It was July 10, 1971 and we were in the heart of the cold war. The U.S. was running a super secret satellite spying operation code-named Hexagon. This was long before the days of digital cameras and Google earth. Spy photos were stored on Kodak film and when the time came for them to be sent back to earth, they were jettisoned from the satellite via a capsule called a Hexagon recovery vehicle. Unfortunately, on this particular day things went very wrong. The parachute carrying the RV didn’t deploy correctly and literally tore off at the swivel. The RV hit the surface of the ocean at 2600 g’s and sank in 16,000 feet of water. This is just a piece of a riveting story that can be found in newly declassified CIA documents. What follows is a story of a rescue mission that reaches record depths and is mingled with excitement and disappointment.
According to the CIA “Memorandum for the Record“, it was decided to bring in the Navy for a recovery attempt. This was no easy task. There were several challenges outlined in the memorandum:
a. The ability to locate the impact area accurately.
b. The amount of damage caused by the impact and the corrosive
effects from sea water.
c. No object of this size had been actively searched for and
located by sonar.
d. The Trieste II had not gone below 10,000 feet.
Three recovery attempts were made. The first failed attempt was November 3, 1971. The second failed attempt was November 30, 1971. The third attempt was a little more successful. On April 25, 1972, the Trieste II successfully found and grasped the RV capsule. Unfortunately, due to the pressure changes while rising to the surface, the film basically shredded and they were only able to recover a remnant. The end result was not ideal but the CIA remained pretty optimistic despite the circumstance. It appears what the Navy was able to accomplish in the midst of much turmoil proved to be an encouraging turn of events. The memorandum ends with the following.
In summary, the significance of the objective of recovering the film for intelligence use was considerably reduced after the 1202 mission,
and the motivating force became the demonstration of the capability to effect a deep sea recovery. This was successfully accomplished with the
recovery of the two film stacks on the third dive. All of the men involved remained enthusiastic and determined throughout the many frustrations and
are to be commended for their fine efforts.
Below, I have included a photo gallery with some of the amazing underwater photos from the recovery effort.