Editor’s note: This month Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine, where our U.S. Military Space reporter Craig Covault spent nearly 40 years, is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Since Covault provided decades of award winning coverage, the current editors asked that he write a piece for the Aviation Week anniversary issue detailing the process behind two particular scoops that have become legend at AWST. The story is reproduced here with permission along with two corrections that have come to light.
On March 20, 1978, Aviation Week & Space Technology revealed that the Soviet Union was secretly developing its own reusable space shuttle. The article, complete with details on the Soviet shuttle’s design characteristics, was a scoop picked up by media around the globe. What readers do not know, however, is the revelation’s connection to another Cold War blockbuster written 14 months earlier, but not published, after a plea from the acting chairman of the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
I joined Aviation Week in 1972, just after the launch of Landsat 1, whose unclassified, digital low-resolution multispectral imagery created a sensation at the time. That drew me to’s in Greenbelt, Maryland, where I got to know the engineers and scientists in the program. They clued me in on the digital imaging technology and what was to come—including the Hubble Space Telescope.
At Aviation Week, I became space technology editor and was mentored by Avionics Editor Philip J. Klass, who had become a legend in his own time reporting on intelligence programs. In December 1976, there was an extremely unusual secret Titan 3D launch into polar orbit from Vandenberg AFB, California. We calculated the Titan had to be carrying about a 30,000-lb. satellite that was put into an orbit 150 mi. higher than the KH-9 Hexagon film pod satellites that provided U.S. imagery reconnaissance at that time.
Phil and I tossed around what this new satellite might be, and he said: “Go chase it, it’s yours.” I initially got civilian input on the term “Strategic Response Satellite” (SRS), which meant it had to carry a lot of propellant to alter its ground track. I also heard about “near real-time imaging and transmission” to the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center in Washington.
By early 1977, with the Goddard tips supplemented by many others received from military personnel, I had surmised that the big mystery payload:
• Was indeed a 30,000-lb. spacecraft, the maximum polar orbit payload for a Titan 3D, and was flying much higher than the KH-9 Hexagons.
• Employed digital imaging, instead of a limited supply of film, a huge advantage because it never ran out of digits.
• Carried a large telescope for high resolution, a tie-in with Hubble technology.
• Was named the “KH-11 Kennan” after George Kennen, a top U.S. diplomat who championed “Soviet containment.”
I also learned the program apparently used relay satellites. The relay evidence fit the modus operandi of another brand-new secret program—the SDS Satellite Data System spacecraft in highly elliptical orbits. Two were launched, in June and August 1976, just a few months before the mystery Titan 3 payload. Klass did the math to plot SDS orbits relative to this new recon’s orbit, and the whole thing fit.
Together it all meant a huge revolution in U.S. top-secret overhead reconnaissance was underway. It clearly had to be a multibillion-dollar program, because it teamed three big new projects, a KH satellite production line, an SDS satellite production line and a ground processing capability created specifically to process real-time digital images.
I shared those story elements with Klass, Editor-in-Chief Robert Hotz and Washington Bureau Chief Dave Brown, looking for a “go” to write a story. Hotz cautioned, however, that we needed to get a U.S. Air Force security blessing before we published because we did not want to give away to the Soviets and Chinese anything of extreme national security value.
I called a top Air Force public affairs officer in the Pentagon and told him about my straw man reconnaissance program theory, as if I had it cold. He quickly relayed a reply: “The chairman wants to see you.” To which I replied, “The chairman of what?”
He boomed: “The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. David Jones. He wants to see you at 2 p.m. today.” I suddenly fully realized the seriousness of the situation. Hotz insisted I go alone, noting: “You be the judge. If he sells you on national security specifics, we will hold. But if he waffles and it sounds like political-based security, we are going to publish.”
At the Pentagon Gen. “Davy” Jones greeted me warmly, dismissed my military escort, and said: “OK, Craig, tell me what you’ve got.” In my head I assembled all the various inputs and described to him a specific spacecraft and program. It was a bit of a bluff, because nobody had told me exactly how it all fit together.
