After 15 seasons, "Nova" sure knows how to turn out good documentaries.
"Spy Machines" (airing tonight at 8 on Channels 28 and 15, and at 9 on Channel 50) traces the development and application of such surveillance tools as Civil War hot-air balloons, U-2 spy planes and super-spy satellites such as the KH 11, whose cameras are so powerful they can almost read the designer labels on Mikhail Gorbachev's suits.
We see the significance of the intelligence community's great successes (cracking the German and Japanese codes in World War II, the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba 25 years ago) and its biggest failure (Pearl Harbor).
We learn how our amazing satellite system sweeps up Soviet electronic voice and telemetry signals and how valuable spy satellites will be to world peace because they'll be monitoring arms agreements.
We hear from intelligence experts, ex-CIA officials and former U-2 pilots. And we get the amazing stats on the "single greatest intelligence accomplishment ever"--the U-2, which mocked Soviet air defenses.
The shooting down of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers is famous for spoiling the Eisenhower-Khrushchev summit in 1960. But ironically, as "Nova" points out, throughout the late 1950s the U-2 provided the Eisenhower Administration with more than 90% of its intelligence on the Soviet Union.
Some of that data burst Khrushchev's boasts about having a intercontinental bomber fleet as just so much scare-mongering bluster, which allowed Eisenhower to resist domestic political pressures for an arms buildup.
"Spy Machines," a forerunner of a four-part look at the history of U.S. espionage being produced by KCET for PBS next year, is co-produced by KCET and WGBH in Boston. It's a worthy addition to "Nova's" long line of interesting, informative and excellent documentaries.