Skip to main content

Design of US spy satellites revealed for first time in new manual

Haynes manual contains newly-declassified documents that show how spy satellites were built and operated
13 October 2016
Dr David Baker

13 October 2016: Newly-declassified US intelligence agency documents published for the first time in a new manual from Haynes reveal details of the US spy satellite programmes that armed the White House with the intelligence to call the Soviet Union’s bluff during the Cold War.


The US Spy Satellite Owners Workshop Manual features a wealth of documents, many previously classified, disclosing the designs and layouts for several photographic reconnaissance (spy) satellites, including design details for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). This was the manned military space station that the US planned but ultimately cancelled.


Development of spy satellites was instigated initially by the CIA and the US Air Force in 1959, but in 1960, President Eisenhower established a highly classified organisation – the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) – to take charge of all spy satellite development for these and other government agencies.The early satellites were operated under the project name Discoverer, publicly thought of as being part of NASA’s scientific research in space. However in reality they carried spy cameras with the code name Key Hole (KH). Over the following decades, further spy satellite programmes were developed under the code names CORONA, SAMOS, GAMBIT, HEXAGON DORIAN (the cancelled Manned Orbiting Laboratory) and KENNEN/CRYSTAL.


This fascinating manual, written by former NASA engineer and member of The Association of Former Intelligence Officers, Dr David Baker, who has obtained unprecedented access to previously classified documents, lifts the lid on exactly what spy satellites are, how they operate, what their limitations are and what they look like.  The book also reveals how theprogrammes aided the US arms-reduction talks with Russia, and improved knowledge of other potential aggressor states.


The manual is supported by fascinating imagery throughout, of both the satellites and the photographic images they obtained. It also includes detailed technical drawings and cutaways of the satellites and their cameras - explaining how they managed to obtain the often remarkable images.


The full story of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) is told for the first time, including how the MOL, which was publicly announced in 1963, was developed and what it really looked like inside and out. The MOL was subject to a fierce debate about whether such a costly space station was necessary, and the battle was lost when a new generation of automated reconnaissance satellites was planned. These were capable of directly transmitting images to Earth without the previous need to use photographic film returned through the Earth’s atmosphere in capsules.


The satellites covered, ranging from the KH1 to KH11, became increasingly advanced over the years, with the KH11 capable of discriminating between objects on the ground measuring only 13cm across.  


Author Dr David Baker Commented:  “At a time when public disclosure of the Iraq war from the Chilcot Inquiry makes headlines, this book uses newly declassified information to show how politicians in recent history planned and used intelligence data for their own ends, knowing that the sources of that information could not answer back.


“Plans for the US’s spy satellite programmes were drawn up in the context of a growing desire, beginning in the era immediately after the Second World War, to obtain detailed information on Soviet military and industrial developments. In an age of missile warfare, it was crucial for Western intelligence organisations to know where key targets were.


“The Cold War greatly accelerated technological advancement, and plans for spy satellites were discussed three years before the launch of the world’s first satellite Sputnik 1. In the war’s critical years US Presidents were able to spend, in total, a sum of money on these highly classified projects that was greater than NASA’s already considerable budget.”


The US Spy Satellites Manual joins other Haynes manuals relevant to the Cold War era including the Cold War Operation Manual,V Force Manual, and titles covering the Avro Vulcan, RAF Tornado, Hawker Siddeley/BAE Harrier, North American F-86 Sabre, Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom, Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F-15 Eagle,General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk.

The information on this page is supplied courtesy of Haynes Publishing, please credit accordingly if you intend to use it. For more information or to request a review copy please contact:

Max Hammond at McCann PR on +44(0)117 921 8143 or
Eleanor James at McCann PR on +44(0)117 921 8135 or
Emillie Forrest-Jones on +44(0)117 921 8129 or
or email Haynes PR

To request a review copy or high-res images contact McCann PR


Haynes Publishing has been the world's leading publisher of illustrated workshop car manuals and motorcycle manuals since 1965. In that time Haynes has evolved and so have its Manuals to now include a wide range of automotive, sport, leisure, military and lifestyle subjects. Haynes also has licenses to publish Manuals with NASA, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, Star Wars, Star Trek and others.

Haynes publishing also offers its more recent car and motorcycle manuals through online subscription, Manuals Online was launched in 2010 and offers colour imagery, video and is accessible through computer or tablet via an internet connection. Sparkford, Yeovil, Somerset BA22 7JJ. Telephone: 01963 440635 Fax: 01963 440001 E-mail: