TCS Daily

Open Skies: From the Cold War to Google Maps

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - July 28, 2005 12:00 AM

I've been fooling around with Google Earth over the past week. One morning I hopped around the globe from Ligonier, Pa. to London, then Baghdad, then Moscow.

I moused in over downtown Moscow, proud of myself for immediately recognizing the outline of the Kremlin and the big open rectangle of Red Square in front of Lenin's tomb, where the Soviets used to hold all those big military parades.

I'm old enough to still be a little amazed at the technology that lets me do stuff like this. And looking at any satellite photographs of Russia gives me a special frisson because of all the years I spent as a journalist covering strategic issues during the Cold War -- years in which I worked and wheedled to get tantalizing glimpses, veiled hints, second hand descriptions (often sanitized), and an occasional amazing close-up of the inside of the Soviet military establishment.

As I zoomed in and out over the Russian capital something clicked, taking me back many years ago, to a booth at the back of Moonly's Drug Store, in Ligonier.

Back there, just across the aisle from the blond wood booths with their red leather cushions and Formica table tops, was a long rack of magazines and newspapers. In the late afternoon, when the place was pretty much deserted I used to like to buy a cherry Coke from the soda fountain and take it back to the last booth. There, nursing my 14-year-old dreams of becoming a "foreign correspondent," I would try to pore over all the news weeklies before Jack Moonly poked his head out of the pharmacy cubicle with his inevitable inquiry about my potential purchase of a magazine and his advice on the location of the library up on East Main.

Well, I did a little checking and by golly it's been exactly 50 years ago this week since I must have been sitting in that booth (last one back, next to the big wooden telephone booth) riveted by the August 1, 1955 Time magazine account of the first "Summit" conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

I remember vividly reading about President Dwight Eisenhower departing from his formal prepared statement on the fourth day of the conference to drop a diplomatic block buster on the Soviets.

Removing his glasses, he placed them on the table before him and looked directly at Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin and Soviet Communist party leader Nikita Khrushchev.

"Gentlemen, since I have been working on this memorandum to present to this conference, I have been searching my heart and mind for something that I could say here that could convince everyone of the great sincerity of the United States in approaching this problem of disarmament."

British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and French Premier Edgar Faure (Talk about fading into obscurity!) were present. But "Ike" made it clear that this was a matter between himself and Bulganin and Khrushchev, because only he and they represented nations with "new and terrible weapons in quantities which do give rise in other parts of the world, or reciprocally, to the fears and dangers of surprise attack."

In his broad, homey, Midwestern voice, Eisenhower said, "I propose, therefore, that we take a practical step, that we begin an arrangement very quickly, as between ourselves -- immediately. These steps would include:

"To give to each other a complete blueprint of our military establishments, from beginning to end, from one end of our countries to the other; lay out the establishments and provide the blueprints to each other."

Time magazine's correspondent reported that "The Russians sat stock still."

Eisenhower continued with the next step: "To provide within our countries facilities for aerial photography to the other country -- we to provide you the facilities within our country, ample facilities for aerial reconnaissance, where you can make all the pictures you choose and take to your own country to study; you to provide exactly the same facilities for us and we to make these examinations..."

The Soviets seemed stunned at the American President's proposal and, indeed, Ike's "open skies" gambit, made on the fourth day of the conference, July 21, 1955, sent hundreds of reporters scrambling for their telephones and typewriters.

The Russians, who had come to the conference smiling, waving and "breathing good will," were notably subdued the next day. What the hell? Was Ike kidding? During a break at the buffet table, Bulganin told Eisenhower through his translator that his proposal was unworkable because it would be so easy to hide even objects as large as a four-engine bomber from aerial cameras.

"If you think it is, please show us how," Ike answered with a grin.

I distinctly remember reading all this with real uneasiness. Like just about everybody, I liked Ike, but I thought his idea was crazy. Any diplomatic or political subtleties of the thing were lost on me. We can't let those dirty commies poke around in our country!

Still, the whole idea, once floated, excited speculation all over the world.

"President Eisenhower uncorked one of the most sensational proposals ever made anywhere at anytime," editorialized the New York Daily News.

"It would give the Soviet war planners precisely the information they most need if they are to knock us out with a surprise attack," warned the Chicago Tribune.

Time offered the estimate of "one expert" that "34 B-47s (our fastest jet bomber at the time) could do a full mapping job of the U.S.S.R. in less than a year," and said that "high-flying patrols of both sides could spot every landing and take-off of potentially hostile aircraft, or guided missiles."

How quaint that all seems now, as I sit at my computer clicking my way from Moscow to Vladivostok, or sorting through satellite photos from Terraserver or Globexplorer. And these relatively sharp satellite pictures -- many in color -- don't come close to the truly amazing resolution of the few military satellite photos I have been privileged to see.

