GRAB Satellite Declassified - NRL Built and Deployed First Reconnaissance Satellite System


6/17/1998 - 41-98r
Contact: Public Affairs Office, (202) 767-2541



While attending the Naval Research Laboratory's (NRL) week-long Diamond Jubilee Celebration, Washington, DC, Mr. Keith Hall, Director, National Reconnaissance office, and Rear Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, USN, Director of Naval Intelligence, announced the declassification of the United States' first reconnaissance satellite system, the Galactic Radiation and Background (GRAB) satellite system. GRAB was proposed, developed, built, and operated by the Naval Research Laboratory.

The following announcement is an approved declassification action directed by the Director of Central Intelligence in keeping with Executive Order 12958.

A U.S. Navy electronic intelligence (ELINT) satellite system became operational in July 1960 and was operated until August 1962. The heretofore classified mission was to obtain information on Soviet air defense radars that could not be observed by Air Force and Navy ferret aircraft flying ELINT missions along accessible borders in Europe and the western Pacific.

The ELINT satellite system was proposed by the Naval Research Laboratory in the spring of 1958. In parallel with exploratory development by NRL, the Office of Naval Intelligence obtained endorsements for Project Tattletale from elements of the executive and legislative branches. With positive recommendations from State, Defense, and CIA, President Eisenhower approved full development on 24 August 1959. By then, the project had been placed under a tight security control system with access limited to fewer than 200 officials in the Washington DC area. Development and interagency coordination proceeded as the GRAB (Galactic Radiation and Background) experiment.

After NRL completed development of the GRAB satellite and a network of overseas ground collection sites, a first launch was approved by Eisenhower on 5 May 1960, just four days after a CIA U-2 aircraft was lost on a reconnaissance mission over Soviet territory. The GRAB satellite got a free ride into space on 22 June 1960 with Navy's third Transit navigation satellite. GRAB carried two electronic payloads, the classified ELINT package and instrumentation to measure solar radiation. The SolRad experiment was publicly disclosed in Department of Defense press releases on this and subsequent launches. Four more launches were attempted, and one was successful on 29 June 1961.

The Director of Naval Intelligence exercised overall control. Data recorded on magnetic tape was couriered back to the NRL, then evaluated, duplicated, and forwarded to the NSA at the Army's Fort Meade, Maryland, and the Strategic Air Command (SAC) at Offutt Air Force Base, Omaha, Nebraska, for analysis and processing. SAC's processing was aimed at defining the characteristics and location of air defense equipment to support building the SIOP (single integrated operations plan), a responsibility of the Joint Strategic Targeting Staff at Offutt AFB. In searching the tapes for new and unusual signals, NSA found that the Soviets were already operating a radar that supported a capability to destroy ballistic missiles. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara formally established the NRO on 14 June 1962 by a top secret directive, and the GRAB technology was then transferred to the NRO.

NRL has a 75-year history in science and technology development. NRL pioneered naval research into space, from atmospheric probes with captured V-2 rockets, through the direction of the Vanguard project -- America's first satellite program, to such projects as the Global Positioning System and more recently the Clementine mission. NRL produced the first satellite communication system by using the moon as a reflector and receiving the returned signal on the Earth's largest parabolic antenna; this was a first step toward artificial satellite communications. Since the late 1950's, Laboratory scientists have designed, built and launched more than 80 satellites. The GRAB space program announcement is indicative of the many contributions of NRL's scientists and engineers in support of the Navy's and National interests.



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The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory is the Navy's full-spectrum corporate laboratory, conducting a broadly based multidisciplinary program of scientific research and advanced technological development. The Laboratory, with a total complement of nearly 2,800 personnel, is located in southwest Washington, D.C., with other major sites at the Stennis Space Center, Miss., and Monterey, Calif. NRL has served the Navy and the nation for over 90 years and continues to meet the complex technological challenges of today's world. For more information, visit the NRL homepage or join the conversation on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

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