The Corona Story

The Corona Story


The Man of La Mancha, and the life of its protagonist, Miguel de Cervantes, are metaphors for the Corona program. De Cervantes' life ``... was a catalogue of catastrophe... What sort of man was this...who could suffer unceasing failure and yet...produce the staggering testament..."? (Wasserman, 1976). What sort of program was Corona? What kind of people were behind it? Who could suffer the unceasing failures of 13 shattered mission attempts before they finally could produce a testament to their quest--before they could launch an artificial satellite that would fly in a 100 nautical mile polar orbit above the Earth and from there take pictures that ultimately could show objects that were as small as 2 meters?

Man of La Mancha "had its inception in Madrid in 1959" when author Dale Wasserman was in Madrid (Richards, 1976). This was the same time that Corona was being conceived on the launch pad. Its first failed mission was in February of 1959. The play and musical went on to be written and were first presented at the ANTA Washington Square Theatre in New York City on November 22, 1965. It was a tremendous success and considered one of the best musicals of the 1965-66 season (Richards 1976). By then, Corona had gone on to become an operational satellite that was flying Mission 1026 over the USSR. It was being hailed a tremendous success and was considered one of the best sources of intelligence on the Soviet Union.

Corona was built from 1959 to 1972 by the Space Systems Division of Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space (formerly Lockheed MSC Space Systems Division). Lockheed was awarded the prime contract in 1956 for Weapons System 117L, an umbrella classified program. The Corona project evolved from WS-117L, and Lockheed became the prime contractor and served as technical adviser and integrator for all Corona equipment other than the Thor booster. Lockheed developed the Agena upper stage and integrated and led the test, launching, and on-orbit control operations of Corona (Star, 1995).

The first successful Corona flight, which acquired 3,000 feet of film and covered more than 1,650,000 square miles of Soviet territory, was making its mark. During this August 1960 flight, the Corona program had acquired more overhead photographic coverage of the Soviet Union than all of the U-2 flights to that date. From a technological perspective, it was the first space program to recover an object from orbit and the first to deliver intelligence information from a satellite. It would go on to be the first program to employ multiple reentry vehicles, pass the 100 mission mark, and produce stereoscopic space imagery. Its most remarkable technological advance would be the improvement in its ground resolution from an initial 40-foot capability to an ultimate 6-foot resolution.

Corona would provide evidence that the Soviets had made exaggerated claims of their military capability. The "heart" we heard about in Joe Darion's lyrics for "The Impossible Dream" could "lie peaceful and calm" knowing that the Cold War threat was not as great as we had thought. This monograph tells the story of the quest for photosatellite reconnaissance through 22 articles organized into seven sections:

  1. The Prelude to Space Reconnaissance
  2. The Beginning of Space Reconnaissance
  3. The Technology Behind the Pictures
  4. The People and Their Organizations
  5. Declassification and Opening Secrets to the Public
  6. The Impact of Space Reconnaissance
  7. The Future


Prelude to Space Reconnaissance

The first section has two articles that describe American strategic reconnaissance capabilities and policy issues that preceded Corona. Jonathan Lewis discusses the U-2 story that was a model for the development of Corona. He looks at the evolution of the U-2 from the perspective of Richard Bissell, who also played a key role in the development of Corona. Lewis pays particular attention to the organizational dynamics and management style that were fundamental to the U-2's development. The focused, business-oriented mission; the single-line, streamlined management structure; the risk-taking innovation; and the need for secrecy all previewed Corona's development. In his conclusion, Lewis leaves us with questions to consider as we examine the Corona story.

R. Cargill Hall offers insight into how a concept for a strategic reconnaissance capability ultimately led to the birth of Corona. This is an essential explanation that sets the stage for telling the story of Corona as it occurred during the Cold War. Hall describes how strategic reconnaissance evolved out of attempts to acquire intelligence in response to national security fears and crises. In his article we see the impact of President Eisenhower's leadership and legacy for American, national-level strategic reconnaissance.

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The Beginning of Space Reconnaissance

This section has three articles that outline the performance characteristics of the earliest imaging reconnaissance satellites. The article on Corona, Argon, and Lanyard explains what these first US reconnaissance satellites were and how they performed operationally. The article by Frederic Oder and Martin Belles offers an explanation of Corona's development from a programmatic perspective, while Peter Gorin explains the Soviet Union's imaging reconnaissance program that paralleled these early US accomplishments.

