Be Proud of Hexagon

This article was written by Dwayne Day "Space policy analyst and historian who works in Washington, DC." It was written for the SpaceReview online publication.

Those of you who worked on Hexagon have every reason to be extremely proud of what you did. It was so important to the security of the United  States and how it helped keep the peace during the cold war. 


Black ops and the shuttle (part 3-2): The HEXAGON ghost haunting the desert storm

by Dwayne A. Day

Monday, December 18, 2017

In summer 1990, Saddam Hussein’s military forces invaded Iraq’s southern neighbor, the tiny country of Kuwait. The United States mobilized for war and in early 1991 launched a massive air attack against Iraqi forces, later followed by an invasion of both Kuwait and Iraq. Generally referred to as the Persian Gulf War, the two primary phases of the operation were designated Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In relatively short time, the Iraqi military was defeated.

“Wide area synoptic coverage could have captured the whole Iraqi land mass and forces in one fell swoop and had the film and some exploitation to them in two days,” a former NRO official explained.

United States intelligence capabilities, including satellite assets, were used during the war to an unprecedented extent for a military operation, and Desert Storm earned the moniker “the first space war.” After the end of the conflict, several military commanders complained about the availability of satellite imagery. The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) produced a report in 1993 titled “Intelligence Successes and Failures in Operations Desert Shield/Storm.” In the report, one unnamed military commander stated:

There is a need for wide-area synoptic coverage. The area occupied by Iraqi forces was on the order of 27,000 to 30,000 square miles, the size of four New England states. In hindsight, getting rid of both the SR-71 (high-altitude photographic reconnaissance aircraft) and [a wide-area satellite imagery system] at the same time was short-sighted. The Commander-in-Chief [CINC] lacked synoptic coverage.

The report further stated “The absence of wide-area coverage has been compared to ‘searching New York City by looking through a soda straw.’”

The SR-71 was retired in spring 1990, only a few months before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The last successful HEXAGON mission was in 1984, followed by the last launch in 1986. The unnamed military commander quoted in the HASC report was clearly bemoaning the loss of the incredibly powerful HEXAGON system, and unhappy with its replacement.

A former NRO official agreed with the commander’s assessment. “Wide area synoptic coverage could have captured the whole Iraqi land mass and forces in one fell swoop and had the film and some exploitation to them in two days,” he explained. He also thought that the soda straw analogy was misleading, because it missed the fact that the individual images stitched together to produce a mosaic of a larger area were taken at different times, and things could change in the interim. “How many times would you count the same taxi (tank) that had moved from place to place and been imaged multiple times at multiple places?” he asked. There really was no substitute for the kind of coverage that HEXAGON had provided, photographing vast amounts of territory very rapidly, seeing entire armies in a single pass overhead.

In his 1996 interview, NRO director Martin Faga had much to say about the NRO’s support to Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Faga stated that he felt that much of the criticism of satellite capabilities during Desert Storm was unfair. “Over the period of the war, from the invasion in August through the end of the conflict in February, the number of satellites available to watch the area was the same, but the product almost doubled,” he said. Faga attributed this to NRO assistance in targeting and effective resource management.

Although Faga did not directly address the issue of broad area coverage raised by the military commander, he attributed most of the complaints about lack of imagery to a ground distribution problem, not a supply problem. The United States Army, Faga stated, had spent a significant amount of money on ground systems for processing satellite imagery and enabling its distribution to field commanders. In contrast, the Air Force had spent very little money on that capability. As the military build-up in theater occurred, General Norman Schwartzkopf, who commanded all allied forces, partially rectified the situation by sharing the Army’s capability with the Air Force, spreading the assets thin and leading to much grumbling. The problem was not the satellites, Faga argued, and he noted that afterwards the Air Force began investing significantly in ground processing and distribution equipment.

Although the distribution of intelligence information in the field had resulted in much criticism, notably, the quote in the House Armed Services Committee report identified collection systems—specifically the lack of both the HEXAGON and the SR-71—as a major problem. How the collection systems fit into the overall intelligence collection mission during the late Cold War was an even more complicated story.

Tracking tanks in the Gulf War was challenging given the limited imagery available to forces in the field. (credit: US Defense Department)

Order of battle

Several former senior CIA analysts were asked about their opinions concerning the end of the HEXAGON era and the deficiencies of the KENNEN for the search mission. “It was true,” one former analyst confirmed, the HEXAGON had been superior to the system that replaced it even though the HEXAGON used film and returned its images days—sometimes weeks—after they had been taken.

Imagery provided proof of what existed, but not what could exist in the next few years. And sometimes the imagery provided data that could be accurate but misleading.

