About the Hexagon Rocket Explosion in 1986

Memories About the Hexagon Spy Satellite explosion

By Phil Pressel

I am writing this to further honor the program and provide some personal views previously not documented.

The explosion of a Titan rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base on April 18, 1986 marked the end of the Hexagon Reconnaissance  Satellite program.

April 18, 2016 was the 30th anniversary of this significant event as it was the 20th and last film based reconnaissance satellite of the Hexagon program. The Hexagon KH-9 satellite was a highly successful “spy in the sky” orbiting satellite that provided important intelligence for the United States. The cameras and resulting photographs permitted President Nixon to sign the SALT Treaty and enable President Reagan to “Trust but Verify” what our cold war enemies were doing. 

I had worked on the system from the beginning of the program in 1965. On April 18, 1986 as I was coming out of a meeting I was met in the hall by the general manager of our division (Paul Petty) and he told me about the explosion. I immediately choked up and tears came to my eyes. I rushed to my office where, in solitude, I cried. So many of us had devoted many years to this project. It was like a family member dying. It would be the end of an era for all of us. It was the job of a lifetime and was so important for the US.

The explosion was only 3 months after the tragic Challenger explosion that killed 7 astronauts. Fortunately the Hexagon was unmanned and no one on the ground was hurt although there was quite a bit of damage. We had flown 19 successful missions starting in 1971. The development of this system, that was “the most complicated satellite ever put into orbit,” resulted in the development of many state-of-the-art technologies. When the program was declassified in 2011 it was revealed that it had a photo resolution of 2 feet from 100 miles up in space.

Our customer was the CIA. To everyone on the program they were referred to as “the customer” since most people on the program were never told who the customer was.

The “customer” guys (no women), as a matter of fact there were no Perkin-Elmer women engineers or drafting personnel on the job except for clerical and perhaps two lady scientists. This was in the sixties and early seventies and sad to say.

The customer had very capable engineers, scientists and managers. They were quite tough on us but the whole process was successful. We made many presentations to them mostly in the form of design and system reviews of every major subassembly on Hexagon. Participating in these reviews were their consultants from TRW, Aerospace Corporation, the Presidential Security Advisory Council headed by Edwin Land and several others companies.

The CIA staff we worked with were part of the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology that did tremendous scientific work that the public did not know about. They made some valuable suggestions and some criticism but most (other than two contentious guys) were great to work with. We as well as they,  wanted a successful program outcome more than anything. 

In the 1972 or 1973 timeframe, an unexpected event happened. We were told that the program had been transferred from the CIA to the Air Force. This was at the beginning of the contract for the second set of 6 Hexagon systems.

This was done because the program by then was operational and the launches were being run by the Air Force from Vandenberg AFB. This enabled the CIA to concentrate on newer projects. The transfer proceeded rapidly and with a minimum of problems.The one significant change after the transfer was the incorporation of a new star-tracking device called S-Cubed (Spaceborne Stellar Sensor). It was mounted on the camera’s support frame (there were two S-Cubed sensors on each mission). They looked at the sky through two apertures on opposite sides of the vehicle. The frame that supported these sensors was the one that supported the optical bars (cameras) and loopers and other critical assemblies. The star trackers observed stars as faint as ninth visual magnitude and defined Hexagon’s orientation. It was first used in the 1982 time frame on the 17th and subsequent Hexagon missions.


The following are portions of interviews that I conducted with some key participants in the Hexagon program. Most of them were my colleagues, engineers and managers at Perkin-Elmer. 

Frank Grabowski was an electrical technician on the program for many years. His tasks included wiring test equipment for most of the major subassemblies. One of his tasks was to help top-off the nitrogen tanks in our system while it was on the launching pad at Vandenberg.

Before Frank’s trip he told me he had asked our Security office if it was okay if he could videotape the launch from his motel in Pismo Beach about 3 miles from the launch site. The following was what he told me.

 “I attended a security indoctrination lecture at Vandenberg, and then was sent up to the 16th level of the gantry to help top-off the nitrogen tanks. I was speechless at first when facing the Titan 34D as it was so awesome. Before I descended I wished it ‘Godspeed.’

