National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) Director Betty J. Sapp was awarded the General James Doolittle Award at a dinner on April 27, 2017. Her address on the history and role of the NRO was followed by an insightful question and answer session with the SSP community. She began by noting the role of Jimmy Doolittle’s support for the establishment of one of the National Reconnaissance Office’s earliest and most important programs, the Corona photo reconnaissance satellite program. The Corona program provided the United States with critical information about Soviet strategic nuclear capabilities at a crucial period of the Cold War. Space-based surveillance offered a way to keep U.S. pilots out of harm’s way, an advantage highlighted when Gary Powers was shot down flying a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in 1960. Many attempts to launch the satellite failed before the first “Keyhole” photo reconnaissance satellite entered orbit in August 1960.
Director Sapp then offered a snapshot of the small, elite organization at NRO, which focused heavily on innovation to continue to provide “eyes and ears” to the United States from space. The NRO’s targets had gone from being big, noisy and fixed to small, quiet and mobile, making the organization's task all the more challenging. Despite the sobering nature of the threats the NRO helps the United States to counter, Director Sapp’s remarks also conveyed the inspiring quality of spaceflight, and the scientific and technological innovations at the core of the NRO’s mission. Taking questions from the SSP community, Director Sapp discussed some of the major challenges that adversaries posed to the United States in and out of space. She also offered insights into the recruitment, organizational practices, inter-agency coordination, and supplier and allied relationships that allow NRO to fulfil its day-to-day missions and long term objectives.