CORONA: America's First Imaging Satellite Program


The 1950s was a time of great uncertainty for the US regarding the Soviet Union’s budding strategic nuclear forces.  Although the US knew the Soviets had ambitious programs to develop and deploy intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and bombers, the US knew little about the scope or success of Soviet efforts.  The US frequently sighted Soviet strategic bombers and had evidence of Soviet missile test programs but lacked the means to get a comprehensive look at overall Soviet strategic deployments–the US did not know how many operational ICBMs and bombers the Soviets had and where they were deployed.  The US Intelligence Community reflected this uncertainty in wild overestimates of Soviet bomber and missile production–the so-called “bomber gap” and “missile gap”–and forecast that the US was falling behind in the nuclear arms race and in real danger of nuclear attack.

Between 1956 and 1960, imagery from 24 U-2 photoreconnaissance aircraft missions over the Soviet Union opened up a crack in the Soviets’ armor, but the crack was a small one and it closed before a single ICBM base could be found.   President Eisenhower halted all U-2 overflights of the USSR when the Soviets shot down an American U-2 and captured its CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers near Sverdlovsk on 1 May 1960.

The quality and value CORONA provided dramatically improved over its lifetime.

The CORONA Program began as a joint CIA-Air Force effort in the late 1950s.  Cloaked in secrecy, it was known to the public as a scientific research program named DISCOVERER.  The program’s goals were daunting:  launch a large camera into earth orbit, photograph specific points and areas on the earth’s surface, parachute a capsule of exposed film to earth, snag the capsule in midair over the Pacific Ocean, develop the film, and search the images for answers to the nation’s pressing intelligence questions.  Many things could go wrong–and did.  The first 13 missions failed to return any useable imagery.  Unsuccessful launches, orbits not achieved, camera malfunctions, spacecraft errors, and missed recoveries plagued the program.

Finally, on 18 August 1960, all systems on CORONA Mission XIV operated successfully!  This remarkable technological achievement revolutionized the intelligence world by returning from space more photographic coverage of the Soviet Union in a single mission than in all previous U-2 missions combined.

An image of Soviet Mys Shmidta Air Force Base in the former USSR, taken from CORONA.

The first CORONA images were grainy and of limited utility, but quality–and intelligence value–improved rapidly on succeeding missions.  Within a few months, CIA photointerpreters had dispelled both the missile gap and the bomber gap.  They found that Soviets were, in fact, significantly behind the US in development of a workable ICBM and that the Soviets were building up a strategic bomber force but were devoting most of their resources to missile production.  In just a few weeks, CORONA photography had eliminated the Soviet intelligence dilemma that had haunted the US for a decade.

Over the years, the quantity, quality, and reliability of CORONA imagery improved, making it the single most important source of intelligence on Soviet strategic forces:  missile launch complexes and test ranges, ballistic-missile submarine development and deployment, aircraft factories and air bases, anti-ballistic-missile activities, and air defenses.  CORONA was also an invaluable source of intelligence on potential enemies in East Asia, the Middle East, and other areas of interest.  In addition, the US Defense Department used CORONA imagery to produce military maps of denied areas more accurately than ever before.

CORONA C’s imaging capabilities were unprecedented in US history.

CORONA enabled the US to specify verifiable terms of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) with the Soviet Union in 1971.  US negotiators confidently knew that photointerpreters could monitor changes in the size and characteristics of missile launchers, bombers, and submarines.  Satellite imagery became the mainstay of the US arms-control verification process.

CORONA is a milestone in US history.  Developers of this nation’s first film-return photoreconnaissance satellite explored and conquered many technological unknowns of space, lifted the curtain of secrecy that screened military developments within the Soviet Union and Communist China, and opened the way for the even more sophisticated follow-on imaging satellite systems.  The 145th and final CORONA launch took place on 25 May 1972 with the final recovery on 31 May 1972.  Over its lifetime, CORONA provided photographic coverage totaling approximately 750,000,000 square miles of the earth’s surface.  This impressive capability was surpassed only by the quantity and quality of intelligence that it yielded.  Without CORONA, the US may well have been misguidedly pressured into a World War III.

In addition to military activity intelligence, images captured CORONA C were also used to produce maps with impressive accuracy.