back to article Spies in the sky: The leaps and bounds from balloons to spook sats

In just 230 years, humanity has progressed from its first faltering flights to the capability to photograph from space an object the size of a grapefruit - a testament both to technological progress and our need to keep a close eye on the world around us. The advancement of aerial surveillance and imaging has been driven in …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Maybe this could have included the KH9 Sat too.. I'm guessing that going on to KH11 and Hubble's chassis might be going a bit into the 'still classified' zone..

    anon obv.

  2. amanfromearth


    You connected the development of the SR-71 to the shooting down of Gary Powers in 1960, but the SR-71 project was started in 1958.

    At least that's what it says on the info board at Duxford. Well worth a tripto see it in the flesh actually . There's also a B-52.

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: SR-71

      The SR-71 was a follow on from the CIA's A-12 OXCART which came from work started in 1957.

      The A-12 was slightly smaller, but visually almost identical to the SR-71, it was slightly faster and could fly higher than the SR-71.

      You could be forgiven for calling the SR-71 the OXCART mk 2.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: SR-71

      That is only one of the many inconsistencies.

      The real reason for the SR71 retirement was that it met its match. Quite spectacularly too. During one of the many dubious overflights in the Kamchatka area (the stupid Korean airliner incident was only one of the many) SR71 flew across the peninsula and in violation of USSR (at the time) airspace. As usual, the PVO got scrambled. As usually the SR71 pilots giggled and proceeded (as they thought) invincible to the slow and cumbersome ancient Su-15s. However at that point 4 fighters split from the main group accelerated to Mach 3 at the same altitude as the SR-71, entered kill range and locked fire control radar on it and kept it locked for good measure for several minutes.

      That is how the SR-71 met Mig-31 (which actually has no other function but to be its match by design). From there on it was simply a matter of time for USAF to acknowledge that it will not do any real missinons over USSR npunished any more. While it flew for 6 more years (till 89) it got locked-on successfully on quite a few of them to the point where it became farcical. By the way - congrats to USAF PR, they did a stellar job in terms of hiding the real reasons for its retirement.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Maybe there is an upside to all the cloud we're having!

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    SR-71 some planes are so cool

    Saw the Blackbird at Duxford, by the time we got to the 6th hanger that houses it my wife wanted to divorce me and the children were lying on the footpath wanting to go to sleep. But I had a great day out, my day. Got photos of the children standing in front of it, poor sods looked so bored. Hopefully they appreciate it now. better do. Blackbird and Concord 2 cool planes to watch takeoff!

    1. Booty003

      Re: SR-71 some planes are so cool

      SR-71... I recently bought the Century Wings 1/72 diecast model of this - AMAZING!!!

      I still need to get myself down to Duxford but will leave the wife and kids at home as I would get exactly the same reaction from them! Definitely a blokes only day out.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: SR-71 some planes are so cool

        > I still need to get myself down to Duxford but will leave the wife and kids at home as I would get exactly the same reaction from them! Definitely a blokes only day out.

        Take a sneaky day off work and go during the week when there aren't too many people about, the place has a different atmosphere.

        The best part of Duxford isn't the big showy glass fronted hangers, it's the sheds round the back that smell of oil and metal shavings.


        1. Hugh Pumphrey

          Re: SR-71 some planes are so cool

          If you like that stuff, but live so far north that Duxford is not a day trip, you might like the museum of flight at East Fortune some 15 miles east of Edinburgh. There is a concorde and a vulcan, among other stuff. Lighter-than-air fans will enjoy the fact that it is the starting point of the R34's double Atlantic crossing.

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: SR-71 some planes are so cool

            I'm fortunate enough to have been to both Duxford and East Fortune.

            There's also the Sunderland Aircraft Museum just a couple of miles away which also has Vulcan. IIRC, that Vulcan not only flew in, but was the last aircraft to land at Sunderland airport before it became the Nissan car plant.

            And yes, the SR-71, like Concord, is a breathtaking site.

            geek icon :-)

    2. Yesnomaybe
      Thumb Up

      Re: SR-71 some planes are so cool

      I went to Duxford a while back, to do a little job with putting together the equipment for digitizing film taken from the forward mounted cameras on Spitfires (Operated by the trigger-button for the machine guns, so a lot of the film depicts disintegrating German planes), and on the last day, I finished early and had time to wander around on the airfield-side of the road for a bit. I literally could not believe my eyes when I happened across the Blackbird. So rare, and such a beautiful, single-minded machine. Didn't know there was only 20 left in the world.

