Corona Comes in From the Cold

Aug. 16, 2008
The black-and-white photos are scratchy, with big, clumsy labels. Lumpy round craters caused by nuclear testing are visible in one; another shows neat geometric patterns formed by missile silos, perimeter roads, and security barriers—sure signs of a nuclear weapons facility.

These photographs resemble something the hero might produce in the latest Tom Clancy movie, but this is not Hollywood. The pictures are for real.

They are from Corona, the nation’s first spy satellite project. And although the reality they depict existed thirty-five years ago, the recently declassified pictures make a fascinating study for any student of technology, deception, and the path over which reconnaissance satellites traveled to become a modern tool of truth for the intelligence community.

On a cold day in February, Vice President Al Gore traveled from the White House to CIA headquarters in suburban Virginia to speak to a crowd of CIA workers and Washington VIPs. He had come to lift the veil of secrecy on Corona and announce that some 800,000 satellite images snapped by cameras flown on satellites in the Corona program between 1960 and 1972 would be declassified and released to the public.

At last, the story of the first US spy satellite program could be told, although by 1995 some of the key participants had died and the technical wizardry that enabled the return of high-resolution photos to Earth—special cameras to snap detailed pictures from 100 miles away, platforms that could speed through space without jittering, and return capsules that could survive reentry for secret recovery by aircraft or ships—now seems old hat.

Through the Iron Curtain

Corona was a broad spy satellite effort that entailed 130 launches. The program produced imagery from August 1960 to May 1972, though launches of the first Corona hardware began in January 1959. The satellites used a Thor booster topped by an Agena spacecraft to house the cameras and all the equipment needed to support them. The satellites were launched from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., into 100-nautical-mile-high orbits over the poles.

“Almost every phase of the program was pioneering,” said James W. Plummer, program manager for Corona at Lockheed, the prime contractor for the project.

To succeed, the Corona effort had to achieve a number of technological firsts. For the first time, engineers had to stabilize a satellite in three directions—a technique known as three-axis stabilization. It has since become routine for spacecraft, but in the 1950s it was not. The required orbital velocity had never before been reached, nor had reentry vehicles survived the hot trip back through the atmosphere to the ground. In addition, designers had to figure out how to build a camera that could operate remotely in the cold vacuum of space.

Agena included a Bell rocket engine with 16,000 pounds of thrust to propel the system into final orbit and a platform to carry the Corona payload. Unlike other early satellites that spun to stay stable, Agena used horizon sensors and cold-gas valve-thruster firings to correct its attitude and keep it steady. The ability to point from a stable platform while whizzing through space as the Earth rotated below was especially important if the camera were to get clear pictures.

The recovery system, supplied by General Electric, had a thermal protection system, retrorocket, cold-gas spin-stabilized attitude control system, power and telemetry gear, and a parachute. The capsules were intended to be caught by a recovery aircraft as they reentered the atmosphere, with water landing and recovery used as backup.

The cameras emerged from an earlier program called Genetrix, which used high-altitude balloons for spying on the Soviet Union. The earliest Corona cameras were built by Fairchild Camera & Instrument Corp. These were given the designation KH-1 and KH-2, and only five of the twenty that were launched produced usable images.

Corona program managers switched to Itek Corp. as the camera supplier, making five major design changes to improve the resolution and flexibility of the cameras.

The 70° panoramic Itek camera looked down at Earth, exposing the Eastman Kodak film by scanning at a right angle to the direction of flight. Corona’s resolution in the early years was thirty-five to forty feet (meaning that objects of that size could be detected in the photos) and was achieved using a twenty-four-inch-focal-length Tessar lens with image-motion compensation.

By the time the Corona program reached the end of its life in 1972, the resolution had improved to six to ten feet. The return capsules’ film cargo had increased from only ten pounds in weight to eighty pounds, corresponding to 16,000 feet of film. Each mission was able to stay aloft for nineteen days, returning images of 8.4 million square nautical miles of territory.

String of Failures

On January 21, 1959, the first Corona vehicle was launched under the designation Discoverer 0. The flight was aborted when the ullage rockets on the Agena upper stage prematurely ignited. The next mission, February 28, delivered the platform to an orbit of more than ninety-nine miles. Though no recovery capsule or camera was aboard, the mission was deemed a success.

Then began a string of failures and problems. Discoverer II, launched April 13, 1959, put its recovery capsule down on the wrong side of the planet. The next two missions, both in June, did not achieve their correct orbits because of inadequate thrust from the Agena engines.

