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Unraveling her father's Cold War secrets

Hugh Cart couldn't tell his family what he did. Then a phone call from the past opened the door to his work on a top-secret spy mission.

August 08, 2012|By Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times

The stranger who called my parents' house in March posed a baffling question.

Do you know about the reunion? the man asked my mother.

What reunion? she replied.

A get-together of the guys who worked with your husband on the Corona program, the caller said.

The Corona program?

It's been highly classified — a secret — the man told her, but now we can talk about it. That's what the reunion is about, he said.

My mother, Jean Cart, listened for a little longer, thanked him and hung up.

Growing up, we never knew exactly what my father did when he left for work. All we knew was that he worked long hours and was sometimes gone for days, leaving my mother with the cryptic salutation: I can't tell you where I'm going, what I will be doing, who I'll be with or when I'll be back. Love you.

PHOTOS: A life declassified

A half-century later, a phone call flung open a door to the past. Here at last was a way to find answers to years of questions that a curious little girl had thrown at her father — and kept wondering about to this day.

I started researching Corona. It turned out that quite a bit of information was available. My father and men like him had a hand in creating the world's first photo reconnaissance satellite during the Cold War and, without the use of sophisticated computers, ginned up a remarkable orbiting tool to gather intelligence on Communist countries, especially China and the Soviet Union.

Although details of Corona were declassified in 1995, the men who worked on it and two subsequent programs — Gambit and Hexagon — were still bound by their 50-year pledge of secrecy until the U.S. government freed them to talk several months ago.

But permission to speak came too late for my father, Hugh Cart. He is 81 and in the last stage ofAlzheimer's disease. He can't tell us about his sacrifices or triumphs, or whom he worked with, or what he thought about all those years. He is bedridden and wouldn't be going to that reunion.

I knew I had to go.

My father attended Louisiana State University on an ROTC scholarship, the first from his bayou family to make it past high school. At 16, he set out for Baton Rouge wearing a white shirt and dark suit sewn by his mother. He carried with him a small suitcase and the heavy expectations of his extended Cajun family.

After he graduated in 1953 with the intention of becoming a teacher, he was expected to return to his home parish, buy a hurricane-resistant brick house, find a French-speaking wife and settle into the humid embrace of south Louisiana. But his life veered another way.

He married a vivacious beauty from Mississippi and together they embarked on an unexpected adventure. He fulfilled his military obligation in the Air Force and was sent to work with guided rockets and special weapons. In the coming decades, the military dictated our family's movements as my father helped meet America's urgent need for high-altitude spying.

In those years, intelligence gathering on Soviet military capabilities was primitive.

"Each year on May Day, the Soviet military would drive around Red Square with large missiles on the back of trucks," said Ingard Clausen, who helped organize the reunion. "American reporters used to count them. The Russians would fly planes and they'd count them too.

"We never knew that most of the missiles were fakes and the Russians just kept flying the same few bombers in a loop over Red Square," said Clausen, a high-level manager in the Corona program who pioneered the design of the spy satellite's reentry vehicle. "Over time it became conventional wisdom that the Soviet Union had enough firepower to wipe us out."

By the 1950s, America's former wartime ally had become a rival, building a nuclear weapon and regularly spying on U.S. military installations. What intelligence officials thought they knew about Soviet strength was frightening. But it was the fear of what they didn't know that drove them to action.

In late 1959, President Eisenhower fast-tracked a secret program to gather information about the Communist threats. Named after a Cuban cigar, Corona was an audacious undertaking that went from planning to production in 16 months.

It was a black op, requiring a high-level security clearance. Only about 1,000 people in the country knew it existed, including the engineers from General Electric, Lockheed Douglas Aircraft and Eastman Kodak, and the Air Force and CIA employees who managed it.

The idea was to launch a satellite equipped with a camera 100 nautical miles into space. After the specially built camera took photos, the film would re-enter Earth's atmosphere tucked inside a shiny, gold-colored capsule. At 55,000 feet, a parachute deployed, slowing the descending capsule, allowing the crew of a C-119 Flying Boxcar to snag it with grappling hooks and winch it aboard.

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