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A Look Back … CORONA: The Nation’s First Photoreconnaissance Satellite

During the height of the Cold War, America’s policymakers were concerned about the likelihood of a surprise nuclear attack from the USSR. Soviet atomic and space advances intensified their fears. U.S. leaders needed hard information about Soviet capabilities to make sound foreign policy decisions. It was nearly impossible to penetrate the Iron Curtain and collect sufficient intelligence. Although the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft had provided imagery to dispel the alleged “Bomber Gap” in the late 1950s, the shootdown of Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 in May 1960 ended this collection program. Fortunately, the CIA in cooperation with private industry was developing a better, more secure, space-based collection system – the CORONA photoreconnaissance satellite.


The Birth of the CORONA Project

The idea of the CORONA system was first broached in late 1957. The purpose of CORONA was to provide broad imagery coverage of the USSR to identify missile launch sites and production facilities. President Dwight D. Eisenhower formally endorsed the project in February 1958.


CORONA: A Joint Effort

Only a top-notch team could make such a great achievement possible in so little time. Three organizations were involved in the CORONA project, including:

  • CIA,
  • Air Force, and
  • Private Industry

The head of the CIA project branch was Dr. Richard M. Bissell, Jr., the Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence for Planning and Development. U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Osmund Ridland served as the lead for the Air Force project branch. The industry team consisted of Lockheed Space Systems, Itek Corporation, General Electric, and many more.


Into Orbit

By February 1959, the CORONA was ready for a test drive. Unfortunately, its first mission was a failure. From 1959 to 1960, CORONA experienced 13 failed mission attempts. The CIA, Air Force, and industry endured and kept trying through all the disappointments.

Their persistence paid off. The first successful recovery of film from space occurred on August 18, 1960. It took less than two years to get to this point.

CORONA’s first successful flight certainly made its mark in history by:

  • Collecting 3,000 feet of film; and
  • Covering 1,650,000 square miles of Soviet territory.

In its debut, the CORONA acquired more overhead photographic coverage than all of the U-2 flights over the USSR to that date.

CORONA also accomplished a number of firsts, including:

  • Recovering an object from orbit;
  • Employing multiple reentry vehicles;
  • Passing the 100 mission mark; and
  • Producing stereoscopic space imagery.


Looking Behind the Iron Curtain

What did all of this new intelligence tell policymakers? That the Soviets had greatly exaggerated their military capabilities. There was, indeed, a missile gap, but it was sharply in favor of the United States.

From then on, there was an explosion of intelligence data. In fact, CORONA’s success profoundly altered the course of the Cold War and was probably instrumental in keeping the United States back from the nuclear threshold.


Sharing History with the Public

From the beginning, the CORONA project was classified and known only to the public as the U.S. Air Force’s Discoverer program. In February 1995, with approval from President Bill Clinton, the project was finally declassified and shared with the public.


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Posted: Aug 19, 2010 09:50 AM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:39 PM