Another analyst who was also familiar with the NRO disputed that assessment: “Virtually all relevant shortfalls in area coverage between the two could be managed with effective collection tasking management, which was problematic, given competing priorities.” But a former NRO official who was intimately familiar with the HEXAGON’s capabilities thought that the problem of competing imagery collection priorities was not an excuse, it was the whole point: without a dedicated satellite like HEXAGON providing search imagery, of course the search mission would be neglected for other missions that were considered higher priority by the intelligence community, and it was.

But the former analysts also added that imagery collection and its shortfalls was only part of a much bigger puzzle that they were trying to assemble. Imagery alone could not answer all of the questions that intelligence analysts were trying to answer. Imagery provided proof of what existed, but not what could exist in the next few years. And sometimes the imagery provided data that could be accurate but misleading.

For instance, during the 1970s and ’80s CIA analysts had to try and project Soviet tank production in coming years while also calculating what tanks were already deployed and ready to face down NATO in Europe. This created several complicated dilemmas, because analysts realized that the Soviets should have been producing far more tanks than the satellites were showing deployed in the Soviet Union and the various Warsaw Pact nations. The satellites had also photographed Soviet tank production factories, which were huge and should have been capable of turning out many tanks per year. Were the satellites not photographing all the extra tanks in the field—perhaps because the Soviets were very effectively hiding them—or was Soviet production much lower than the CIA’s analytical tools indicated?

Although it has been gone for decades, the HEXAGON’s capabilities have never been replicated.

It turned out that Soviet tank production was much lower than initially calculated. While the Soviets had vast factories dedicated to armored vehicle production, they were incredibly inefficient and produced far fewer tanks than American industry did based upon floor space and workforce. It was not just the size of a factory or the number of tanks in the field revealed by the satellite images, it was the analytical models used to interpret all that data that were required to produce more accurate intelligence that could be delivered to decision makers.

Later, while trying to verify the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe in the early 1990s, American inspectors got into heated arguments with Russian field commanders who they thought were showing them obsolete vehicles rather what was officially in the Russian reporting and was supposedly in the inventory. The inspectors always heard the same response: “We are showing you what we have, not what we report to Moscow.” The Soviet system was not only one big puzzle to the Americans, it was a puzzle to the Soviets themselves.

Although the satellites could not answer all the questions, these incidents also emphasized the value of satellites over spies. Even if a spy got top secret information from inside the Soviet army, it might be nothing but a collection of lies that everybody told to everybody else, all in support of the biggest lie of all: that communism was working.

In his 1996 interview, former Director of the NRO Martin Faga made another novel argument that the intelligence community now takes for granted: satellites could not do everything. What the military needed was drones that could go into areas where the United States did not necessarily have total control of the skies and then operate there for a long period of time. By the early 2000s, the era of “persistent surveillance” by unmanned drones like the Air Force’s Predator became common. But whereas satellites cannot hover over a single location for a long time, aircraft cannot go over what the intelligence community still refers to as “denied territory.” To do the intelligence mission, you need both, and even then there will be many unknowns.

The bus-sized HEXAGON reconnaissance satellite was the largest intelligence satellite launched by the United States in the 1970s. Throughout that decade and into the early 1980s, the National Reconnaissance Office evaluated launching, and recovering HEXAGONs using the space shuttle. (credit: NRO)

The big bird’s swan song

Although it has been gone for decades, the HEXAGON’s capabilities have never been replicated. The former NRO official believes that its retirement was as much budgetary as it was technological. “When the stories are written I believe they will show that there wasn’t enough budget or will to fund anything other than the electro-optical system as they wanted it to evolve. Any film system would be competition for the funds and a constant reminder of the electro-optical system’s limitations,” he explained. “It was time to force the space reconnaissance community to the next plateau whether they wanted to or not. The electro-optical system did offer the near real-time capability that the film systems lacked, but at the expense of a lot of collection area.”

The former official noted that in some ways this was ironic: in the 1950s and ’60s, when the CIA and Air Force were jockeying for their respective positions on the first imaging satellites, the Air Force pushed an almost real-time imaging system named SAMOS to help with the Air Force’s attack warning and war fighting mission. In contrast, the CIA advocated a film return system named CORONA to do their National Intelligence Estimate assessment mission. “Then in the ’80s the roles reversed, with the CIA pushing the electro-optical near real-time system and the Air Force pushing the film-return systems. Organizational missions hadn’t changed, but the implementation approaches were reversed. Each was pushing the technology they had.”

Today, 25 years after that history was written, and over three decades since the last successful HEXAGON mission, HEXAGON’s unique collection capability has almost surely still not been matched

In 1992, the NRO produced a secret history of the HEXAGON program that was finally declassified in 2011. It summarized the program’s capabilities by stating: “During its 13-year life, HEXAGON provided a unique collection capability which may never again be achieved by US imagery satellites. Its ability to cover thousands of square nautical miles with contiguous, cloud-free, high-resolution imagery in a single operation provided US intelligence users and mapping, charting, and geodesy (MC&G) organizations with vast amounts of nearly simultaneous contiguous coverage. Order-of-battle information across entire Soviet military districts could be achieved in a short timeframe. Sino-Soviet military tactics could be studied and determined by analyzing imagery of Warsaw Pact, Soviet, and Chinese large-scale exercises. HEXAGON provided the best MC&G support ever furnished to the user community.”