When I got back to the motel I purchased a bottle of champagne and some cups for a toast with my colleagues. There were launch delays, but finally at 10:44 a.m. Pacific time I started video taping outside the motel. Meanwhile my boss Jules Cohen, and other colleagues were in the blockhouse near the pad and in contact by a “red phone” with those at the motel.

As the launch started I yelled ‘Go, baby, go!’ Then I saw a purple-orange cloud of gas. I realized that there was an explosion. I was devastated. This became the worst day of my life. I threw the camera with the recording into the trunk of my car. I then threw the bottle of champagne into the brush.  Hours later Jules and some others who had been in the blockhouse were escorted away by Security after the cloud of gas had cleared. I went to my motel room and cried. I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to see the videotape.’ When Jules came back to the motel he insisted on playing it. I was very uncomfortable seeing big chunks coming away from the explosion. What do I do with the tape after I played it? I hid it under my bed.

I got a telephone call in the room from someone saying they were with Security and saying, ‘I understand you have a video tape of the explosion. Do you have any copies?’ I said no. The man said, ‘Tomorrow at 10:30 AM go to the hotel in Sunnyvale and bring the tape and I will meet you there.’ I became very nervous. I put the tape in a brown paper bag and met him as requested. I handed it over to the man and obtained a receipt for it. I still have the receipt. I left the hotel and got my car to go to the airport. I was nervous. I couldn’t open the door to the rental car. It was the wrong car. Sweating and sad I flew back to Danbury. It was a sad trip for me.

Several months later in Danbury I was called to the main conference room. They were showing the video. They wanted me there as the maker of the video. The video showed the explosion from a vantage point other than the films taken from the blockhouse. It turned out that watching the video again helped me to get over the trauma since for security reasons I was not allowed to talk about it at home.

To this day I relive the moment every April 18 at 1:45 PM Eastern time by stopping what I am doing and standing in silence.

Vic Abraham the general manager of the program at Perkin-Elmer  at that time said, “we were standing there waiting for the blast off. We were in the fallback position. It was 8 seconds into launch when it exploded and the wind blew towards us. I was standing there with other government people. This cloud of yellow smoke from the boosters was coming our way—we had to run like crazy into our cars and ‘get the hell out of there.’ I wanted to see the launch in person, not on camera in the blockhouse as I was for other launches. Then later we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Our hearts went out.”

Frank Harrigan was the Manager of the Perkin-Elmer West Coast Field Office located in one of the Lockheed buildings in Sunnyvale, California. Lockheed (before it before it became Lockheed-Martin) was the prime contractor that assembled and tested the Hexagon vehicle’s major components. The systems that Lockheed assembled and tested included the camera/film handling system designed and built by Perkin-Elmer in Danbury, the film that was supplied by the Kodak company in Rochester, the re-entry vehicles that were supplied by the McDonnell–Douglas company in St. Louis, and electronic and support equipment supplied by   others. 

Frank told me “What a terrible thing. This is no way for us to end this successful program. Most importantly at that time the United States did not have any launch lifting capability for any vehicle this heavy. It was that serious. We lost the challenger and we lost the Titan. You ask if I was worried about my job and hell no, I was not worried about that at all. I worried about the guys in the blockhouse. Emotionally I felt terrible. We were told to stay a few days for some of our crew to go over the grounds to pick up debris and most importantly any film that might have been scattered over the grounds, because for security reasons that would have indicated that the payload was a spy camera and very few people at Vandenberg knew the contents of the payload.

George Manolis, a quality control engineer with Perkin-Elmer recalled “after the explosion security had concerns with the possibility that any leftover film could be spread out over a huge area at Vandenberg’s launch site. Evidence of film in the area would be a major security problem.  Ten of our team was assigned to go throughout the base with black plastic bags. We scoured the area for several days, and picked up all the pieces of film that survived the explosion we could find and turned the bags over to security. Only some of the film had unraveled from its reels. There had been a total of 60 miles of film on the satellite.”  

