In 1971, the KH-9 Hexagon was the United States' most advanced spy device -- a brand new photographic reconnaissance satellite as large as a school bus that carried more than 60 miles of high-resolution
photographic film for surveillance missions. The 6-inch wide Hexagon film frame captured a field of view of around 370 miles, with a resolution of about 2 to 3 feet, according to the National Reconnaissance Office.
The film images were sent back to Earth in recoverable return capsules. Entering the Earth's atmosphere,
the canisters deployed a parachute and were then snagged by a plane in mid-air and returned to base for processing and analysis.
But in July 1971, the third reentry vehicle from the first Hexagon photo-satellite mission was lost, when the parachute broke, sending the canister into the open sea near Hawaii. The bucket sank on impact to a depth of more than 16,400 feet. This was sensitive info -- photographs of the Soviet Union's
submarine bases and missile silos -- and the decision was made to
attempt to recover the valuable intelligence data.
This week, the CIA released documents relating to the spy satellite incident and the recovery mission. Here's an illustration of the Hexagon system.
Documents released relating to the Hexagon recovery describe this image as the first piece of debris that was sighted. The document reads, "It appears to be a piece of the gold canister and part of the grey RV support pallet."
The ship left Pearl Harbor in Hawaii for the Pacific crash site on November 21, 1971.
Prior to this mission, the Trieste II recovery vehicle had never gone below 10,000 feet underwater and the film was at more than 16,000 feet. It is conveyed in CIA documents that "the decision was made to attempt the deep sea recovery of the RV primarily for the intelligence value of the film record and secondly to establish a capability for deep oceanographic recovery."
Documents chronicling the recovery of the satellite film say "the reliability of the Trieste II was relatively poor. There was a major subsystem failure on each of the three dives."