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CORONA was a classified effort within the Air Force's Weapon System 117L (WS-117L), awarded to Lockheed in 1956. As the program from which all space reconnaissance evolved, WS-117L is best understood in relation to earlier programs. < 1 >

In the early years of the Eisenhower administration, concern gave way to alarm as intelligence sources revealed several Soviet technical accomplishments that for the first time put American soil at risk of a nuclear surprise attack, including: test of a hydrogen bomb in 1953; operation in 1955 of the BISON bomber; and hints of a ballistic missile program. As Soviet expansionism increased, Soviet homeland activities became increasingly secretive, eliminating the reassurance a nation normally obtained from knowing, day-to- day, what another nation was doing.

Rejection of a 1955 initiative to exchange military installation blueprints with regular aerial photographs of each site led Eisenhower to conclude that "Khrushchev's own purpose was evident--at all costs to keep the USSR a closed society." Such an intention was a call to action. "When the Soviets rejected Open Skies . . . I conceded that more intelligence about their war-making capabilities was a necessity." < 2 >

Following the rebuff, Eisenhower, on December 27, 1955, authorized a project of camera-carrying balloons called GENETRIX. Flying at altitudes of up to 90,000 feet, the balloons drifted across the Soviet land mass, photographing areas of interest, then were recovered in mid-air over the Pacific ocean. Flights began on January 22, 1956, and were continued until February 24 with 516 releases. The operation was discontinued because of vigorous Soviet objection.

Intelligence gathering resumed as the U2 aircraft began operation on July 4, 1956, though sparingly and discreetly until May 1, 1960, when Francis Gary Powers was shot down during a flight from Pakistan to Norway. When the President decided to cancel additional aircraft overflights, the U.S. was, once again, "blind."< 3 >

In 1957, the USSR took the lead in the space race with an August flight of an intercontinental ballistic missile, causing dismay since the U.S. had suffered five highly publicized missile test flights that year, all failures. Immediately after the Soviet success, the expression "missile gap" came into use. The scope of national anxiety was reflected in Eisenhower's statement that "there was rarely a day when I failed to give earnest study to reports of our progress and to estimates of Soviet capabilities." < 4 >

The USSR placed the first satellite, Sputnik, in orbit on October 4, 1957. One month later, Sputnik II was launched, with a live dog as passenger. The U.S. responded by launching the Navy's Vanguard satellite in early December, which in full television view of the American public, malfunctioned and was destroyed by fire on the launching pad.

Amid the turmoil, U.S. Defense Secretary Neil H. McElroy authorized the acceleration of WS-117L to proceed "at the maximum rate consistent with good management." < 5 > Five earlier achievements made satellites now possible: (1) availability of the Thor booster in 1957; (2) development of the Agena spacecraft for housing and operating payloads; (3) reentry vehicles developed for ballistic missiles that could shield the payload's fiery return to Earth; (4) an improved GENETRIX-model camera for satellite use; and (5) GENETRIX- proven equipment and techniques for retrieval of payloads.

The need for WS-117 was outlined in 1954 by Air Force General Operational Requirement No. 80. A government board in March 1956 recommended selection of Lockheed's proposal and a letter contract issued on October 29 made Lockheed the prime contractor for WS-117L. On January 1, 1957, Lockheed established its first Space Systems organization in Palo Alto, California, which was later moved to Sunnyvale.


The late 1950s were driven by a space reconnaissance imperative. To protect this development, Air Force WS-117L program manager Col. Frederic C.E. Oder presented the system as an Air Force scientific satellite project known as Discoverer. As a precursor to later spacecraft designs, Discoverer fell under overall cognizance of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with the Air Force's Western Development Division, commanded by Major General Bernard A. Schriever, retaining technical management responsibilities. < 6 >

Conversion of WS-117L into a scientific satellite program was briefed to President Eisenhower at the White House in February 1958. Owing to the extreme sensitivity of the subject, details were furnished orally. It was explained that CORONA would orbit the earth three times, taking pictures as it passed over the Sino-Soviet bloc, and then would de-orbit the film capsule. It was of utmost importance to protect this project as the satellite cameras would only be able to discern objects 50 to 100 feet on a side. This being the case, it would be easy for the Soviets, if they learned about the project, to build dummies that could fool the satellite cameras; therefore, it was of paramount importance to keep them from learning it.

