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Eyeing the Red Storm: Eisenhower and the First Attempt to Build a Spy Satellite

Eyeing the Red Storm: Eisenhower and the First Attempt to Build a Spy Satellite by Robert M. Dienesch. University of Nebraska Press, 2016, 296 pp.

The Eisenhower administration (1953–61) marked a watershed moment in strategic reconnaissance, including such projects as the U-2 and SR-71, the Project Genetrix reconnaissance balloons, and the Advanced Reconnaissance System or Weapon System 117L (WS-117L). The WS-117L transformed into Project Corona (codenamed Discoverer), the Satellite and Missile Observation System (SAMOS), and the Missile Defense Alarm System (MIDAS). This reconnaissance revolution was designed to provide critically needed intelligence on denied areas of the Soviet Union but also in Asia.

Robert Dienesch wrote an engaging military history of part of this story, focusing on the WS-117L program as the progenitor for subsequent space-based reconnaissance programs. He aims to shed light on the early US military space program in the context of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s goals of defending the nation and promoting the economy, while grappling with secrecy, bureaucracy, interservice rivalries, and the creation of new organizations within (that is, the Advanced Research Projects Agency) and outside (that is, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) the military. Writing on a program that was previously classified and has garnered far less attention than some other early Cold War programs (that is, the U-2 and Corona) fills a gap in the study of the history of reconnaissance and early US space policy. The book, which is well organized and engagingly written, will be a good reference for readers interested in early Cold War reconnaissance. 

Dienesch organizes the book into two parts. Part I (the first three chapters) lays out several framing concepts, including the nature of the Cold War and the need for intelligence to determine Soviet capabilities and intentions; President Eisenhower’s goals of defending the nation and fostering economic security in part by corralling high defense spending; and advice from the scientific community and technical and policy solutions. The author covers a lot of ground quite competently, but topics such as the Soviet Union as an adversary, nuclear deterrence, intelligence collection, and some of the challenges facing the Eisenhower administration are well-known.

This reviewer was hoping for a bit less attention on the early Cold War and the Eisenhower administration and more on reconnaissance efforts before the WS-117L and why the Soviet target necessitated new thinking. Consider for example, the closed society and large landmass of the Soviet Union; the Soviet ability to track or shoot down—and the limitations of—existing aerial reconnaissance systems (e.g. Genetrix); the potential for political fallout (Soviet and others protesting overflights); and the great technological advances at this time in rocketry, communications, and so forth. 

Part II describes the WS-117L program. Beginning in 1945, RAND Corporation published a series of important and encouraging reports on satellites and their uses and impact, which culminated in the two-volume report “Project Feedback” in 1954. The author competently summarizes these reports and then describes the first few years of the WS-117L program under the Air Force. In particular, the author notes how the lack of adequate funding slowed the program. This changed after Sputnik, when a more concerted effort was made to launch a satellite into space (Explorer I). 

During 1957–58, WS-117L split into three programs. One program was Discoverer, the code name for the Corona satellites, which in place of film scanning would take pictures of the Soviet Union and then return the film to Earth for processing, a system that was thought more achievable in the short term. A second program was SAMOS (originally called Sentry) that followed the original goals of the WS-117L program. SAMOS attempted to use a film readout system when the film was processed onboard the satellite, scanned and transmitted to the ground. A third program was MIDAS, which would employ an infrared sensor to detect Soviet missile launches and provide early warning to the United States.

A strength and weakness of Part II is that the author provides many informative details about the program, but then the author’s research appears to have stopped more than 10 years ago. This is unfortunate because significant additional information has come out since then. Examples include: declassified National Reconnaissance Office (and a few Central Intelligence Agency) records on WS-117L, SAMOS, and Sentry; the papers of Richard M. Bissell, Jr.; and a number of new books that included a treatment of early Cold War reconnaissance efforts, such as Dino Brugioni’s Eyes in the Sky. Brugioni focuses on aerial reconnaissance during the same period and covers some of the same ground. The inclusion of this newer material would have supplemented the author’s earlier research and would have made the book more of a one-stop shop for information on the WS-117L. 

Two less critical issues are notable. First, this reviewer wishes that the author and others would have provided a timeline dating all the studies, programs, policies, and agencies’ involvement for readers’ reference. Second, there are several small editing errors or questionable statements throughout the book that one wishes could have been caught before publication. Statements such as “In 1954 the idea of space-based reconnaissance was at best something from a science fiction novel (p. 58),” or “By 1945 aerial photography allowed for extremely high-resolution color photographs (p. 95)” shouldn’t dissuade the reader, but they do form an unnecessary distraction. 

Overall, this is a good addition to the bookshelf for ASPJ readers interested in Cold War reconnaissance and space programs. Reading the book is an education, but also stimulates an effort to look into earlier information, such as the RAND reports, concurrent programs such as Explorer and Vanguard, and subsequent programs like SAMOS and MIDAS. 

Dr. John Sislin
National Intelligence University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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