[Congressional Record: May 10, 2011 (Senate)]
[Page S2833-S2835]                       

                        REMEMBERING VERNARD WEBB

  Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, I rise today to pay tribute to a 
Kentuckian who for much of his life was

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content to remain an unsung hero. But let there be no doubt now that 
Mr. Vernard Hughes Webb, who passed away last year, leaves behind a 
legacy of great accomplishment and service to his Nation. You see, for 
many years, Mr. Webb was a pioneer in secret reconnaissance and 
satellite technology that was crucial to America's efforts in the Cold 
War. He was one of the developers on the top secret CORONA project, a 
spy satellite effort, and was awarded a medal of achievement for his 
life's work by the Vice President of the United States.
  Mr. Webb was born and raised in Letcher County, KY, and became the 
first in his family to go to college, graduating from Berea College in 
1940. The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, he joined the Army Air 
Corps. Becoming a bombardier on a B-17, he flew 30 combat missions over 
Europe during World War II.
  Later in the war, Mr. Webb developed the crucial idea that would 
change the course of not only his career, but perhaps his country as 
well. Assigned to a combat mapping squadron that was tasked with taking 
reconnaissance pictures over the Philippines, he came up with an idea 
to greatly increase the accuracy and efficiency of the cameras.
  Mr. Webb ran his idea past his Air Force superiors, and in their 
infinite wisdom, they said no. So Mr. Webb did it anyway. He spent his 
own money to create a new camera. And when Vernard's superiors finally 
realized the worth of his invention, they asked him to implement it 
across the Air Force.
  Vernard Webb eventually rose to the rank of major and became one of 
this country's leading developers of cameras and aircraft for 
surveillance purposes. He and his colleagues were in a race with the 
Soviets. By the 1950s, Vernard realized that his technology could be 
used not just in airplanes, but in satellites.
  In 1958, Mr. Webb was assigned to the CORONA project, America's first 
efforts to develop a spy satellite. In 1960 the project accomplished 
its first success, gaining valuable intelligence on the Soviet Union 
and China. But for all those years Mr. Webb could only tell his friends 
and even his wife that he was an unimportant bureaucrat or engineer.
  In 1995 the CIA declassified many documents pertaining to the CORONA 
project, and only then were Mr. Webb's accomplishments made clear. 
Around that same time, Vice President Al Gore declared that ``the 
CORONA project represents a crucial development in aiding the national 
security efforts of the United States.''
  Vernard Webb passed away last Veterans Day. I extend my greatest 
condolences to his wife Katie Louis Webb, their children and 
grandchildren, other members of the Webb family and friends for their 
  It is only fitting that after a lifetime of service to his country, 
most of it under a cloak of secrecy that preventing him from receiving 
the gratitude that he so richly deserved, that Mr. Vernard Webb will be 
interred at Arlington National Cemetery later this month with full 
military honors.
  And I know my colleagues will join me in extending to the Webb family 
this Senate's thanks and appreciation for Vernard Webb's sacrifice and 
  Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that an article illustrating 
Mr. Webb's heroic life and career be printed in today's Record.
  There being no objection, the article was ordered to be printed in 
the Record, as follows:

             [From the Berea College Magazine, Summer 1996]

