Giant, Sophisticated, Disposable

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Growing up, I had always assumed that spy satellites were chock-full of sophisticated electronics — including, of course, television cameras. This probably was true by the time I was aware of spy satellites, but the first spy satellites carried Kodak film, which they had to return to earth from orbit. They were giant, sophisticated, disposable cameras, produced by something called the Corona project:

When the Corona satellites were launched the CIA used a “cover” story. They called the Corona satellites the “Discoverer” program and claimed it was an experimental program to develop and test satellite subsystems and explore environmental conditions in space. The film recovery capsule was described as a “biomedical capsule” for the recovery of biological specimens sent into space as an early test of how humans would react to manned spaceflight.

The Corona project was run like a startup — a small team, minimum bureaucracy, focussed on a goal and tightly integrated with customer needs. Starting in February 1959, only 12 months after the program began the Air Force launched the first Corona reconnaissance satellite from the military’s secret spaceport on the California coast at Vandenberg Air Force Base. But the first 13 missions were failures. Yet the program was deemed so important to national security the CIA and the Air Force persevered. And when the first images were received they transformed technical intelligence forever. Objects as small as 6 feet (some claim 3 feet) could be seen from space over millions of miles of a formally closed country.
While Corona had a number of technological breakthroughs, including the first photoreconnaissance satellite, the first recovery of an object from space, etc. it was Corona imagery in 1961 that told the intelligence community and the new Kennedy administration that the “missile gap” (the supposed Soviet lead in ICBMs) was illusory. By fall of 1961 Soviet Union had a total of six deployed ICBMs — we had ten times as many. In truth, it was the U.S. that had the lead in missiles.

Corona was just the beginning. Overhead reconnaissance would become an integral part of the U.S. intelligence community. Hidden in plain sight, Lockheed and the U.S. intelligence community were just getting started in Silicon Valley.


  1. Graham says:

    I think, perhaps, I learned about recoverable capsules reading something in the 1980s, so presumably it had become super old tech and declassified before that.

    I still can’t decide if that’s laughably primitive or just about the coolest, hot sh*t idea ever invented. Space-based cameras shooting completed film back to earth for recovery. Amazing.

    Now I’m curious how long it took to complete a roll, how many cameras were on each satellite, and how long that meant the service life of each satellite was. And did they then do a controlled burn or just leave them all. Or some.

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