Dick Parker was the supervisor of electrical and mechanical technicians at Vandenberg Air Force Base. He worked for Lockheed-Martin at Vandenberg and for 30 years was involved in launches of all types of rockets. This is what he told me:

“For that launch I chose to see it from the fallback position approximately 3 miles from the launch pad. My office was in a trailer directly across from the control center. When that thing blew up my office was destroyed by pieces of the solid rocket propellant that hit the ground and just sliced right through columns of beams and reinforced concrete. All that was left was a pile of rubble and a big crater. It was the most horrendous site that you could ever imagine and very traumatic.

Overall there was $73 million worth of damage done to the entire site and it took months and months to recover from that. The investigation indicated that the liquid stage of the titan missile did not ignite until the burn of the solid rocket. The solid rocket motors are what got the thing off the ground. When the blast occurred it was the result of a burn through of the insulation and outer casing of one of the solid rocket motors that sent a bulk of molten material into the liquid propellant stages and exploded the two un-expended propellants of the core vehicle.

It created a great big orange cloud that slowly began to drift towards my location. An emergency evacuation announcement was made over the public address system and we evacuated the area and headed to the north. The craziness of the situation stuck out. There were numerous witnesses to the scene lined up on highway 135 and as we made the turn exiting the gate you saw the most chaotic scene imaginable as people were fearful of that cloud that was moving directly above them.

We attempted to enter the flow of traffic and right in that whole maze came a string of fire trucks going in the opposite direction. How those fire trucks got through that mess of cars was a mystery to everybody and that we were very fortunate that somebody didn’t get killed.

I very much felt in danger and very much concerned with the well-being of the 78 people ensconced in the blockhouse in the control center. We thought for sure all had lost their lives. So we were indeed fortunate not to lose a life.

It was 3 days later when we could return to the site and I only then realized what happened and that my entire office had been lost. I was devastated at the loss of many personal items I had in my office.

Martin Marietta had a recovery team there and one of their quality control people was an avid horse person and volunteered the use of some of his horses to clomp through the waist high mesquite and branches of the undercover all around the site to search for debris as it was rattlesnake infested. I don’t think any horses suffered from the snakes that were probably killed by the explosion. The riders found various things they had no knowledge of and turned it over to security. The local military was not cleared for the program and was not allowed there.

Finally Ken Dudschus, an engineer who monitored all vehicle data during testing and launch, said:

“I was in the basement of the blockhouse when I heard the   tremendous noise of the explosion. The whole blockhouse started rocking like crazy and I thought we were all going to die. We   received a phone call from Jimmy Dimas, one of our technicians located elsewhere at Vandenberg, to determine if we had survived.

There were armed guards in the blockhouse with us and they apparently had orders not to let anyone of us to leave. That included one woman who had an asthma attack. Another nearby building, one that contained all the air conditioning equipment for Lockheed and the blockhouse was destroyed, so we had no air conditioning.

Hours later, with the ‘all clear,’ we were eventually evacuated, boarded buses and brought to our motels. We were all thankful that we survived but we still could not tell anyone what the real purpose of the launch payload was. Now that the program has been declassified I can tell family and friends that it had been a top-secret spy satellite.”



Decades later are recalled

Decades Later, a Cold War Secret Is Revealed

Published December 25, 2011 Associated Press

DANBURY, Conn. –  For more than a decade they toiled in the strange, boxy-looking building on the hill above the municipal airport, the building with no windows (except in the cafeteria), the building filled with secrets.

They wore protective white jumpsuits, and had to walk through air-shower chambers before entering the sanitized "cleanroom" where the equipment was stored.

They spoke in code.

Few knew the true identity of "the customer" they met in a smoke-filled, wood-paneled conference room where the phone lines were scrambled. When they traveled, they sometimes used false names.

At one point in the 1970s there were more than 1,000 people in the Danbury area working on The Secret. And though they worked long hours under intense deadlines, sometimes missing family holidays and anniversaries, they could tell no one — not even their wives and children — what they did.

They were engineers, scientists, draftsmen and inventors — "real cloak-and-dagger guys," says Fred Marra, 78, with a hearty laugh.

He is sitting in the food court at the Danbury Fair mall, where a group of retired co-workers from the former Perkin-Elmer Corp. gather for a weekly coffee. Gray-haired now and hard of hearing, they have been meeting here for 18 years. They while away a few hours nattering about golf and politics, ailments and grandchildren. But until recently, they were forbidden to speak about the greatest achievement of their professional lives.

