Albert Wheelon, known as Bud, was a quiet man who lived with his adored wife Cicely on a side street in Montecito without drawing attention to himself.
When asked what he did for a living, Bud would say he was a physicist. This was a bit like Plácido Domingo saying he was a singer. Bud Wheelon was in fact one of our country’s most distinguished theoretical physicists — and much more. His success in developing the first U.S. spy satellite, code named Corona, provided President John F. Kennedy with vital aerial photos during the near-miss Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Bud might have become a national hero had this been public knowledge at the time, but Corona remained top secret until President Clinton ordered its photos declassified 30 years later.
Perhaps it was a lifetime of secrecy as he developed successor satellites for the Central Intelligence Agency that encouraged Bud’s reticence even after programs on which he had worked were declassified. For whatever reason, Bud was by a light-year the most unassuming man I’ve ever known. Once he told me he was going to Washington to attend the Goddard Medal ceremonies. What he did not say was that he was receiving the prestigious Goddard Medal. Bud had received many such awards without being defined by any of them. I learned of the awards by following the advice of the colorful and long-gone baseball manager Casey Stengel, who said about statistics and records, “You can look it up.”
If you look up the record on Albert Wheelon you will find he won the United States Distinguished Intelligence Medal in 1966, the Baker Medal for Excellence in National Security Affairs in 1993 and in 1994 the R.V. Jones medal — named for the British scientist who foiled Nazi radar with strips of tinfoil — for his contributions to national security. Later this month Bud will posthumously receive the National Academy of Engineering’s Simon Ramo Founders Award.
With due respect to Casey Stengel, there is much about secret spy satellites one can’t look up. During my 26 years at the Washington Post, I became familiar with the public record of the spy satellites. The CIA relied on these satellites after the Soviets demonstrated they had the capacity to shoot down even the highest-flying spy planes by downing a U-2 piloted by Gary Powers in 1960, causing a superpower crisis. But I didn’t know that even before this incident, Bud had worried about the vulnerability of aircraft to Soviet missiles. Nor did I know he had been on the verge of resigning after the Cuban missile crisis, frustrated with bureaucratic infighting that he believed impinged on accurate intelligence gathering.
Instead of losing Wheelon, President Kennedy made him deputy director of the CIA in 1962 and put him in charge of the newly established Office of Science and Technology. It was good he did. President Lyndon B. Johnson said in an off-the-record 1967 speech that the $850 million Corona program was worth 10 times more than the $35 billion the United States had then put into its space program. LBJ said that Corona data revealed the Soviets were weaker than the U.S. had suspected. President Clinton said in declassifying the Corona photos in 1992 that they had helped to contain the nuclear arms race.
Most of what I know about Bud Wheelon’s immense role in all this comes from Philip Taubman’s book Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America’s Space Espionage. Taubman, an award-winning New York Times reporter, wrote that the Corona program had by 1964 photographed all 25 ICBM complexes in the Soviet Union and kept Washington informed about Soviet military forces and weapons.
“The national reconnaissance systems which the United States now has, which are truly jewels in our crown, all stem, in my judgment, from the creative work that Bud Wheelon did in the ‘60s,” William Perry, secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, told Taubman.
I read Taubman’s book in 2005 and asked Bud about it. He said it was accurate, adding that many others shared in Corona’s success. The book, fascinating in its own right, made me realize that I had known very little about Bud’s achievements.
He had sought me out years earlier, perhaps because he learned I was a biographer of Ronald Reagan. Bud, who had known presidents from Dwight Eisenhower through Clinton, was curious about Reagan. Much later, when he was at Stanford to participate in a meeting of the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Bud obtained and passed on to me a declassified transcript of the fateful meeting between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavík, Iceland. This transcript demonstrates that Reagan was anything but the amiable dunce that his critics imagined him to be. But I digress.
What I knew about Bud before reading Taubman’s book was that he was kind and witty. He and his wife Cicely would invite me and my wife Mary with three or four other people to dinner, where the gossip was more often about contemporary politics than history and science. Bud was mildly progressive in his political views. He worried about nuclear proliferation. Anticipating subsequent historical revision, he considered Eisenhower an outstanding president — “The best I knew,” he said — because of his understanding of the nuclear danger.
He also admired Eisenhower’s famous farewell speech in which he warned of the dangers of what he called “the military-industrial complex.” Bud was a member of this complex — although hardly a compliant one. He left the CIA in 1967 to head the fledgling satellite business of Hughes Aircraft, eventually becoming chairman of the company, which by the 1980s was producing almost half the satellites then in orbit.
When General Motors purchased Hughes in 1988, Bud launched an internal investigation of GM because of possible bribes on an air defense contract for Egypt. GM, which had other business in Egypt it wished to protect, was appalled. Bud was fired, and the Justice Department — at GM’s behest, he believed — instead investigated Bud. It found nothing and dropped the probe after five years.
I once gently asked Bud about this period. He told me the story with a lack of outward emotion, but I sensed he still felt hurt by what he believed GM had done to him.
Most of the time Bud dwelled not on the past but the future, although he was always willing to discuss the history of spy satellites. He managed to give a speech on the subject to a luncheon group to which we both belonged while hardly mentioning his own role.
In later years as Bud’s health declined we’d run into each other at the Summerland Post Office or the Thursday Farmers Market in Carpinteria. I would ask how he was. Even though Bud had cancer and another malady — a physician of our acquaintance said Bud knew he had had less than a year to live — he invariably said he was doing fine. Instead of sharing his own medical report, as people of our age tend to do, he’d recount Cicely’s valiant efforts to recover from a stroke.
Bud Wheelon, reserved and uncompromising, was liked and respected by his friends. He was a gentleman and an entertaining dinner companion. He took an interest in other people’s work. And at a crucial time in American history he manned the aerial battlements and provided information that helped save the world from nuclear destruction.
You can look it up.
The memorial service for Bud Wheelon is on Saturday, October 19, at 2 p.m., at All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Montecito. The public is invited.