To my great relief, Jones said: “You are exactly right. Now I am going to explain why Aviation Week should hold it.” He then cited several specific KH-11 imaging details on how the new spacecraft was catching the Soviets with their pants down.
To my surprise, he revealed that signals-intelligence intercepts proved the Soviets were talking a lot about what the payload might be and had assessed that it was likely an advanced weather satellite. There was no talk among them that there was a hugely advanced overhead reconnaissance system they should have been worrying about. As a result, Jones said, the Soviets were not closing doors on missile silos or putting new aircraft under cover during KH-11 passes over Soviet territory. In the midst of the Cold War, the U.S. was, for the first time, seeing warhead details on Soviet ICBMs aimed at American cities and military facilities.
I told Jones that he had made a convincing case and Aviation Week would hold the story. We exchanged a few more thanks, and I headed for the door. But Jones called me back. “Now what can I do for you?” he asked. I told him I had not come with any quid pro quo in mind. He praised that but reiterated the offer more strongly. For Jones, it was also a way to really seal Aviation Week to a deal.
“Some secret Soviet Space briefings would be useful,” I said. “You shall have them,” the chairman replied.
Shortly thereafter, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) called to invite me to the first of several top-secret-level Soviet space backgrounders that continued every few months up to mid-1978. And it was at one of those DIA briefings that I got the huge scoop that the Soviets, in spite of their denials, were developing a reusable winged space shuttle to compete directly with’s shuttle, which the Soviets believed was destined for strictly military purposes.
We kept the KH-11 story on ice until the summer of 1978, when a disgruntled low-ranking CIA employee, William Kampiles, sold the KH-11 manual to a Soviet spy for a mere $3,000. He probably could have gotten $3 million. With that, the KH-11’s cover was blown. The Soviets knew what the KH-11 was, diagrams and all.
After Kampiles was arrested, Aviation Week decided to go with the KH-11 story, but as courtesy I asked to see Gen. Jones again. This time, however, the chairman elevated it even higher. I was summoned to a meeting in the White House West Wing, and took my colleague Klass with me.
Our “inquisitors” were four-star Adm. Dan Murphy, the head of National Security Programs for the National Security Council; Leslie Dirks, the CIA’s deputy director for Science and Technology whom President Jimmy Carter had awarded the National Security Medal, and an official from the Justice Department. The presence of the Justice official signified that the Carter administration was putting on the heat.
I explained Aviation Week was going to go with the story now that the Soviets had the manual. Murphy replied sharply, “It would be a violation of national security to reveal that story.” He said the manual, which by then the Soviets had possessed for months, may not have been widely distributed among the Soviet military.
Pushing back on that point, politely, I said: “The fact is that the Soviets have it. The Justice Department has already made that public, not Aviation Week.” I pulled out a small calculator and waved it in front of Murphy saying: “If Phil Klass and I can figure out what that spacecraft is doing with just this, then I believe Soviet intelligence personnel, armed with the manual, could do the same.”
That paused the debate. I told them again that we would publish the KH-11 story but only in the context of Kampiles’ arrest. And I volunteered that I would keep the relay SDS birds secret for a while because they were the key to the real-time transmission of imagery. Aviation Week did not publish the full story about the SDS relay spacecraft until Phil Klass wrote about them in detail on page 46 of the April 2, 1990, issue. As another concession, I said I would just dribble in the details across many issues of the magazine, not trumpet the whole program at once. That seemed to quiet them, but I remember that our goodbyes this time around were not as friendly.
Our 18 months of sleuthing finally resulted in the scoop of the KH-11, as well as a major exclusive on the Soviet space shuttle. The first plain vanilla KH-11 story was published in the August 28, 1978, issue on page 22. It did not even mention digital imaging. The first mention of that did not come until after the second KH-11 was launched, a year after our White House meeting.