9.3.4: Program 206

The Program 206 satellite, carrying the KH-7 camera system, was one of the most successful space reconnaissance programs in the 1960s. Program 206 was managed by NRO's Program A, the USAF-led segment of the National Reconnaissance Program managed from Los Angeles AFB in El Segundo, California. Its BYEMAN code name is thought to be GAMBIT, which was also applied to the follow-on KH-8 system.

The satellite was a US Air Force system with long focal length cameras providing sufficiently high resolution to identify and measure the properties of targets such as missiles and aircraft, in contrast to the lower resolution CORONA system which was only able to locate such targets. Its success prompted the cancellation of the troubled LANYARD program after only three launches.

This section is an attempt to summarize what is known in the public domain about the space engineering aspects of Program 206 in early 2000. I won't speculate on the intelligence capabilities of the system in advance of its declassification.

According to sources familiar with the program, the main spacecraft was known as the OCV (Orbital Control Vehicle). It was a 3-axis-stabilized satellite which separated from the Agena and contained the payload, camera system and reentry vehicle (RV). The OCV was made by General Electric's King of Prussia plant, and the RV by GE's West Philadelphia plant. Following the success (after initial teething troubles) of the CORONA SRV (satellite recovery vehicle) and the dismal failure of the rival E-5 and E-6 designs within the SAMOS program, Program 206 stuck with the CORONA SRV design. The OCV was a long cylinder, 1.5 meters in diameter and about 5.0 meters long, ending in a conical adapter connecting it to the SRV. The SRV was a 0.8m long, 0.7m diameter rounded cone with a mass of about 160 kg. Attached to the aft end of the SRV was the 'thrust cone' and Thiokol Star 12 retrorocket, with a mass of 33 kg full and 10 kg empty. The OCV was launched into a low altitude sun-synchronous orbit on an Atlas Agena D rocket, with the Agena D stage initially attached. The Agena D was 6.3m long and 1.5m diameter; its dry mass may have been around 600 to 700 kg.

According to Jeff Richelson, the early flights had stabilization problems and the Agena was later left attached to provide attitude control. However, throughout the KH-7 program the Space Command Satellite Catalog described extra objects tracked in orbit with the majority of flights as Agena D rocket bodies (R/B), which would imply that the GAMBIT spacecraft continued to operate separately in orbit.

The RAE Table also lists separated Agena rockets for some of the flights - sometimes (e.g. 1966-32B on flight 27) for objects where the Space Command list just notes debris! Flights 23 and 24 (1965-90 and 1966-02) had 'B' objects which were cataloged as extra payloads, the second with the remark `Agena'. It seems likely that the `A' objects on these flights are the GAMBIT satellite, and the `B' object is the Agena stage with a small secondary payload attached to the aft rack. Overall, the evidence seems convincing that the GAMBIT satellite payloads orbited separately from their Agena final stages. I understand that on the early flights the Agena didn't separate until after SRV recovery, allowing tests of the OCV stabilization system without risking the imaging mission.

The early GAMBIT flights used an Agena D stage atop Atlas D boosters of the same design as the Atlas D ICBM, but the 10th flight introduced the SLV-3 Standard Launch Vehicle variant of the Atlas, the first designed specifically as a space launcher. In 1966 the much more powerful Titan 3B Agena D was introduced; the satellites launched by Titan 3B remained attached to their Agenas and were significantly larger. I assume that the switch of launch vehicles corresponds to the switch from the KH-7 to the KH-8 satellite, but this is not certain.

The orbital data given in the table is from the RAE Tables; note that the Satellite Catalog orbital heights are often significantly different, but mean properties of the orbits are similar. The `Mission No' tabluated is simply the sequence of KH-7 launches; it seems likely that the true, still classified, mission number is in the 1000 series like the KH-8, but to avoid the sort of confusion that ensued when analysts tried to guess the KH numbers I have not hypothesized specific mission number designations for the KH-7 flights. However, I have extrapolated the satellite vehicle numbers from the known ones which range from 951 to 966. The Agena serial numbers are all known; however, none of the SRV serial numbers are yet known. Launch times are only approximately known for many of the missions; SRV recovery times are speculative at best after the first few missions. I give approximate deorbit opportunity times for 4, 5 and 6 day missions which I think are plausible values for the operational KH-7.

The first three KH-7 satellites had Agena numbers in the 4700 series; all the rest were in the 4800 series. Possibly these first three were prototypes. Satellite 4801 was never launched; at the end of the production run, satellites 4835 and 4836 were also apparently not launched, at least on Atlas Agenas. Most of the later flights carried secondary payloads on the Agena aft rack.

Flight No.   SV   Agena   SRV No.   Intl. Desig.  Second payload  

1  SV 951  4702  Unknown   1963-28A    
2  SV 952  4701   1963-36A   
3  SV 953  4703   1963-41A 
4  SV 954  4802   1963-51A 
5  SV 955  4803   1964-09A 
6  SV 956  4804   1964-12A 
7  SV 957  4805   1964-20A 
8  SV 958  4806   1964-24A 
9  SV 959  4807   1964-36A  P-11 subsatellite 
10  SV 960  4808   1964-45A  P-11 No. 4202  
11  SV 962  4809   1964-58A 
12  SV 961  4810   1964-F11 
13  SV 963  4811   1964-68A  P-11 subsatellite 
14  SV 964  4813   1964-79A 
15  SV 965  4812   1965-05A 
16  SV 966  4816   1965-19A 
17  ?  4814   1965-31A  Subsatellite 
18  ?  4815   1965-41A 
19  ?  4817   1965-50B  Subsatellite 
20  ?  4819   1965-F07 
21  ?  4818   1965-62A  Subsatellite 
22  ?  4821   1965-76A 
23  ?  4822   1965-90A  Auroral (OPS 6232) 
24  ?  4825   1966-02A  OPS 3179 
25  ?  4820   1966-12A  Bluebell 2 
26  ?  4823   1966-22A  NRL PL137 
27  ?  4827   1966-32A 
28  ?  4824   1966-39A  Subsatellite 
29  ?  4826   1966-48A  OPS 1856 
30  ?  4828   1966-62A 
31  ?  4829   1966-74A  Subsatellite 
32  ?  4832   1966-83A  Subsatellite 
33  ?  4830   1966-90A  SGLS-1  
34  ?  4831   1966-98A  OPS 5424 
35  ?  4833   1966-109A 
36  ?  4834   1967-07A 
37  ?  4838   1967-50A  LOGACS  
38  ?  4837   1967-55A