78. Report on SKYLAB Utilization of Earth Terrain Camera Data1 2

NSAM 156 Committee
Photographic Flight Plans for Earth Terrain Camera

The Problem:

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has requested authorization to employ on the SKYLAB orbiting laboratory an Earth Terrain Camera having a ground resolution of between 10 and 20 meters. The resolution of this camera exceeds the 20-meter constraint recommended in 1966 for unclassified space programs.

In September 1971, the NSAM 156 Committee recommended to Dr. Henry A. Kissinger that NASA be authorized to employ—and to release photographs acquired by—the high resolution Earth Terrain Camera (ETC) subject to certain procedural safeguards. The safeguards agreed upon by the Committee were:

Prior-launch screening of flight plans to preclude photography of “sensitive areas”;
Final review by the 40 Committee of photographic flight planning in light of international factors existing immediately prior to launch;
Post-launch screening of potentially sensitive photography acquired by the high resolution camera to prevent the release of any imagery that would be damaging to U.S. interests or would embarrass the United States in any way.

Dr. Kissinger subsequently approved the 156 Committee recommendation.

The launch date for SKYLAB-1 has now been set for May 14. The requirement to make final mission planning decisions in the next few weeks imposes the need to make a final determination as soon as possible on the detailed utilization of the Earth Terrain Camera.


The detailed photographic flight plans covering the utilization of the high resolution Earth Terrain Camera proposed by NASA should be approved, subject to a final review by the 40 Committee immediately prior to launch, and with the understanding that any photography acquired will be screened prior to public release.

At the same time, action should be taken now to organize the SKYLAB screening task force and to elaborate the procedures to be followed by this [Page 2] group and the detailed criteria to be applied. It is therefore recommended that the 40 Committee request the Director of Central Intelligence to undertake this task on a priority basis, in cooperation with NASA and the policy areas of State, Defense, ACDA and other agencies which have a direct interest in the broader political and economic as well as the Intelligence aspects of the problem.


Only sixty-five of the over two thousand manned orbits SKYLAB will make during the entire eight month mission are dedicated to earth observation. The Earth Terrain Camera will be employed during a maximum fifty of these earth-oriented orbits. (In fact, a more realistic figure would be forty orbits.) Before each planned earth observation pass, Mission Control will decide, in the near real time, on the basis of weather conditions and the number of Investigation sites which can be covered whether or not to execute the pass. If a planned pass is cancelled because of bad weather, an attempt will be made to obtain the desired photography either during the pass over the identical track five days later or to obtain photography of the sites involved on an alternate pass. The Earth Terrain Camera will take approximately 7,000 pictures. On 50% of them, 20 meter color-infrared film will be used; on 25%, 15 meter class color film; and on 25%, 10 meter class B & W film.

It is the intent of NASA to limit ETC photography to the pre-determined flight plans and to the pre-selected investigation areas. Key Mission Control personnel are cleared and are fully aware of the concerns of this Committee. They will be in real time communication with Washington to permit the resolution of any problems which may arise during flight.

Appropriate Soviet scientists and space officials were briefed on SKYLAB in 1971. In carrying out this 156 Committee recommendation in Moscow, NASA described both “the mission and the equipment of the orbiting manned laboratory, including the characteristics of the ETC. The USSR was offered the opportunity to participate in both the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS) and the Earth Resources Experimental Package (EREP) programs. Although the USSR has made no direct response to this U.S. initiative, it has arranged to obtain ERTS data and, as an outgrowth of the Moscow Summit, is participating with the United States in the joint remote sensing of the natural environment program.

International political and economic as well as intelligence and national security considerations place certain areas of the globe in a “sensitive” category. The land mass and the land and sea approaches to the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China; North Korea; the Middle East, specifically the border areas separating Israel and the Arab States and the areas adjacent to and on both sides of the Suez Canal; the border area between India and Pakistan; and certain locations in the United States are “sensitive areas” so [Page 3] far as the public release of high resolution satellite photography is concerned. In addition, photography of certain activities of an economic nature could well be as “sensitive” as activities of a security or intelligence character. Photography revealing commercially sensitive crop information, illegally operating fishing boats, or undeveloped mineral deposits, for example, could arouse vigorous objections from commodity suppliers and traders, create difficult problems between neighbors, and stimulate further international concern over the legal and economic problems associated with remote sensing by satellites.

In devising the photographic flight plans for the ETC, NASA has taken care to avoid the generally accepted national security and intelligence type “sensitive areas”. There is no high resolution ETC photography planned of either the Soviet Union or the Peoples Republic of China. (In two instances, very limited coverage of the Black Sea and of Manchuria may result from premature start-up or delayed shut-down of the high resolution camera.) All photography planned is in response to requirements established by participating investigators both foreign and domestic. Where foreign investigators have proposed sites in their own countries, this has been done with the knowledge and approval of their governments. No proposals for investigation sites were received from either the USSR or the PRC.

Although there is no planned photography of the USSR or the PRC by the Earth Terrain Camera, bad weather and other contingencies may require the use of other than the planned passes for photography of certain of the investigation areas. In that event, it is possible there might be inadvertent acquisition of ETC photography over currently “denied areas”. Should that occur, the final, prior-to-public release screening will make appropriate remedial action possible.

Similarly, there is no Earth Terrain Camera photography planned of the Israel-Arab border area. Depending on precisely when the camera is turned on to photograph the Sea of Japan investigation area, a narrow strip of North Korea (as well as Manchuria) may be covered. Depending on precisely when the camera is turned off after photographing investigation areas around the Adriatic Sea, a short strip of Romania may be covered. The projected coverage of the India-Pakistan border area by The ETC has been included in the photographic flight plan in direct response to the requests from investigators in the two countries for coverage of the entire Sub-Continent.

Although the photographic flight plans include the Earth Terrain Camera photography described above, we believe that this limited number of brief excursions over the several sensitive areas around the globe will not raise serious political problems. In addition to the above, ETC photography is planned of certain other areas such as Mexico which might be considered “problem” areas. However, it is believed that the potential or actual [Page 4] problems connected with these additional areas are under adequate control and that any problems raised by the proposed SKYLAB Earth Terrain Camera photography of them can be managed.

ETC photography of sensitive activities, on the other hand, may raise problems which are not readily or easily managed. Public disclosure of high resolution photography of agricultural or mineral resources may multiply existing proprietary concerns and could exacerbate the political problems which the existence of remote sensing technology has already created on the international front.

The final, prior-to-public release screening of any potentially sensitive photography will be carried out through the USIB COMIREX (U.S. Intelligence Board Committee on Imagery Requirements and Exploitation) mechanism in accordance with the procedures and on the basis of the specific criteria established by the SKYLAB screening task force. The representatives of State, CIA, Defense, and other interested agencies will examine in particular the photography of “sensitive areas” which may be acquired by the Earth Terrain Camera as the result of premature start-up or delayed shutdown. They will also examine in detail any photography which may be inadvertently acquired of the Soviet Union or the Peoples Republic of China. In screening the photography falling in these and any other potentially sensitive categories, the reviewers will be looking for any coverage of activities or sites that may give rise to political and economic problems as well as coverage of military) installations or of military-type targets.

The overall reaction to the flight of ERTS-I has been generally positive. Although a few nations have expressed grave reservations about the surveying of earth resources by satellite and others have pressed vigorously for detailed consideration in the various space organs of the United Nations of the political and legal as well as the technical issues raised by remote sensing by satellite, thirty-eight nations and two international agencies have participated in the ERTS-I research program. Many others, including the Soviet Union, have arranged to obtain ERTS-I imagery. There has been no sharp criticism of the operational details of the flight of ERTS-I, and there have been no “outraged” protests either against any of the ERTS-I imagery or against the release of this imagery to the general international public. Indeed, there has been ready and in some instances enthusiastic acceptance of these arrangements in the context of this experimental program.

Recognizing the research and development nature of this first remote sensing effort, the international community as a whole has shown a willingness to overlook for the time being some of the political, legal, and economic problem areas which have been of intense concern to a number of states. We believe the experimental character of SKYLAB has also been recognized by many, and that this recognition will serve both to extend the grace period on consideration of the difficult problems and moderate to a degree the vocal concerns of some members of the international community. But the heightened [Page 5] sensitivity to the inherent issues of sovereignty, proprietary rights, control, etc., that arise in the dissemination of earth resources sensing data which appeared clearly during the recent sessions of the UN Working Group on Remote Sensing in New York suggests that the international community may not be willing to extend its acceptance of experimental earth resources sensing satellites into the operational phase of remote sensing activities. Indeed, some representatives may assert that the “experimental” programs have already developed, so far as the critical legal and proprietary issues are concerned, to the stage of operational programs and insist that the issues involved (which are raised once again by SKYLAB) be resolved without delay. Thus the International concern about remote sensing and the particular issues which it raises will have to be dealt with in the next few months. While these considerations need not interfere with present plans for the SKYLAB experiments, action should be taken in the very near future to determine what our national policies should be on the use of earth resources sensing satellites.

The photography that will be acquired by the high resolution Earth Terrain Camera on board SKYLAB is appreciably better than the imagery being produced by ERTS-I. This improvement in the quality of the photography may be sufficiently dramatic to arouse some international reaction. To reduce the risk of this happening, steps have been taken to inform the space and scientific communities of other nations of our plans to fly the Earth Terrain Camera on board SKYLAB, so the utilization of this equipment should came as no surprise to the specialists. Additional actions will be taken prior to launch, particularly in relation to the policy level officials of foreign governments, to publicize our intentions and thus minimize any public reactions engendered by surprise.

Moreover, the time-sequencing of the photographic flight plans constitutes an additional safeguard. The photography to be acquired during the first manned mission is almost entirely of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The first coverage of any of the “sensitive areas” noted above will not occur until Mission 2, beginning in August. Finally the actual public release of SKYLAB photography will also be sequenced.

The initial release of SKYLAB photography for public information purposes will be imagery of selected areas of interest within the U.S. taken by the lower resolution cameras. This will be followed in several days by illustrative imagery covering areas within the scenes already released. This same sequence of public information release would then be followed for illustrative imagery of Canada, Brazil, or Mexico. After these initial news releases, the remaining imagery would flow normally to experimenters and to the public.

It should be noted that the potential problems posed by the public release of (a) evidence of our improved photographic capability and of (b) actual photographs of territory outside of North and South America are time-separated [Page 6] by approximately three months. This interval will allow an assessment of international reaction to the ETC photography taken over (first) the U.S. and (second) the Americas, and permit a modification of subsequent release plans if this should become necessary.

Finally, once the photographic flight plans for SKYLAB are approved, the photography program is still subject to two further reviews: a final assessment of the international political factors immediately prior to launch and a post-launch screening of whatever photography is acquired before it is released to the public. Thus presently planned photography which may become sensitive in the months ahead (whether because of the developing international scene or because of the “sensational” nature of the particular imagery acquired) can be handled effectively in an appropriate fashion responsive to the developing situation.

However, in order to provide detailed guidance to those who will carry out the post-launch screening and to prepare all concerned for the various contingencies that may arise, action should be initiated now to organize the SKYLAB screening task force; elaborate the detailed criteria to be used and the procedures to be followed by the task force; and to study and define alternative ways of handling the SKYLAB Earth Terrain Camera photography in the event future international events make it desirable to withhold substantial amounts of imagery from public release.

The protection of national security interest—the freedom of acquisition of intelligence by satellite as well as the collection systems themselves—is one of the most important objectives of the post-launch screening. Since the Director of Central Intelligence is principally responsible for the protection of these national security interests and since he has at his disposal the personnel and equipment assets required to carry out this responsibility, he is in a better position than anyone else to organize the SKYLAB screening task force. However, since there are political and economic as well as intelligence interests involved, the DCI should arrange for the participation of appropriate representatives from NASA and from the policy areas of State, Defense, and ACDA in this effort in order to obtain the broad range of interest and expertise that are needed.

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency Files, Job 80M01066A, Executive Registry Files (OPI 10), 1973 S–35 SSYLAB (01 Jan 72–31 Dec 73). Top Secret; Codeword. An April 26, 1973 cover letter from CIA Assistant Deputy Director for Science and Technology Donald H. Steininger to Schlesinger indicates that 40 Committee members would vote by phone whether to accept the report, and that approval of the report’s recommendations was anticipated.
  2. The report explained the potential consequences of publicly releasing high-resolution photographs taken from space, and recommended approval.