A former director of the Defense Mapping Agency visited the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency recently to recount his role in the evolution of satellite imagery.
Using language that could be termed colorful, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert “Rosie” Rosenberg first thanked past and present NGA members for being “instrumental in our success to defend our homeland. Your commitment and commitment of your families to the security of our nation have been nothing less than phenomenal.”
In a career that spanned more than 30 years, Rosenberg was on the ground floor in helping to design and launch photo reconnaissance satellites. But at start of his military career, satellites and rockets were far from his mind. He was a U.S. Naval Academy graduate ready for life at sea, until he ran into a problem with his eyesight. According to the Navy, he was only eligible for duty as a supply officer “stacking skivvies by the score in the supply corps.”
Not liking his prospects, he approached the Air Force liaison officer at the academy about joining. But thinking “they only flew airplanes,” he was concerned about what he would do.
“His [liaison officer] response was a prophesy, ‘I’m going to send you to guided missile school, son… someday we will be in space,’” Rosenberg said.
Once in the Air Force, he participated in systems tests in the late 1950s to early 60s that led to the launch of the first photo-reconnaissance satellites. These satellites, part of Weapon System 117L provided imagery to one of NGA’s legacy organizations, the National Photo Interpretation Center. The satellites included: Corona, used to take standard photographs and then eject the canisters from orbit so they could drop through the atmosphere via parachute and captured mid-air by aircraft; SAMOS, which took photos that were processed and scanned by video camera before being transmitted to earth via radio signal; MIDAS, the Missile Defense Alarm system using infrared sensors on telescopes which tracked to heat signatures of missiles during launch.
“We had a lot of technology challenges, but we got the job done,” he said. “Our first satellite programs truly shocked the world of reconnaissance.”
After the second successful mission in December 1960, the National Reconnaissance Office imaged 3.8 millions square miles of denied area. That was more than coverage provided by all 24 U-2 missions which ended after Gary Powers was shot down.
Following various stints around the Air Force and high level assignments with the Office fo the Secretary of Air Force and the National Security Council, Rosenberg became the DMA director in 1985.
“As director of DMA, I learned personally of the unbelievable capabilities the Hexagon and Gambit satellites brought to our mission,” he said.
It was also at DMA that he made fundamental changes in how the workforce viewed their mission which may still be felt today.
The general visited the workforce at the Ruth Building in Bethesda, Maryland. While there he gained first-hand experience of everyone’s duty by actually learning and performing all the same tasks. He then called a meeting and informed the workforce that he was changing the name of their operation from a distribution center to the Combat Support Center.
Talking to a forklift operator, he explained that his duties were very important to the defense of the nation.
“Our service-members need the products we produce and you are part of that system to make sure they get what they need to protect this nation,” Rosenberg.
Rosenberg added that the forklift driver later told that that was the first time someone explained the importance of his job—making him fell really proud of his work.
After retirement, Rosenberg became a member of the Gates Blue Ribbon Committee on Imagery. The recommendations from this committee led to the establishment of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency which later became NGA.
“It was one of my proudest contributions,” he said.