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Satellite Reconnaissance: Secret Eyes in Space

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In the mid-1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower was worried about the possibility of a surprise nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. The United States had two choices to ease these concerns: spy on the Soviets without their permission, or negotiate an agreement to monitor each other's military activity. President Eisenhower tried both.

In a 1955 meeting of international leaders, Eisenhower made an "open skies" proposal to permit Soviet and American reconnaissance flights over each other's territory. The Soviets rejected this. By the late 1950s, the limitations of reconnaissance from aircraft and balloons as well as this failure of diplomacy created an opening for a new technology--spy satellites.

Aircraft probed Soviet territory throughout the 1950s, as did camera-equipped balloons for a short time. The U-2 spy plane was especially designed for reconnaissance missions. In May 1960 a U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union. The U.S. pilot was captured, put on trial, and sent to prison for espionage.
U-2 spy plane
66 k jpeg
NARA#: KKE 57694

Pointer Exhibits about the U-2 aircraft and the history of aerial reconnaissance are located in the Looking at Earth gallery.


The use of reconnaissance satellites raised a sensitive question under international law: was space free to all, like the open seas, or was it like airspace, part of a nation's sovereign territory?

President Eisenhower and his advisors sought to ensure international acceptance of the freedom of space. They planned to use the 1957 International Geophysical Year, a world-wide cooperative scientific study of the Earth, to set this precedent.

Eisenhower decided that a science satellite--already part of the IGY plan and less controversial than a spy satellite--would make the United States' first foray into space. Launches of the U.S.S.R.'s Sputnik in late 1957 and the U.S. Explorer 1, a science satellite, in January 1958 were the first steps toward freedom of space.

Courtesy of National Academy of Sciences

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