The President indicated the CIA should have exclusive control of the intelligence phases of the operation. He said only a handful of people should know about it. In a follow-up meeting Eisenhower said "emphatically that he believed the project should be centered in the new Defense space agency, doing what CIA wanted them to do." < 7 >

Following this meeting, the program was revised to include a Thor-Hustler upper stage (later known as the Lockheed-designed Agena satellite vehicle). White House endorsement of the effort, coupled with acceptance by the CIA of the approach, enabled CORONA to press forward. < 8 >

Additional factors leading to CIA involvement were its ability to contract with industry for expeditious procurement; the ability to maintain effective security; and the desire of the CIA to orient the program toward the collection of priority intelligence.


CORONA 1960 - 1972  First Photo Reconnaissance Satellite

In 1959, WS-117L was renamed SENTRY. This effort was then divided into three sub-programs: Discoverer, MIDAS and Sentry. Soon after, the program SENTRY was renamed Samos. < 9 > By 1960, SENTRY encompassed: Discoverer (CORONA) for film recovery visual reconnaissance; Samos Projects 101A (E2) and 101B (E5) for, respectively, readout high magnification visual surveillance and film recovery high magnification visual reconnaissance; Samos Program 201 (E6) for film recovery high magnification visual reconnaissance; and MIDAS, an infrared sensor that was the precursor to today's Defense Support Program (DSP) program to detect missile launch and bomber movement.

Samos was terminated (Projects 101 in 1961 and Program 201 in 1962) as CORONA achieved increasing success. Yet throughout its early years, Samos was reported extensively as the key spy satellite that keeps "this Nation informed of vital military installations and build-ups behind the Iron Curtain."< 10 > So replete was the confusion that Discoverer was viewed as a mask for Samos capsule retrieval, serving to reinforce thinking that a space reconnaissance system meant large organizations with broad, discernible activities--the antithesis of the CORONA program. < 11 >

To assemble CORONA into operationally-ready satellites, a work area was leased on April 1, 1958 in Menlo Park, California. Within Lockheed, few questions arose since CORONA was compartmented: most workers engaged in a single, segmented phase of the vehicle-assembly process; as of 1963, well into regular CORONA operation, only four people in Lockheed were briefed to the entire CORONA program. CORONA was moved to Lockheed's Sunnyvale, California, plant in 1969.


Lockheed served as technical adviser and integrator of all CORONA equipment other than the Thor booster, developed the orbiting Agena upper stage, and integrated and led the test, launching and on-orbit control operations.

Agena, a space vehicle produced on an assembly line, was the heart of CORONA and other military and NASA satellite systems. < 12 > Mated to a rocket booster, Agena consisted of a three-axis gyro guidance and control system with correction inputs from horizon sensors that enabled precise cold-gas valve firings; an electrical system with six one-hour batteries; a telemetry, command and tracking system; a recovery system of a thermally protected reentry capsule with a retro-rocket, cold-gas spin-stabilized attitude control system, power supply, telemetry link and acquisition beacon, sequence timer and parachute; and a propulsion system utilizing a Bell rocket engine delivering 16,000 pounds thrust for orbit injection.

A vertical-looking, reciprocating, 70-degree panoramic Itek camera exposed the Eastman Kodak film by scanning at right angles to the line of flight. Integrated into the three-axis stabilized Agena, CORONA's first camera used a 24- inch focal-length, f/5.0 Tessar lens with image-motion compensation. Resolution in the early years was in the range of 35 to 40 feet. The imagery was by air catch following ejection in orbit by a sequence timer of the General Electric reentry capsule containing the film. Water recovery was used a backup.

By 1972, CORONA delivered resolutions of six to 10 feet, routinely, as camera payloads matured. Early capsules carried 10 to 16 pounds of film; toward the end of the program they carried 80 pounds (16,000 feet). In the 1970s, flights could remain on orbit for 19 days, provide accurate attitude, position, and mapping information, and return coverage of 8,400,000 nm2.

Agena became so successful that it was invoked in 1961 as a standard on other government programs. Last flown in 1987, Agena's world record 362 launches was achieved with an overall success rate exceeding 90 percent and a peak launch rate of 41 launches in one year.