President Eisenhower and Allen W. Dulles, director of the CIA, began to ask questions about the troubles. In August 1959, the next two missions also failed, resulting in the program’s being grounded for tests and changes. The Corona team found that the reentry system was being subjected to temperatures lower than its design minimum and was experiencing problems in subsystems.

Changes were made, and flights began again. The next two flights had system and camera problems, sending the team back for more engineering changes. In February 1960, Discoverers IX and X continued the string of failures. Destruction of the Discoverer X flight vehicle occurred during climb-out, raining debris on the Vandenberg launch site.

Cancellation of the program again became a subject of high-level discussion, but Corona managers convinced the higher-ups to keep trying.

On April 15, 1960, Discoverer XI made it into orbit. The camera worked, thanks to a new type of polyester-based Kodak film. Corona was almost there, but the recovery system malfunctioned this time. Lockheed and its government supervisors again felt rising pressure to fix the program. They heard directly from Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, who wanted positive results—and fast. More tests and more instruments were added.

Discoverer XII lifted off June 29, 1960. The Agena horizon sensor operated erratically, putting the spacecraft in the wrong position during separation from its booster, causing yet another Corona failure.

The technical problems were bad enough, but politics and competition from other space systems were increasing the pressure to get the satellites to produce intelligence information. Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 had been shot down just two months earlier, and now another US spy satellite system, Samos, was nearing first flight [Corona’s Code-Named Cousins, p. 87]. Corona managers needed a success.

Lockheed switched from using hot-gas spin rockets on the recovery vehicle to cold gas to address the possibility that the hot-gas rockets were making the vehicle cartwheel through space instead of spiraling like a football, as intended.

“Capsule Recovered Undamaged”

With the latest correction made, Discoverer XIII lifted off August 10. To the great relief of the Corona team, the mission flew into space and sent its recovery capsule back just as planned. On August 12, Maj. Ralph J. Ford, one of Corona’s program officers, wired an encrypted message to the CIA: “Capsule recovered undamaged.”

It was an unplanned water landing; the capsule had to be recovered from the Pacific 330 nautical miles northwest of Hawaii after the air recovery teams received confused communications on the reentry path. Except for that, Corona had finally performed exactly as planned. The flight did not carry a camera or film, so photos had yet to be taken, but the system had worked.

The effort took more than eighteen months and fourteen launches, but the nation’s first spy satellite system was finally close to starting operations.

“From Discoverer XIII on, it was smooth sailing,” said Mr. Plummer. “My trips to Washington up to that time had been very difficult because we were explaining failures to people who were really concerned but still supported it. After that, we were heroes going into town.”

On August 18, 1960, Discoverer XIV succeeded through all phases of the flight: liftoff, camera operations, reentry, and film recovery by the crew of a C-119 aircraft. Corona returned 1.65 million square nautical miles of imaged area to intelligence analysts with a single flight, practically sending the photo interpreters themselves into orbit with praise for the product, according to an internal Lockheed history of the work.

An intelligence treasure chest had been opened. Indeed, the Corona photos ultimately were to reveal all of the Soviet missile complexes, each class of Soviet submarine, a complete inventory of fighters and bombers, the presence of Soviet missiles in Egypt to protect the Suez Canal, Soviet nuclear assistance in China, antiballistic missile defense inside the Soviet Union, atomic weapons storage sites, Chinese missile complexes, air defense batteries, surface ship fleets, command-and-control facilities, and the Plesetsk Missile Test Range north of Moscow.

The U-2 flights had been able to cover one million square miles of territory in the Soviet Union; Corona produced photos of 510 million square nautical miles of Earth’s surface, some ninety-five percent of which was of foreign areas of intelligence interest.

The Genesis

The Air Force began the program that led to Corona in the mid-1950s, a few years before the actual spaceflights started. Lockheed started working as prime contractor on the system in 1956 under a classified program known as Weapon System 117L.

Two years earlier, the Air Force had established the need for the 117 program after intelligence information gained during the early years of the Eisenhower Administration indicated that the Soviets were moving fast in nuclear technology, creating a fear that the United States could be attacked by nuclear weapons. The Soviets tested a hydrogen bomb in 1953, began operating a strategic bomber in 1955, and were hard at work developing ICBMs.

In early 1956, the United States began to take photographs of Soviet territory using cameras aboard high-altitude balloons as part of the Genetrix program. The next step was to fly U-2 aircraft over the Soviet landmass. The U-2 flights went on secretly from July 4, 1956, until May 1, 1960, when Powers was shot down during one of the missions. President Eisenhower canceled U-2 overflights, and US ability to use overhead cameras to monitor the Soviet advances came to a temporary halt.