               The Secret's Out: Webb was a Space Pioneer

       A year ago, Vernard Webb could have gone to prison for 
     telling you about his coffee table.
       The piece of furniture, which resembles a kettle drum with 
     a glass top, is made of gold-plated titanium.
       Thirty years ago, during the height of the Cold War, the 
     table was the shell for a spy satellite used by the Air Force 
     and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to peek behind the 
     Iron Curtain. It is one of four such satellite ``buckets'' 
     still in existence. The other three are in the Smithsonian 
       For decades, Webb, a member of Berea's Class of 1940, could 
     only pass himself off as a pencil-pusher for the Air Force, 
     or an engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency. But 
     by no means was Webb telling the whole truth and nothing but 
     the truth.
       Webb's wife, Katie Lou Chambers Webb, class of 1942, had 
     her suspicions. After three decades of relocation from one 
     Air Force Base to another and her husband's extended official 
     trips to places he wouldn't identify, she was certain that 
     whatever the government had him working on was very 
       Then, in late 1995, the CIA declassified tens of thousands 
     of documents and it was evident. Webb was a major player in 
     the top secret CORONA project, America's first spy satellite 
     program, from 1957 until 1972. Webb, in fact, is a pioneer in 
     reconnaissance and satellite technology.
       Before the CIA's declassification of CORONA documents in 
     August 1995, Webb and other members of the CORONA team were 
     called to the Pentagon for a medal presentation ceremony 
     which itself was classified. He was awarded a medal of 
     achievement by Vice President Al Gore and CIA officials. 
     However, no citation accompanies the medal, since the mission 
     for which he was being honored was still top secret at the 
       ``We were not allowed to even speak with our spouses about 
     the classified projects,'' Webb said. ``It was for their own 
     protection, if anything else.''
       Joining the Army the day after Pearl Harbor (Dec. 8, 1941), 
     Webb went into what was then the Army Air Corps. Because he 
     had been a photographer for the Berea College student 
     newspaper and listed ``photography'' as one of his skills on 
     a military questionnaire, it was assumed that Webb would be 
     capable with any sort of optical instrument, such as bomb 
     sights and some navigational equipment. He was assigned as a 
     bombardier on a B-17 and flew 30 combat missions over Europe, 
     bombing Axis petroleum sites, mostly in Germany, and dropping 
     supplies to the French Resistance.
       Late in the war, Webb was assigned to a combat mapping 
     squadron flying reconnaissance missions from the Philippines. 
     While stationed there, he came up with an innovation that 
     would help shape the remainder of his career.
       ``We used large cameras mounted in planes that were once 
     used as bombers,'' he said. ``On a typical mission, somewhere 
     between 30 and 40 percent of the film that was used on these 
     cameras would be useless, because we had failed to photograph 
     the target correctly.
       ``It occurred to me that if one of our cameras were mounted 
     to a Norden bomb sight, it would greatly increase the 
     accuracy of the camera and the efficiency of the equipment. 
     There was a great similarity between the bomb sight and the 
     control of aerial cameras. They both operated on the same 
     principles. The variable on the operation of both was the 
     ratio between the velocity of the airplane and its height 
     above the ground. I thought it would be convenient to combine 
     the two.''
       Webb's proposal was found unorthodox by Air Force officials 
     and permission to make the camera-bomb sight combination was 
     denied. Still, Webb was convinced it was a good idea.
       ``I circumvented the red tape by buying a Norden bombsight 
     with my own money,'' he said. ``The U.S. government had given 
     the Philippine government some Norden sights, and I was able 
     to purchase one of them from the Philippine Air Force. I then 
     mounted the camera on the sight, and we started flying 
     missions with this device. The combination proved to be a 
     `natural.' ''
       While the average reconnaissance mission had an accuracy of 
     photographing a specific site ``on target'' only 60 to 70 
     percent at that time, an inspector general took notice of the 
     consistent 100 percent success rate of the flights using 
     Webb's camera-bomb sight combination.
       ``The Air Force officials were always looking at air crew 
     effectiveness,'' he recalled. ``When they saw that we had no 
     rejected aerial photography for a period of months, they 
     began to look into the reasons why. I showed them how we had 
     used the camera and they earmarked me to introduce that 
     technology to the rest of the Air Force.
       ``I was then transferred to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base 
     in Dayton, Ohio, where a team of engineers had been working 
     for almost a year to come up with something like the camera-
     bomb sight combination I had put together. They ended up 
     scrapping their entire project as a result.''
       The official testing of Webb's invention was conducted at 
     Rainey Air Force Base near Wichita, Kan. The Air Force's top 
     test pilot, Chuck Yeager, was assigned to try out the camera 
     system in an RB-50 observation plane and the results were, 
     according to Webb, outstanding. And the die was cast for his 
       ``For the next 40 years or so of my career, I would be 
     associated with the reconnaissance efforts of the U.S. Air 
     Force and the Central Intelligence Agency,'' he said.
       The following years saw Webb on various projects 
     surrounding the development of cameras and aircraft for 
     surveillance purposes. The RB-36, U-2 and SR-171 spy planes 
     used by the Air Force were fitted with cameras designed by 
     Webb and his team, who were headquartered at Wright-Patterson 
     Air Force Base until the late 1950s.
       ``The U.S. Air Force continued to develop faster, higher-
     flying aircraft, which was in response to the development of 
     faster and more accurate anti-aircraft weapons and fighter 
     aircraft developed by the Soviets. It was in the early 1950s 
     that we began to consider certain theories on using orbiting 
     satellites as a platform for reconnaissance work,'' Webb 