  5. Psyx

    For those interested:

    What, no love for the highly secret and very successful SR-71 predecessor:

    This experimental test-bed is also pretty interesting:

    KH-9 has also now been on (semi-)public display, seen here:

    "As an example of just how far the technology's come, compare a Corona image of the Sputnik launch pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome, obtained at vast effort and expense on good old-fashioned film back in the 1960s"

    It's worth noting that 15cm resolution has been possible for a long time, however lower resolution was generally used, as it was far more useful and covered a much larger area. Likewise, colour wasn't deemed as detailed as black and white images. Inherently there is nothing 'low res' about using traditional film. It took a long while for CCDs to come close to what you could get with a conventional camera.

    We all like what the Hubble does, but it uses a 2.4m mirror mainly because they were already being made for KH-11 birds [ ]

    Nowadays, things have moved on a little, and America's NRO [ ] are literally giving away their camera mirrors to NASA. Why? has a bit to do with it, and obviously stealthed-up, high-altitude UAVs do a good job and are essentially disposable (obviously, you don't use you *newest* toys where they might get shot down, though. And of course, if you have air superiority or are flying in neutral airspace, you can find out an awful lot just by flying one of these around:

    1. TeeCee Gold badge

      Re: For those interested:

      Ah yes, the A-12 or "Oxcart". There's a very good Area 51 documentary doing the rounds at the moment which is all about the Oxcart program and with firsthand accounts.

      I particularly liked the bit when they were horrified to find that the Soviets had the shape of an Oxcart and were trying to figure out how. They knew when the Soviet satellites went over and religiously hauled the things indoors while they passed. They eventually figured out that, while the aircraft was hidden, the heat shadow where it had been stood on the apron remained and that's what the Russkis had picked up in infra-red.

      Turning a cockup to their advantage, they made the world's largest "tangram" set out of black painted bits of cardboard. When the Soviet sats were due, they'd nip outdoors and arrange the things on the floor to make weird aircraft shapes, often adding a couple of space heaters to look like engine signatures. This worked a treat, as feedback from the spooks showed that the Russians were investing a considerable amount of time and effort in evaluating all these secret aircraft and trying to find out what they did.

      One bit did have me laughing out loud. At the same time as all this was going on, the USAF were running "Project Blue Book" and more than a few of the "UFO sightings" were, of course, actually the CIA's Oxcarts. Every time the military lads followed the trail of one of these, they'd eventually hit a wall of secrecy. This would be followed by a call from the CIA telling them it was one of theirs, classified above everyone's pay grade and that they were to invent an excuse to pass it off.

      Rather helpfully, it turned out that the USAF were a bit crap at excuses and tended to trot out the usual "weather balloon" type platitudes. This led to the belief that there was a monumental cover up of UFO work at Area 51, which handily distracted everyone from what was really going on and suited the CIA down to the ground. It was so useful as misdirection that the CIA made a point of pouring fuel on the fires of the conspiracy nuts at every opportunity.

      1. That Awful Puppy

        Re: For those interested:

        >Rather helpfully, it turned out that the USAF were a bit crap at excuses and tended to trot out the usual "weather balloon" type platitudes. This led to the belief that there was a monumental cover up of UFO work at Area 51, which handily distracted everyone from what was really going on and suited the CIA down to the ground. It was so useful as misdirection that the CIA made a point of pouring fuel on the fires of the conspiracy nuts at every opportunity.

        Of course, that's what THEY want you to believe.

      2. Psyx
        Thumb Up

        Re: For those interested:

        Of course, photographing the thing on its transport truck would have been a bit of a giveaway, too. There's shots of a huge flat-bed with this big, latently SR-71 shaped box on the back!

        There's also the pioneering work on stealth, carried out in the 50s, which is fascinating. And none of us realised it at the time, but the Oxcart/SR-71 were probably the first operational 'stealth' aircraft, too.

        "Rather helpfully, it turned out that the USAF were a bit crap at excuses and tended to trot out the usual "weather balloon" type platitudes."

        Plenty of which of course *were* spy-craft. There was also an early recon UAV project, which is pretty cool:

        Which I guess would effectively be the fore-runner of this rumoured prototype:

      3. Florida1920
        Black Helicopters

        Re: For those interested:

        When I was at the USAF 792nd Radar Squadron in North Charleston, SC, in 1966 or 1967 one of our radar ops spotted a "UFO" hauling butt at very high altitude. That brought a major down from the Pentagon to investigate. The op was told he hadn't seen anything, which didn't set well with him, as he was conscientious and knew he had. It probably was an SR-71 headed for Mother Russia, but we weren't allowed to know those things.

