For decades during the Cold War, the employees of Danbury-based Perkin-Elmer Corporation kept a secret.

Hexagon Spy Satellite

Big Bird Mission Kh-9

hexagon Satellite KH-9 Perkin Elmer

Kh-9 big Bird

KH-9 Reentry Module, Danbury Perkin Elmer

KH-9 Hexagon, also known as Big Bird, was produced by Danbury-based Perkin-Elmer.

A famous satellite that was built by Perkin-Elmer optics in Danbury in 1965 was recently declassified, allowing the Danbury residents to finally speak about their famous work on a satellite. At least one person familiar with the information gathered by "Big Bird" (as it was called), credits it with preventing World War III. The satellite is credited with providing information for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with the Soviet Union in the 1970’s. There were 20 missions performed by the KH9 between 1971 and 1986. Of the 20 missions, 19 were successful and the final mission ended when the booster rockets failed.

According to Fox News, at one point in the 1970's there were over 1,000 people working in Danbury on this secret project, that they could tell no one about. Even George HW Bush, who was then the director of the CIA came to Danbury to visit the plant. Even the father of Danbury’s Mayor, Donald Boughton, was one of the workers on the project. Mayor Mark was invited to speak at the reunion. Fox News quoted the Mayor as saying “"Learning about Hexagon makes me view him completely differently, he was more than just my Dad with the hair-trigger temper and passionate opinions about everything. He was a Cold War warrior doing something incredibly important for our nation."

Each HEXAGON satellite mission lasted about 124 days, with the satellite launching four film return capsules that could send its photos back to Earth. An aircraft would catch the return capsule in mid-air by snagging its parachute following the canister's re-entry.

All of the camera and optics systems on Big Bird were made at Perkin-Elmer in Danbury at a building next to the municipal airport.

The KH-9 HEXAGON was a series of photographic reconnaissance satellites launched by the United States between 1971 and 1986. Because it was before digital photography, the photographs taken by the satellite had to be returned back to earth in large capsules. These were captured by US Airforce aircraft using grappling hooks. The best ground resolution achieved by the main cameras was better than 0.6 meters.

According to the Associated Press, Al Gayhart of Danbury was one of the workers. "My name is Al Gayhart and I built spy satellites for a living," announced the 64-year-old retired engineer to the stunned bartender in his local tavern as soon as he learned of the declassification. He proudly repeats the line any chance he gets…"It was intensely demanding, thrilling and the greatest experience of my life," says Gayhart, who was hired straight from college and was one of the youngest members of the Hexagon "brotherhood".

They had to go through a lengthy clearance before they were allowed to know what they would be working on.

"They wanted to make sure we couldn't be bribed," Marra says. Clearance could take up to a year. During that time, employees worked on relatively minor tasks in a building dubbed "the mushroom tank" — so named because everyone was in the dark about what they had actually been hired for.

Joseph Prusak, 76, spent six months in the tank. When he was finally briefed on Hexagon, Prusak, who had worked as an engineer on earlier civil space projects, wondered if he had made the biggest mistake of his life.

"I thought they were crazy," he says. "They envisaged a satellite that was 60-foot (18-meter) long and 30,000 pounds (13,600 kilograms) and supplying film at speeds of 200 inches (500 centimeters) per second. The precision and complexity blew my mind."

Several years later, after numerous successful launches, he was shown what Hexagon was capable of — an image of his own house in suburban Fairfield.

"This was light years before Google Earth," Prusak said. "And we could clearly see the pool in my backyard."

"At the height of the Cold War, our ability to receive this kind of technical intelligence was incredible," says space historian Dwayne Day. "We needed to know what they were doing and where they were doing it, and in particular if they were preparing to invade Western Europe. Hexagon created a tremendous amount of stability because it meant American decision makers were not operating in the dark."

Phil Pressel, designer of the HEXAGON's panoramic 'optical bar' imaging cameras, agreed with Day's assessment.

"This is still the most complicated system we've ever put into orbit …Period."

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