Top secret for years, Kodak-designed space-age spy camera returns to Rochester

Feb 8, 2020
Originally published on February 3, 2020 8:22 am

Dave McDowell must have had an air of mystery about him during his decades as an engineer at Eastman Kodak.

His neighbors, his friends, and even his family had no idea what he was working on, and Dave couldn't tell them, even though they had a lot of questions.

"Constantly, constantly," he recalled. "It was fun at parties sometimes; you would know the other people that were cleared, or had a pretty good idea of who they were, and you would talk in sort of coded words, 'Where are you working? I'm over at Lincoln Plant, Unit 7.' "

Because of the sensitivity of the project, McDowell and Kodak employees who worked on it were restricted in terms where and how they could travel, and they had to undergo government security screening.

"I heard stories from neighbors of my parents," McDowell said, " 'Gee, I had this FBI guy asking about you.' "

From 1957, when he first started working on the project, until 2011 when it was declassified, McDowell was sworn to secrecy.

But now, the results of this once top-secret Kodak program is on full display at the Strasenburgh Planetarium.

"Awe" is how McDowell described what he felt standing in front of the exhibit. "It's something we designed and built in Rochester, and this one didn't fly in space, but 48 others exactly like it did."

The top-secret project was the optical system for Gambit-1, a national reconnaissance satellite. Kodak engineers designed and built what was essentially a large camera encased in a capsule. It was a revolutionary technology at that time, and it played a significant role in U.S. national security in the Cold War era.

"The stated goal inside the program was to achieve photographic intelligence of the Soviet Union and other areas that were denied to our reconnaissance aircraft," McDowell explained. 

One of the two surviving optical systems is on long-term loan to the Rochester Museum & Science Center. The exhibit is open now, but this spring, it will expand to include images taken by the space camera.

McDowell says the satellite's 77-inch focal length camera was specially designed to take images from a great distance.

"That meant that you could see cars, you could count cars, you could measure the dimensions of an aircraft carrier fairly accurately that was in construction in Russia," he said. "You could count aircraft; you could tell if it was a two-engine or four-engine aircraft, and a good photo reconnaissance expert could tell what kind of an aircraft it was."

Once the film was exposed, it was ejected from the satellite in a return capsule and retrieved over the Pacific Ocean by specially equipped Air Force planes and flown to Rochester to be processed.

The cutting-edge technology developed at Kodak gave the U.S. a decisive intelligence edge during the Cold War, according to James Outzen, director of the Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance.

"It was an environment where we had virtually no insight into what U.S. adversaries' capabilities and emergency abilities looked like," he said. "We didn't have spies on the ground, so to speak, intelligence sources that we were able to tap into within denied areas such as the Soviet Union or China."

Nine years ago, when McDowell was finally able to talk openly about this space-age spy camera that he had a part in developing, "it was almost anticlimactic," he said, because the technology used to make it seems primitive by today's standards.

"People are not in awe of the magnitude of this in the same way that people who worked on it and have that frame of reference do," he said.

But Outzen says Kodak employees who planned, designed, and built Gambit's optical system have reason to be proud.

"They made an essential, critical contribution to U.S. national security," he said. "A unique contribution that is really unparalleled."

Gambit-1 flew 38 missions between 1963 and 1967, and consistently returned high resolution photographs to Earth.

The satellite's optic system, now back home in Rochester, will remain on exhibit at the Strasenburgh Planetarium indefinitely.

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