"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.

Hexagon was declassified in September. Finally Marra, Newton and others can tell the world what they worked on all those years at "the office."

"My name is Al Gayhart and I built spy satellites for a living," announced the 64-year-old retired engineer to the stunned bartender in his local tavern as soon as he learned of the declassification. He proudly repeats the line any chance he gets.

"It was intensely demanding, thrilling and the greatest experience of my life," says Gayhart, who was hired straight from college and was one of the youngest members of the Hexagon "brotherhood".

He describes the white-hot excitement as teams pored over hand-drawings and worked on endless technical problems, using "slide-rules and advanced degrees" (there were no computers), knowing they were part of such a complicated space project. The intensity would increase as launch deadlines loomed and on the days when "the customer" — the CIA and later the Air Force — came for briefings. On at least one occasion, former President George H.W. Bush, who was then CIA director, flew into Danbury for a tour of the plant.

Though other companies were part of the project — Eastman Kodak made the film and Lockheed Corp. built the satellite — the cameras and optics systems were all made at Perkin-Elmer, then the biggest employer in Danbury.

"There were many days we arrived in the dark and left in the dark," says retired engineer Paul Brickmeier, 70.

He recalls the very first briefing on Hexagon after Perkin-Elmer was awarded the top secret contract in 1966. Looking around the room at his 30 or so colleagues, Brickmeier thought, "How on Earth is this going to be possible?"

One thing that made it possible was a hiring frenzy that attracted the attention of top engineers from around the Northeast. Perkin-Elmer also commissioned a new 270,000-square-foot building for Hexagon — the boxy one on the hill.

Waiting for clearance was a surreal experience as family members, neighbors and former employers were grilled by the FBI, and potential hires were questioned about everything from their gambling habits to their sexuality.

"They wanted to make sure we couldn't be bribed," Marra says.

Clearance could take up to a year. During that time, employees worked on relatively minor tasks in a building dubbed "the mushroom tank" — so named because everyone was in the dark about what they had actually been hired for.

Joseph Prusak, 76, spent six months in the tank. When he was finally briefed on Hexagon, Prusak, who had worked as an engineer on earlier civil space projects, wondered if he had made the biggest mistake of his life.

"I thought they were crazy," he says. "They envisaged a satellite that was 60-foot long and 30,000 pounds and supplying film at speeds of 200 inches per second. The precision and complexity blew my mind."

Several years later, after numerous successful launches, he was shown what Hexagon was capable of — an image of his own house in suburban Fairfield.

"This was light years before Google Earth," Prusak said. "And we could clearly see the pool in my backyard."

There had been earlier space spy satellites — Corona and Gambit. But neither had the resolution or sophistication of Hexagon, which took close-range pictures of Soviet missiles, submarine pens and air bases, even entire battalions on war exercises.

According to the National Reconnaissance Office, a single Hexagon frame covered a ground distance of 370 nautical miles, about the distance from Washington to Cincinnati. Early Hexagons averaged 124 days in space, but as the satellites became more sophisticated, later missions lasted twice as long.

"At the height of the Cold War, our ability to receive this kind of technical intelligence was incredible," says space historian Dwayne Day. "We needed to know what they were doing and where they were doing it, and in particular if they were preparing to invade Western Europe. Hexagon created a tremendous amount of stability because it meant American decision makers were not operating in the dark."

Among other successes, Hexagon is credited with providing crucial information for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

From the outset, secrecy was a huge concern, especially in Danbury, where the intense activity of a relatively small company that had just been awarded a massive contract (the amount was not declassified) made it obvious that something big was going on. Inside the plant, it was impossible to disguise the gigantic vacuum thermal chamber where cameras were tested in extreme conditions that simulated space. There was also a "shake, rattle and roll room" to simulate conditions during launch.

"The question became, how do you hide an elephant?" a National Reconnaissance Office report stated at the time. It decided on a simple response: "What elephant?" Employees were told to ignore any questions from the media, and never confirm the slightest detail about what they worked on.

