'Friendly' governments shop Itek for high-tech wares

If you want to see what a high-altidude reconaissance camera can do, build a lot of toy houses, some tiny airplanes, and a theater. The walls of one room at Itek Corporation's optical systems division are painted black, like the interior of a small theater-in-the-round. Rows of glaring spotlights illuminate a table-sized "stage."

But the lights, arranged in rows of stacked circles, are not trained on tiny actors. They are focused on a minature "town," with houses, streets, trees, and cars. A person could hold one of the larger houses in the palm of the hand.

High above the stage, a television camera is pointed at a large mirror aimed at the scene below. The picture can be seen on a TV monitor nearby. A control box near the monitor can increase the lighting, create the effect of haze, or change the "time of day."

Rooms like this give Itek's optical engineers the chance to test their expensive products before the buyer -- almost always the US or some other "friendly" government -- needs them to find out what some "unfriendly" government is up to; or how the crops are growing and how well water pollution controls are working, and many other uses.

Working for governments is old stuff for this firm: its founders were doing government work before there was an Itek.

The unofficial beginnings of the company came during World War II, when the US govvernment asked some Boston University engineers and scientists to develop improved cameras and film for aerial photography. The scientists were so successful the government kept them at it for more than 10 years after the war was over -- even though they were still working for the university.

But as the workload grew, "both the scientists and the university felt it would be best if they went out on their own," said Richard J. Wollensak, who heads Itek's optics directorate. The company that resulted from that agreement grew into a firm that, from its wooded heaquarters site along the Route 128 freeway circling Boston, counted record sales of over $355 million last year. About $40 million of this came from the optical division.

Itek today is an amalgam of graphics, radar, optics, and vision businesses. Its products range from radar warning systems carried on jet fighters to eyeglasses. It also built the camera that was carried aboard the Viking spacecraft and began sending pictures from the surface of Mars in July 1976.

"You couldn't have seen a happier bunch of people than when that Viking camera actually worked," Mr. Wollensak said. Before it could send its first "shapshot" of the Martian surface, the camera had to withstand a powerful, vibrating launch; more than a year of travel through extremely cold temperatures; an uncertain landing; and dust.

To build a camera that could pass these rigors, Itek has to spend as much time trying to make its products fail as it does building them. Its testing equipment includes a giant vibrator designed to shake the dickens out of very expensive, very delicate products. If they survive, they go out the door.

A simpler, but no more respectful test, has steel balls being dropped several feet onto the lenses of every pair of eyeglasses Itek makes.

The average visitor is not able to see very many of the rooms where this testing goes on. The long corridors at the headquarters include many doors that are closed to all outsiders -- and to many insiders who do not have adequate security clearance. Much of Itek's work for the government (euphemistically referred to as "the customer") is classified, and a tour of the buildings includes just a few of the laboratories.

In one of the rooms, a white, missile-shaped case contains a camera, a lens 18 inches across and more than three feet long. the lens looks into a mirrors which is aimed through a window in the nose cone. Attached like a bomb to a jet aircraft flying at approximately 40,000 feet, the camera can look 10 or 15 miles into enemy territory and take regular photographs. It is also developing an electro-optical capability.

These pictures are registered on thousands of electronic chips, instead of being recorded on plastic film. They provide much clearer pictures and -- by using computers and display screens -- can give the photo analyst a choice of close-ups and a variety of infrared images. A person can tell which planes on the ground have fuel in their tanks and can "see" through some camouflage, for instance.

Shot from 40,000 feet, one of these cameras not only can take a clear picture of a small automobile; by using its temperature-sensitive infrared capability, it can see see if the car (or military vehicle or plane) was parked in a certain spot for a time. If the sun was shining on it, a cooler "shadow" will linger for several hours after. Company officials are reluctant to say exactly how much detail they can pick out, citing security requirements of their "customer."

Not all the rooms accessible to a visitor are for testing. In one room, large circles of glass -- some more than six inches thick and over three feet across -- are ground and polished.

While the military is a frequent government caller at Itek, representatives from other federal departments, particularly the Departments of Agriculture and Interior, turn up regularly. Itek's high-altitude cameras can be used to map the earth's topography, find mineral deposits (including likely places where oil might be found), analyze types and conditions of soil, and spot places where land and water resources are being polluted. One camera can measure the melting of snow from mountains and hills and tell how much will be added to watershed areas.

The firm had six cameras aboard Skylab which provided thousands of geologic and topographic "maps" of the earth's surface.

For the future, Itek is anxiously awaiting the start of regular flights by the space shuttle, when large cameras can be put in orbit, and large telescopes could be taken up in pieces and assembled in space to give astronomers a look at the stars, unobstructed by the earth's wavy atmosphere.

And while the cameras aboard Skylab came crashing to earth with the rest of the space vehicle in July 1979, Itek's camera aboard the Viking lander continues to send back very nice pictures of Ma rs.

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