<<

. 54
( 118 .)



>>

radio telescopes planned for the area, the West Virginia State legislature
in 1956 passed a law ensuring that the 100 surrounding miles remain a
sanctuary from normal electromagnetic interference.
There, isolated from people, shielded by mountains, free of electronic
interference, the NRL began building the largest bug that had ever been
created. It was a project of staggering proportions. It would be the largest
movable structure ever built: 30,000 tons of steel welded into the shape
of a cereal bowl 66 stories tall and 600 feet in diameter”wide enough to
hold two football fields, back to back, plus the spectators. Unlike the
Arecibo dish, Sugar Grove's great ear would have to perform a robotic
ballet in order to keep its tympanic membrane aimed at the moon. To
accomplish this, it rested on mammoth drives capable of swinging it up,
down, sideways, and 360 degrees around a 1,500-foot track so that it
could be aimed at any spot above the horizon with pinpoint accuracy. As
long as the moon was visible, it would feed Sugar Grove a rich diet of
Russia's hidden secrets, from radar signals deep within its borders to the
coughs and twitters of its ballistic missiles speeding toward destruction
at a test zone.
But in those days, computers were the size of tanks yet had the
calculating power of a modern digital watch; in the words of one
engineer, the mathematical calculations required for the project were
"almost beyond comprehension." As many as thirteen components had to
be joined together at one point, which demanded up to ninety-two
separate formulas to be worked out simultaneously, a feat that would
have taxed the capability of even the largest commercial computer then
available. Despite the fact that an IBM 704 computer had been working
on the design specifications for more than half a year, by 1961 the
construction still had advanced no further than the rotating tracks and
pintle bearings. The money also began drying up as newer, more
promising ideas emerged.
At both NSA and NRL, officials slowly began to accept that the only
workable long-term solution lay in the vast and nearly virgin arena of
outer space. "Only receivers aboard satellites could provide the in-depth
reception required by NSA," Nate Gerson finally concluded. But although
NSA's director was impressed with the idea, other senior NSA staff
members thought the concept harebrained. "The idea," said Gerson,
oblivious to the pun, "went over like a lead balloon. I had not expected
this reaction." Eventually, after he submitted more papers, Gerson's
theory began to take hold.
To test that theory, a receiver was placed on the top of a rocket, which
would then be fired into space. The idea was to determine if the receiver


305
could satisfactorily pick up the signal of an unwitting U.S. television
station below. However, because of a long delay, by the time the launch
was about to take place the TV station was about to go off the air.
Nevertheless, shortly after liftoff it successfully recorded the last of the
station's signoff, a few seconds of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Despite
the brevity of the intercept, the concept was successfully proven.
At a Howard Johnson's restaurant in Pennsylvania, during a blizzard,
Reid D. Mayo was coming to the same conclusion. Stranded with his
family at the rest stop during a snowstorm in early 1958, the NRL
scientist began to work out the details with a pencil on the back of a
stained placemat. "The wife and two children were asleep at the table
beside me, and I got to thinking about it," recalled Mayo. "So I did some
range calculations to see if truly we could intercept the signal from
orbital altitude, and the calculations showed that clearly you could, up to
something a little bit over six hundred miles." He added, "We have been
credited with doing some of our finest work on placemats."
Mayo had earlier completed another unique eavesdropping project:
"The submarine service had us installing a small spiral antenna inside
the glass of the periscope, and affixed to that spiral antenna was a small
diode detector. It allowed the submarine skipper to have an
electromagnetic ear as well as an eyeball above the surface. And it
worked so well that we thought that there might be benefit to raising the
periscope just a little bit”maybe even to orbital altitude."
Six months later the project was codenamed, appropriately, Tattle-
tale. The idea was to build a satellite capable of detailing the exact
locations and technical parameters of every Soviet air defense radar
system. This was the mission that hundreds of ferret fliers died
attempting to accomplish.
During development, secrecy was paramount. As a cover, the Elint
satellite was to be hidden inside another satellite, a high-publicity
scientific experiment. The engineers working on the project were
forbidden to bring the Elint satellite out for experimentation during
daylight. "We had to go over there at nighttime and get the shell and
bring it over on the roof of our building and run antenna patterns and so
on in the dark," said Mayo.
The first flight awaited presidential approval as the network of ground
stations was decided on and other problems were ironed out. Finally, on
May 5, 1960, just five days after the U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers
was shot down by a Soviet missile, Eisenhower gave his approval.
At Cape Canaveral six weeks later, shortly after midnight, Thor Able
Star number 283 stood at attention high atop its launch platform. In the
raven-black sky, the shafts of arc lights lit up the white rocket like an
alabaster knight. At 1:54 A.M., the mobile service tower swung to the


