Do you want to know a secret?
October 14, 2011 9:36 PM   Subscribe

If you met Phil Pressel at a party anytime over the past half-century, he couldn't tell you what he did for a living. If you were his wife, you didn't even know where he was staying on those mysterious business trips. Today, after 46 years, the man who made the camera that prevented a war finally got to show off his magnum opus.
posted by Spike (37 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Once the on-orbit checkout was completed, one of the KH-9's four re-entry vehicles — the film "bucket" — plunged through Earth's atmosphere. A specially modified C-130 aircraft would catch the return capsule in mid-air by snagging its parachute following the canister's re-entry.

posted by Hey Dean Yeager! at 9:48 PM on October 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I know! Where is there video of this?
posted by hot_monster at 9:50 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Related post.
posted by asterix at 9:52 PM on October 14, 2011

I know! Where is there video of this?

It would look a lot like this.

posted by T.D. Strange at 10:01 PM on October 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

So many cool tidbits and quotes in there, but my favorite comes at the end of the article:

"I never wanted to work on an offensive weapon system, something that would kill people," he said. "I am happy that I always worked on reconnaissance projects, projects that secured our country."
posted by mannequito at 10:10 PM on October 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

I wonder how they reloaded the film and the drop vehicles? The article states they only had four in the satellite. That's an awful lot of money and engineering for just four snapshots.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:15 PM on October 14, 2011

Sixty miles of film and four re-entry vehicles. The worlds most expensive disposable camera.
posted by shothotbot at 10:23 PM on October 14, 2011 [7 favorites]

Per-shot however, it wasn't nearly so bad.
posted by zippy at 10:30 PM on October 14, 2011

46 years. We're talking the mid-60s, here.

since he first went to work for the Perkin-Elmer optics company in 1965.

Video recording was invented in the 1950s. I still struggle to believe that they didn't have some ability to put some kind of electronic camera up there that could send the shots back via radio. I mean, they were sending TV from the moon in 1969. Was resolution the issue?
posted by Jimbob at 10:36 PM on October 14, 2011

> TV from the moon in 1969. Was resolution the issue?

Well, you sure couldn't read the license plate number on the LEM ....
posted by hank at 10:38 PM on October 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah, resolution was the issue. I imagine that NTSC TV was about the best we could do, which is a pittance relative to even the crappiest film stock (and this stuff was far from the crappiest film stock.
posted by Alterscape at 10:47 PM on October 14, 2011

I imagine that NTSC TV was about the best we could do,

Pfft. Those of us in the civilized world have PAL.
posted by Jimbob at 10:53 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Say what you will about the cold war, it moved us to some incredible feats. And a ton of paranoia and some stupid-ass wars, too, obviously.

Now we still have the stupid-ass wars, a degree of political sickness that is in no way an improvement on cold war paranoia and we can't even fix a bridge.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:59 PM on October 14, 2011 [6 favorites]

It's okay, man. The new iPhone is out today.
posted by Jimbob at 11:03 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's nice that he and his wife both lived long enough so that she could find out what he did.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:26 PM on October 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

How did they reload it??
posted by Joe Chip at 12:19 AM on October 15, 2011

I dated a woman whose father could never tell the family what he did or where he went on business. He could call to say everything was ok, but no details no locations. I asked her where his office was. She told me and I drove over there a few days later. It was an 8 story building. With NO windows. So I tell her that her dad is a spy. "Naw," she replied, "He is a government contractor." Ok sure.

So later that year I am going to Thanksgiving dinner at their house and meeting the father in person for the first time. I have a few beers, maybe 5 or 6, and get up the nerve to pull a NY on this Virginian. I waited for him to ask this idiot college student what he wanted to do with his life. I said something about business and screwed up my courage and said to him, "What do you do for a living, Mr. XXX?" "I work for the government. I am a G-23 (or some such number indicating his pay grade)."

"Where is your office, sir?" I ask knowing full well. "Over at xx and 16th St." he replied. "I know that building, it has no windows" I manage to get out of my mouth. "You're a spy," I drunkingly stammer. "No, a spy is a grade G-24. I am only a G-23." "So what is a G-23 an expert in then," I ask. "My expertise is breaking and entering and electronic warfare," he said with a straight face.

"See," my girlfriend said to me, "He is not a spy." Ok. On my next visit to the house he had a present for me. I opened it and it was two t-shirts. One had a KGB logo on it and the other a CIA logo.

I am very impressed that Mr. Pressel could keep such an amazing secret for so long.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:24 AM on October 15, 2011 [19 favorites]

How did they reload it??

They didn't. They had 20 launches through 1986, with only one failure. When one was finished, it was deorbited.
posted by ZeusHumms at 12:31 AM on October 15, 2011

Pfft. Those of us in the civilized world have PAL.

