In Overmatched, we take a close look at the science and technology at the heart of the defense industry—the world of soldiers and spies.
YOU MAY NOT HAVE HEARD of the National Reconnaissance Office, an intelligence organization whose existence wasn’t declassified until 1992, but you have perhaps come across some of its creepy kitsch: patches from its surveillance-satellite missions. Consider the one that shows a yellow octopus strangling the globe with its tentacles, with the words “Nothing Is Beyond Our Reach” stitched beneath. Yikes.
The office, known as the NRO, is in charge of America’s spy satellites. The details of its current capabilities are largely classified, but we, the people, can get hints about it from public information—like the fact that the NRO donated two telescopes to NASA in 2012. The instruments were obsolete as far as the spies, who point their scopes at Earth instead of space, were concerned, but they were more powerful than the space agency’s Hubble.
But how the NRO came to build such capable watchers isn’t just the story of a secret government organization; it’s the result of that secret government organization’s collaboration with academics and corporate engineers—a story that Aaron Bateman, assistant professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, lays out in an article published in June 2023 in the journal Intelligence and National Security called “Secret partners: The national reconnaissance office and the intelligence-industrial-academic complex.”
Although the phrase military-industrial complex has become common since Dwight D. Eisenhower coined it in 1961, academia’s role in that same complex often gets left out. So, too, does the intelligence side of the shiny national-security coin.
That gap in the historical literature is what made Bateman decide to dig into the National Reconnaissance Office’s early connections to scholars and private companies. And while the collaborations he traces are decades old, they echo into today. Companies, universities, and colleges all still contribute to intelligence agencies—the latter’s needs sometimes shaping the trajectory of scientific inquiry or technological development. Wonky advances from academics and corporate types, meanwhile, still make spies lift their eyebrows in interest.
California and the Corona project
The story Bateman tells begins in Sunnyvale, California, a town in what is now, but was not then, Silicon Valley. In the 1950s, as the country was looking toward orbit, Lockheed—today Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest defense contractor—took notice of the government’s gaze. “Lockheed already had considerable presence in aerospace but wanted to carve out a space for itself—no pun intended—in space,” says Bateman.
Lockheed execs began contemplating what they would need to do to make that happen. Number one, carving out that space in space required…well…space. “During the 1950s, the Bay Area was full of just unused land that was fairly cheap,” says Bateman. But it wasn’t just the area’s wide-openness that appealed to Lockheed. “Most importantly, Stanford University was located there,” he continues. The defense contractor could siphon smart engineers from the school. Those variables locked down, Lockheed set up its Sunnyvale shop a few years before the NRO was founded, and it had won an Air Force satellite design contract by 1956.
This Bay Area facility soon became key to the NRO’s aptly named National Reconnaissance Program. Within big Bay Area buildings, Lockheed snapped together the components for the Corona project—the first satellite program to take pictures from space—and other nosy spacecraft. Once satellites were in orbit, industrial-academic collaborators helped the government operate and troubleshoot them. The feds couldn’t handle those tasks on their own, not having made the spacecraft themselves.
Importantly to the development of these eyes in the sky, there was also “a free flow of knowledge,” according to Bateman’s research, among Stanford, Lockheed, and the people in trenchcoats who worked for the government.
Starting in the late 1950s, Stanford created the Industrial Affiliates Program, through which Lockheed employees taught university courses—ensuring students’ education would benefit future intelligence-industrial contributors—and also attended university classes, so they could stay up on the latest developments.
Stanford grad students, meanwhile, waxed poetic about their research in presentations to the corporate suits. Lockheed recruited students whose work had relevance to their Secret Squirrel pursuits.
The school also ran the Stanford Electronics Laboratory, a location fit for collaboration. Its academic environment supported a riskier, more experimental mindset than a deliverables-driven office might. For instance, a laboratory employee once installed a radar receiver in a Cessna plane and flew around San Francisco just to prove the instrument would work at high altitude—a “told you” that led to a satellite instrument that mapped the USSR’s air defense network.