Today, 25 years after that history was written, and over three decades since the last successful HEXAGON mission, HEXAGON’s unique collection capability has almost surely still not been matched. Even today, the story of the HEXAGON—and the space shuttle—is still being written, but one thing is increasingly clear: HEXAGON was unique, incredibly powerful, and missed by the intelligence community and the military.


These three links provide more history to the Hexagon story.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3



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

Design &    Drafting, JPEG .jpg

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. 

Mike Maguire, A Great Leader

Mike Maguire, A Great Leader

By Phil Pressel

The Optical Technology Division of the Perkin-Elmer Corporation in Danbury, Connecticut designed and built the camera and film handling system for the Hexagon spy satellite program. Hexagon was a major factor in keeping the peace during the cold war (1970’s and 1980’s). It provided excellent imagery photographs of military and other assets of the Soviet Union and other denied territories.

Much of Hexagon’s success belongs to the talented staff consisting of over 1,000 Perkin-Elmer employees and to the thousands of personnel of the Air force, the CIA, the NRO, the Navy and many private industry personnel. Mike Maguire was the leader and first Director of the incredibly complicated Hexagon camera system at Perkin-Elmer.


        Mike Maguire on his 91st birthday 

        Mike Maguire on his 91st birthday 

In speaking about him with former colleagues over the years, while working or in retirement, we all agreed that, “Mike was the best manager I ever worked for.”

He was strict, fair, knowledgeable, demanding, inspirational and respected by all of us. Technically he knew the engineering workings of the program inside out.

The following are excerpts from an interview I conducted with Mike in 2005.

“This was a career job. It had to be for most of us. How many people get a chance to build something that sophisticated, and that did so much for the country? It was a marvelous opportunity to do something really spectacular and really well. I think it was the most complicated thing ever put up in orbit. We had a great group of people. I don’t know if it was luck or whatever but we put together one absolutely great and dedicated team

Hey let me give you some personal stuff; you know that I am an immigrant also, that I wasn’t born in the US. I was born in Ireland; I tell the story that my father took one look at me and left the country. Which is literally true because after 3 years earning enough money he sent for my mother, my brother and myself and we lived in the south Bronx in the tenement on east 162nd street for several years. I graduated RPI with my undergraduate degree and my graduate degree from the U of CT. I had all the credits for my doctorate but my wife was pregnant with number 8 at the time I was ready to finish up my dissertation, so I became a manager instead of a technical specialist. Gloria and I now have 12 children and 20 grandchildren.

 Before I came to PE I was manager of guidance and control systems at GE Missile and Space Systems down at Valley Forge.“

Ken McLeish, chief engineer at PE called me and asked if I would like to come up and work for him at PE. So I said well I’ll come up and see what the possibilities are, and we talked and he wanted to make me an offer but first I had to be interviewed by Dick Perkin who was the founder, President and CEO of PE. I went to see Dick and he says, tell me about yourself. Well I’m an electrical engineer. He said what do you know about optics. I said, I had optics in a physics course in my sophomore year, that’s about it. He said, do you know how a roof prism works, and I said gee I really don’t Mr. Perkin and he gave me a training manual on fire control systems that had a description of a roof prism and how it worked; he said go away and read it and come back and visit me in a couple of weeks; which I did and he said did you read the manual; I said yes; he said can you tell me how a roof prism works now; I said, yeah I sure can and I did and he approved me being hired and I was hired as an engineer and branch manager working for Ken.

 Soon the agency came to PE. They wanted a scanning system that would have the accuracy of a spotting camera system. They gave PE some study money to look at it. I was not the early proposal manager on the system. I believe it was Milt Roseneau or Dick Babish. Well at any rate it was a very challenging situation. Les Dirks from the agency was the key technical guy, a very bright guy. He said what makes you think you can do this job and I said I have some reasonable experience and I think we can pull it off; he asked me a bunch of questions and I apparently satisfied him and he gave his ok to it and we started the study.

 Then the real proposal came and that was a substantial effort and I have to say that I was really impressed by all the people that contributed to that proposal. It was probably one of the best proposals I had ever seen.

 I think one of the biggest challenges in the early part of the project is that we only were able to get about 150 people from the PE cadre and we had to increase that to over 1,000.

 Anyway we went out and did a search for competent people and we put them in that big chamber area with all the noise, and I don’t know how those people stood it for the months they had to wait to obtain their security clearances.

