Declassified Cold War satellite camera returns home to Rochester

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — A Cold War camera assembly that was apart of the GAMBIT satellite system is now display at the Rochester Museum and Science Center’s Strasenburg Planetarium. According to the website:

“Gambit was one of a series of top-secret satellites whose mission was to photograph Soviet military and industrial capabilities from orbit. Between 1963 and 1967, Gambit-1 flew 38 missions and consistently returned high resolution photographs to Earth. This allowed US National Security a view of the Soviet Union and other areas of potential hostile activity that were previously inaccessible without international incident.”

The project was built with 1960s technology, but it was so ahead of its time that the National Reconnaissance Office declassified the project in 2011. Employees at Eastman Kodak were finally able to share their experiences for the first time, and a handful shared them publicly Tuesday.

During the press conference, “a homecoming,” and “a priceless piece of history” were words used to describe its return.

Many colorful comparisons were made during the presentation about the camera’s precision, but RMSC officials say “from 130 miles above the Earth, moving over 18,000 miles per hour, and clear enough to see trucks stored in a base.”

According James Outzen, Director of the Center for Study of National Reconnaissance at the NRO, the satellite was named for a “gambit” in chess; which is a high risk-reward maneuver.

Government officials try to bring declassified materials home, so the public can benefit.

“The GAMBIT system was conceived here in Rochester, it was built here in Rochester, and the imagery that was obtained was processed right here in Rochester by Eastman Kodak,” Outzen said. “So this is a perfect home for this particular artifact.”

“If you say (to kids) That these are the pieces of a spy satellite, (kids) Light up,” said Hillary Olsen, president of RMSC. “They get really excited about what that is, and what the possibilities are, and how amazing it is that it was 60 or 70 years ago, technology from that long ago, and how they can be the future of what’s happening in Rochester, and the future of technology.”

We also spoke to one of the project electrical engineers, Paul Haas, who had to keep the project a secret until it was declassified in 2011, about the most rewarding part of the job.

“When they put the hardware together, our hardware, the hardware that General Electric was responsible for, the hardware that Lockheed-Martin was responsible for, we had a lot of meetings to talk about how it was all going to go together, and make sure everything was done on paper and correctly,” Haas said. “When we put it together, it worked, and it worked well.”

“Things weren’t misaligned. What came over a wire was expected to come over a wire, and when the government shared the fact with us that it was about a clean an integration as they’ve ever seen, that was a proud moment.”

You can watch Paul Haas’s “Big Three” answers here:

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