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Recovery of the Last GAMBIT and HEXAGON Film Buckets from Space, August–October 1984

Catching the End of an Era

Recovery of the Last GAMBIT and HEXAGON Film Buckets from Space, August–October 1984

David W. Waltrop

A revolution in US intelligence quietly occurred on 19 August 1960, when a modified Air Force C-119 Flying Boxcar, commanded by Capt. Harold E. Mitchell, call sign Pelican 9, made the first successful mid-air recovery of a film capsule from a spy satellite codenamed CORONA. The capsule, ejected about 100 nautical miles over Kodiak, Alaska, on the satellite’s 17th pass, made a fiery reentry through Earth’s atmosphere before deploying a parachute that allowed it to descend slowly to within range of aircraft waiting in a recovery zone over the waters near Hawaii.

For the next 24 years such arial retrieval of film capsules was the practice by which images taken from cameras mounted in satellites would be returned to earth for development, printing, and distribution to various agencies, intelligence related and not. The year 2014 marks the 30th anniversary of America’s last film-return reconnaissance satellite missions. This story describes the practice and the final retrievals on 11 August and 11 October 1984.

Detailed histories and declassified documents on the various film satellite reconnaissance programs can be found in the following locations:

For the CORONA program see: www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/corona.pdf

For the GAMBIT and HEXAGON programs see the history and documents section of the Web site of the National Reconnaissance Office: www.nro.gov/history/index.html

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Posted: Jul 17, 2014 03:02 PM
Last Updated: Jul 17, 2014 03:02 PM