CORONA: The First Recovery of Film from Space
It’s hard to imagine a world without Google maps or satellite imagery. But more than 50 years ago, satellite photoreconaissance technology was a mystery that a small team of CIA, Air Force and private-industry personnel were tasked to investigate.
Their project, codenamed CORONA, was to provide broad imagery coverage of the USSR to identify missile launch sites and production facilities. President Dwight D. Eisenhower formally endorsed CORONA in February 1958.
August 18th marks the 52nd anniversary of CORONA’s first successful recovery of film from space in 1960. This success revolutionized the business of intelligence by providing the US with more photographic coverage of the Soviet Union than all of the U-2 flights together had. The imagery covered more than 1.5 million square miles of Soviet territory—an area about 2.5 times the size of Alaska.
The Historical Context of CORONA
CORONA’s achievement came during the height of the Cold War, when U.S. policymakers were concerned about the likelihood of a surprise nuclear attack from the Soviet Union.
The intelligence derived from CORONA’s photoreconnaissance showed that the Soviets had made exaggerated claims about their military capability. In fact, CORONA’s success profoundly altered the course of the Cold War and was probably one of the key factors in preventing a nuclear war.
The Full Import of CORONA
From its beginning, the CORONA project was known to the public only as the U.S. Air Force’s Discoverer program. In February 1995, with approval from President Bill Clinton, the project was declassified and released to the public. During a press conference at that time, former CIA Director Richard Helms said CORONA filled a critical gap: “The full import of [CORONA] can be comprehended only if we recall the primitive nature of our understanding of space technology and the critical need for hard intelligence information which existed at that point in time.”
The quote from Director Helms and the picture on the left come from a 1995 film produced by the CIA called A Point In Time. The film tells the behind-the-scenes story of how and why the CORONA program was created, as well as the declassified account of how the satellite was built and the challenges that ultimately led to its history-making success.
A Point In Time Highlights
If you don’t have time to watch the full film, here are a few highlights:
- At 12:30, John Wolfe—the ITEK/CORNA Program Manager—explains the advanced technology behind the CORONA lens.
- At 21:30, the narrator shares a few comical moments from CORONA’s testing.
- At 27:40, the film features the first aerial recovery of a satellite.
- At 37:50, John Wolfe shares an insider’s perspective on the impossibility of the task the CORONA team faced.
To learn more about the CORONA project, please see the following publications and video: