"The satellite's film canister would reenter the atmosphere from space and then with a parachute over the Pacific Ocean it would be caught midair by an Air Force cargo plane," says Harris. "I got the job of opening the 'film bucket' to get the film processed and copied as quickly as possible to gain important world insights for our government. I immediately had to put to work what I had learned at RIT. It was nice to have so much responsibility early in my career."
Harris graduated from RIT in 1975 with a bachelor's degree in photographic science and instrumentation. He shares the credit with his mother for deciding to attend RIT.
"I remember it was love at first sight when we visited the campus. My mom discovered RIT's program. She knew I was good at science. I liked imaging systems, but didn't want to be a professional photographer. RIT had the only program that allowed you to do what we now call imaging science."
Ron Francis, Al Rickmers, and John Carson—all professors in RIT's department of photographic science during Harris' time at RIT—taught him about chemistry, statistical quality control, and optics.
"My professors were consulting for companies and they would bring these real-world experiences back to the classroom. We learned about the cost and utility of collecting test points, something that businesses have to deal with all the time. The fact that RIT is closely aligned with industry is a real advantage for its students."
Throughout his career working in both government and industry, Harris had a front-seat view as the technology to maintain national security evolved from film to digital. He worked his way up the ranks within the intelligence community, serving in senior national leadership positions. In 1994 he became the director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) providing direct support to the secretary of defense and the CIA director.
During his government tenure as NRO director from 1994 to 1996, the United States intervened in the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He recalls briefing President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton about the crisis and showing them images of the genocide.
"One of the jobs I had was to try to identify how we could use the imagery to keep the noncombatants safe from the Serbians who were shelling their villages. We put together a program approach to create safe enclaves in an effort to protect them and better leverage the United Nations' peacekeepers. It was exciting to be able to share with policy makers and our military the best information possible while at the same time developing state-of-the-art systems to advance the mission's capabilities."
Harris says to see your role have an impact on helping to sustain world peace has been gratifying.
He worked on top-secret programs like Corona, Hexagon, and Gambit, all of which are now declassified. These satellite-imaging programs, which began in the '60s, provided critical intelligence about the Soviet Union during the Cold War era.
As NRO director, Harris presented the Corona's camera equipment to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., during a formal ceremony in May 1995. Many who had worked on the Corona systems were invited to attend. Corona's first successful flight of recovering film from space was in 1960.
"The ceremony was quite emotional-there were a lot of tears. All of these people thought none of their work would ever be declassified. They had never been able to tell their families what they did for their jobs. It was wonderful for them to be publicly thanked by their country."
When Harris left the NRO in 1996, he became president of Space Imaging, now called DigitalGlobe, a private company that provides high-resolution satellite imagery to global customers including Google Earth.
"We were the first to create a new commercial enterprise of selling satellite images to farmers, map makers, environmentalists, and city planners."
After Space Imaging, Harris returned to his defense roots at Lockheed Martin Corp. He built space and ground systems for military, civil, and intelligence applications. He had the opportunity to work on weather, GPS, and communication satellites as well as Hubble and the international space station.
Now semi-retired, Harris is a consultant and enjoys giving back to his alma mater. Harris is a member of RIT's Board of Trustees, the College of Science Advisory Board and the Center for Imaging Science Advisory Board.
"My career has been a fabulous journey. I owe it all to RIT!"