Launches 0-38 were called Discoverer, with the first attempt on January 21, 1959 -- one year after program go- ahead. The flight was aborted by premature ignition of ullage rockets on Agena, after which President Eisenhower conferred with Richard M. Bissell personally. < 13 > Discoverer I, launched on February 28, established an orbit with an apogee of 605 miles and perigee of 99 miles. Though no capsule was carried, it was deemed a success, and constitutes Lockheed's first satellite in space.

Following its April 13 launching, Discoverer II ejected its capsule halfway around the earth from the planned recovery zone. At the time, Air Force Lt. Col. Charles "Moose" Mathison (who was not CORONA cleared), served as Vice Commander of the 6594 Test Wing which operated the control facilities for Air Force satellite programs. Mathison flew to the impact area to make a ground and air search, and though no capsule was found, CORONA managers had little worry: the capsule carried mechanical mice, electronic devices to record biomedical effects data.

Discoverers III and IV, launched on June 3 and June 25, failed to reach orbit velocities because of inadequate Agena thrust. Eisenhower began asking the Director of Central Intelligence, Allan W. Dulles, for explanations. After Discoverers V and VI failed in August, flights were grounded for exhaustive tests which found technical weaknesses in the reentry subsystem being exposed to temperatures lower than for what it was designed, and problems in electrical power, telemetered information, tracking, separation sequence and capsule stability. An independent report on September 8 urged the program be halted for further study, and led to conclusions that Lockheed had been overconfident and that the Agena and capsule section were not instrumented adequately. In response, Lockheed increased satellite battery output and instrumented the recovery capsule more elaborately.

The next two Discoverer flights, on November 7 and 20, experienced subsystem and camera malfunctions. After two months of corrective engineering, Discoverer IX and X suffered booster complications on February 4 and February 19, 1960. Discoverer X was destroyed during its climbout, showering Vandenberg with debris.

By March, discussions resurfaced of canceling CORONA as discouragement grew. Air Force CORONA Program Director Col. Paul Worthman reminded people that problems were inevitable in a rushed and pioneering program. Bissell overturned the cancellation drive, deciding the activity should press on with renewed vigor.

On April 15, Discoverer XI went into orbit and the recovery system malfunctioned again, unfortunate, as it was the first perfect camera operation due to Eastman Kodak's change from acetate-base to polyester-base film. But the failure triggered a personal message from Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay, to Lockheed, urging "extraordinary corrective actions" and the personal attention of top Lockheed management to the elimination of defects in the system. < 14 > Lockheed conducted further tests in environmental chambers plus diagnostic flights in which the capsule would be instrumented specifically for recovery system telemetry. Discoverer XII climbed very briefly from the launch pad on June 29, with an erratic horizon sensor causing a nose-down position during separation of the Agena from the Thor booster.

Two circumstances in mid-1960 made the situation more tense. President Eisenhower canceled U-2 operations following the May 1 U-2 shootdown, putting the onus on satellites for reconnaissance. The second was the approaching maiden flight of the Samos readout reconnaissance satellite, a system attractive to a growing chorus frustrated with complicated CORONA recovery attempts.

During this time, it was theorized that the hot-gas spin rockets on the recovery vehicle were not igniting simultaneously and, instead of spinning the capsule like a football in flight, were causing it to cartwheel and to enter unintended orbits, rather than return to earth. Lockheed designed a cold-gas spin-stabilized rocket system that was retrofitted into the vehicles. The use of these rockets was a major contributor to future NASA and military space capsule and object recovery.

Because of heavy pressure for success, the launching of Discoverer XIII on August 10 took on great importance. The satellite was inserted into orbit, with the recovery vehicle ejecting on revolution 17. Capsule separation, retrofire and reentry were nearly perfect, with the predicted impact point very close to plan. Communication confusion between the air recovery teams caused the capsule to splash down in the sea, where it was retrieved by helicopter and deposited on the deck of the Haiti Victory recovery ship on August 12. "Capsule recovered undamaged," was the terse message across cryptographic lines to Washington, D.C. < 15 >


A plan laid down 18 months earlier called for the surreptitious exchange of the capsule for a dummy, shortly after return to California, with shipment of the real capsule to the East Coast. These necessary precautions would preclude examination of the real capsule's film-entry aperture.