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       ``But we had some big hurdles to jump before we got that 
       ``There were four Air Force officers, Lt. Col. Charles Hoy, 
     Capt. Bernard Quinn, Capt. Louis E. Watson and I [Webb was a 
     major], stationed at Wright-Patterson, who met to analyze 
     what would be the future of our efforts. I had been flying 
     the high-altitude tests on the RB-36, up to 55,000 feet, and 
     we knew that we would have to fly higher and higher altitudes 
     due to the increased capability of Soviet lighter aircraft.
       ``We knew the answer to our problem would be the altitude 
     of the aircraft or source of observation. We analyzed what 
     problems would result if we could attain an observation point 
     above the atmosphere. These, we narrowed down to three key 
       ``First, we knew that we needed to build better cameras. 
     Our ground resolution couldn't be accurate if we took the 
     cameras we were using then to a much higher altitude. Next, 
     we needed better film with a much higher resolution. Third, 
     we needed a better means to process the film. The 
     administration at Wright-Pat in those days was dominated by 
     civilian engineers, who didn't take kindly to such 
     suggestions from Air Force officers.''
       In a historic move, Webb and the three officers maneuvered 
     themselves toward reassignment at the Air Force's Air 
     Research Development Command in Baltimore. The office was 
     administered by Gen. Marvin Dent, who supervised contracted 
     development of reconnaissance systems for the Air Force and 
     was a much more sympathetic listener to Webb and his 
       ``We were able to write the specifications for photographic 
     systems the Air Force required of the industrial contractors 
     then managing the projects at Wright-Pat,'' Webb recalled. 
     ``A meeting was called by the Air Force to speak with 
     industry representatives in Cincinnati regarding the Air 
     Force's needs. Gen. Dent gave the keynote speech. He 
     basically told industry representatives that the current 
     technology being used for reconnaissance was becoming quickly 
     outmoded and he strongly suggested that they work with our 
     group of officers in developing future reconnaissance 
       The speech by Dent, made in 1955, led to the development by 
     Air Force-contracted private industry of the first 
     spacecraft-based cameras.
       ``Within a week of the General's speech, we were visited by 
     representatives of three different contractors,'' Webb said. 
     ``One was a representative of Fairchild Camera and Instrument 
     Corporation, another was from Eastman Kodak and the third was 
     one of the most brilliant optical designers this country has 
     ever produced, Dr. James Baker. Fairchild said they could 
     build the camera, Kodak would handle the processing and Baker 
     would design the lenses required.
       ``These individuals had done their homework and told us 
     they were confident that they could build a photographic 
     system that could meet our specifications. We had the camera 
     system from them in a year.''
       The photographic equipment, which was originally designed 
     for the U-2 spy plane, was meant to operate at an altitude of 
     approximately 84,000 feet. The camera system designed by the 
     Fairchild-Kodak-Baker partnership had a 24-inch lens and a 
     better resolution than any other visual reconnaissance system 
     used at that time. However, the Soviet development of 
     satellite technology would change the nature of Webb's work 
       ``When we originally had the Fairchild camera developed, we 
     were still thinking airplanes,'' Webb recalled. ``But, the 
     development of Sputnik forced us to take the resulting 
     technology into space. When the Soviets successfully orbited 
     Sputnik, the first satellite in 1957, most of America was 
     horrified that we no longer had a technological edge in the 
     Cold War. With my team, we were exhilarated that it had been 
