Report to Colorado Department of Health: Description of Work Obtaining Satellite Photos of the Rocky Flats Plant

by Corey Gay Hinderstein

May 10, 1999

Purpose and Preparatory Work

Satellite images could be valuable tools to document and view the Rocky Flats Plant. In particular, there was a fire in building 776 on May 11, 1969 for which there are conflicting reports about the characteristics of a smoke plume. If there were an available image for the time of the fire, the Health Advisory Panel may be able to learn important new information about the smoke plume from that fire.

The CORONA satellites, which were CIA spy satellites launched by Lockheed’s “Agena” spacecraft, flew from 1960-1972. The images returned by CORONA had five-meter resolution, meaning the cameras could distinguish between objects at least five meters apart from each other. The cameras were designed by the Itek Corporation and used Eastman Kodak film. After completing each mission, the satellite would separate from the film return capsule, which was retrieved by an aircraft in mid-air as the film fell to earth. The first twelve CORONA missions failed, before the first successful mission in August, 1960. CORONA imagery was declassified in 1995 as the result of a Presidential Executive Order.

The search for images of the Rocky Flats Plant resulted in 322 black and white photos, covering three dates (13 October 1961, 16 January 1965, and 2 November 1965). Many are duplicates with only changes in light to provide the best possible views. Twelve of these photos, which seemed representative, were scanned into digital form and are available on ISIS’s web site, As of early May, we have not annotated these photos.

Identification of Images

All CORONA films are held at the National Archives Annex in College Park, Maryland. Films are available for viewing only after identifying the can number of the film. To help researchers identify the best available CORONA imagery and the film can numbers, the imagery has been laid in raw strips onto the appropriate World Aviation Chart (WAC). Once the librarian brings all of the WACs for the area of interest, each showing available film from a particular mission and pass of the satellite, the researcher can choose films which have minimum cloud cover and clear lighting. Using information such as date, mission number, pass number, and the frame in which the target site is located on the film, the can number can be acquired from an index.

Examination of the available CORONA imagery for the geographical area containing the Rocky Flats Plant revealed ten films, covering the period of 1961 to 1965. The details of these ten films are provided in the attached table. Of these films, three contained clear, unobstructed views of the plant. Pictures were acquired from 1961 and two dates in 1965. The lack of images after 1965 was puzzling because the most active and highest quality CORONA missions were run with newer and more powerful cameras from 1968 to 1972, when the program ended. Possible explanations for the dearth of images include that a folder of WAC charts was misfiled or misplaced, that the post-1965 images were not declassified, or that no pictures were taken of the area after 1965.

Product Acquired

Photos of the selected CORONA films were taken by Charles Vick of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) whose photographs produce higher quality images than those available through the official provider of CORONA photos, EROS. Vick took 322 photographs, which were developed into 4x6 inch, black and white prints. A full set of these prints is provided with this report.

The photographs revealed the structure of the Rocky Flats Plant and details about the surrounding area in 1961 and 1965. Clearly visible are the buildings in the 700 complex. In a close-up photo from 1965, the stack for building 771 can be discerned from its long shadow. The area of the 903 pad with barrels is also visible. The site perimeter and access roads are also visible. The photographs also show the surrounding area, including populated areas near the site, Jefferson County airport, Stanley Lake, and the Great Western Reservoir.

Follow-Up On Availability of Later Imagery

Rachel Apple of the CIA office of public affairs could not explain the absence of pictures after 1965. She suggested that I inquire at the US Geological Survey (USGS) which is also a repository of CORONA imagery. She also offered to pass the question on to the history department at the CIA.

USGS said that all of the imagery which was turned over by the CIA is available online at A search of the geographical coordinates containing Rocky Flats yielded no post-1965 imagery of Rocky Flats. This result rules out the possibility that a portion of the declassified CORONA images at the National Archives was misplaced or misfiled.

Michael Werner at the CIA history department said that there was no regulatory or classification reason for images of the Rocky Flats Plant to be unavailable. His opinion is that there probably are no photos from that time. He suggested I contact the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) which might have more information about the tasking of the satellite, i.e. what areas they photographed in certain years and why.

Matt Doering of the NRO History office confirmed that there was no destruction of images. He thought that it was plausible that CORONA did not target domestic sites after 1965. He noted that all tasking orders, mission reports, etc. were turned over to the National Archives with the films.

John Pike, of the Federation of American Scientists, noted that photography of certain areas was not declassified by the presidential order which released the CORONA archives. For example, Area 51 film was sequestered. He saw no particular reason to keep imagery of Rocky Flats classified, however.

Possible Future Work

Matt Doering informed ISIS that other aerial reconnaissance programs have recently become declassified. The declassification included programs such as from high-altitude U2 spy planes, codename IDEALIST, which flew 1956-1960; the A12, codename OXCART, which later developed into the SR-71; and the supersonic SR-71 “Blackbird” aircraft, among others. The National Archives report that the films are not yet available to the public because they have not been indexed, but will probably be available by the fall. A follow-up action could include checking the indices for these films when they become available to determine if imagery exists of the 1969 fire in building 776.

Go to Index of Satellite Imagery of the Rocky Flats Plant

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