Gorin's insight into the Soviet's Zenit satellite is important if we are to know the complete story of early Cold War space reconnaissance. From him, we learn about what the Soviets were doing in the development of their counterpart to Corona. His article makes it clear that the appetite for information in the USSR was as strong as it was in the US. More importantly, Zenit--just as Corona--provided policy leaders with information that was essential to build confidence levels that were necessary to maintain peace during the Cold War.

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The Technology Behind the Pictures

The third section discusses the technology of the camera and spacecraft. Dow Smith, from his own experience, offers insight into the technical aspects of Corona's optics. He explains how experiences from the high-altitude balloon reconnaissance era and the technological culture of the time were able to be adapted to the complex challenge of space imaging. Bob Powell draws from his first-hand observations to explain the evolution of the Agena vehicle, the spacecraft that carried the Corona camera into orbit. Powell also talks about the recovery sequence for getting the film back to Earth. His explanations demonstrate the tremendous complexity of the Corona endeavor: from launching the vehicle, to operating it in space, and recovering the film payload.

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The People and Their Organizations

Probably the most important part of the Corona story is the people and organizations that made it happen--without their dedicated efforts there would have been no Corona. This section features four articles that recognize the contributions of those who made Corona possible. For 20 to 30 years they had to remain anonymous because of the classification and security measures that were required throughout the life of the Corona program and many years afterward.

Two individuals were driving forces behind the decision to build a photoreconnaissance satellite for the US. They were James Killian, Jr., president of MIT, and Edwin Land of the Polaroid Corporation. Killian chaired a committee that was established to examine the threat of a surprise attack on the United States. Land chaired a panel that was responsible for finding approaches to monitor the military capabilities of the USSR (Deutch, 1995). Their names come up in a number of the articles in the monograph. A third name, related to implementing the decision, also appears often in Corona's story--Richard Bissell. He was a visionary of the 1950s who saw that the assessment of international tensions during in the Cold War--with its nuclear weapons threat--required more than simply accurate political intelligence, but also accurate factual information to determine the practical effects of tactical and strategic political moves. Bissell saw that the way to collect this kind of information was by applying technology to intelligence problems (Ranelagh, 1987). As a CIA program manager in the U-2 and Corona era, he brought technology to bear on the decisions associated with creating a national-level strategic reconnaissance capability for the US.

Donald Welzenbach opens his article with the influence of Edwin Land in the development of the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and Bissell's role in implementing the program. Welzenbach goes on to discuss the involvement of many other government and contractor personnel who were associated with the early development of strategic reconnaissance in the US. He makes it clear that these individuals laid the foundation for Corona, with many of them continuing to be affiliated with the Corona program. What at first might seem to be independent programs is actually a continuum of technological development.

The Corona program depended heavily on the technological and management experience of the earlier airborne strategic reconnaissance programs. Corona's managers reached out and found the best technology and expertise that was available in government and private industry. They organized a talented team that came together with an ability to foster innovation. In a collegial way they turned concepts into reality--and did that in a relatively short time (Deutch, 1995). These early Corona pioneers--those who built, launched, and operated Corona--were honored at CIA headquarters as part of the 35th Anniversary Commemoration of the program in 1995. The article on these pioneers offers a brief outline of who they were and the contributions they made.

Corona's success was not only a result of those who built and operated the satellite system, but also of those who found ways to exploit and use Corona's imagery to extract intelligence information. Ronald J. Ondrejka's article identifies another group of pioneers who were members of the American Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) and who focused on the exploitation of what was a new reconnaissance capability. He writes from the perspective of a long-time ASPRS member and his personal involvement in the Corona program at Itek Corporation. He makes the point that these ASPRS members, both corporate and individual, were "invisible Corona partners" from the Society. They were invisible to the public and others in the professional world of remote sensing because of the inherent secrecy of the Corona program. Through these partners, ASPRS provided the Corona program with a source of knowledge about photogrammetry and remote sensing that had been a part of the Society's professional tradition.

That tradition of imagery exploitation can be personified in Arthur C. Lundahl who was the Society's president in 1954. A Washington Post obituary for Lundahl described him as "a pioneer in photographic intelligence and the art of photographic interpretation" (Barnes, 1992). Lundahl was widely known for his work with U-2 imagery, but he also was a major player in the use and exploitation of Corona imagery. He founded the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), which became the Director of Central Intelligence's center for the analysis of Corona imagery. It was Lundahl's years of experience in photographic interpretation of airborne imagery that enabled NPIC to make its contributions to national security during the Corona era. Dino A. Brugioni's and Frederick J. Doyle's article provides a biographical overview of Lundahl's life and his contributions to the fields of photointerpretation and national security. The article puts the exploitation of Corona imagery in the context of a life experience.

