Kodiak Tracking Station

 Code name: Corona. (first US spy satellite)

The weekend before Thanksgiving in 1959, Walter Levison, project manager on 
a top-secret U.S. spy-satellite program, drove to meet renowned inventor 
Edwin Land at his summer home in Peterborough, N.H., to deliver the bad 
news. Levison, who remembers it as the blackest moment of his life, didn't 
mince words. The highly classified government program was on the ropes, 
beset by seemingly insurmountable technical problems. Land, developer of 
instant photography and the head of an intelligence advisory committee that 
was secretly guiding the project, would have to relay word to President 
Eisenhower that the program would need to "stand down."

"It's hard to imagine the pressure we felt," says Levison, now 77, furrowing 
his thick gray eyebrows. In that brief exchange on that bleak New Hampshire 
day, he felt like he was letting the country down, much to his humiliation 
and frustration. So with Land's approval Levison decided that the team would 
redouble its efforts for three months in one last push to launch the nation's 
first spy satellite into space.

In those next months Levison and his chief engineer Frank Madden would often 
sleep in the milk factory in Needham, Mass., that, under the innocuous sign 
of the optical firm Itek, concealed the secret project. "During that period 
we hardly ever left the laboratory," Madden recalls. "People were working 
around the clock." Neither man could ever explain to his family why he spent 
so many nights and weekends away. 

The program was forging ahead amid an air of near desperation over the Soviet 
Union's perceived lead in space after the launching of Sputnik, the world's 
first satellite, in 1957. "As it beeped in the sky," Eisenhower's science 
adviser James R. Killian would write later in his memoirs, "Sputnik created a 
crisis of confidence that swept the country like a windblown forest fire." 
Bellicose as ever, Edward Teller, father of the recently developed hydrogen 
bomb, maintained on television that, by falling behind the Soviets in space, 
the United States had "lost a battle more important and greater than Pearl 

(The Unites States hadn't lost the battle.  We had project Corona.)  Kodiak 
Tracking station played a major part in the command control and tracking of 
the corona satellites.  The Station title was:
     Air Force
     Satellite Control Facility
     Kodiak Tracking Station

"Faith in American technological superiority has been shaken," Newsweek's 
cover story announced as it trumpeted a new age of vulnerability. Indeed, 
while many people were preoccupied with Sputnik, Eisenhower and his advisers 
worried more about the powerful SS-6 launcher that had flung the satellite 
into orbit. The Soviets could clearly use the same launchers to send a 
ballistic missile hurtling thousands of miles.  And, sure enough, the 
Soviets soon demonstrated this very capability months later in August of 
1957, testing an intercontinental ballistic missile believed to rival U.S. 

To reduce fears on both sides, Eisenhower had proposed a sweeping Open Skies 
plan in 1955 that would allow overflights of military installations inside 
the superpowers' borders, but Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev had curtly 
rebuffed him.  Now, two years later, as fear of Soviet intentions grew, 
Eisenhower made gathering information a top priority.  "The country was 
starved for intelligence on the Soviet Union at that time," Levison says. 
"Very little information was coming out."  The government's vaunted U-2 
high-altitude spy plane could provide only narrow "spot" reconnaissance of 
known targets, and President Eisenhower saw it as a risky tool even before 
the Soviets shot down Gary Powers's mission over USSR territory in 1960.

At this pivotal moment, Land's high-level advisory panel had thus persuaded 
Eisenhower of the need for more photographic surveillance.  "We must find 
ways to increase the number of hard facts upon which our intelligence 
estimates are based, to provide better strategic warning, to minimize 
surprise in the kind of attack, and to reduce the danger of gross 
overestimation of the threat," the panel urged the president.  "If we are 
successful," Land reportedly assured Eisenhower, "it can be the greatest 
intelligence coup in history."

Taking the advice to heart, the administration dispatched Levison and Madden 
as part of a highly skilled network of teams to tackle the top-secret 
project code-named Corona.  The teams' mission was unprecedented: to build 
and launch a series of orbiting satellites equipped with high-resolution 
earth undetected cameras designed to photograph Soviet Territory and eject 
film canisters.  And the mission's results endure: the supposedly temporary 
Corona would become the backbone of the government's intelligence-collection 
system for more than a decade, and evolve into the secret satellite 
reconnaissance program that exists to this day.

Feverish Origins

Looking back, Madden still finds the challenges daunting. The cameras that 
formed the heart of the project had to be rugged enough to survive the shock 
of a launch and steady enough to provide sharp images while traveling at 
17,000 miles per hour.  Radio control from earth would advance the camera's 
film, which then would eject from the spacecraft and parachute into the 
earth's atmosphere for retrieval.  And - Madden savors it like a punch line 
- the teams had to develop such an audacious system at a time when no one in 
the United States had yet succeeded in launching anything into orbit.

While Levison, Madden, and their team forged ahead on developing the camera, 
parallel teams across the country tackled other challenges. In California, 
for example, Lockheed's Missiles and Space Division was attempting to build 
the actual orbiting vehicle, code-named Agena.  Douglas Aircraft was 
responsible for modifying Thor rockets, developed initially as 
intermediate-range ballistic missiles, for the job of thrusting the Corona 
satellites into polar orbit - selected to provide maximum photographic 
coverage as the earth turned on its axis.  A secret group at General 
Electric provided the recovery vehicle, gold plated as a shield against 
radiation and insulated against the heat of reentry into the atmosphere.  
Eastman Kodak supplied a novel form of film and performed the processing.

Each group faced unique challenges. The film-retrieval plan called for 
dispatching a squadron of six cargo planes, each equipped with a 
trapeze-like loop hanging beneath it, to the vicinity of the ejected capsule 
as it parachuted to earth.  Detecting the capsule's radio beacon and 
sighting its descending orange canopy, the pilots would fly the cargo planes 
across the top of the parachute and hook onto it while crew inside the 
plane's bay yanked the capsule aboard with a winch.  If the airborne feat 
failed, Corona's recovery vehicle was designed to float long enough for 
recovery from the ocean by helicopter launched from a nearby ship.

At the time of Levison's visit to Land, the project had met with seemingly 
unending frustrations during a year of breakneck work.  Despite numerous 
unsolved problems, the program had recently attempted eight launches, as 
though engineers were trying to will the complex new technology into orbit. 
All eight attempts to launch a functioning spy satellite had failed.  Four 
did not even achieve orbit.  One craft that did blew up as it tried to eject 
the film capsule, and all the other capsules were either destroyed or lost 
through major mishaps.  And, as on-board instrumentation revealed, none of 
the Levison team's cameras functioned for more than a few brief moments 
before the embrittled film cracked - as team members would curse it - "like 
autumn leaves" in the low- temperature vacuum of space.  Indeed, although no 
one, least of all Levison, wanted to admit defeat, the cracking film problem 
was so vexing that it threatened to derail the whole venture.

Back from the Brink

In fact, driving back from New Hampshire to the secret lab in Needham, 
Levison could scarcely dream that just nine months later, on the fourteenth 
attempt, a satellite would finally pierce the Iron Curtain.  Successfully 
ejecting film containing images of some 1.5 million square miles of Soviet 
and Eastern European territory, the first satellite would offer more 
coverage than four years of flights by the nation's high-flying U-2 spy 
planes, thus providing vital intelligence information about the USSR's 
nuclear arsenal.  The Corona program would, in fact, turn out to be not just 
the first but also the longest and arguably the most successful space 
program in the nation's history.

Ultimately 121 Corona satellites would orbit the earth between 1960 and 
1972, taking some 800,000 pictures on 2.1 million feet of film.  And image 
resolution became acute: prints could clearly depict a 5-foot object on the 
ground.  Only the advent of satellites relying on digital video technology 
that could beam high-resolution visual data to earth in real time would 
displace Corona's photographic system.

Corona launch information

List of Corona launches (use BACK to return to here)

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