  6. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

    It is one thing to take the pictures (essential first step), but it does not end there. What is easily as important is automating the analysis. With the glut of data available, manual analysis is often unacceptably slow. This is one reason we are working together with European partners on massively parallel analysis of huge image data sets. This would allow rapid analysis of damage in the aftermath of disasters, among other applications.

    1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

      Just found the link to an interesting application which uses methods we are working on:

      Global Human Settlement Layer

      This aims at mapping human habitation to keep track of changes, help in planning, and also disaster relief efforts.

  7. t213jbl

    What about the Kites?

    There have always been theories that the Japanese in the early times used kites to lift spies above the battle fields to report back on the state of the enemy deployment - although they may have been prisoners rather than volunteers.

    Plus between balloons and WW1 there were a number of people (Cody in the UK and Saconney in France amongst them) who used kites to lift observers into the air for the same reason.

    Finally Arthur Batut in Southern France used kites to lift a camera to take pictures. Using similar techniques there is the famous (at least to some) picture taken by a kite lifted camera post the San Franciso earth quake in the early 1900's.

    1. Lester Haines (Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

      Re: What about the Kites?

      We haven't forgotten about kite photography. Look out for the piece next week...

  8. Code Monkey


    Such hubris to end on PARIS. Splendid hubris!

    [raises tiny picture of a pint]

    1. url
      Thumb Up

      Re: PARIS

      came to post an upvote simply for the breathtaking bangs for not many bucks

  9. Yet Another Commentard


    Were briefly on display at Dulles Airport.

    If you want a look at a bunch of amateur photos of people prodding the guts of them - look here

    (NB Ghostery blocks about 50 different things on the page).

  10. This post has been deleted by its author

  11. Peter Simpson 1

    Passendale on 1st pg

    Passendale on 1st pg

    Should be Passchendaele.

    Since so many died there, it seems important to get it right.

    //sorry, not funny.

    1. Simon Smith 1

      Re: Passendale on 1st pg

      Any fule kno wikipeedeea is rite

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Passendale on 1st pg

        from the opening line "or Passchendaele (obsolete spelling, retained in English) "

  12. graeme leggett

    Not directly photoreconnaisance but related

    Around the state of the Second World War, the Fleet Air Arm (can't recall exactly if it was still part of the RAF or newly part of the RN at the time) was expected to track our enemies navies. Since most aircraft were a bit too fast to do the job effectively, General Aircraft and Airspeed both produced designs that could fly off an aircraft carrier and tail along behind the German fleet at a comfortable 38 Knots for several hours radio-ing back the German progress. Although capable these "Fleet Shadowers" were not beautiful aircraft; fortunately naval and airborne radar was able to take the role.

    Just also remembered

    The RAF used Martin Maryland bombers for photo-reconnaisance in the Med, they took the snaps of Taranto in the days before the RN launched its attack on the Italian fleet there. Thereby making it the second occasion on which the British had shown how to use naval aircraft to attack your enemies (the first being the Cuxhaven Raid of 1914.

    1. SkippyBing Silver badge

      Re: Not directly photoreconnaisance but related

      The Fleet Air Arm also used a few Marylands as photo-reconnaissance aircraft, it was one of them that discovered the Bismarck wasn't where she was supposed to be, kicking off the hunt that ultimately led to her demise, and demonstrating it's not always what you take photos of that's important it can be what you don't.

  13. SuperHoopMango
    Paris Hilton

    Ahhhhhh...the SR-71! Such a beautiful bird!

    Back in the day (late-80's to be more precise) I was a scopie in the RAF. This usually involved sitting at a radar station and watching the traffic. With a 15 second cycle, you would generally see 4 radar slashes within a cm or so on the screen. There was always a lot of excitement when we knew the Blackbird was due home, as the paints would be massively spaced!

    I was also involved in flight simulators....and we had the capability to mimic the SR-71....Oh happy days!

    <<< I hear she likes a man in uniform!

    1. Peter Simpson 1


      Imagine being one of the designers? "You can use anything you want except nuclear. Just make it go as fast as you can and as high as you can."