Although Discoverer XIII had no camera, the first recovery was planned as a full dress rehearsal for the handling of a real CORONA capsule. Unknown to all involved though, "Moose" Mathison (not briefed on CORONA), had a different plan.

Mathison believed that the first Discoverer success would offer an opportunity for media exposure of Air Force space programs and attention on the fine work being done by his friend General Schriever (who now headed Air Force Systems Command and also led the Air Force CORONA effort). On August 12, Mathison landed by helicopter on the flight deck of the Haiti Victory and assumed charge.

After arranging to have the Commander of the Pacific Air Force meet him at the dock for press photos, Mathison transferred the capsule to a C-130 aircraft and began a flight to Sunnyvale, California. While airborne, he passed the time by breaking into the capsule, which he found to be almost empty. He sent a message to General Ritland and the president of Lockheed in Sunnyvale to meet him for another photo shoot.

The next day, Mathison and the capsule landed at Andrews Air Force Base for more photographs, this time with General Schriever and the Chief of the Staff of the Air Force. A White House ceremony was set for August 15.

Thus a capsule which was to have been returned discreetly to Sunnyvale, made noisy progress to the White House, where President Eisenhower hailed it as "historic." It continued to attract attention for months after Mathison released it, being displayed throughout the country, and finally coming to rest in the Smithsonian Institution where a plaque has read:

"The Discoverer program was initiated to develop satellite reconnaissance capability. Early missions in the Discoverer series were plagued with failures. It was not until the launch of Discoverer XIII in 1960 that the program achieved its first success. The Discoverer XIII reentry vehicle was the first spacecraft to be returned and recovered from orbit. Discoverer satellites later photographed Soviet ballistic missile launch sites, enabling better determination of the actual number of such missiles." < 16 >

Mathison's efforts single-handedly documented the innocent nature of a U.S. space capsule, as it contained nothing noxious--no bomb, no camera, no leaflets--just one American flag. After the successful flight of Discoverer XIV on August 18, and recovery in mid-air of its capsule, the first CORONA film was quietly couriered under a more effective system.

Reaction to the film was unbridled jubilation. Photo interpreters called it "terrific, stupendous," and "we are flabbergasted." Imagery of more than 1,650,000 nm2 (square nautical miles) of Soviet territory had been acquired. Resolution was estimated at 55 lines per millimeter, with ground objects ranging upwards from 35-foot dimensions identifiable. < 17 >

After President Eisenhower saw the photography from this flight, he let it be known that he wanted everything about the "take" kept secret, to avoid affronting the Soviets. As this comment passed down the chain of command, his cautionary words were translated and amplified into "Destroy the capsule." So the capsule was literally beaten to pieces and disposed of.


On the basis of photography from Discoverer XIV, the missile gap theory of 1959-60 was debunked (owing to CORONA's exceptional sensitivity, however, this information was shared on a very strict basis). In an election year (1960) the missile gap became a grave political issue. < 18 >

| KH         | System  | Successful| Period of  | Amount of  | No. of     |
| Designator |         |  Mission  | Operations | Film       | Primary    |
|            |         |  Numbers  |            | (ft.)      | Camera     |
|            |         |           |            |            | Frames     |
| KH-1       | CORONA  | 9009      | June 1959  | 3,548      | 1,432      |
|            |         |           | -          |            |            |
|            |         |           | September  |            |            |
|            |         |           | 1960       |            |            |

The following table gives a listing of all missions organized according to mission number order. The statement "mission failed" is made under the mission description for missions that failed to acquire imagery.

