Book review: Haynes US Spy Satellites Owners’ Workshop Manual

Information that at the height of the Cold War would have been considered top secret is revealed in words and pictures by a book that takes the lid off the spies in the sky.

Back in 1965, when the first Haynes Owners’ Workshop Manual – for the Austin-Healey Sprite – was published, spy satellites were so much part of what we now call ‘black ops’ that their very existence was denied by the US Government. The idea that half a century later Haynes would publish a spy satellite manual with the tongue-in-cheek subtitle ‘1959 onwards (all missions, all models)’ would have been unimaginable… which only goes to show how much the world has changed.

The book begins with some historical background. “Spying is said to be the second-oldest profession,” writes author David Baker, “and has always employed the latest and most effective tools”. He cites observation balloons, Zeppelins and aircraft as examples, moving swiftly onto the American U-2 spy plane and camera-carrying rockets.

The nub of the story is what the military termed ‘the ultimate high ground’ (i.e. space), which offered the legal nicety of being able to ‘fly’ far above controlled and aggressively protected airspace – the key advantage of satellites being that they’re harder to shoot down than U-2s. The book describes the early days of the East-West antagonism known as the Cold War in the context of these technological developments before moving to specific examples of space-based surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

Perhaps the best-known of these is now the Corona spy satellite series, because it has already been the subject of several academic texts and has featured in many TV programmes. A 60-page section in this manual provides a comprehensive but accessible overview of the variants – named Argon, Lanyard and Mural – and descriptions of their payloads and uses. It’s not quite a users’ manual, in that there are few detailed diagrams, but it will probably satisfy most readers. Indeed, beyond the Corona section, the book is well illustrated with colour and monochrome photographs and facsimiles of line drawings from once-secret documents.

Later chapters cover satellite systems such as Gambit, Hexagon and Kennen, of which space and military readers will be well aware, and the historic but never-flown Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL). As an example of how strange the black ops world can be, in 2011 a KH-9 Hexagon satellite was put on public display – “for one day only” - at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. Its massive, corrugated bus-like structure seemed incongruous in the exhibition tent, but it gave those who worked on the eponymous ‘Big Bird’ the chance to show their families what they’d been building behind the razor wire.

Today, thanks to declassification, several different types of spy satellite can be viewed in museums across the United States, but the question in many visitors’ minds will be “was it worth the tax dollars?”. The author of this book has an interesting take on that. Thanks to such systems, he says, “the truth emerged that Russia was in fact behind the United States in its capability to wage nuclear war,” so successive US administrations limited the nation’s nuclear deterrent and thus reduced provocation. “The resulting cost savings,” he argues, “more than paid for the entire US spy satellite programme”.

US Spy Satellites Owners’ Workshop Manual by David Baker is published by Haynes (£25.00, ISBN 9781785210860).

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