Behind a tightly guarded door at Lockheed Martin's Denver plant, sit some of America's most tightly guarded technological treasures.
American spy satellites are conceived, designed and built beneath an almost impenetrable veil of secrecy. At the Lockheed Martin plant, that veil was lifted long enough for a short, but revealing look by CBS News.
A new spy satellite can be as big as a greyhound bus and cost as much as $500 million. Launched three or four times a year, spy satellites are part of a multibillion dollar business, which is spearheaded by the super-secret National Reconnaissance Office [NRO]. The NRO's spy satellite program allows the U.S. to monitor everything from Iraqi military movements to the North Korean famine.
The NRO is so secret that until six years ago the government didn't even admit it existed. But with a $300 million dollar headquarters in a suburb of Washington D.C., the NRO is not a secret any more.
Keith Hall, the head of the NRO, told CBS that the agency has satellites that provide communication and photo reconnaissance, in addition to satellites that listen to the electronic emissions around the world.
However, the NRO's impressive capabilities do not come without a price tag. "The national reconnaissance office [has] the larger share of the budget that the director of CIA administers," says Hall.
According to Hall, the NRO's early days were dominated by the need to monitor the daily activities of the Soviet Union. But the collapse of the Iron Curtain did not mean an end to the NRO. In fact, the NRO is expanding its operations.
"The military requirement for reconnaissance is ever more timely information," says Hall. "That's going to require us to put more satellites on orbit, not less."
It takes 1,400 people to put a spy satellite into orbit. By the time it's deployed, a single satellite can cost $1 billion. In fact, so much money is involved that for two years the NRO had $3.8 billion just lying around and didn't even know it.
"In the old days I guess the NRO worried less about bookkeeping and more about the delivery of effective satellite capabilities," says Hall.
No place on earth can escape the sweep of the NRO's spy satellites. As would be expected, the orbiters pass over Iraq several times a day, some in low earth orbit taking pictures, others in elliptical orbit eavesdropping on communications.
"If the president of the United States had an interest in a particular area," says Hall, "we would be able to provide him the information."
Don Cromer, of Hughes Space and Communication says that the satellites are of extreme value to the American leadership. "We're talking direct TV from an intelligence view point," says Cromer.
While the photos taken by the NRO's spy satellites are among the most expensive pictures in the world, they may go a long way in explaining why the U.S. is the world's only remaining superpower. While other countries may possess uclear, chemical or biological weapons, no nation on Earth can claim the spy capabilities that the NRO's spy satellites deliver to Washington.
by David Martin ©1998, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved