Book Review | Spying from Space: Constructing America’s Satellite Command and Control Systems

 By S Venkatesh
Spying from Space: Constructing America’s Satellite Command and Control Systems” by Dr David Christopher Arnold (Col USAF-Ret), published by Texas A&M University Press

The book Spying from Space: Constructing America’s Satellite Command and Control Systems” by Dr David Christopher Arnold (Col USAF-Ret), published by Texas A&M University Press. The author a graduate of Auburn University, received a Gill Robb Wilson Award for his writing on National Defence. This work is considered because it provides invaluable depth in early developments of military exploration.  The author is an Associate Professor of National Security Strategy at National War College in Washington D.C. Prior to joining as faculty, he specialized in the niche area of space and missiles at the Pentagon. He retired from the USAF in 2015 in the rank of colonel. The author is an established expert in space policy and strategy. He served as commander to the 22nd Space Operations Squadron overseeing the implementation of operational data across remote-tracking bases forming the core of the Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN). The author has written extensively on space issues. He has volunteered as the editor of Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly journal.

The book is unique and grounded work on the careful art of military reconnaissance. The foreword is written by retired United States Air Force lieutenant general Forrest S. McCartney. According to Lt. Gen. McCartney, he firmly gives the underlying theme of the book which is an “important part of space history which has been missing for 50 years”. According to him clearly:  This is not a book about rockets and missiles but follows the story leading to the genesis of early command and control systems. This changed the world at how nations looked at intelligence gathering and aerial reconnaissance, gave the edge to the United States against the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. He further goes on to add how himself, Captain Mel Lewin and Al Crews were detailed to the Satellite Test Center in 1960 to learn to fly satellites. As the crew matured in their skills, the same held true for satellite control and command. This is an attempt to put into words the formal developments leading up to the military prowess of the United States. According to him “Arnold brings much-needed recognition to the space sector” without which there would not have been a space program.

This book contains six chapters and it is worth considering because of its invaluable depth in early developments of military exploration. The author starts with a personal touch to the entire gamut and starts with a small description of how he started experimenting with satellite transmission. He begins with the narration of the earlier day’s complexities of the satellite data transmissions, its speed and subsequently pointed out its remarkable progress to a date. This book has a vivid detail of how the Military Officers and the Civilian contractors built the Air Force Satellite Control Facility (AFSCF) in order to support the National Reconnaissance Programme He portrays space as an exciting new frontier during the 1960s, any reading material would fly off the shelves immediately. Dr Arnold’s creative masterpiece thinking gave people the opportunity to develop radical solutions to problems. In the Introduction part, the author introduces the readers to his personal journey while serving in the USAF.

The author has a narrative writing style with plain and concise use of language. There is a systematic flow of words and the deliberate avoidance of complicated words. The clarity of thought is well emphasized. Though Dr Arnold has been impacted by some initial works yet, he has maintained his own flow of details without much difficulty.

The structure and flow of ideas feel smooth. It links similar points and the arguments follow a logical structure. For example, “…in the 1950s and 1960s the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) collected images taken by satellites through free-falling buckets, this in turn was collected by aircrafts”. Eisenhower was a political leader who understood the potential aerial images withheld. To tap into this, he initiated several reforms during the space race.

The first two chapters are titled “Inevitable Premise” and “Vital Strategic Importance”. Arnold focuses on the evolution of satellites during the initial days tracing their invention. It tracked the satellite telemetry data which was relayed over telephone lines including calculating the orbit of satellites.  Following which there was progress in building capable antennas. The interesting aspect being the expansion of NASA and diversification into smaller entities. The focal point of which being the sole aim of putting a man on the Moon. Funds were also allocated to US AFSCN. It was not only a political statement by President John F. Kennedy but also provided the needed impetus to the beleaguered organizations.

The next two chapters are titled “Getting Off Dead Center” and “Too Many Finger in the Pie”. It unveils the series of losses from- Discoverer 0 to 12; all of which failed for various reasons. The real success only came for “Discoverer 13 & 14” which brought back more images of the Soviet Union combined than all other means. It portrays the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) as the primary customer for overhead intelligence, lessening the burden of the USAF to operate all satellites. The latter describes an important part of in aerospace history, which was the capture of the descending bucket by the USAF Pelican Nine C119 aircraft. The AFSCN by this time was operating three military satellites Corona; Midas and Samos. The author here provides an in-depth overview of the different missions undertaken by these satellites.

The last two chapters are “Unbounded Faith” and “The Pressure Cooker” It aims at throwing light at the mathematical model for determining the orbital factors of a satellite and describes the technological style followed at AFSCF. This is known as ephemeris. The latter concentrated on performance measuring scores for different stations. It gave them a standard against which to compare their operational competitiveness.

At the end the author concludes with AFSCF becoming completely a stand-alone system with more robustness. With the rise in technology of the 1970s and 1980s, a newer and more secure satellite command was built. Dr Arnold draws the curtain down in the final section on one of the foremost historical accounts of satellite command and control systems.

The book being non-fiction is well-defined which moves the narrative forward. However, it is engaging and has an expository method which is not confusing. It leaves one inspired on how each defence and contracted-civilians got involved and took to their task in the height of the Cold War. It does not include obscure scholarly terms making it a good read for even the layman. The book however covers a domain of budding satellite systems, which is the subject of few works. Overall the book is worthy of analysis and commentary.

For the military reader, there are many anecdotes that are included. An interesting quote is “We cannot be fearful of failures and thus attempt only the sure things, which result only in a short-term gain”. —Brig. Gen. Homer A. Boushey. This should be relatable and relished by both veterans and serving personnel.

This book is a must read as it will rivet the ones fascinated to know about the space race and satellites.  Irrefutably, this book will definitely give an enriching experience especially to the ones who are keen to know about the military achievement of the United States, and to understand the power dynamics involving the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) & about US Air Force (USAF). The present day advancements in satellite technology owes much of its legacy to the highlighted work of the author, in this book.