No, my fellow American, I'm pretty sure we use NTSC.
posted by codswallop at 1:37 AM on October 15, 2011

I still struggle to believe that they didn't have some ability to put some kind of electronic camera up there that could send the shots back via radio

I'm sure they could. But I don't think they could have done any encryption and certainly no storage. They'd have been streaming the video back exactly as the satellite was taking it, and anyone in the hemisphere would be able to figure out how good the imagery was.

And I don't think they could have gotten nearly as good imagery. At a rough guess: if they're photographing a 370-nm swath with 1-meter resolution, that's about 680k pixels per line; on 6.5-inch film, that's only 240 nanometers per pixel— ~2000 lines/mm— that might be an overestimate (perhaps not all of that 370-nm swath gets the highest resolution). Let's assume 340k pixels per line, which puts the film at the high end of current commercial films. That's still a lot of data to try to put over a radio— remember, no compression either— around 3.5 Terapixels/second, or (assuming 8-bit color depth) 28 Terabits/second. That's a lot of data even by today's standards.

NRO did put electronic spysats up starting with the KH-11 in the '70s, but they kept the film sats around for a while. Presumably they still had higher resolution.
posted by hattifattener at 1:55 AM on October 15, 2011

Incorporated into the belly of the giant spacecraft was the 'optical bar' camera system that produced incredibly valuable intelligence data for his adopted country; detailed imagery that helped prevent a cataclysmic World War III between the global superpowers. These cameras, designed by Phil Pressel, are a secret no more.

The current frontier in optical bar systems has already prevented World Wars IV and V. So rest easy, and thank them for that.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:37 AM on October 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd favorite that comment JohnnyGunn, but I don't want you to disappear in the middle of the night.
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:26 AM on October 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know! Where is there video of this?

It would look a lot like this.

That was really impressive, especially considering they were using 1960s era technology to do it. No computer assistance, just a navigator, a pilot, and a guy with a net in the back of the plane.
posted by JDHarper at 4:25 AM on October 15, 2011

I imagine that NTSC TV was about the best we could do

A lot of people I know think that SCTV was, indeed, about the best we could do.

Wait, what?
posted by hippybear at 5:05 AM on October 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

Just to be safe, I am no longer saying any words that sound like geometric shapes.
posted by surplus at 6:00 AM on October 15, 2011

"I lived with secrecy at Perkin-Elmer for 30 years. We were never allowed to talk about anything."

Back in the mid-90s, I did pre-sales support and consulting for a small software company. We sold very expensive ($3,000 per user) very complicated software tools used by developers.

I didn't have clearance, but my territory included several companies who did classified work, and I'd often go there to do basic sales calls and demos. Getting in and out of the facilities was always an adventure. I'd have to provide all kinds of information, up to and including my Social Security number, often days in advance. At one facility, I had to get on a scale on the way in, and again on the way out. I'm not sure what would have happened if I'd suddenly gained a couple of pounds during my visit, but I doubt it would have been pleasant.

As I was wrapping up one sales call, I was asked to spend a couple of minutes talking to another group of folks, already using our software, who had a couple of questions. A common request I was happy to answer. After walking down a hall full of amber warning lights and "UNSECURED PERSONELL ON PREMISES. Secure all classified material" signs, we arrived at a bland conference room. One of the engineers told me they were repeated running into a particular error they can't figure out how to get past.

"So, what were you doing when the error happened?"
"Sorry, I can't tell you that."
"Can you show me the exact error?"
"Nope, can't do that either."
"There are some diagnostics I can run that might help pin point the problem. Can I run those for you?"
"Nope. But you can tell me how they work, and I'll try it myself after you leave"
I grab a marker, and spend 10 minutes talking and drawing on the white board
"Did that help?"
"Not even a little. We've already tried all of that."
We looked at each other, both of us with a bemused kind of smile.
"I've got a colleague on the East Coast who does consulting with your company. I'm pretty sure he's got clearance. How about I have him give you a call."
"That'd be great, thanks."

So, yeah, these guys take secrecy pretty damn seriously.
posted by FfejL at 8:50 AM on October 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

The problem with vidicon imaging tubes is thermal/electronic noise, which limits the resolution. Back when P-E was designing this, their best chance at electronic imagery was to image onto film, develop it and then opto-mechanically scan into a low-noise photomultiplier tube. No way they were going to put that into orbit when they were bidding for a new contract.

Perkin-Elmer published on the difficulties in using video for image recognition for automatic blood count machines in the late 1960's. They were probably drawing on the earlier classified work. The P-E blood-count machines were awesome, photo-mechanical and early AI. The video was so noisy it screwed up the pattern recognition software. Hence the photo-mechanical imaging with moving mirrors and stuff. Very 19th century, but rock solid.

Ranger lunar photographic missions did use vidicon and it was noisy. They got .5 meter resolution by crashing the camera into the moon.

