New Space and Tech

National Reconnaissance Office – Revealing New Looks Into A Secretive Agency

By Leonard David
April 27, 2023
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National Reconnaissance Office – Revealing New Looks Into A Secretive Agency
NRO Director Chris Scolese Speaking At The 38th Space Symposium.
Image Credit: Space Symposium

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado – The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office is one of 18 intelligence community members, itself a hush-hush Cold War startup established in September 1961 as a classified agency in the Department of Defense. Its very existence and mission were declassified in September 1992.

As a National Reconnaissance Office doctrine states: “We See It, Hear It, Sense It.”

In recent times, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has lifted its curtain of secrecy on occasion to disclose its notable past, current operation, and even looks into what the agency is mulling over.

Space domain complexity

“We’re an agency of big thinkers and big ideas,” NRO Director Chris Scolese said during his keynote address here April 18 at the Space Foundation’s 38th Space Symposium. NRO is finding inventive ways to make those big ideas happen, he said.

Scolese underscored the increasing complexity of the space domain and the speed at which U.S. advantage from space is being challenged, particularly by China and Russia.

“Our competitors are developing weapons to destroy or interfere with our satellites kinetically or via directed energy from locations on the ground and in space. This includes cyber intrusions and cyber attacks that will be a perennial threat to all of our systems,” Scolese emphasized.

“How we stay ahead of our competitors depends on how much we accelerate our development, how much we improve the capabilities we already have in space, and how much we innovate, embrace technology, get creative, and take risks,” said Scolese.

Mixing it up

The NRO is now engaged in building and placing on-duty the most proliferated and diversified overhead intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) architecture of the day.

“Within the next decade we expect to quadruple the number of satellites we currently have on orbit,” Scolese added. These satellites, both large and small, and in multiple orbits, will deliver “an order of magnitude more signals and images as we’re getting now, and will be composed of a mix of government and commercial systems.”

New capabilities are being placed on orbit, on the ground, and everywhere in between, Scolese said, while integrating automation and machine learning into everything the agency is doing.

Memory lane

At one juncture in his presentation, Scolese took a trip down memory lane. He revisited a now declassified aspect of NRO’s 62-year legacy, highlighting the innovative, photo-snapping Corona reconnaissance satellite.

In 1960, when the first Corona “imagery bucket” was reentered and recovered from space, it included more up-close photos of the then Soviet Union than all of the previous two dozen high-altitude piloted U-2 over flights of the country combined, Scolese recounted.

KH-9 Hexagon spy satellite featured multiple “recovery buckets” loaded with super close-up imagery of Earth targets. Image credit: NRO

“We continued this innovation and delivered even more intelligence when the Hexagon satellite replaced Corona in 1971. Hexagon’s multiple recovery buckets carried nearly 250 times more film than the first successful Corona mission,” Scolese noted, enough linear feet of film to stretch from where he stood in Colorado Springs to the outskirts of Denver.

Fast forward to today.

During his keynote talk, Scolese reported that the NRO and Space Force have teamed up to perk up space situational awareness capabilities. To be lofted later this summer are “Silentbarker” vehicles. This highly classified initiative is reportedly designed to monitor space objects positioned in geosynchronous orbit around our planet.

New focus

Scolese spotlighted a new focus area under NRO’s Strategic Commercial Enhancements Broad Agency Announcement program – an outreach effort to connect with commercial Earth observation group providers.

It’s open to both U.S. companies and foreign-owned companies with subsidiaries in the U.S. and prompted by the advancement over the last five years of private-sector Earth-looking satellites.

NRO already has contracts in place with three electro-optical providers: five commercial radar providers, six radio frequency remote sensing providers, and, as of last month, six hyperspectral imaging providers.

Wanted: scientists, technologists, visionaries

Moreover, NRO is hosting a Tech Forum at the end of May. It will bring together scientists, technologists and visionaries from across government, academia, and industry, Scolese said, to work on some of the NRO’s hardest problems and understand how to innovate faster.

“At the NRO, we’re keeping an eye out, looking beyond the horizon ten, twenty, thirty years from now to find those truly disruptive technologies that are going to be game changers,” said the NRO director.

With each new advancement in ISR technology, Scolese remarked, the NRO has increased the amount of intelligence collected from space and decreased the amount of time needed to get that intelligence where it needs to be.

“We’ve long talked about what the future could look like,” Scolese said. “In fact, it’s already here.”

Leonard David

Leonard is author of Moon Rush: The New Space Race, Mars – Our Future on the Red Planet, and co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin of Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration - all published by the National Geographic Society.