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'Secret' CIA program to be revealed to senior men's club

Published 10:59 am, Thursday, July 4, 2013
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Martin Yellin will address the Senior Men's Club of New Canaan in Morrill Hall at St. Mark's Church at 10 a.m. on Friday, July 12, about a secret program with which he was involved to help prevent World War III.

The program, which began in 1965, was declassified only in late 2011. For 25 years, Yellin "built spy satellites for a living" and helped "prevent World War III." For 45 years that was his secret -- one he could not share even with his wife.

Yellin was recruited by Perkin-Elmer to work on Project Hexagon, or Big Bird as it came to be called. He was to be part of what grew to be a 1,000-person team tasked with designing a camera to be mounted in a "reconnaissance spacecraft" to take photographs of areas of interest to the CIA.

Each mission began with four film capsules housing a total of 60 miles of film. The vehicle orbited the Earth every 90 minutes, the film drawing through the camera at 200 feet per second, snapping "vast, panoramic photographs of the Soviet Union, China and other potential foes," including "close-range pictures of Soviet missiles, submarine pens and air bases, and even entire battalions on war exercises." The photos covered a 370-mile wide swath of terrain -- the distance from Cincinnati to Washington. It simultaneously took photographs of stars to enable intelligence analysts to precisely locate the subject matter.

Yellin will describe the technical intelligence Big Bird produced. Hexagon created a tremendous amount of stability because it meant American decision-makers were not operating in the dark. Twenty satellites were launched between 1971 and 1986, all from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California.

After 25 years, in what must have felt like a witness protection program, Yellin was released and went on to contribute to the development of the Hubble Telescope, something he is more than eager to discuss.

Yellin received a bachelor's and a master's degree in electrical engineering from City College of New York. He started working towards a Ph.D. while employed at various companies. In 1965, he joined Perkin-Elmer in Wilton, which helped support his doctorate from New York University in bio-medical engineering, which was a brand-new field applying engineering solutions to medical problems. He retired in 1998 and is still taking courses at NYU and Yale in the fields of genetics and cell biology.

The Senior Men's Club of New Canaan is open to new members. For information, visit www.smcnc.org or call Membership Chairman Jerry Transue at 203-966-6050.