      Probably less fun for the camera designers: "You want *what* resolution, from *what* height at *what* speed?"

      1. Johan Bastiaansen

        Re: SR-71

        And the answers would have been: classified, classified & classified.

        <<< reaches for his pocket camera.

      2. Psyx

        Re: SR-71

        "You can use anything you want except nuclear. Just make it go as fast as you can and as high as you can."

        They were pretty practical, really. They looked at hydrogen powered engines, but decided it was impractical.

        Although there were plans drawn up for a nuclear-powered drone nuclear bomber, and they even got as far as testing a nuclear jet engine. They would have kept a few in the air, ready for mission activation at any time. It would have flown low, spewing a cloud of nasty fall-out, before dropping a swathe of warheads and crashing, making even more of a mess.

        In the end, the US decided that such a tool would be escalating the Cold War a bit too much.

  14. disgruntled yank Silver badge

    American hardware

    The American-made craft known as the Mustang and the Lightning were designated as P-51 and P-38 by the USAAF, for it was only after the war that American fighters took the designation F[ighter] instead of P[ursuit].

    1. Lester Haines (Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

      Re: American hardware

      I believe the "F-" referred to the photo recon variants - nothing to do with post-war designation.

    2. Fr. Ted Crilly

      Re: American hardware

      Well yes BUT photo recon variants were officially F this that and the other.

      for example:

      pedant cos well details are important n that.

      1. SkippyBing Silver badge

        Re: American hardware

        Indeed, F for Foto. Be fair it's not the worst thing they've done to the language.

  15. Gene Cash Silver badge

    13 failed attempts

    Can you imagine that today? It'd certainly be shitcanned after 2, if not after 1, and that's if it ever got to bending metal in the first place.

  16. ed2020


    The SR-71 is almost my all-time-favourite aircraft, second only to Concorde... and that's probably mainly because I was lucky enough to fly on Concorde.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Habu in Kansas

    If you are in Kansas:

    I don't think there's another Habu mounted like that.

  18. asdf Silver badge


    Don't get me the wrong the air frame of the SR-71 and other technology on it was amazing but what imho was the most amazing part of the aircraft and always seems to get neglected in discussions is the power plant. A truly state of the art jet engine for 1958. At least a decade ahead of its time.

    Edit: yes I realize the engine went through many changes including a total overhaul from the original design from 1958 but still an amazing piece of engineering.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Accept a well earned pat on the back...

    ...for a very good article.

  20. Winkypop Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Excellent article

    Well done.

    Can you do one on hand-held spy equipment?

  21. CArguin
    Thumb Up

    UK's RAPTOR programme

    It may be of some interest to know that the RAPTOR system the RAF is flying is also developed by the same Itek company mentioned (since bought by Litton, then Hughes, then Raytheon, then Goodrich, and currently owned by UTC).

    That's the fault I find with Lewis' arguments to drop the Tornadoes; there is no ready replacement for their long-range tactical reconnaissance role.

    Loved the article.

    1. Psyx

      Re: UK's RAPTOR programme

      "That's the fault I find with Lewis' arguments to drop the Tornadoes; there is no ready replacement for their long-range tactical reconnaissance role."

      The answer to that is to keep a dozen, rather than the whole fleet.

      Just like we did with the Canberra.

  22. ForthIsNotDead


    Since this is a British website, catering to a (mostly) British audience, do you think we could *please* have imperial units of measurement?

    1. Lester Haines (Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

      Re: Sigh...

      1. ForthIsNotDead

        Re: Sigh...

        @ esteemed 'Reg Hack...

        From the page you cite:

        No less than 1,773 of you voted for "Metric only, with the exception of pints of beer and aircraft altitude in feet".

        So there :-)

        1. Malcolm Weir Silver badge

          Re: Sigh...

          And the article isn't even consistent: there's a reference to U-2s bumbling along at 70,000 feet, which is, what, 9 meters or something?

  23. Nick Pettefar


    Get down to the annual Air Tattoo in Fairford if you want to see amazing things. Seen SR-71s flying, the stealth fighter, etc.

  24. graeme_from_IT


    "In 1982, the US released an SR-71 photo of enemy merchant ships in Corinto, Nicaragua,"

    I know that the US and the (then) USSR, really REALLY hated/grudgingly respected each other, but I can't recall the US actually saying that the USSR was "the enemy" (Alien because some folks still believe that us,puny, Humans couldn't have designed such an awesome machine at the end of the 1950's)

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