Meeting the Challenge: The Hexagon KH-9 Reconnaissance Satellite. By Phil Pressel. Reston, Va.: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2013. Photographs. Illustrations. Appendices. Index. Pp. xxviii, 297. $39.95 ISBN: 978-1-62410-203-5
When the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) declassified Corona the first U.S. photoreconnaissance satellite program in February 1995, a spate of official studies and scholarly books almost immediately deluged the general public with previously top-secret details. While declassification of Hexagon, the exceedingly more complex successor to Corona, in September 2011, sparked a transitory buzz across the news media, there seemed to be scant scholarly interest in analyzing its details. Those thirsting for something more than the nitty-gritty found themselves, more often than not, searching the internet for official postings on the NRO or Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) web sites. Historians of national-security and military space hoped the publication of Meeting the Challenge would deliver a less constrained, unofficial perspective.
Pressel is a mechanical engineer who worked more than thirty years for PerkinElmer Corporation, the company that designed and built the Hexagon camera system under CIA contract. As a project engineer, he was intimately involved with design, development, and production of the Hexagon camera assembly and its various subsystems in the late 1960s and with analysis of its on-orbit performance through the 1970s-1980s. Pressel set out in 2004, with CIA permission, to write the story of the KH-9 satellite code named Hexagon and identified by the media as Big Bird and its unprecedented technological complexity. To augment his firsthand knowledge, he gathered information from more than two dozen former coworkers.
Meeting the Challenge is the result of Pressel's nearly decade-long undertaking and is, fundamentally, an engineering history. It delves into how scientists and engineers resolved mind-numbing technical challenges, how innovative sometimes amazingly ingenious processes contributed to seemingly unsolvable design problems, and how a government-industry team struggled cooperatively to build and launch a fifteen-ton payload that measured sixty feet long and ten feet in diameter. The most sophisticated...