GRAB: First Signals Intelligence Satellite

July 25, 2018

Innovation and Tech

In the summer of 1960, the US Navy secretly achieved what was once thought impossible – it successfully launched the first signals intelligence satellite in the world.

GRAB (which stands for Galactic Radiation and Background) was an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) satellite system, operational from July 1960 until August 1962. It provided invaluable data on Soviet air defense radar, including information indicating the Soviets had the capability to destroy ballistic missiles.

GRAB was created because President Eisenhower in the late 1950s wanted to avoid “another Pearl Harbor” – another devastating surprise that could turn the Cold War hot. In those days, space reconnaissance resided mostly in the realm of science fiction. Courageous and innovative thinkers from intelligence, academia, military, and private industry came together under the mission of pursing a peacetime strategy of national reconnaissance. The office would later be known as the NRO.

Their sense of urgency, excitement, and commitment to the mission was so high that they could hardly wait to get to work each day, but their work was also nerve-wracking, frustrating, and occasionally heartbreaking. Often, what could go wrong, did.

In a memorable speech from former CIA Director George Tenet at the NRO 40th Anniversary Gala on September 27, 2000, he told the story of one of GRAB’s more notorious moments:

One of its more spectacular failures rained debris down on Cuba. Havana charged that a cow was killed in a deliberate US action. The Cubans soon paraded another cow through the streets with a placard reading: “Eisenhower, you murdered one of my sisters.” It was the first – and last – time that a satellite has been used in the production of ground beef. The episode has gone down in history as “the herd shot round the world.”

Still, the unheralded successes of America’s first satellite reconnaissance system vastly exceeded its momentary failures. GRAB later gave birth to CORONA, which captured more usable photography on its first operational mission than all previous U-2 flights combined.

Today, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, our satellites—starting with that first GRAB system that was once thought an impossible dream—provide America with a commanding information edge over all other nations in the world.

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