A peek into our Space Intelligence Community

I spent the day in a secure area on Buckley Air Force Base called ADF-C or Air Force Data Facility, Colorado. A relative of mine works there and I got an invite to a family day, which I thought was impressive so I thought I’d share some of what I saw.

Walking into ADF-C we had to leave all cellphones, cameras and electronic devices behind and produce two forms of ID to get in. Once inside, there were a wide variety of military personell mixing with civilian contractors. What has surprised me about Buckley on previous visits and again today is the international presence including Canadian and Australian military personell.

The base colonel did an impressive speech on opsec and the importance of the work done on Buckley including the sacrifice families in secure jobs make. “Hi Honey, what did you do at work today?”. “Oh nothing.”. Most families I know, including my own immediate family, talk passionately about our jobs among each other, debate decisions we made, discuss colleagues and work events and so on. Families in secure jobs, including many of my extended family, can never discuss things they work on now or worked on many decades ago. This includes military contractors. Maintaining that discipline is an impressive sacrifice that I don’t think many people appreciate.

Walking into the base, there were many areas we could not access. But they had put together an impressive display for us. The first desk absolutely blew me away. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is based at Buckely. I’ve been using their data for years and recommending it to others and I walked up to the young sergeant behind the desk and literally shook the guys hand and thanked him for the awesome data they make available to the public. Any online business, world-wide, that provides a city or point of interest radius search, uses the NGA’s data and probably dont’ even realize it.

Next up was AGI that makes software to track objects in orbit. The demo they had up was impressive, tracking items in low and medium earth orbits in real-time. The guy was telling me they provide API’s in .NET and Java for developers and as I was listening I looked over my shoulder and totally lost interest because….


The National Security Agency had a booth there. My wife and I immediately headed over and the three people behind the desk were incredibly friendly and forthcoming about their work. But the real treat was that they had a working original enigma encryption machine from WWII. The engima created the strong awareness of the importance of cryptography we have today and it’s one of the main reasons the NSA exists today. Most of the folks behind the desk were mathematicians or worked with, or are married to mathematicians. They have a presence on Buckley and they told us that post 9/11 they diversified beyond Fort Meade (Maryland).

Next up was the National Reconnaissance Office or NRO. These are the guys who actually launch and operate the spy satellites that the NSA and other agencies use. I picked up these cool postcards of a few of the 2010 and 2011 launches they’ve done:

I also chatted to folks from a software division in Lockheed that have designed a 3D walkthrough app that uses real-world photography taken from a reconnaissance aircraft to create a model of an environment. Imagine a Quake walkthrough game of Vegas with actual footage taken at an instant in time of the city. That’s what they had on a demo system. It’s designed to take battlefield intel and provide a walkthrough for folks planning an operation.

We went back to the NSA booth later to play with that enigma some more. It has 3 sets of numbers that are synchronized when two machines are together. Then before a transmission is sent, the sending station will broadcast how much the receiver needs to increment their machine’s numbers by in order to receive the code. The NSA person I spoke to told me that was one of the weaknesses that helped the Polish cryptanalysts (and then Blechley Park) crack the code. That transmission containing the increments always contained no data.

Next up, we took a tour of one of the base radome’s, but on the way I spotted an interesting plaque on a wall in the hallway. It said “Echelon” with a coat of arms and the slogan “Acta Non Verba”. I went back and did a double-take. One the way back I did a triple take. Some amazing history there if you know anything about signals intelligence.

I always thought those Radome’s contained radar systems for local aircraft, considering it’s an Air Force base. But they contain 85 ft diameter satellite dishes that weigh almost 200 tons and rotate at 2 degrees per second when they’re moving. The dome’s are constructed out of a material that seems similar to mylar (main sail material) and are kept at a positive pressure to strengthen them. They can handle winds up to 125mph. If you live in Colorado you’ll know they dot the landscape for hundreds of miles in the Denver and Colorado Springs areas.

I chatted to a bomb tech for way too long about a display they had. Did you know you can fire a rifle into C4 and it won’t detonate? Or the most time consuming explosive to dispose of is sweaty dynamite? My wife chatted to a hostage negotiator. They had a glider and pilot from the civil aviation patrol and we chatted to him for ages about local gliding conditions and riding thermals into Wyoming and back.

They had a cool karate demo at the end of the day – a full contact style I did briefly some time ago called Ken Po. The acrobatics were matrix-like and the base commander broke a pile of 8 bricks and didn’t even flinch when I shook his hand as we were leaving. Cool guy and he seems to be an inspirational leader.

Thanks to all the volunteers at Buckley for spending your Saturday morning letting us civilians peek behind the curtain.

 

What would a self-launching Space Shuttle look like?

This is the OK-GLI, part of the Soviet Shuttle Buran program, the largest and most expensive space program in the history of the Soviet Union.

The OK-GLI completed 25 test flights between 1985 and 1988 before being retired. The OK-GLI was powered by four AL-31 jet engines with the fuel tank in the cargo bay. The highest altitude it achieved was 6000 meters or 19,000 ft. It never reached space.

A sister ship in the Buran program, the Buran Spacecraft did reach orbit and completed two unmanned Earth orbits. It was the only orbital flight in the Buran program.