The U.S.’s development of a viable satellite reconnaissance program proved a major challenge through much of the 1950s, with the first successful flight coming in 1960. Under development in the latter 1950s, Project CORONA eventually became a successful American reconnaissance satellite program.
Contracted to Lockheed, Glenn L. Martin Co., and RCA under the codename “Pied Piper” in 1955, by July 1956 the development plan for a covert CORONA spacecraft was approved that could overfly the Soviet Union and take images of military installations and other potential Cold War targets. This effort featured an Atlas booster with a spacecraft stabilized in orbit on three axes for high pointing accuracy of still cameras using film weighing thousands of pounds. At the same time it pursued television capabilities in a satellite later names Samos.
In the aftermath of the Sputnik crisis of 1957-1958, the DoD raised the priority of the reconnaissance satellite program and increased funding. Reassigned to the CIA with Richard Bissell Jr. leading the effort, the CORONA film reconnaissance approach raced to an early deployment. An Itek camera, built for the satellite, featured a twelve-inch focal length lens in a camera mounted on a three-axis stabilized satellite. It would take 70-degree wide photographic swaths with a resolution of 12 meters (40 feet) from an orbit with a perigee of about 190 kilometers (120 miles). As the camera’s acetate film was exposed, it would be fed into a return capsule at the top of the spacecraft. After a few orbits, a small solid-propellant recovery rocket could decelerate a recovery capsule into a reentry trajectory, a parachute would deploy, and the reentry vehicle would be snatched mid-air by a C-119 recovery plane.
CORONA progressed at a frantic pace in the latter 1950s, covering its activities with the ruse of the codename “Project Discoverer,” a test program to develop new technologies required for the study of the space environment, including biomedical experiments that had to be recovered from space. The reality was that this was all about satellite reconnaissance of the Soviet Union.
The first such test of this capability came on January 21, 1959, with the attempted launch of a Thor-Agena booster combination that failed on the launch pad. Additional tests had their problems as well, and it was not until Discoverer 13, launched on August 18, 1960, that the CORONA system reached orbit and then correctly returned its reentry vehicle containing photographs of the ICBM base at Plesetsk and the bomber base at Mys Schmitda in the Soviet Union. After this flight, CORONA became an operational mission and functioned through 1973 when it was succeeded by later generations of reconnaissance satellites.
In assessing the thirteen-year-long CORONA program, one can only call attention to the treasure trove of imagery that enabled much more intelligence analysis than ever before in the Cold War. Through six versions of progressively more sophisticated satellites, named KH-1 through KH-4B (KH stood for “Key Hole”), CORONA had 144 satellites launched, of which 102 returned usable imagery. An official history of CORONA concluded:
In the context of its operational utility, exploitation of technology, and enhancement of the nation’s fund of intelligence information, Corona had to be rated an outstanding success. Originally considered an interim system and assumed to have, at best, three of four years of operational utility, Corona remained the sole source of overflight intelligence for the United States for nearly five years, and was a primary source of basic information used to shape national defense policy for 12 years. Although designed as a search system, at the end Corona was providing better detail and resolution than several of the surveillance systems earlier touted to supplement it.
Throughout the 1960s the system provided critical data about Soviet military capabilities, among other things confirming that there was no missile gap as alleged in the 1960 presidential election with the United State trailing the Soviet Union in capability, offering early intelligence on the deployment of Soviet missiles to Cuba in 1962, and adding to understanding about the various conflicts in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Sino-Soviet border, and Central Europe. An appropriate conclusion: “In its years of service, Corona had identified and accurately located all operational Soviet ballistic missile sites. More need not be said.”
Of course, this capability with reconnaissance satellites rested on “freedom of space,” sometimes referred to as the “open skies” doctrine. While Eisenhower had pursued it aggressively previously, Sputnik helped establish the principle by going first into orbit over the United States without protest. In that regard the Soviet’s did “us a good turn, unintentionally, in establishing the concept of freedom of international space,” Defense Department official Neil McElroy stated to Eisenhower a few days after Sputnik’s launch in 1957. This made possible the development of reconnaissance satellites and their use throughout the cold war to ascertain what the Soviet Union was doing with its strategic forces. The same was true for the Soviet Union’s reconnaissance satellites overflying the U.S.
This enabled both sides to make decisions based on timely, accurate information. President Lyndon B. Johnson did not overestimate the importance of this technology in 1967 when he said that the U.S. probably spent between $35 and $40 billion on it, but “If nothing else had come of it except the knowledge we’ve gained from space photography, it would be worth 10 times what the whole program has cost.”