A year ago, Vernard Webb could have gone to prison for telling you about his coffee table.
The piece of furniture, which resembles a kettle drum with a glass top, is made of gold-plated titanium.
Thirty years ago, during the height of the Cold War, the table was the shell for a spy satellite used by the Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to peek behind the Iron Curtain. It is one of four such satellite “buckets” still in existence. The other three are in the Smithsonian institution.
For decades, Webb, a member of Berea’s Class of 1940, could only pass himself off as a pencil-pusher for the Air Force, or an engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency. But by no means was Webb telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Webb’s wife, Katie Lou Chambers Webb, class of 1942, had her suspicions. After three decades of relocation from one Air Force Base to another and her husband’s extended official trips to places he wouldn’t identify, she was certain that whatever the government had him working on was very important.
Then, in late 1995, the CIA declassified tens of thousands of documents and it was evident. Webb was a major player in the Top Secret CORONA project, America’s first spy satellite program, from 1957 until 1972. Webb, in fact, is a pioneer in reconnaissance and satellite technology.
Before the ClA’s declassification of CORONA documents, in August, 1995, Webb and other members of the CORONA team were called to the Pentagon for a medal presentation ceremony which itself was classified. He was awarded a medal of achievement by Vice President Al Gore and CIA officials. However, no citation accompanies the medal, since the mission for which he was being honored was still top secret at the time.
“We were not allowed to even speak with our spouses about the classified projects," Webb said. “It was for their own protection, if anything else.”
Joining the Army the day after Pearl Harbor (Dec. 8, 1941), Webb went into what was then the Army Air Corps. Because he had been a photographer for the Berea College student newspaper and listed “photography” as one of his skills on a military questionnaire, it was assumed that Webb would be capable with any sort of optical instrument, such as bomb sights and some navigational equipment. He was assigned as a bombardier on a B-17 and flew 30 combat missions over Europe, bombing Axis petroleum sites, mostly in Germany, and dropping supplies to the French Resistance.
Late in the war, Webb was assigned to a combat mapping squadron flying reconnaissance missions from the Philippines. While stationed there, he came up with an innovation that would help shape the remainder of his career.
“We used large cameras mounted in planes that were once used as bombers,” he said. “On a typical mission, somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the film that was used on these cameras would be useless, because we had failed to photograph the target correctly."
“It occurred to me that if one of our cameras were mounted to a Norden bomb sight, it would greatly increase the accuracy of the camera and the efficiency of the equipment. There was a great similarity between the bomb sight and the control of aerial cameras. They both operated on the same principles. The variable on the operation of both was the ratio between the velocity of the airplane and its height above the ground. I thought it would be convenient to combine the two.”
Webb’s proposal was found unorthodox by Air Force officials and permission to make the camera-bomb sight combination was denied. Still, Webb was convinced it was a good idea.
“I circumvented the red tape by buying a Norden bombsight with my own money,” he said. “The U.S. government had given the Philippine government some Norden sights, and I was able to purchase one of them from the Philippine Air Force. I then mounted the camera on the sight, and we started flying missions with this device. The combination proved to be a “natural.”’
While the average reconnaissance mission had an accuracy of photographing a specific site “on target” only 60 to 70 percent at that time, an inspector general took notice of the consistent 100 percent success rate of the flights using Webb’s camera-bomb sight combination.
“The Air Force officials were always looking at air crew effectiveness,” he recalled. “When they saw that we had no rejected aerial photography for a period of months, they began to look into the reasons why. I showed them how we had used the camera and they earmarked me to introduce that technology to the rest of the Air Force."
“I was then transferred to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where a team of engineers had been working for almost a year to come up with something like the camera-bomb sight combination I had put together. They ended up scrapping their entire project as a result.”
The official testing of Webb’s invention was conducted at Rainey Air Force Base near Wichita, Kan. The Air Force’s top test pilot, Chuck Yeager, was assigned to try out the camera system in an RB-50 observation plane and the results were, according to Webb, outstanding. And the die was cast for his career.
“For the next 40 years or so of my career, I would be associated with the reconnaissance efforts of the U.S. Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency,” he said.
The following years saw Webb on various projects surrounding the development of cameras and aircraft for surveillance purposes. The RB-36, U-2 and SR- 171 spy planes used by the Air Force were fitted with cameras designed by Webb and his team, who were headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base until the late 1950s.
“The U.S. Air Force continued to develop faster, higher-flying aircraft, which was in response to the development of faster and more accurate anti-aircraft weapons and fighter aircraft developed by the Soviets. It was in the early 1950s that we began to consider certain theories on using orbiting satellites as a platform for reconnaissance work,” Webb said.
“But we had some big hurdles to jump before we got that far."
“There were four Air Force officers, Lt. Col. Charles Hoy, Capt. Bernard Quinn, Capt. Louis E. Watson and I (Webb was a major), stationed at Wright Patterson, who met to analyze what would be the future of our efforts. I had been flying the high-altitude tests on the RB -36, up to 55,000 feet, and we knew that we would have to fly higher and higher altitudes due to the increased capability of Soviet lighter aircraft.
“We knew the answer to our problem would be the altitude of the aircraft or source of observation. We analyzed what problems would result if we could attain an observation point above the atmosphere. These, we narrowed down to three key areas."
