Chronology Of NASA-NRO Interaction: 1961-Present

Source: “Sharing Space: The Secret Interaction Between NASA and the NRO: 1961-1995.”


October: Soviet Union launches Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite, ushering in the space age and the space race.


January: United States launches its first satellite, Explorer-1, aboard Army Jupiter-C booster.

February: United States begins work on a film-return photo reconnaissance satellite: Corona (public name: Discoverer)

February: Samos concentrates on electronically returning images from space.

July: The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 becomes law, creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a civilian space agency.

October: NASA created to manage all space programs not of a military nature.


January:  Discoverer-1 ends in failure, as do the next eleven flights.

Unknown:  NASA acquires several military space programs, their associated facilities, and TIROS, the nation’s civilian meteorological satellite program.


May:  Soviets shoot down Francis Gary Powers’ U-2, ending overflights of the Soviet Union.

June:    GRAB/DYNO, a Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) collector, becomes the world’s first reconnaissance satellite.

Mid-year:  NASA acquires the Army Ballistic Missile Agency despite intense opposition.

August:  Discoverer-13 returns its recovery vehicle, which did not carry film.

August:  Discoverer-14 becomes the first completely successful mission by returning its reentry vehicle, which did carry film.


January:  Samos satellite electronically returns imagery from earth orbit during its only mission.

April:  Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human to orbit the earth.

April:  President Kennedy commits the nation to landing a man on the moon and returning him to earth by the end of the decade (Project Apollo).

April:  NASA representatives inquire about Samos technology to support an unnamed program, undoubtedly Apollo.

September:  NRO is created to manage all satellites and aircraft programs that overfly denied areas.

December:  NASA inaugurates Project Gemini.


May:  The President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) Chairman, James Killian, recommends a complete review of policies governing satellite reconnaissance.

May:  Kennedy signs National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 156, ordering the review Killian recommended.

June:  The NSAM 156 Committee presents its review and attendant recommendations to Kennedy.

Late:  DOD and NASA representatives discuss lunar reconnaissance requirements.


May:  NASA lays out plans for both manned and unmanned lunar reconnaissance.

July:  NASA, NRO, and CIA representatives visit Eastman Kodak to inquire using the Samos camera system to locate lunar landing sites for Apollo.

August:  DOD, CIA, and NASA sign an agreement authorizing use of NRO optical technology in support of Apollo.

September:  NASA establishes a Lunar Orbiter Program Office.

December:  Boeing and Eastman Kodak win the contract for five unmanned Lunar Orbiters that incorporate Samos technology.

December:  DOD cancels DynaSoar, a precursor to the Space Shuttle.

December:  First mention of the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), which will secretly contain the NRO’s Dorian high resolution optical system. Dorian was also known as the KH-10.


February:  NASA agrees to let the NRO handle all classified contracts associated with the Lunar Orbiters.

April:  The NRO agrees to transfer its state-of-the-art optical technology to NASA’s Lunar Mapping and Survey System (LM&SS), a backup program should the Lunar Orbiters fail. Project Upward will provide BYEMAN security.

May:  NASA and Boeing contract for five Lunar Orbiters.

September:  NASA turns down offer to include experiments on the MOL.

December:  Quill, an experimental NRO synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellite electronic returns radar imagery during its only mission.

Unknown:  NASA inaugurates the Apollo Applications Program.


March:  NASA agrees to put experiments aboard the MOL to head off questions about Skylab being a duplication of effort.

April:  NASA announces plans for earth observations as part of Apollo Applications Program.

April-May:  DOD and the NRO protest NASA’s earth observation plans for proposing systems that could compromise sensitive technology.

July:  NASA accepts a 66-foot resolution limit on imaging sensors to be used in earth observations.

August:  President Johnson approves the MOL and its Dorian system.

August  As a security measure, the military services are prohibited from working with NASA except through the NRO.

Fall:  Early Gambit (KH-7) optics confirmed for use in the LM&SS program.

Unknown:  NASA backs out of the MOL program except for providing the Gemini B that will ferry crews to and from the spacecraft and some auxiliary equipment. It does so because there is no longer a threat to Skylab.

Unknown:  NASA begins design studies of what became the Hubble Space Telescope.


January:  DOD and NASA establish the Manned Space Flight Policy Committee (MSFPC) to oversee manned programs and coordinate NRO-NASA activities.

