Albert ‘Bud’ Wheelon, Pioneer of Space-based Surveillance, Dies

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Albert “Bud” Wheelon, a pioneer of the spy satellite industry who pushed for reconnaissance programs that kept tabs on China and Russia during the Cold War, died Sept. 27. He was 84.

Wheelon was a key figure in space-based surveillance technologies the government developed during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, said Jeffrey Richelson, senior fellow with the National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington and a friend of Wheelon’s. He was the CIA’s first deputy director in charge of science and technology, and in that capacity laid the groundwork for many satellite programs, some still used today, Richelson said.

Among the programs Wheelon advocated for was Hexagon, a follow-on to the Corona optical reconnaissance satellite program used in the 1960s, Richelson said. Hexagon, built by Lockheed, dropped film into canisters that were later recovered by airplanes.

Wheelon also played an important part in the development of the Rhyolite satellites in geosynchronous orbit that were used to intercept Russian and Chinese communications signals, Richelson said.

After leaving government in 1966, Wheelon worked for Hughes Aircraft Co., which became a leading  manufacturer of commercial telecommunications satellites. That business is now owned by Boeing.   

“From the launch of the world’s first commercial geosynchronous satellite, Syncom, in 1963 to today, the foundation laid by Dr. Wheelon is one that has not only created an exciting industry, but has established an unparalleled source of communications, navigation and intelligence capabilities,” said Craig Cooning, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif.  “Thanks to Dr. Wheelon’s pioneering spirit, commitment, and belief in technology, the world is a safer place, and the lives of people everywhere have been enriched by this amazing technology.”

Albert Wheelon was born in 1929 in Moline, Ill. He entered Stanford University at age 16, and earned his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at age 23. He joined the CIA in 1962 and became deputy director a year later.

In the book “Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America’s Space Espionage,” author Philip Taubman credited Wheelon for persuading the Kennedy administration to invest in satellite technology.

In a statement issued Oct. 2, Betty Sapp, director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), said Wheelon fully appreciated the importance of research and development. “More importantly, he applied it to our nation’s toughest intelligence problems and in the process blazed a path for others to follow,” Sapp said.  “In the early years of the NRO, he was responsible for the development of three imagery and signals intelligence satellite systems which provided our nation with unrivaled capabilities.”