17 June 1998
It is a great honor to be here today to help the Naval Research Laboratory celebrate 75 years of outstanding technical innovation in the service of this country. It is also my privilege on this occasion to announce the declassification of a milestone in the history of the laboratory and in the history of US intelligence.
In February of 1995, President Clinton signed an order declassifying the first photoreconnaissance satellite, CORONA. Today I am pleased to announce the declassification of the first signals intelligence satellite, GRAB, or the Galactic Radiation and Background Experiment.
GRAB was launched on 22 June, 1960--two months before the successful CORONA mission was launched and four days after Gary Powers' U-2 was shot down over Soviet territory. The satellite was developed and operated by the Naval Research Laboratory. GRAB had an unclassified mission--it carried a publicly-announced experiment to measure solar radiation. But GRAB had another purpose that has remained secret until today--that mission was to collect electronic intelligence, or ELINT.
The GRAB program provided military planners with unique new intelligence to use in planning US defense strategy. For more than two years, GRAB satellites collected energy beams emitted by air defense radars hidden deep within Soviet territory. This data was recorded on magnetic tape and later processed and analyzed by the National Security Agency and the Strategic Air Command. Using information collected by GRAB, analysts located and characterized Soviet radars. Among the new discoveries they made was a Soviet radar that supported a potential capability to destroy ballistic missiles.
You can say that GRAB got its start on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Research Engineer Reid Mayo of NRL originated the concept of an ELINT satellite early in 1958 on his way back from a family trip to Michigan. He was stranded by a snowstorm at a Howard Johnson's restaurant on the turnpike. While his wife and children slept, he made initial calculations on a paper placemat. Those notes evolved into a satellite that was a remarkable piece of technology in its time.
Today the technologies behind GRAB are long obsolete and declassification of the program poses no threat to national security. By releasing information about this program, we can provide a more complete and accurate understanding of the role of intelligence in US history. Intelligence was particularly critical during the height of the Cold War. While public fears of a US/Soviet nuclear conflict were running high, US leaders were able to make sound decisions based on the detailed, objective information provided by satellites. To quote one of the leaders of the technical intelligence revolution, Albert Wheelon:
"When the American government eventually reveals the [full range of] reconnaissance systems developed by this nation, the public will learn of space achievements every bit as impressive as the Apollo Moon landings. One program proceeded in utmost secrecy, the other on national television. One steadied the resolve of the American public; the other steadied the resolve of American Presidents."
To me, one of the most important aspects of our declassification program is the opportunity to give long overdue recognition to this nation's intelligence pioneers. We are honored to have with us today 20 of the pioneers who worked at the Naval Research Laboratory on the GRAB program. They worked on programs that ran a high risk of failure--out of five attempts to launch a GRAB satellite, only two were successful. Despite the setbacks, they had the vision to see the possibilities of space, and the technical skill and tenacity necessary to break down the barriers to this new world of opportunity. On behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office, which inherited the work begun here, I would like to thank you for your remarkable contribution to the US space effort and to our national security.