Even as Ike was making his overture a half century ago, surveillance technology was rushing up a steep learning curve. Military aerial photography and photogrammetry (making maps and measurements from photos) had gotten off to a running start in World War I, when thousands of overhead photos of the Western Front were processed every night for tactical intelligence.

Aerial photography in World War II and in Korea had reached even greater heights of resolution. But in Korea, particularly, it became clear that pre- and post-strike photos were costing too much in aircraft lost to high-flying jet fighters and modern anti-aircraft weapons.

And the burgeoning military machine within the vast reaches of the Soviet Union and Red China made "high-level, deep penetration" surveillance a top priority.

Thus, even as I pondered the news from Geneva that July day back in 1955, a strange looking, top secret aircraft was nearing completion in a make-shift factory called the Skunk Works, in Burbank, Calif. Lockheed's odd jet-powered glider, called the U-2, would make its first flight less than a month after the summit and be operational within another year.

The plane would give the Soviets fits before they finally shot one down with an anti-aircraft missile on May 1, 1960 near Sverdlovsk, taking the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, prisoner. The storm around Powers' show trial and imprisonment are now long forgotten (he would finally die while piloting a television station's traffic helicopter) but the amazing U-2 continues in service today, carrying an array of cameras, radars and electronic surveillance devices on its missions more than 20 miles above the earth.

(Its present capabilities -- with improved cameras and advanced synthetic aperture radars giving high resolution images day and night and in any weather -- can be combined with both satellite images and those from remotely controlled reconnaissance vehicles flying at much lower altitudes to give exceptionally detailed real-time intelligence. I still believe that when we do catch or kill Osama bin Ladin, the U-2 will have had a hand in it.)

But of course, that summer of 1955 "high-level" surveillance was poised to go even higher than the U-2.

Just a week after the Geneva summit, Time reported a White House press briefing at which Eisenhower's press secretary, Jim Hagerty, introduced a gaggle of scientists seated around the table with him and announced:

"...The President has approved plans by this country for going ahead with the launching of small, unmanned, earth circling satellites..."

According to Time, the scientists were there to explain how the U.S. "was going to rocket-fire a satellite about the size of a basketball between 200 and 300 miles into space; the satellite would then circle the earth in its orbital path for several days or weeks at the speed of 18,000 m.p.h."

The magazine noted that the White House political reporters "were admittedly out of their orbit" as the scientists tried to explain the concept. "They poured out incredulous questions, gasping at many of the answers."

These "earth circling satellites" combined with the U-2 (and later the utterly amazing SR-71 Blackbird) would open the skies far beyond anything Eisenhower or any of his top scientists could have imagined.

Within the next decade the amazing Corona satellites would be sending back astounding photographic images of the Soviet Union in film packs shot back to earth and caught in mid-air over the Pacific Ocean by special Air Force retrieval units.

Also, during the 1960s the Defense Meteorological Support Program (DMSP) was perfected. These military weather satellites, operating in a sun-synchronous orbit and circling the earth 14.3 times each 24 hours, sized up the frequent cloud cover over the Soviet Union, allowing the Corona satellite cameras not to waste film (a big issue before high resolution video images could be transmitted) when Soviet military installations, airfields or missile bases were obscured.

DMSP satellites also gave American air officers excellent forecasts of weather conditions emerging wherever military operations were underway around the globe.

Now even these accomplishments (done in the slide rule era, remember) seem crude. The top secret satellite photographs of the 1960s have been declassified and are available all over the web. More than 2200 satellites -- Chinese, Russian, French, British, Israeli, Indian -- now orbit the earth, routinely sending back weather information, crop information, archaeological insights, and, of course, military intelligence.

In 2000, the Ikonos satellite was put into orbit. From its 423 mile-high orbit its remote sensors provide publicly accessible imagery which can clearly distinguish objects 1.2 square yards in size -- say a picnic table. But the new generation military satellites can reportedly distinguish objects as small as six inches -- say, a book on a picnic table. And they can do so in darkness or through clouds over an area as large as a thousand square miles.

Talk about open skies.

I look back those 50 years, remember coming of age in the Cold War, and remember, too, the innate faith we all seemed to have in our ability to develop whatever technology was necessary to "beat the Russians."

History shows we did. In spades. The Soviets may have beaten us to the initial punch in the satellite game with Sputnik. But once our scientific blood was up, the Russkis -- even while stealing or secretly buying our technology -- never really came close.

The Cold War seems ancient history now, but in the process of this awful race between the United States and the original Evil Empire, impetus was given to technologies that have opened the skies above and the world below in ways I could never have dreamed back in Moonly's Drug Store, in the summer of 1955.

(Find an interesting chronology of aerial photography and remote sensing with many links at


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