May:  NSAM 156 Committee reconvened to update the guidance protecting the nation’s satellite reconnaissance programs.

June:  Boeing delivered Lunar Orbiter-1.

June:  NASA inquires if the Dorian optics can perform celestial observations on a non-interference basis and gets a negative answer.

August  Lunar Orbiter-1 launches.

September:  DOD/NASA agreement establishes the Survey Applications Coordinating Committee (SAAC) subordinate to the MSFPC.

November:  Lunar Orbiter-2 launches.

December:  Opinion in NASA is divided on whether the first two Lunar Orbiters have located enough lunar landing sites.


February:  Lunar Orbiter-3 launches.

May:  Lunar Orbiter-4 launches.

June:  NASA contracts with Lockheed for concept study of what became the Landsat earth observations satellite.

June:  Further study shows that the Lunar Orbiters have certified sufficient lunar landing sites.

Summer:  NASA commits to unmanned satellites as the primary collectors for its earth observation program.

July:  Under pressure from DOD, NASA begins a concerted effort to submit the appropriate items to the MSFPC and SACC for coordination and approval.

August:  Lunar Orbiter-5 launches.

August:  NASA cancels the LM&SS and Project Upward.

December:  An updated DOD-NASA coordinating and decisionmaking structure supersedes the one agreed to on 26 September 1966.


April: The NRO and the White House concur with Apollo-6, an unmanned earth orbit mission, photographing the earth with a Mauer camera.

July: The NRO consigns the Itek (-9) camera to NASA for earth observations.

December:  The second Orbiting Astronomical Observatory (OAO-11) rides an Atlas-Agena booster into orbit where it provides proof of concept of a space telescope.


June:  Nixon cancels MOL and Dorian due to repeated delays, large cost overruns, and lack of utility.

July:  Apollo-11 crew lands on the moon and returns safely to earth marking the apex on the program.

October:  NRO Director John Mclucas slightly loosens the restrictions on NASA’s imaging systems.

October: The NRO and NASA begin discussions on transferring surplus Corona spacecraft for use in earth observations.


February: The NRO formally offers NASA surplus Corona spacecraft; NASA declines because it is turning to electronically downlinking imagery.

February:  NASA and the Air Force, as DOD representative, sign an Unclassified agreement pledging cooperation on Space Shuttle matters.

March:  NASA inquires about transferring excess U-2s from NRO Program D to boost its airborne collection capability.

April:  NRO agrees to transfer some Dorian hardware to NASA.

June: NRO and White House concur with Apollo-13 flying an earth observation mission if it cannot depart on a lunar trajectory. All subsequent Apollo missions received the same concurrence.

Summer:  General Electric wins the acquisition contract for Landsat, the first earth observation satellite.

Fall:  The NRO, using the Air Force as cover, agrees to loan two U-2Cs to NASA.

Unknown:  NASA sizes the shuttle’s payload bay to accommodate the largest American spacecraft, the Hexagon photo reconnaissance satellite.


January: NASA requests permission to fly a camera with a 30-foot resolution on Skylab. April:  NASA takes delivery of two NRO U-2Cs.

June:  A NASA sponsored study finds the shuttle to be cost effective by flying twenty-five to thirty missions annually, well below the projected number of launches. Few outside NASA believe it.

September: The 156 Committee approves a camera with a 30-foot resolution on Skylab.

September:  Congress informs NASA that it will fund either the Space Shuttle or the Manned Space Station, but not both. The shuttle has priority since it vital to constructing and maintaining the space station.

September: NASA study shows that the shuttle can save the NRO $3.47-$5.31 billion over thirteen years. Similar NRO and Air Force assessments strongly disagree.


January:  President Nixon approves shuttle development and designates it as a national carrier to be used in time by all as their primary launch vehicle.

February:  DOD decides not to commit payloads to the shuttle until it proves its reliability (“fly before buy”).

March:  The Executive Committee of the National Reconnaissance Program rejects downgrading the “fact of’ the NRO and satellite reconnaissance to collateral Secret.

July:  A Delta booster sends NASA’s Landsat-1 into a near-polar orbit.

August:  NASA awards the shuttle acquisition contracts.

September:  DOD begins tentative planning on utilizing the shuttle.

December: NASA first explores using [REDACTED] for Hubble.

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