 At the same time we had to define and build a facility and the plans kept changing because they wanted to put in bigger test chambers and so forth. Trying to split between getting the system defined, getting the people on board, and getting the facility defined and built was a pretty strenuous part of the program.

 Talking about the facility by the way, it was to be a classified facility and the Danbury tax assessor evaluated the value of the facility at $10 million and he then said it was his experience that the equipment in a big factory like that would be equal to the factory itself. So he wanted to assess us another $10 million; I said I’m sorry but most of the equipment going in here will be government furnished equipment and you can’t tax that. He didn’t believe me and I got a call from Senator Lowell Weickert who was the Connecticut Senator at the time, and he said would you come down and see me as you are having some difficulty from the people in Danbury. So I said sure and I went down, and he said what are you building up there and I said I’m sorry I can’t tell you what we are building up there and he said why not, I said because you are not cleared, and he said, I’m a Senator I’m cleared for everything. I said look I’m sorry I don’t want to argue with you I can’t tell you the stuff, but if you need it call the department of defense and they will put you in touch with the right people. I never heard anything more about it. That was just a humorous story.

 Then we actually started on the work. By the way we never had any real manufacturing at PE except for the optics manufacturing, and when we started looking at the complicated assemblies we had to put together here I started out looking for a manufacturing engineer that had put together fairly sophisticated systems and we couldn’t find any. There was a guy named Kenny Meserve who was a technician at the time and he had worked on a prior facility down on Route 7 and I said Kenny I want you to sit down and figure out a flow diagram for the assembly of this whole system, and he looked at me and said what’s a flow diagram. I said it is where the assemblies come together part by part until we get to the final assembly. He said ok I can do something like that and he put together a couple of flow charts and we talked about them and modified them and he was obviously a very bright guy and very intent on doing a good job, and we ended up making him the manufacturing manager for the project. Good guy and a really good decision.

 We used to have morning stand up meetings where we’d take the problems as they came up and try to get them solved before they got to be too big. I liked that approach to doing things, we had good communications throughout the program; people weren’t afraid to say what was wrong and what we needed to fix

 Some of the key people on the program were Bob Jones, Charlie  Karatzas and Bob Williamson and on the servos Marty Yellin was a very bright guy; Williamson was low key but a good manager he kept track of everything.

 Anyway Hexagon was a great success and I always considered the Hexagon program to be the pinnacle of my professional career.”

In recognition of Mike’s achievements I nominated him in 2005  (seconded by Bob Jones, Bob Williamson and Mike Mazaika of Perkin-Elmer) to be inducted into the NRO’s (National Reconnaissance Office) honor group of Pioneers and Founders of National Reconnaissance. This group consists of individuals that represent the finest talent in government, military and industry whose contributions cover a body of work that is and was of lasting importance to the nation. 

In the nomination I included the following about Mike:

“Mike’s leadership was instrumental in melding the complicated state of the art technical developments necessary to meet the difficult optical, mechanical and electrical requirements of the KH-9 camera into a well functioning system by coordinating all of the necessary skills, talented people and department organizations into one cohesive operation. The program provided valuable intelligence to the country as the technical means of verification for the SALT treaties.

 The team grew from the initial staff of 30 to over 1200 and was dedicated because he was a visionary, a superb motivator, blessed with smarts, had total recall of technical issues and tireless. He was a hard-driving and fair leader.”

 The NRO did select Mike Maguire as a Pioneer and Founder of National Reconnaissance. The NRO announcement stated:

 “Mike Maguire pioneered one of the last film based reconnaissance systems used by the NRO. Pushing the state-of-the-art during design and development phases of acquisition, Mr. Maguire’s efforts and leadership resulted in an invaluable national asset in reconnaissance and one relied on heavily by the nation’s decision-makers. The resulting imaging satellites brought reliability and operational longevity to new heights.”

I just heard from Mike and he asked me to make sure to give due credit to ALL the PE people who contributed to the success of the program. Each individual who worked on the program in their own field of responsibility shares credit for their outstanding job in the success of the Hexagon program. 




The Twister

The Twister and its Inventor, Don Cowles

A key patented invention that enabled the Hexagon camera system to succeed was that of the “twister.” This was a mechanical device, shown below, that allowed the film to travel both linearly and in rotation past the focal plane of the camera. It made the film travel over air bars that twisted back and forth in rotation and in synchronization with the rotating image.  


Twister, jpeg.jpg

Don Cowles, a mechanical engineer at Perkin-Elmer invented and developed the twister. He was acknowledged and honored at a celebration at Perkin-Elmer in Danbury, Connecticut many years ago by Chester Nimitz, Jr, CEO of Perkin-Elmer and attended by many other staff members of the program.

Don Cowles facing front .jpeg