306
side, the earth shook, and a snow-white cloud of hot steam swallowed
the lower stages. Slowly the rocket lifted from the platform, straining
against gravity to achieve the 17,000 miles per hour needed to reach
orbit. Packed tightly in its fiberglass shroud was the world's first
operational spy satellite.
The world was told that the package aboard the Thor contained two
scientific satellites, one to measure solar radiation, known as SolarRad,
and the other to aid in navigation. "Piggy-back Satellites Hailed as Big
Space Gain for U.S. Satellite," said the headline in the Washington Post
on the morning of June 23. But hidden within the SolarRad satellite was
NRL's Elint bird, codenamed GRAB, for "Galactic Radiation and
Background." At a dwarfish six watts and forty-two pounds, GRAB
looked a bit like a silver soccer ball.
As GRAB orbited about 500 miles over Russia, it would collect the
beeping pulses from the hundreds of radar systems throughout the
forbidden land. The signals would then be retransmitted instantly on
narrow VHF frequencies to small collection huts at ground stations in
Turkey, Iran, and elsewhere, where they would be recorded on reels of
magnetic tape. Flown to Washington aboard courier flights, the tapes
would go to NRL scientists, who would convert the data into digital
format and pass them on to NSA for analysis.
"At its altitude, being able to see clear to the horizon," said Mayo, "the
circle that we were able to intercept from instantaneously was about
three thousand or thirty-two hundred miles in diameter, depending on
the altitude." On the other hand, he said, the ferret flights could hear
only about 200 miles over the border. "NSA examined our data in great
detail," Mayo added, "and found the first intercept of an ABM” an anti-
ballistic missile”radar."
Despite the pint-sized spy's orbital altitude, Eisenhower was
extremely concerned that the Soviets would discover its true mission. As
a result, on each pass over Soviet territory his personal approval was
required to turn on the receiver. "With Eisenhower's concern," said Mayo,
"we turned it on [during] one pass. And then we'd leave it off, or take a
holiday for the next pass. We were very conservative in using it over the
Soviet Union."
An episode when Soviet ground control temporarily lost contact with a
returning cosmonaut proved to be a bonanza for NSA”and GRAB”as
Russian radar systems lit up like a Christmas tree. "They lost
communications with him," said Mayo, "and turned on everything in
their inventory to see if they could reestablish [contact]."
While the first mission concentrated on radars associated with air
defense missiles, later launches relayed signals from Soviet long-range
air surveillance radars and other systems. A second GRAB was launched


307
on June 29, 1961, and remained operational through August 1962,
when it was replaced with a more advanced system, codenamed Poppy.
At the same time, NSA and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO),
which took over the building and management of all spy satellites, began
working on a new generation of Sigint satellites. While the celestial
soccer balls successfully charted the Soviet radar architecture, they were
inefficient in eavesdropping on microwaves”thin, narrow beams of
energy that carried sensitive voice and data communications. In their low
orbits, the small satellites whizzed right through those beams with barely
enough time to pick up a syllable.
More and more the Soviets began using microwaves and satellite
communications rather than high-frequency signals and buried cables.
High-frequency signals were unreliable, bouncing around the world like
Ping-Pong balls and susceptible to sudden changes in the atmosphere.
And because vast distances separated one side of the country from the
other, and the ground in Siberia was frozen much or all of the year,
buried cables were too expensive and difficult to install. Microwaves, on
the other hand, needed only cheap repeater towers every twenty or so
miles; satellite signals were not affected by the weather.
As a result, the Russians began sticking conical microwave antennas
on buildings around major cities and setting up long rows of repeater
towers, like steel sentries, linking officials in Moscow with commands in
the Far East and elsewhere. The numerous repeater towers were
necessary because microwave signals travel in a straight line, like a
beam of light, rather than following the curve of the earth, like a train
crossing the United States. For the eavesdroppers at NSA, the straight
line was the key. With nothing to stop them, the microwave signals
continue right into deep space, like an open telephone line. And because
the numerous repeaters were fixed, the signals always ended up in the
same place in space, creating a giant arc of communications. Thus, if
NSA could set up its own receiver in space, at the point where those
microwaves passed, they would essentially be tapping into tens of
thousands of telephone calls, data transmissions, and telemetry signals.
The problem was gravity. If a low-orbiting satellite stopped in its
tracks to pick up the microwave signals, it would tumble back to earth.
The only way to avoid that was to put the satellite into a
"geosynchronous" orbit, one that exactly matched the speed of the earth,
like two cars traveling side by side on a freeway. But that
geosynchronous orbit was a long way out”22,380 miles above the
equator in deep space. Thus, more powerful rockets would be needed to
get the heavy satellite out there, enormous antennas would have to be
attached to pick up the weak signals, and new ground stations would
have to be built to capture the flood of information.
For much of the 1960s engineers and scientists at NSA, NRO, and the