But it was impossible to conceal the launches at Vandenberg Air Force base in California, and aviation magazines made several references to "Big Bird." In 1975, a "60 Minutes" television piece on space reconnaissance described an "Alice in Wonderland" world, where American and Soviet intelligence officials knew of each other's "eyes in the sky" — and other nations did, too — but no one confirmed the programs or spoke about them publicly.

For employees at Perkin-Elmer, the vow of secrecy was considered a mark of honor.

"We were like the guys who worked on the first atom bomb," said Oscar Berendsohn, 87, who helped design the optics system. "It was more than a sworn oath. We had been entrusted with the security of the country. What greater trust is there?"

Even wives — who couldn't contact their husbands or know of their whereabouts when they were traveling — for the most part accepted the secrecy. They knew the jobs were highly classified. They knew not to ask questions.

"We were born into the World War II generation," says Linda Bronico, whose husband, Al, told her only that he was building test consoles and cables. "We all knew the slogan 'loose lips sink ships.'"

And Perkin-Elmer was considered a prized place to work, with good salaries and benefits, golf and softball leagues, lavish summer picnics (the company would hire an entire amusement park for employees and their families) and dazzling children's Christmas parties.

"We loved it," Marra says. "It was our life."

For Marra and his former co-workers, sharing that life and their long-held secret has unleashed a jumble of emotions, from pride to nostalgia to relief — and in some cases, grief.

The city's mayor, Mark Boughton, only discovered that his father had worked on Hexagon when he was invited to speak at an October reunion ceremony on the grounds of the former plant. His father, Donald Boughton, also a former mayor, was too ill to attend and died a few days later.

Boughton said for years he and his siblings would pester his father — a draftsman — about what he did. Eventually they realized that the topic was off limits.

"Learning about Hexagon makes me view him completely differently," Boughton says. "He was more than just my Dad with the hair-trigger temper and passionate opinions about everything. He was a Cold War warrior doing something incredibly important for our nation."

For Betty Osterweis the ceremony was bittersweet, too. Not only did she learn about the mystery of her late husband's professional life. She also learned about his final moments.

"All these years," she said, "I had wondered what exactly had happened" on that terrible day in 1987 when she received a phone call saying her 53-year-old husband, Henry Osterweis, a contract negotiator, had suffered a heart attack on the job. At the reunion she met former co-workers who could offer some comfort that the end had been quick.

Standing in the grounds of her late husband's workplace, listening to the tributes, her son and daughter and grandchildren by her side, Osterweis was overwhelmed by the enormity of it all — the sacrifice, the secrecy, the pride.

"To know that this was more than just a company selling widgets ... that he was negotiating contracts for our country's freedom and security," she said.

"What a secret. And what a legacy."


Helen O'Neill is a New York-based national writer for The Associated Press. She can be reached at features(at)ap.org.

Designers and Draftsmen in the 1970's

This is a 1970’s photo of some of the Danbury PE design and drafting personnel who created design drawings for the Hexagon program. CAD did not exist in those days and everyone used large drafting boards. The drawings were created in pencil on transparent drafting paper and if a change had to be made, erased and corrected or totally re-drawn. When finished, the tracing paper was put through a large machine containing ammonia that then developed the final blueprint on a special paper. The ammonia smell, especially for large drawings, lasted for weeks.

As best I remember the names from left to right were: Al Gasper, Tom O’Mara (manager), Ray Schneider, unknown, unknown, Don Boughton (bearded and later Mayor of Danbury), unknown, Tom Hayden, Jack Gearin, Juneau Voller, Gil Gonzalez and Ralph Forsberg. Unfortunately I do not have a photo of many other designers who worked on the program. They all were skilled and made many significant contributions.  

I ask that any Perkin-Elmer former employee or still currently working please send me any photos, memories or stories about your days at PE. My email is phil.pressel@gmail.com

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Two Hexagonians

Is this going too far? Here are Jon Aspinwall and Phil Pressel showing their shirts and license plates as alumni and in honor of the job of a lifetime. 



Phil Pressel .jpg


Clever Jon Aspinwall put the photos together with Hexagon hats. 

Clever Jon Aspinwall put the photos together with Hexagon hats.