NEW YORK — Albert D. Wheelon, a physicist whose early work on satellites for the CIA in the 1960s helped lay the groundwork for a vast US arsenal of aerial spying machines, died last Friday in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was 84.
The cause was cancer.
Dr. Wheelon was 34 when he was given control of all the CIA’s scientific work in 1963 as head of the new Directorate of Science and Technology. His assignment was to revolutionize spying by developing aerial surveillance systems, which the government considered a national imperative after the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik into space in 1957.
He worked on developing and deploying spy planes such as the U-2, the Lockheed A-12, and the SR71 Blackbird, and several generations of Corona reconnaissance satellites, which dropped film canisters that were then snapped up in midflight by aircraft.
Just as important, he shepherded research and development of new kinds of satellites that made digital pictures of objects on the ground as small as 5 inches across and then transmitted the images to Earth.
The aerial reconnaissance programs, most done in conjunction with the Air Force, were highly classified and many remain so. In a 1967 speech that he asked not be quoted, President Lyndon B. Johnson hailed the Corona program as being worth 10 times the $35 billion to $40 billion the United States had by then spent on its entire space program.
The first of a new generation of spy satellites was launched Dec. 19, 1976. A month later the satellite captured remarkably sharp, detailed pictures of the inauguration of Jimmy Carter as president. Less than three years later, spy satellite images gave warning of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Albert Dewell Wheelon was born in Moline, Ill. His father, Orville, invented a machine tool that changed the way aircraft parts were made and was the first aircraft maker to work extensively with titanium.
During World War II, Albert Wheelon worked at Douglas Aircraft, testing the seams and rivets on airplane fuel tanks. A gifted science student, he enrolled at Stanford at 16.
He earned a doctorate in physics from MIT at 23.
Dr. Wheelon set in motion a generation of spy satellites that could adjust direction, aiming at one target and then switching to another.
The CIA also developed radar-based imaging systems that could peer through clouds.
“It was as if an enormous floodlight had been turned on in a darkened warehouse,” Dr. Wheelon said in 1995.