| KH-1 Mission  | Date          | Short Mission Description            |
|               | Launched      |                                      |
| 9001          | 25-Jun-59     | Mission failed.  Failed to achieve   |
|               |               | orbit.                               |
| 9002          | 13-Aug-59     | Mission failed.  Power supply        |
|               |               | failure. No recovery.                |
| 9003          | 19-Aug-59     | Mission failed.  Retro rockets       |
|               |               | malfunctioned negating recovery.     |
| 9004          | 7-Nov-59      | Mission failed.  Failed to achieve   |
|               |               | orbit.                               |
| 9005          | 20-Nov-59     | Mission failed.  Eccentric orbit     |
|               |               | negating recovery.                   |
| 9006          | 4-Feb-60      | Mission failed.  Failed to achieve   |
|               |               | orbit.                               |
| 9007          | 19-Feb-60     | Mission failed.  Destroyed just      |
|               |               | after launch due to erratic          |
|               |               | attitude.                            |
| 9008          | 15-Apr-60     | Mission failed.  Attitude control    |
|               |               | system malfunctioned.                |
| 9009          | 18-Aug-60     | *First successful mission.  Cameras  |
|               |               | operated satisfactorily.             |
| 9010          | 13-Sep-60     | Mission failed.  Attained orbit      |
|               |               | successfully.  Capsule sank prior to |
|               |               | retrieval.                           |

Sources and Resources

1 Space reconnaissance is traditionally divided into categories. One is called "Search," and is dedicated to answering the question, "Is there something there?" CORONA was designed to photograph large contiguous areas in a single frame of film in order to answer that question. A second observation function is "Surveillance." Surveillance is required after one has decided that "There is something of interest there," and says "I want to continue to watch that something, learn more about it, identify it and classify it." In most cases, bona fide surveillance was beyond CORONA's capability.

2 Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, 1953-1956, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1963, pp. 522 and 483, respectively.

3 It turned out the United States had misjudged the performance characteristics and deployment pattern of the Soviet air-surveillance network: their radar promptly acquired and tracked the very first U-2 flight over Soviet territory.

4 Dwight D. Eisenhower, The White House Years: Waging Peace 1956-1961, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1965, p. 390.

5 Memorandum, D/Director R&D to DCS/D USAF, 13 November 1957.

6 Col. Oder (who became General Manager of Lockheed Space Systems in 1973), Gen. Schriever and Lockheed WS-117L manager James W. Plummer (who became Director of the NRO in 1973), were, with seven other colleagues, recognized as space pioneers in a 1989 Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

7 Memorandum of Conferences on 7 and 8 February 1958.

8 Basic authority for CIA conduct of overflight reconnaissance operations stems from National Security Council Intelligence Directive No. 5, which gave the CIA primary responsibility for the conduct of clandestine intelligence activities abroad. Collection by satellite was therefore considered to be within the responsibilities assigned to the CIA under the National Security Act of 1947, as amended.

9 Samos was named for a small Greek island where the astronomer Aristarchus lived (310-230 B.C.) referred to by Archimedes and Plutarch. It is not an acronym as commonly believed, though the press dubbed it "Space and Missile Observation System."

10 Los Angeles Times, "New Samos Sky Spy May Be Launched Soon," 16 October 1960.

11 Aviation Week and Space Technology, "Discoverer Becomes Satellite Test Bed," 25 September 1961; San Jose Mercury-News, "Top U.S. Space Project Product of S.C. Valley," 25 February 1962.

12 Maj. Gen. O.J. Ritland, Commander, Air Force Ballistic Missile Division, "Aerospace Power for National Security," before the Institute of Radio Engineers, 4 February 1960.

13 Bissell was charged with overall CIA responsibility for CORONA, and was the critical person who intervened at the White House to give the program time to move from failure to success.

14 Letter, Gen. C.E. LeMay to President, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, 25 April 1960.

15 Message 1352, 12 August 1960.

16 National Air & Space Museum, "Satellite Reconnaissance." Prescience from the Nation's archives?

17 Message 2804, R.M. Bissell to Maj. Gen. O.J. Ritland, 17 August 1960; memorandums on quality of take, 23 & 24 August 1960.

18 Vice President Richard M. Nixon was constrained from revealing that the missile gap, on which John F. Kennedy had earlier campaigned, was an illusion. Intelligence from the Discoverer XIV payload was digested two months before the election campaign ended. Kennedy, who had been made aware of the mission results, stopped talking about the missile gap. But some of his supporters did not, and Nixon's indirect assertions that there was no missile gap had little impact, because he had been saying this much earlier, when nobody really knew, and because he had subsequently adopted the policy of promising to enlarge the U.S. missile program in much the way Kennedy proposed.

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