The HEXAGON satellite spied on America's Cold War foes for over a decade, taking extremely detailed (film!) photographs from space. It was 60 feet long—bigger than a bus. And the public never, ever saw it. We did.

To celebrate its 50th birthday, the top secret satellite operators at the National Reconnaissance Office gave the public a little present: full access to a real life HEXAGON at National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia—filled largely with nostalgic old spies and space engineers. So of course we checked it out. The enormity of the thing is stunning, as is its complexity. [View as single page]

In the 70s, flying a plane over the Soviet Union and China wasn't like hopping on Jet Blue—especially one loaded with American spy gear. So the Pentagon cooked up HEXAGON—the most sophisticated space eyeball among the first generation of spy sats. Beginning in 1971, each HEXAGON was pushed up into space by a Titan III rocket, whereupon it would snap humungous panoramic views of Russian turf with its giant camera, which boasted a focal length of 77 inches, a 20-inch aperture, and the ability to capture detail down to two or three feet. But how'd it get the film down to Earth? With a lot of balls.


Each payload of recon negatives was launched in its own landing vehicle, met by a spy plane that would literally snatch it out of the air like a butterfly net. These photos were used to, of course, see what the dastardly commies were up to, and plan for an eventual war against them. Of course, none of this was ever needed, as they weren't really up to that much. But the HEXAGON marked a profound shift for warfare—even cold warfare. For the first time, space was a battlefield. America began to think that to control space was to control what sat underneath it—the vacuum was militarized. And this giant hulk helped make it that way—a process that'll never, ever be reversed. [NRO]

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All photography by Nicko Margolies. For more of Nicko's work and contact information, check out his photo blog.