There was also a problem of reliable cryptography for that much video signal and the possibility of Soviet jamming.

So dropping undeveloped film from orbit had security and resolution going for it.

I think you kids might be thinking video always looked good because you are used to hi-res CCDs. This was back in the electronic age of little glass bottles full of red hot wires, transformers and chokes.

Dropping film canisters from orbit and snagging them in mid-air is an incredibly neat hack.
posted by warbaby at 8:51 AM on October 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Such an amazing story...makes me wonder how many people have gone to their graves with major secrets and never had the chance to tell their stories. Glad Phil got the chance to tell his!
posted by treasure at 9:19 AM on October 15, 2011

Ain't no school like the old school — perhaps Phil Pressler and the other project engineers did their jobs too well. From the October 25, 2010 Space Review article, Black Fire: De-orbiting spysats during the Cold War:
In the early 1970s, an English farmer found pieces from a top secret American spy satellite in his field. British and American officials promptly covered up the incident (see “Ike’s Gambit: The KH-8 reconnaissance satellite”, The Space Review, January 12, 2009). But the incident came to the attention of people in the Nixon White House, who were concerned that it had happened at all. What would have happened if that satellite had fallen on the Soviet Union instead of the United Kingdom? They asked some tough questions of the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)—which managed the spy satellite program—concerned with how much classified equipment could actually survive reentry. According to the reentry models of the time, nothing from the spy satellite should have survived reentry. So the White House suggested that maybe they needed to test their models.

The Air Force and the NRO developed a plan. From 1971 to 1973 they deliberately reentered six different spy satellites, including two of the new, schoolbus-sized KH-9 HEXAGON satellites, over the Pacific in areas where the reentries could be monitored by numerous sensors, including radar, infrared and optical cameras. The tests revealed that the theoretical models were wrong: reentering spacecraft did not get as hot as people thought, and spacecraft therefore did not burn up like they expected.
Space Review has a detailed history of the KH-9 satellites in their series The Flight of the Big Bird — The origins, development, and operations of the KH-9 HEXAGON reconnaissance satellite (Part 1, 2, 3, 4).
posted by cenoxo at 9:35 AM on October 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

(Apologies to Mr. Phil Pressel)
posted by cenoxo at 9:40 AM on October 15, 2011

My grandfather was a mechanic with clearance at Carswell AFB when whatever happened at Roswell happened ("the wreckage" went directly to Carswell, then to wherever else it went". I was pretty into the whole alien/UFO thing as a teenager and grilled him about it many times, but he wouldn't even say whether he knew anything. I could never tell for sure whether or not he was just stringing me along for the fun of it, but if so he kept it up for many years.

As a disclaimer, I've read a lot about the whole thing, and as a former, "the government KNOWS about the GRAYS, man" kid, I see no reason to think it was anything more than an accident with some top secret equipment.
posted by cmoj at 10:02 AM on October 15, 2011

Wow. I never knew spy sats were that flippin' big. But it always impressed me what engineers in the pre-computer age were able to accomplish. This is even more impressive because the system they designed was a) extremely complicated b) had to work correctly after the stress of launch and c) had to work well enough, in space of all places, to not only do its job but to drop the film where the US could retrieve it (ie, not in the USSR or China.) They were building and designing these things with slide-rules and a lot of notebooks filled with ridiculously complicated math. We have a lot of talented designers and engineers now, but I wonder what some of these guys could have done with the technology that's currently available.
posted by azpenguin at 10:49 AM on October 15, 2011

TV from the moon in 1969. Was resolution the issue?

Yeah, resolution was the issue. I imagine that NTSC TV was about the best we could do, which is a pittance relative to even the crappiest film stock (and this stuff was far from the crappiest film stock.

Actually, at least for Apollo 11, NTSC would have been a huge improvement (and not only because it would have been color). The camera in question only had 300 lines of resolution, and only broadcast at 10 frames/sec.
posted by thegears at 10:53 AM on October 15, 2011

Sorry, correction: that was the wrong specs. 325 lines and 10fps.
posted by thegears at 10:59 AM on October 15, 2011

I really want to watch more of these declassified top secret videos with cheesy music and redacted bits.
posted by mobunited at 11:48 AM on October 15, 2011

The other advantage of the dropped film as the transmission medium is that you know if the images got intercepted. With video not only might others get your pictures as well, you'll never know.
posted by straw at 7:09 PM on October 15, 2011

But it always impressed me what engineers in the pre-computer age were able to accomplish.

On the one hand, they had to build a $100-million, one-ton box of wire-wrapped vacuum tubes instead of just buying a $5, one-ounce Arduino board.

On the other hand, they didn't have to do all their work on a magic box that distracts you hundreds of times a day.

I'd say the challenges are about equal.
posted by miyabo at 10:44 AM on October 16, 2011

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