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Declassification and Opening Secrets to the Public

When the president declassified Corona imagery in February 1995, 23 years after Corona's final mission, it breathed new life into Corona. The four articles in this section discuss the decision to declassify and the actions to make Corona available to the public. The article on the declassification decision explains the nature of the Talent-Keyhole Control system that President Eisenhower directed for the protection of satellite imagery and the gradual evolution of removing its security constraints. Also reported is the background for Vice President Gore's announcement of the decision at CIA Headquarters. The next two articles in this section are more technical than descriptive. The article by J. Michael Selander offers insight into how the declassified satellite reconnaissance imagery was prepared for transfer from the Intelligence Community holdings to the public archives. Specifically, he explains the mathematical camera models that were developed so that the transferred imagery would be more useful to the public. The article by Jon C. Leachtenauer and his colleagues offers a technical analysis of the benefits of digitizing Corona imagery, which was acquired before the era of imagery digitization. The full Intelligence Community archive of Corona, Argon, and Lanyard imagery now has been transferred to the public archive at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Earth Resources Observation Systems (EROS) Data Center. Donna K. Scholz's article provides some background on the transfer of the imagery and explains how the public can gain access to the imagery.

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The Impact of Space Reconnaissance

Corona's technological potential became apparent after recovering pictures of its first intelligence target--the Soviet military airfield near Mys Schmidta on the Chukchi Sea. Along with Argon and Lanyard, Corona imagery would go on to have major national security and cartographic impact in the worlds of foreign intelligence and map-making. The three articles in this section focus on these impacts. In his article, Robert A. McDonald cites specific examples of how, in a revolutionary way, Corona contributed to exposing the missile gap, monitoring arms control, detecting nuclear proliferation, and monitoring the Soviet threat. Roland S. Inlow analyzes how the Intelligence Community used Corona as a unique tool to respond to the foreign intelligence challenges of the Cold War. He offers his analysis from the perspective of a former intelligence analyst and senior manager for the collection and exploitation of satellite reconnaissance imagery.

Not only was Corona the beginning of a revolution in the way intelligence was gathered and reported to senior national security decision makers, but it also became the foundation for a revolution in map-making. Joseph A. Baclawski discusses that aspect of Corona's impact on national security. He points out how the mapping of the Soviet landmass was probably one of the most technologically challenging tasks for those who used Corona materials. Baclawski makes it clear that Corona imagery provided the key to break through the obstacles of the Soviet Cartographic Iron Curtain.

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The Future

The four articles in the last section of this monograph link Corona's past with the future. Robert McDonald's article on potential new applications for Corona imagery addresses how this 20- to 30-year-old satellite reconnaissance imagery has the capability to contribute to the analysis of a variety of current and future remote sensing and scientific problems. Not only can it be useful for a retrospective analysis of environmental problems, but it also can be used to deal with resource management and archaeological problems.

Corona not only offers something for the future through the exploitation of its 30-year-old imagery, but there are policy lessons that can be learned from the Intelligence Community's experience with it. Corona's experience demonstrates that technology can be a force multiplier for intelligence, and it is necessary to understand existing technologies if we are to apply them to the problems at hand. "At the right time, taking advantage of an advance in technology can revolutionize the business of intelligence" (Deutch, 1995). The article on policy lessons briefly outlines the range of these lessons that includes needing a strong industrial base to be able to take advantage of technology, needing good intelligence in an uncertain world, using the benefits of our national security investments in nondefense areas, and finding value in innovative approaches for management and teamwork when dealing with complex problems that have short deadlines.

Richard Bissell made it clear that developing Corona, ``... was a most heartbreaking business...[Y]ou fire the damn thing off and you've got some telemetry, and you never get it back... So you have to infer from telemetry what went wrong. Then you make a fix, and if it fails again you know you've inferred wrong. In the case of Corona, it went on and on" (Bissell quoted in Mosley, Dulles quoted in Ranelagh). The development of Corona broke new ground. It was a solution-oriented approach. Unique managerial concepts were developed. Corona set the stage for a fundamental new way to do things for its day, as well as for the future. Sam Araki's article discusses the legacy of these inventive technical practices and innovative management approaches that Corona offers the aerospace industry for the next millennium.

Jeffrey K. Harris's final article in the monograph looks back to Corona's heritage and forward to the challenges of the information era. He reviews Corona's story as a backdrop for space and the information age of the future.

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Historical Document
Posted: Apr 29, 2013 01:57 PM
Last Updated: May 27, 2014 11:45 AM