Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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CORONA Program

The first successful reconnaissance satellite program operated by the United States, providing photographic coverage of otherwise denied areas, especially in the Soviet Union. The corona program grew out of an earlier U.S. Air Force program known as WS-117L.

The U.S. Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) collaborated in developing the corona system, and in 1961 the U.S. government placed this collaborative effort under the covert National Reconnaissance Office, which reported to the secretary of defense and controlled the developing reconnaissance satellite programs. During the first few years of the program, as part of the cover story involving scientific research missions, the U.S. government publicly identified the system as discoverer. Additionally, a number of the early launches of the Thor intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) rocket with an Agena second-stage vehicle did carry scientific payloads.

The corona reconnaissance system captured images on film and returned the film from orbit in a capsule—referred to as a bucket—that was captured in midair by an aircraft as the bucket descended by parachute. After a series of partial or complete failures beginning in January 1959, the first successful corona mission, publicly identified as discoverer XIV, was flown on 18 August 1960. In August 1964, system capability was enhanced with the addition of a second film-return canister, allowing more complicated missions and a more timely return of imagery. The corona system provided an effective means of photographic intelligence collection, helping ensure that the United States was not surprised by technical developments, new combat capabilities, or force deployments. The reconnaissance photography also provided important material for military planning and the development of accurate maps. The last corona mission, the 145th launch, was flown in May 1972. In 1995, corona imagery was declassified and made available through the National Archives and the U.S. Geological Survey for use in environmental research.

Jerome V. Martin


Further Reading
Peebles, Curtis. The CORONA Project: America's First Spy Satellites. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997.; Ruffner, Kevin C. CORONA: America's First Satellite Program. Washington, DC: Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 1995.
 

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