     proven a satellite could be successfully orbited. It gave us 
     an additional step toward our research goals.''
       Webb and his co-workers already had an interest in 
     utilizing a space-based camera system for observation. Using 
     some foresight, Webb was able to get transferred to a unit 
     dedicated to guided missile research and incorporated what he 
     learned there into the great body of reconnaissance knowledge 
     he already possessed.
       ``I was no longer influenced by people who knew only 
     airplanes,'' he said. ``We were now looking at using a camera 
     system that needed to produce high-quality photos from an 
     orbit of 100 miles, instead of 85,000 feet. But the 
     development of the Fairchild camera laid the groundwork for 
     what we would be using later on. The lens we used with the 
     CORONA system was a slight variation of Dr. Baker's 24-inch 
     lens used on the U-2.''
       The CORONA program began in 1955 with numerous experiments 
     at a classified site near Palo Alto, California. Webb was 
     assigned to the program, the United States' first efforts at 
     using a spy satellite, in the fall of 1958. ``Our program's 
     cover name, which was operated under scientific pretenses, 
     was Discoverer,'' Webb said. ``We already had a lot of 
     ballistic information that had been done by the guided 
     missile people at Lockheed, the primary contractor of the 
       The early months of the CORONA program were frustrating for 
     Webb and the Lockheed team. Rocket failures, camera problems 
     and film difficulties all combined to serve as an expensive 
     tutor for the group. The CORONA system consisted of a large 
     orbiting camera, which would be linked to a ``bucket'' 
     containing approximately 4,000 feet of film. After receiving 
     radio commands from Webb and his associates, the satellite 
     was designed to photograph designated areas with the film 
     spooling back into the bucket. The bucket would then detach 
     from the camera and plunge back through Earth's atmosphere 
     where it would be recovered by aircraft upon a parachute 
       On August 18, 1960, the first fully successful CORONA 
     mission was accomplished, with the satellite photographing 
     areas in the Soviet Union and China. An American flag, stowed 
     in the satellite's bucket, was presented to President Dwight 
     D. Eisenhower in a secret White House ceremony later that 
       The White House, however, was even more pleased with the 
     photographs obtained by CORONA. ``That single mission 
     obtained more photos from behind the Iron Curtain than all 
     the combined U-2 missions flown up to that time,'' Webb said. 
     ``It was considered an outstanding success, and we were in 
       The CORONA project was utilized successfully during the 
     Cuban Missile Crisis, most of the Vietnam War and an 
     important period of the Cold War. Portions of the project's 
     development and results are still classified, but many of the 
     spy photos have been made available to the public on the 
     Internet by the CIA and Air Force.
       ``The CORONA project represents a crucial development in 
     aiding the national security efforts of the United States,'' 
     said Vice President Gore in a ceremony held at the Pentagon 
     last year.
       Originally from Letcher County, Ky., Webb credits Berea for 
     getting him on track for what he considers a fascinating 
     career. ``At Berea they taught me to work. They gave me the 
     discipline I needed to do well,'' Webb said.
       Oh, and just how did Webb get his ``coffee table,'' anyway? 
     ``When they changed the design of the satellite and no longer 
     needed these, a crate arrived at my office,'' Webb 
       ``When I saw what was in it, I called my supervisor and 
     asked why it had been sent to me. He said, `We have been 
     given an order from the highest possible authority that the 
     bucket is yours to keep. Your efforts have been appreciated. 
     Now, don`t ask any more questions.' And he hung up.''