The NRO works closely with its intelligence and space partners, which include the National Security Agency (NSA), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the United States Strategic Command, Naval Research Laboratory and many other high level agencies and organizations. It has been proposed that the NRO share imagery of the United States itself with the newly-created National Applications Office for purposes of domestic law enforcement. The NRO is responsible for operating Ground Stations around the world which collect and distribute intelligence gathered from reconnaissance satellites.
It was endorsed by Dwight D. Eisenhower in February 1958 after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first orbital satellite. The need for the agency obtained greater urgency when Gary Powers was shot down in a Lockheed U-2 on May 1, 1960.
The NRO's first photo reconnaissance satellite program was called "Corona". The Corona program, the existence of which was declassified February 24, 1995, existed from August 1960 to May 1972, although the first test flight occurred on February 28, 1959. The Corona system used (sometimes multiple) film capsules dropped by satellites, which were recovered mid-air by military craft. The first successful recovery from space (Discoverer XIII) occurred on August 12, 1960, and the first image from space was seen six days later. The first imaging resolution was 8 meters, which was improved to 2 meters. Individual images covered, on average, an area of approximately 10 by 120 miles (16 by 190 km). The last Corona mission (the 145th), was launched May 25, 1972, and this mission's last images were taken May 31, 1972.
Missions of the NRO subsequent to 1972 are still classified, and portions of many earlier programs remain unavailable to the public.
In 1985, a New York Times article exposed the existance and operations of the NRO.
A Washington Post article in September 1995 reported that the NRO had quietly hoarded between $1 billion and $1.7 billion in unspent funds without informing the Central Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon, or Congress. The CIA was in the midst of an inquiry into the NRO's funding because of complaints that the agency had spent $300 million of hoarded funds from its classified budget to build a new headquarters building in Chantilly, Virginia a year earlier. The presence of the classified new headquarters was revealed by the Federation of American Scientists who obtained unclassified copies of the blueprints filed with the building permit application. After 9/11 those blueprints were apparently classified. The reports of an NRO slush fund were true. According to former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith, who led the investigation: "Our inquiry revealed that the NRO had for years accumulated very substantial amounts as a 'rainy day fund.'"
In 1999 the NRO embarked on a project with Boeing entitled Future Imagery Architecture to create a new generation of imaging satellites. A November 11, 2007 investigative report by The New York Times found that in 2002 the project was far behind schedule and would most likely cost $2 billion to $3 billion more than planned, according to NRO records. The government pressed forward with efforts to complete the project, but after two more years, several more review panels and billions more in expenditures, the project was killed in what the Times report calls "perhaps the most spectacular and expensive failure in the 50-year history of American spy satellite projects."
In what the government describes as a bizarre coincidence, NRO was planning an exercise [on] Sept. 11  in which an errant aircraft would crash into one of its buildings. But the cause wasn't terrorism it was to be a simulated accident.
Officials at the Chantilly, Va.-based National Reconnaissance Office had scheduled an exercise that morning in which a small corporate jet would crash into one of the four towers at the agency's headquarters building after experiencing a mechanical failure.
The agency is about four miles from the runways of Washington Dulles International Airport. ... Adding to the coincidence, American Airlines Flight 77 the Boeing 767 that was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon took off from Dulles at 8:10 a.m. on Sept. 11, 50 minutes before the exercise was to begin. It struck the Pentagon around 9:40 a.m., killing 64 aboard the plane and 125 on the ground.
In January 2008, the government announced that a reconnaissance satellite operated by the NRO would make an unplanned and uncontrolled re-entry into the earth's atmosphere in the next several months. Satellite watching hobbyists said that it was likely the USA-193, built by Lockheed Martin Corporation, which failed shortly after achieving orbit in December 2006. On February 14, 2008, the Pentagon announced that rather than allowing the satellite to make an uncontrolled re-entry, it would instead be shot down by a missile fired from a Navy cruiser. The intercept took place on February 21, 2008.
In July 2008, the NRO declassified the existence of its Synthetic Aperture Radar satellites, citing difficulty in disscussing the creation of the Space-Based Radar with the United States Air Force and other entities.
The NRO is staffed by personnel from the CIA, NSA, the military services, and civilian defense contractors.
The NRO spacecraft include: