KH-9 Hexagon Spy Satellite Makes a Rare Public Outing (Photos and Video)

By Keith Cowing
September 17, 2011
Filed under

KH-9 spacecraft as seen from its aft end upon entering the exhibit tent. The Satellite Support Bus with the small rocket motor is at the aft end.

With virtually no advance notice, the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar Hazy Center put a KH-9 “Hexagon” spy satellite on public display today. The display is up for one day only. Word of this display only leaked out late on Friday.

No media advisories were issued – and no KH-9 press release is listed here on their site. They deactivated my account with them it would seem, so I reapplied. I could not get NASM officials at the exhibit to comment on the short notice or why the satellite was there.

But all you had to do was go inside and see that a large party was being set up for the 50th anniversary of the National Reconnaissance Office. Reception tables and chairs were being set up under the SR-71 and Space Shuttle Enterprise. This is a little odd for a long-time Washingtonian such as myself given that the name of this organization was secret until 1992. Once secret, they now throw lavish parties. (see “NRO Observes 50th Anniversary with Declassification” at FAS).

A large tent with diesel electric generators was set up in the parking lot next to the Museum. Inside the monstrous satellite was on display – no prohibitions on photos whatsoever. Of course, you could not touch the hardware. I have seen lots of space hardware up close, but the condition of this spacecraft was rather remarkable given that it has been in storage for nearly three decades.

It was also somewhat surreal to actually see this monster. 60 feet long at 10 feet in diameter it is longer than anything ever put into a Space Shuttle cargo bay.

Up until now the only public description of vehicles like this is the result of the persistent diligence of analysts such as Charles Vick (and his famous drawings) and John Pike.

According to Wikipedia: “KH-9 HEXAGON, commonly known as Big Bird, was a series of photographic reconnaissance satellites launched by the United States between 1971 and 1986. Of twenty launch attempts by the United States Air Force, all but one were successful. Photographic film aboard Big Bird was sent back to Earth in recoverable film return capsules for processing and interpretation. They are also officially known as the Broad Coverage Photo Reconnaissance satellites (Code 467), built by Lockheed Corporation for the US Air Force.”

The spacecraft on exhibit (obviously) never flew and was lacking its solar arrays and the optics and some other components were removed. In addition some “windows” have been cut into the side of the vehicle so that you can see inside. Otherwise this spacecraft is in remarkably pristine condition.

The KH-9 used cameras that took photographic film. Periodically the film would be automatically put into one of the four reentry vehicles on the forward underside (nadir) portion of the spacecraft and sent back to Earth. One reentry vehicle is shown with its gold mylar thermal blanket in tack. Another reentry vehicle has the blanket removed to show the ablative heat shield. Yet another has the heat shield removed to show internal components.

A fourth reentry vehicle is sown in its entirety in an ‘exploded’ fashion complete with retro rocket package and parachutes. The photos and videos below (copyright SpaceRef.com) should give you an idea of the sheer size and overall construction of this vintage spy satellite.

Layout of the KH-9 spacecraft.

Video: KH9 Recon Satellite

Video: KH-9 Reentry Vehicle

Aft end of KH-9 spacecraft.

KH-9 reentry vehicle with outer gold mylar thermal blanket removed to show ablative heat shield.

KH-9 reentry vehicle with gold mylar thermal blanket still in place.

>KH-9 reentry vehicle with external structure and heat shield removed.

KH-9 Forward compartment (removed from spacecraft for visibility)

KH-9 Camera mounting with camera and optics removed.

KH-9 as seen from the forward end.

KH-9 reentry vehicle in an “exploded” presentation.

KH-9 Heat shield interior (left) and payload compartment (right) both are covered in gold mylar thermal blankets.

Closeup: KH-9 Heat shield interior (left) and payload compartment (right) both are covered in gold mylar thermal blankets.

KH-9 reentry vehicle internal components.

KH-9 reentry ablative heatshield.

Closeup: KH-9 reentry ablative heatshield.

KH-9 reentry vehicle parachute assembly.

KH-9 reentry vehicle retro/deorbit motor .

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.