Corona Between the Sun and the Earth



Wasserman (1976), in his preface to Man of La Mancha, repeated a quote he found long ago in Unamuno, "Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible." And that is what the Corona pioneers did. They attempted the absurd, sent a camera into space, took pictures from 100 nautical miles, ejected the film and snatched it by an aircraft in midair--absurd! But it worked, and they accomplished the impossible! US intelligence analysts and senior national security policymakers were able to analyze pictures of the Soviet threat.

For the 1960s, Corona was a technologically remarkable program. Not only was it the first photoreconnaissance satellite, but during its initial missions it acquired images at a resolution of 8 meters. And that quickly improved to 2 meters. An extraordinary achievement in that when France launched its first commercial remote sensing system, SPOTI--over 25 years later--it was only providing 10-meter imagery! Even by Corona's thirty-fifth anniversary, commercial space images generally were available at something worse than 2 meters (e.g., Landsat Thematic Mapper at 30m; the Japanese Earth Resources Satellite, JERS, at about 18m; and the French SPOT satellite still at 10m). Even the Russian KFA-1000 imagery generally was offering no better than 2.5-meter imagery (Doyle, 1991).

In reflecting on Corona, Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch (1995) observed that it "... profoundly altered the course of the Cold War and was probably instrumental in keeping us back from the nuclear threshold." Project Corona was the US Cold War intelligence project that prevented the Iron Curtain from denying the US a view into the Communist Bloc and provided the US Government with much-needed reconnaissance-derived intelligence.

What kind of conclusions can we draw? Looking across the articles in this monograph, we clearly can see that Corona's development resulted in at least four revolutions (the word "revolution" consistently is used throughout the monograph). There was a revolution in the way intelligence was collected--the availability of concrete intelligence, hard evidence and tangible information that could be seen and used by policymakers to develop a rational national security strategy. There was a revolution in map-making--a new source of data could be used to produce thousands of reliable maps of large geographic areas previously inaccessible for data collection. There was a revolution in aerospace technology--a new capability for launching, maneuvering, and recovering spacecraft. Finally, there was a revolution in how to manage a complex program--focus on the goal, with an environment of commitment, empowerment, risk-taking, cooperation, and teamwork.

After you learn about the Corona story, you come to know what Corona is all about. It was an impossible dream that came true after 13 unsuccessful attempts. It was risk-taking by pioneers in space flight and intelligence operations. It was those who were on a quest and followed the Corona star of strategic reconnaissance that became a basis for national security during the second half of the twentieth century. It was a look into the Communist world that could not be blocked out by the eclipse of the Iron Curtain. The fundamental contribution of Corona was keeping the Cold War cold. US policymakers were able to acquire information, learn from it, gain insight, share knowledge, and make the right decisions without overreacting. They could see reality through the hard evidence of Corona's photographs. Perhaps the final conclusion is that Corona played a major role in determining how we would think about national security strategy during the second half of the twentieth century and then set the stage for how we are going to confront information in the domains of foreign intelligence and remote sensing in the next millennium.

Historical Document
Posted: Apr 29, 2013 02:04 PM
Last Updated: Apr 29, 2013 02:07 PM