308
aerospace firm TRW tested new lightweight screens, shrank components,
and finely tuned receivers. The result was Rhyolite. NSA's first true
listening post in space, it was designed to capture the line-of-sight
signals that traveled like a flashlight beam into the deep black. TRW
constructed the spacecraft in its M-4 facility at Redondo Beach,
California, a windowless building with a large white dome on the roof,
like the top of a grain silo. Known as the High Bay Area, it was where the
satellite was fully assembled and tested. As in a hospital operating room,
technicians in starchy white uniforms and lint-free nylon caps bent over
their patient with delicate instruments, adjusting its miles of veinlike
electrical lines and sensitive eardrums.
Far from the silver soccer balls, Rhyolite was a complex microwave
receiver the size of a minibus with a large dish-shaped antenna pointed
at earth. For electricity, the space bug had two long wings made of silicon
cells to convert solar light to energy.
The first launch took place in 1970 from Cape Canaveral. Boosted
into space atop a powerful Atlas-Agena D launch vehicle, it was
eventually placed in geosynchronous orbit above the equator near
Indonesia. There it was in a good position to collect signals from both the
Soviet Union and China.
Chosen for Rhyolite's ground station was a godforsaken patch of earth
at the center of Australia. Surrounded by a fearsome Mars-scape of red,
sunburned desert, corrugated scrubland, waterless rivers, and parched
saltbrush, Alice Springs had everything NSA wanted: isolation. To
minimize the satellite's weight, its size, and its power requirements,
encryption systems were never installed. Thus it was essential to keep
the Soviets as far away from Rhyolite's downlink as possible. If a Sigint
trawler, such as those off Guam and Cape Canaveral, or a listening post,
like the one in Cuba or one within an embassy, were able to tap into the
beam, the USSR would discover how NSA was eavesdropping and would
take countermeasures.
"The satellites would pick up the signals and then they would be
transmitted without encryption directly down to the ground station," said
one former NSA official who worked on the project. "The satellite had
about twenty-four receivers on it. The reason they put it in Alice Springs
was because they didn't want the Russians to know what the satellite
was sending down. By placing it in Alice Springs, the 'footprint' [of the
signal] was small enough so that you couldn't eavesdrop on it outside
Australia. They didn't want the Russians hearing it from their trawlers.
They [NSA technicians at Alice Springs] would encrypt it and send it up
to another satellite and then have it studied at NSA. Alice Springs would
just receive the unencrypted signal, encrypt it, and retransmit it back to
Fort Meade. They would do no codebreaking there. They didn't do
anything except acquire the signal, lock the signal on, and when we had


309
receiver problems they would work on them." Once completed, the NSA
base at Alice Springs was named Pine Gap.
One of the problems with the earlier Rhyolite satellites, said the
official, was their inability to discriminate among a plethora of signals.
"They would pick up signals that they didn't necessarily know where they
were coming from," he said. "They would have a language identification
officer who would pick out what language it was and then bring in the
person who handled that language to see if it was important enough to
listen to. They would occasionally pick up [Soviet leader Leonid]
Brezhnev."
Throughout the 1970s, NSA's Sigint satellites grew in size and
sophistication. Larger, more capable spacecraft were launched into
geosynchronous orbits, enough to eavesdrop on the entire earth except
for the extreme northern regions. To cover these blind spots, "Jumpseat"
satellites were developed. Rather than being placed in geosynchronous
orbit, Jumpseat spacecraft flew an elliptical pattern that allowed them to,
in essence, "hover" over the northern regions of Russia for long periods.
"They were huge umbrellas," said a former NSA official, "about forty
meters [120 feet] across. There aren't any weak signals in space. What
makes a signal weak is going through the atmosphere”hitting
mountains and trees and so forth. But once they go into space there's
nothing for it to hit so it's a real clear signal. Going from ground-based
listening posts to satellites was like listening to an AM station from five
hundred miles away to moving right into the same room the person is
broadcasting from. We couldn't move in orbit but we could angle in orbit.
We could point at Moscow or go over [to] the Far East. We always dealt in
footprints”where's our footprint right now, what can we pick up."
Additional ground stations were also built or upgraded, both to
receive downlinks from the Rhyolite-type satellites and from Russia's own
military and civilian communications satellites. In addition to Pine Gap,
NSA established major overseas satellite listening posts at Bad Aibling in
Germany; Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, England; and Misawa, Japan. As
one generation of satellites replaced another and more variations were
added, codenames multiplied: Canon, Chalet, Vortex, Magnum, Orion,
Mercury.
Just as NSA was soaring ahead in collection, it was also suddenly
making great strides in codebreaking. "Around 1979 we were able to
break into the Russian encrypted voice communication," said a former
NSA official. "We would receive a signal and in order to understand the
signal we would have to build a machine to exactly duplicate the signal

<<

. 54
( 118 .)



>>