The Corona Project: America's First Spy Satellites
To quote the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), itself a product of CORONA, “The United States of America, confronted by the problem of a closed society, was once blind, but now it could see.”
I recently gave a software demonstration on the power of satellite imagery for persistently monitoring the activity of our “strategic competitors” (e.g., Russia and China). An Air Force general interrupted me to ask how exactly it was possible for the United States to fly assets over contested airspace without them getting shot down. In 2022, he was asking this question several decades too late, but I empathize with his sense of wonderment.
Satellites, particularly Earth observation satellites, are magical. They were magical when the U.S. government first launched them in 1958, they are magical now, and they will get more magical over time. It is one of the great ironies that as innovation in bits fuels innovation in atoms, increasingly sophisticated technology often seems less impressive because the inner workings become invisible. Remote sensing is a great example of this.1 I take it for granted that satellites today digitally downlink data to ground stations, but there was an epic era in Earth observation where satellites orbited for a few days before discharging and deorbiting a 40 pound film capsule with retro-rockets and parachutes. The falling capsule was then (hopefully) intercepted mid-air and recovered by an elite crew of fighter pilots turned parachute-catchers. This was the era of CORONA (no, the name did not age well).
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CORONA was a technology borne of the Cold War and the USSR’s Iron Curtain. The CIA-operated, Air Force-assisted program began in 1958 in direct response to Sputnik, and it notched its first success in 1960 when the first successfully recovered space capsule brought reconnaissance photos back to Earth.2 Over twelve years of operations, 165 Corona flights returned 145 capsules containing 866,000 frames of film. To quote the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), itself a product of CORONA, “The United States of America, confronted by the problem of a closed society, was once blind, but now it could see.”
Immense credit goes to President Eisenhower. While the almost 88% success rate is impressive, it belies the repeated early failures that would have made many presidents consider canceling the program. The first twelve launches failed in some form or another, with six of them never reaching orbit. For comparison, recall the infamous early history of SpaceX, where the company’s existence was contingent on finally reaching orbit on its fourth Falcon 1 launch attempt after the previous three had failed to do so. Part of Eisenhower’s commitment to seeing CORONA through was that the other reconnaissance options were both inferior and untenable. Eisenhower was extremely reluctant to approve U-2 flights, and for good reason, as his utmost fear was realized in the disastrous 1960 incident that delivered an American pilot to the Soviets. The predecessor to CORONA and U-2 was Genetrix, a balloon reconnaissance program that launched over 500 balloons during a month in 1956, with a small fraction of those balloons providing usable photos.3 The United States needed to know how many ICBMs the USSR had. The satellites had to work.
And once they worked, they really worked. Most importantly, CORONA provided the U.S. government with a precise inventory of Soviet ICBMs. This knowledge put the United States in a strong negotiating position during the 1961 Berlin Crisis. The success of CORONA also proved to President Nixon that satellite reconnaissance could be trusted as a verification method for the Arms Limitation Treaty (part of the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT)), a treaty to which he was unlikely to have committed had there been no way to check the Soviets. Less urgent but still important were the instances where CORONA revealed aspects of the Soviet ICBM and space program that otherwise would have been denied and perhaps lost to history. On the former, see the Nedelin catastrophe. On the latter, see the N1 rocket that was supposed to be the Soviet counterpart to Saturn V.
CORONA is documented in Curtis Peebles’, The Corona Project: America’s First Spy Satellites (1997). Given the gripping subject matter, it’s unfortunate how poorly Peebles relates it. Large sections of the book read like a long Wikipedia article, listing flight after flight without a proper narrative or compelling voice. He is considered the definitive author on this subject, and despite my negative commentary, he is still the best option for an independently published read of CORONA. However, the now-declassified and publicly available book-length history as told by the NRO is the better option. The lack of books on this subject is at least partially attributable to the intense secrecy around it, with declassification of CORONA not occurring until 1995. Still, almost 25 years later our best option is an out-of-print book reselling for $170. Where is the interest from today’s seasoned aerospace writers? I’m looking at you, Eric Berger.
While many satellite technologies and programs remain classified, there is a remarkable degree of openness in the industry that likely would have shocked the architects of CORONA. Where once pilots intercepted capsules from space without even knowing those capsules contained film, now photos of our revived Cold War rival are posted directly to Twitter as the Ukraine-Russia war evolves in real-time. This openness is in large part thanks to the commercial industry, where Planet and dozens of other companies have launched commercial birds into low Earth orbit. We have a front row seat to the complicated decisions that will determine how the U.S. government will divide up responsibilities among the NRO, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and U.S. Space Force (USSF) to buy commercial capabilities for enabling not just intelligence workflows but also the operational workflows now possible with increasingly timely and ubiquitous satellite collection. That’s a book I’ll want to read in 10 years.
Remote sensing is a fancy term that refers to acquiring information about an object without being in physical contact with it. The Department of Defense (DoD) and Intelligence Community (IC) use it to refer to the capabilities of satellites and aircraft.
It was operated by the CIA with significant support from the Air Force, a characteristically political arrangement; President Eisenhower didn’t want one of the military services operating CORONA due to the internecine DoD rivalries likely to result.
General Mills was the prime contractor for Genetrix. I was surprised to learn GM was previously part of the military-industrial complex before switching teams to the far less virtuous obesity-industrial complex.