ASK OCE — February 23, 2007 — Vol. 2, Issue 2
This Week in NASA History
NASA launched the reconnaissance satellite Discoverer 1
for the U.S. Air Force on February 28, 1959.
The top-secret Discoverer program was code named "Corona" and was run by the U.S. intelligence community. Discovery 1 was a non-imaging test flight to verify technologies that would evolve into the world's first photographic reconnaissance satellite program.
The Corona, along with the Argon and Lanyard satellites that followed, were designed to assess the growth and scope of the Soviet Union's long-range bombers and ballistic missile programs. The voluminous photographic coverage of the world was also used by the Department of Defense and other government agencies for mapping purposes.
The Corona satellites used film canisters — so-called "buckets" — that were returned to Earth for analysis. The satellite capsules were specifically designed to be recovered from midair during their parachute descent by special boom-equipped aircraft. The capsules were also able to float for the purposes of ocean recovery. The vast majority of the film was black-and-white, with a few small samples of experimental infrared and color film carried on some missions.
The last Corona launch took place May 25, 1972. The project was abandoned after a Soviet submarine was detected waiting below a Corona mid-air retrieval zone. For five years — from 1966 to 1971 — the Corona program experienced 32 consecutive successful launch-and-film-recoveries.
The Discovery/Corona program operated for nearly twelve years, taking over 800,000 images from Earth orbit, and returning 2.1 million feet of film in 39,000 film buckets.
In addition to being the first photo reconnaissance satellite in the world, the Corona was also the first spacecraft to be recovered form mid-air, the first mapping of Earth from space, and the first reconnaissance program to fly 100 missions.