Lunar Orbiter’s Classified Heritage

SAMOS To The Moon: The Clandestine Transfer of Reconnaissance Technology Between Federal Agencies, NRO
“Having acquired, launched, and then terminated work on a near real time imaging satellite, however, NRO officials at that time agreed to consign the SAMOS imaging system to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for use in its deep space exploration program. The surreptitious transfer of this technology, a fact just recently declassified, has remained unknown to many in the NRO and NASA because of the compartmented security measures then in place. It occurred in the following manner.
When in the summer of 1963 NASA requested proposals for a five flight Lunar Orbiter imaging satellite, the Eastman Kodak Company asked for and received permission from the NRO to join The Boeing Airplane Company and bid on the program. In the effort to meet NASA requirements, Eastman would modify its E-1 camera with an 80mm focal length Schneider-Xenotar lens and an off-the-shelf 24-inch telephoto lens procured from Pacific Optical. The two lenses would be bore sighted at the surface of the moon for a planned orbit of about 30 miles altitude. Light would pass through each lens to the film, but the simultaneous images were interspersed with other exposures, and not placed side by side. The camera employed the existing velocity over height sensor to regulate the speed of the focal plane shutter on the 24 inch lens and the between the lens shutter on the 80mm lens, which compensated for image motion. The Boeing Airplane Company, in turn, designed a solar-powered spacecraft stabilized in attitude on three axes that mounted other off-the-shelf hardware, and integrated it with the modified E-1 SAMOS payload.”

“In the fall of 1963 a NASA Source Evaluation Board examined five proposals received from aerospace firms for the Lunar Orbiter, including the Boeing entrant. Board members found the other four proposals employed liquid film developing (difficult to contain in the hard vacuum of space), high speed film sensitive to solar radiation, and single lens camera designs that required development and testing to prove their operation in space. The Boeing/Eastman Kodak proposal featured a semi-dry film developing process, low speed film that required minimal shielding from solar radiation, and a twin lens camera along with much other equipment already developed and available. Although the Boeing proposal carried the highest price tag, it clearly met or exceeded all of the requirements for the lunar mission, and the evaluation board selected it over the other competitors. On 20 December 1963 NASA Administrator James E. Webb announced selection of the Boeing proposal and, after Congress accepted the decision, an incentive contract was signed with the firm in April 1964.
Whether members of NASA’s source evaluation board knew of the Eastman Kodak camera’s association with the classified National Reconnaissance Office is uncertain, but they surely became aware of its military origins as a component of the earlier Air Force satellite reconnaissance program. Whatever their understanding of its clandestine background in 1963, the mix of proven technology and extraordinary efforts of NASA and Boeing-Eastman personnel brought the space and ground segments quickly on line. The space agency launched five of the “SAMOS Lunar Orbiters” successfully between August 1966 and August 1967. Now equipped with film storage and in view of Earth receiving stations for over one-half hour on each revolution as it orbited our nearest celestial neighbor, the first three of the lunar orbiters completed the original task of obtaining detailed photographs needed to select Apollo landing sites. That left the last two film-readout near real time imaging satellites available to photo-map virtually the entire moon and examine in detail various surface features. Collectively, these images of the Earth’s natural satellite proved a selenographic bonanza that paved the way for Project Apollo’s manned lunar landings later in the decade.”