“First, we knew that we needed to build better cameras. Our ground resolution couldn’t be accurate if we took the cameras we were using then to a much higher altitude. Next, we needed better film with a much a higher resolution. Third, we needed a better means to process the film. The administration at Wright-Pat in those days was dominated by civilian engineers, who didn’t take kindly to such suggestions from Air Force officers.”
In a historic move, Webb and the three officers maneuvered themselves toward reassignment at the Air Force’s Air Research Development Command in Baltimore. The office was administered by Gen. Marvin Dent, who supervised contracted development of reconnaissance systems for the Air Force and was a much more sympathetic listener to Webb and his associates.
“We were able to write the specifications for photographic systems the Air Force required of the industrial contractors then managing the projects at Wright-Pat,” Webb recalled. “A meeting was called by the Air Force to speak with industry representatives in Cincinnati regarding the Air Force’s needs. Gen. Dent gave the keynote speech. He basically told industry representatives that the current technology being used for reconnaissance was becoming quickly outmoded and he strongly suggested that they work with our group of officers in developing future reconnaissance projects.”
The speech by Dent, made in 1955, led to the development by Air Force contracted private industry, of the first spacecraft-based cameras.
“Within a week of the General’s speech, we were visited by representatives of three different contractors,” Webb said. “One was a representative of Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation, another was from Eastman Kodak and the third was one of the most brilliant optical designers this country has ever produced, Dr. James Baker. Fairchild said they could build the camera, Kodak would handle the processing and Baker would design the lenses required."
“These individuals had done their homework and told us they were confident that they could build a photographic system that could meet our specifications. We had the camera system from them in a year.”
The photographic equipment, which was originally designed for the U-2 spy plane, was meant to operate at an altitude of approximately 84,000 feet. The camera system designed by the Fairchild-Kodak-Baker partnership had a 24-inch lens and a better resolution than any other visual reconnaissance system used at that time. However, the Soviet development of satellite technology would change the nature of Webb’s work forever.
“When we originally had the Fairchild camera developed, we were still thinking airplanes,” Webb recalled. “But, the development of Sputnik forced us to take the resulting technology into space. When the Soviets successfully orbited Sputnik, the first satellite in 1957, most of America was horrified that we no longer had a technological edge in the Cold War. With my team, we were exhilarated that it had been proven a satellite could be successfully orbited. It gave us an additional step toward our research goals.”
Webb and his co-workers already had an interest in utilizing a space-based camera system for observation. Using some foresight, Webb was able to get transferred to a unit dedicated to guided missile research and incorporated what he learned there into the great body of reconnaissance knowledge he already possessed.
“I was no longer influenced by people who knew only airplanes," he said. “We were now looking at using a camera system that needed to produce high-quality photos from an orbit of 100 miles, instead of 85,000 feet. But the development of the Fairchild camera laid the groundwork for what we would be using later on. The lens we used with the CORONA system was a slight variation of Dr. Baker’s 24-inch lens used on the U-2.”
The CORONA program began in 1955 with numerous experiments at a classified site near Palo Alto, California. Webb was assigned to the program, the United States’ first efforts at using a spy satellite, in the fall of 1958. "Our program’s cover name, which was operated under scientific pretenses, was Discoverer,” Webb said. “We already had a lot of ballistic information that had been done by the guided missile people at Lockheed, the primary contractor of the program.”
The early months of the CORONA program were frustrating for Webb and the Lockheed team. Rocket failures, camera problems and film difficulties all combined to serve as an expensive tutor for the group. The CORONA system consisted of a large orbiting camera, which would be linked to a “bucket” containing approximately 4,000 feet of film. After receiving radio commands from Webb and his associates, the satellite was designed to photograph designated areas with the film spooling back into the bucket. The bucket would then detach from the camera and plunge back through Earth’s atmosphere where it would be recovered by aircraft upon a parachute reentry.
On Aug. 18, 1960, the first fully successful CORONA mission was accomplished, with the satellite photographing areas in the Soviet Union and China. An American flag, stowed in the satellite’s bucket, was presented to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a secret White House ceremony later that month.
The White House, however, was even more pleased with the photographs obtained by CORONA. “That single mission obtained more photos from behind the Iron Curtain than all the combined U-2 missions flown up to that time," Webb said. “It was considered an outstanding success, and we were in business.”
The CORONA project was utilized successfully during the Cuban Missile Crisis, most of the Vietnam War and an important period of the Cold War. Portions of the project’s development and results are still classified, but many of the spy photos have been made available to the public on the Internet by the CIA and Air Force.
“The CORONA project represents a crucial development in aiding the national security efforts of the United States,” said Vice President Gore in a ceremony held at the Pentagon last year.
Originally from Letcher County, Ky., Webb credits Berea for getting him on track for what he considers a fascinating career. “At Berea they taught me to work. They gave me the discipline I needed to do well,” Webb said.
Oh, and just how did Webb get his “coffee table,” anyway? “When they changed the design of the satellite and no longer needed these, a crate arrived at my office,” Webb remembered.
“When I saw what was in it, I called my supervisor and asked why it had been sent to me. He said, ‘We have been given an order from the highest possible authority that the bucket is yours to keep. Your efforts have been appreciated. Now, don`t ask any more questions.’ And he hung up."