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 Harbor." (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. missiles. 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.
List of Corona launches (use BACK to return to here)
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