plain sight.
originally posted by: Zaphod58
a reply to: anzha
We were at Hickam when they formally disbanded Test Group, the guys that caught the satellites. They had a horrible crash trying to rescue a sailor a couple hundred miles from Honolulu. The helicopter ended up crashing onto the deck of a ship carrying rocket fuel. The sailor ended up staying on board until they reached Pearl Harbor with the wreckage. He eventually tried to commit suicide.