The Top Secret Spoilers On National Reconnaissance Office Patches

By Debra Kelly on Sunday, December 14, 2014
Nrol-39
“We are rapidly entering the age of no privacy, where everyone is open to surveillance at all times; where there are no secrets from government.” —William O. Douglas, 1966

In A Nutshell

For decades, the members of missions at the National Reconnaissance Office have been creating mission patches for each launch, much like NASA mission crews design their patches. While some are epic in their geekiness, others have created quite a bit of controversy by seeming to give away exactly what the mission is, how many satellites it’s carrying, and exactly where it’s going. Other patches have been accused of flaunting a level of privacy invasion that’s exactly what people are campaigning against.

The Whole Bushel

The National Reconnaissance Office is the portion of the US government that’s responsible for keeping eyes and ears open in places that might seem off-limits or completely inaccessible at a glance. They’re the ones running the satellites overheard, and they’re the ones that are the first to know what’s going on out there. They were originally created in 1966 and declassified in 1992; since their declassification they’ve continued to operate as an elite intelligence agency. And no one can say that they don’t have a sense of humor.

Each time the NRO sends up a new satellite or organizes a new mission, there’s a mission patch created for it, and the patches are often pretty epic.

There’s a handful that look like they were based on the mission’s weekly Dungeons and Dragons sessions. On NROL-33’s mission patch, a sword-wielding valkyrie shoots beams of light out of her hands, and on NROL-35, there’s a purple-haired sorceress wielding a trident and a fireball. There was even a three-headed dragon for NROL-38.

They’re not all like that, though, and there are a few that looked like they were drawn by the mission leader’s elementary-school child—especially the bear-shaped patch for NROL-10, complete with multicolored lettering and gold stars.

As adorable and as nerdy as the patches are, they’re also not without some controversy.

The patches are designed by the mission crew, following in the footsteps of NASA when the space agency decided to give astronauts the chance to design their own mission patches in lieu of naming their own spacecraft. Today, while the launches of the satellites are public knowledge, the missions aren’t—although some people say that the patches give away quite a bit.

It started with the patch for NROL-11 in 2000. The black patch shows owl eyes and four arrows that are pointing their way across an outline of the African continent. Satellite enthusiasts jumped on the patch and the idea that it showed exactly where the “secret” mission was headed—and they were right. The satellite appeared in the sky not long after.

News outlets that reported the story were asked not to run with it, but did anyway. In response, patches for future missions got more and more out-there, but they already attracted attention and are still being analyzed.

In 2007, Scorpius was launched carrying an NRO payload of satellites. In case there was any question about where they were going, it was painted right on the mission logo—three massive, orbital rings around the Earth.

The use of the patches certainly hasn’t been without incredible scrutiny, either—outside of the debate on whether or not they’re just inside jokes or they’re giving away top secret information. The 2013 patch for NROL-39 showed something that people thought was pretty telling—especially given all the uproar about privacy issues. The logo showed the Earth wrapped in the tentacles of an octopus with the words, “Nothing is beyond our reach.”

The patch got perhaps the best response from the ACLU’s senior policy analyst, who’s most likely one of the only people who could send the Office of the Director of the National Intelligence agency a tweet that read: “You may want to downplay the massive dragnet spying thing right now. This logo isn’t helping.”

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: The Creepy, Kitschy and Geeky Patches of US Spy Satellite Launches
The Space Review: Secrets and signs
Business Insider: US Spy Agency Boasts ‘Nothing Is Beyond Our Reach’ With New Logo
National Reconnaissance Office