What developed on the East Coast
Not to be left behind, the eastern part of the US had its own members-only meetings with the government. In Rochester, New York, Kodak created film that could survive the inhospitality of space, so it could be used to snap shots up there from a satellite. The film then fell back down through the atmosphere to Earth, where it was, incredibly, caught midair by a plane.
The film had to capture clear pictures even as the camera peered through the entire atmosphere, survive the cosmic vacuum, and not break apart during the shaky, vibrating ride between here and there.
Creating such kinds of film pushed photographic science along. As Bateman’s paper points out, “Technology is not just ‘applied science.’ Rather, technological needs can also lead to scientific advances.”
In this case, those advances included not just image-taking but image analysis. And for that, the NRO turned to the Rochester Institute of Technology—where, by virtue of it being next to Kodak, photographic-science scholars had amassed. Amping that up, a CIA organization dedicated to image analysis, the National Photographic Interpretation Center, started a grant program at the university, funding projects whose results would curve the path of scientific inquiry in a favorable direction for spies. One project, for instance, proposed new ways to pick up camouflage in photos. Scientists who got grants were then sometimes recruited into full-time espionage-focused employment.
But it’s not as if the government and academia were peaceful partners all the time. “There’s widespread opposition on college campuses across the United States to any kind of classified research,” says Bateman. But in the late 1960s, the negativity was “fairly extreme” at Stanford, where “students tried to break in and vandalize facilities that were actually doing classified work for the National Reconnaissance Program.” They tossed rocks into the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The Stanford Electronics Lab was occupied by protestors for nine days.
“In New York, it’s kind of a different story,” says Bateman, speaking of the same era in the Northeast. “There isn’t really this wave of anti-government sentiment.” Partly, perhaps, because the Rochester Institute of Technology trended more conservative, and partly, Bateman’s work posits, because “the intelligence community offered photographic science students access to some of the most advanced technologies in their field.” That’s a pretty tasty carrot.
After the general wave of opposition, Stanford ceased its super-official classified work, but progress continued just outside the school at a place called the Stanford Research Institute.
Surveillance and scholarship
The intelligence-industrial-academic triad is alive and well today, says James David, curator of National Security Space at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Many military and intelligence organizations, for instance, have scientific advisory boards made up of scholarly experts.
And just look at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he says—a NASA center that’s managed by Caltech and does classified work alongside its more press-releasable development of rovers for Mars. Both kinds of missions require commercial contractors.
Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, meanwhile, was designed to do classified work on behalf of the school, which itself prohibits secret projects. The Draper Laboratory, formerly housed by MIT, announced a separation from the school in 1970 when the university tried to separate itself from military work. Now, though, the lab offers the Draper Scholar Program to fund the work of masters and PhD students. The MIT Lincoln Laboratory, meanwhile, is still under the university’s umbrella, and has an entire “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance” research division.
“It’s just continued to this day,” says Davis.
But Bateman does see a big difference between past and present: “The level of openness,” he says. Whereas the NRO did not acknowledge its own existence when Stanford kids were throwing rocks, the spy agency now has an Instagram account.
The agency’s reps show up at conferences too. “They go to universities and they talk about what they can do,” he says.
The openness goes both ways: Companies in the commercial space industry reach out to spies and say, “‘Hey, I’m doing this thing over here,’” imitates Bateman, “‘and we think you might be interested in that.’ And sometimes the government says, ‘Yeah, actually, that’s really interesting. That could be a good thing for us, so we’re going to throw money your way.’”
Previously, it wasn’t so. “If I can be a little reductive and Hollywood-esque here,” Bateman continues, describing the way it used to be, “guys in trenchcoats show up and knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, we’re from the US government. We’re not gonna tell you where, but we’d like to collaborate with you.’”
These days, collaborations like those still happen, just minus the trenchcoats.
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