While fictional “secret agents” such as James Bond and Napoleon Solo still evoke the concept of 1960s spycraft (when they weren’t drinking martinis with various femme fatales), the real work of the intelligence community was done by men and women like Philip Pressel.
But Pressel, who truly lived a “top secret” life, didn’t jet set around the globe and he didn’t carry a gun. Instead, as an engineer at Perkin-Elmer, he spent his days in a windowless office in Danbury, CT where he helped design the KH-9, codenamed Hexagon but also known as the Big Bird. This series of satellites was the largest and last of the U.S. intelligence satellites that physically returned photographic evidence to Earth.
Surviving the Holocaust
Pressel’s story is even more impressive in that he did face real danger – not as a spy, but as a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1937, Pressel’s life could have turned out quite differently had the Nazis not come to power in Germany. With war on the horizon, his family escaped to France.
“I was an only child, and my parents and I left for France with just one suitcase,” the 82-year old Pressel recalled of his experience. “We were on the run, and in hiding – constantly on the edge of disaster for five years.”
His family first moved to Marseilles in Vichy-controlled France – the part of the country not under direct Nazi occupation following the nation’s defeat to the Germans in 1940. His father, who spoke eight languages, gave private lessons while his mother took on odd jobs to support the family. The Pressel family hoped to quietly sit out the war, even if it meant living in near constant fear.
However, in 1942 Germany occupied all of France and once again his family had to flee quickly, and they moved to Lyon. Two years later as the city faced constant bombing, Pressel was moved to safety and was sheltered by what he described as a “kind Catholic family” in the village that was the headquarters of the Maquis, the rural French resistance.
Being separated from his parents at such a young age, as well as the sounds of shelling, have left a lasting impact on him to this day.
“I’m still traumatized by loud noises and even low flying planes,” Pressel told ClearanceJobs.
Move to America and Contracting Career
Pressel was reunited with his parents after the region was liberated by the Allies. The family moved to Paris for two years, until 1946 when his father was hired by the UN to be a translator. From that point on he had a more “normal” life and grew up much like other American teenagers in the 1950s.
In 1959 Pressel began what would eventually become a nearly 50 year career in the aerospace industry, including 30 years at the Perkin-Elmer Corporation (now United Technologies Corporation). He was hired as the project engineer in charge of the design of the stereo cameras for the KH-9 system.
“I worked with a team that was charged with writing a proposal, and at the time most of us didn’t know who the ‘customer’ was and we didn’t find out until the following spring or in some cases much later,” explained Pressel.
The customer in question was the CIA.
“We got the job in October 1966, and there were only about 25 to 30 of us and we were ready to get started, but instead we were told we’d need to hire more people,” added Pressel. “In the end the project called up 1,000 people from all sort of disciplines including engineers and quality control experts.”
The work was so secret that Pressel and his fellow employees couldn’t talk to anyone outside the office about what they did.
“Security was of the utmost importance,” he noted. “We were told we couldn’t tell our family or friends. Apart from the cafeteria, the building I worked in had no windows.”
Even within the confines of the office some words were never allowed to be uttered and the entire team spoke in codes.
“The most taboo word was ‘film,’ as that indicated we might be designing a camera system,” said Pressel. “Instead, when we talked about it, we had to use the word ‘material.'”
When the team traveled to meet with other companies involved in the project they were instructed not to carry any personal possessions and the only form of identification was one’s driver license. Nothing that could link an individual to a company or project was to be carried or discussed.
“The degree of secrecy was beyond ‘Top Secret,'” said Pressel.
The Eye in the Sky
The first of 19 KH-9 satellites was launched in 1971 and for the next 15 years was the most sophisticated intelligence satellite in Earth’s orbit.
“We are reminded of what President Reagan said, ‘trust but verify,’ and the cameras on this satellite were able to help us verify what everyone else, including the Soviets and the Chinese were doing,” Pressel told ClearanceJobs. “We were very proud of our efforts, it was the most complicated system put into space.”
The effort that went into the system, which was only declassified in September 2011, did put a toll on the men and women who worked on the project.
“We were often stressed about the importance of this thing,” added Pressel. “We couldn’t talk about it outside the building, and our secrecy was never broken.”
While lives weren’t on the line, everyone on the team still understood that a system like this could stop a future war and in that way help save lives in the long run. But the stress came from meeting the costs and deadlines. As Pressel noted, the stress was from the schedule and the importance of the work.
Seemingly small incidents didn’t help matters either when it came to stress.
“In the late 1970s we were warned that President Carter was going to make a speech and that he would talk about the existence of spy satellites,” said Pressel. “But we were told we couldn’t acknowledge it, and afterward things got more and more secret.”
By that point Pressel had moved on to other systems – some of which he told ClearanceJobs he still can’t acknowledge to this day. There are secrets he said he’ll have to take to the grave.
All of his work was done for the CIA, but his work allowed him to know about another agency – one unknown to most Americans throughout the Cold War. This was the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which was established in 1961 and only declassified in 1992.
Pressel’s only comment, “At the time the NRO and CIA didn’t get along. I’ll leave it at that.”
As someone who held security clearance and did work that couldn’t be talked about, today Pressel is dismissive about the depiction of those fictional Cold War agents.
“I didn’t really watch a lot of it at the time,” he said candidly. “I didn’t believe the plots, and I was doing the real thing. So the movies were not representative of the real thing.”
Today Pressel remains proud of the role he played, but admitted he was just one guy responsible for mechanical designs.
“It was a team effort and many people were part of this project,” Pressel explained. “Everyone on the team was a hero. There is no bitterness among us, even if we couldn’t talk about it at the time. We knew what we were doing and we got used to.”
He also said for those who want to serve their country it is the sort of work he’d recommend. “Even with the stress, most of us enjoyed the covert work.”
If there is one thing he regrets, it is that film cameras have been widely replaced by digital, and Pressel said there is no comparison.
“Film takes such better pictures than a zillion pixels. We see that in the secret images that have been released.”
Philip Pressel is author two books: They Are Still Alive, which chronicled his family’s life during World War II; and Meeting the Challenge: The Hexagon KH-9 Reconnaissance Satellite.