However, development of Corona and related systems was well under way. When Corona arrived on the scene, its first intelligence coup was to debunk the alleged “missile gap” that supposedly existed. The images from the system proved that the Soviets did not possess vastly higher numbers of missiles than the US.

Like all good spies, Corona had an alias. The Air Force decided to conduct the project under the cover story that it was a scientific satellite project, “Discoverer,” which was a real program supported by Air Force labs. The public was told that Corona’s launches and reentry capsules were used to develop and acquire biomedical data on animals. Mice were flown after the Air Force changed its plans to put rhesus monkeys into space when the Indian government objected. (The monkey is sacred in India).

The science project really existed, but its bigger purpose was to be a cover story to hide the real mission—satellite spying on the USSR. Corona’s operators did not want the Soviets to find out that spy cameras were aboard because the enemy then would be able to devise dummies on the ground to fool the cameras.

Mr. Plummer said talking with the press presented great difficulty because reporters would inquire deeply about the work, and while the managers did not want to lie, they often had to respond with no comment. Even worse for Mr. Plummer was when he had to brief a high-ranking Army research-and-development official who had no access to Corona but asked a lot of questions anyway. Few Pentagon officials were cleared for Corona. Mr. Plummer had to dodge the official’s questions.

“It turned out he was a friend of my boss,” recalled Mr. Plummer. “He called my boss when the briefing was over and said, ‘Who is this idiot you sent to Washington?’ ”

The deception worked well in some respects, allowing the program managers to acknowledge some things and deny others. Even within the project, only a few of the hundreds of people involved knew its true nature and scope.

When the first pictures were finally obtained, the quest for secrecy again was taken to extremes. President Eisenhower was shown the photos and was said to be so impressed that he ordered everything about the intelligence take to be kept secret so that the USSR would not object to the new technology.

Word was passed down the chain of command, and as in the child’s game of passing a whispered message around in a circle until it is garbled, the Corona hierarchy dutifully relayed “keep it secret” to the worker level, where it finally arrived as a command to “destroy the capsule.” The first real Corona capsule to bring back photos was beaten to pieces and thrown away.

Unique Management

To carry out the urgent, top-secret work, Lockheed developed new management methods and technology. The company says that reentry vehicle technology for Corona made NASA’s Apollo flights to the moon possible.

Mr. Plummer said that the core Corona crew was small, consisting of about thirty persons who worked on the payload. The team could ask the main engineers at Lockheed Missiles and Space to help with problems, as long as they were not specific about the mission. The total Lockheed work force on Corona eventually grew to about 300 people. Each subcontractor had roughly fifty people directly assigned.

The workers were given information only about their portion of the system, not about the whole program. If a problem occurred, the specialists were given general information about a failure and asked to work on it. Some problems were difficult to solve as a result: for example, thermal imbalance problems that centered on how to maintain an internal temperature using coatings outside.

“That was hard, because we couldn’t tell them what was inside the shell,” Mr. Plummer said. “It was a very high-pressure program. We didn’t have months to work on these things. We generally had to solve these problems in a very short time, usually a week.”

What the Corona team did—going from start-up to flight in a year, launching thirteen nonfunctioning missions in another eighteen-month period, and reengineering in a matter of days—is unheard of in today’s space program.

How did they do it

“The big difference is, we were a special-access program, provided by the rules of security,” said Mr. Plummer. “The model for what we did was [Clarence] ‘Kelly’ Johnson’s ‘Skunk Works,’ down at Lockheed. The Skunk Works had rules that the customer could only have a single person” with access to work at the factory, Mr. Plummer says. “We didn’t have it quite like that, but, other than Col. [Clarence] Battle [head of the Corona program office] and his small staff, we had no technical second-guessers in the program. They just said, ‘Here’s the money, here’s what we want to do. Go do the job, and do the best you can.’ ”

No outside agency, no congressional oversight from multiple committees, no Washington approval other than from the under secretary of the Air Force was needed. “It was a model of streamlined management,” Mr. Plummer said. “That’s why we could move so fast. We could make a decision at two o’clock in the morning and have the engineers designing the thing at eight o’clock in the morning and have it in the shop that afternoon.”

“We made some mistakes, of course,” he added.

For modern systems, more oversight is needed in part because the complexity of today’s satellites has grown, Mr. Plummer said. But a program like Corona could be done today if “the powers that be accepted streamlined management.”

Although many space programs try to streamline management to save money, Mr. Plummer said he sees nothing in today’s hardware programs that comes close to what Corona did in efficient management.

Corona also had unlimited budget authority, which undoubtedly helped the program to overcome its problems quickly. Although no official budget for the program has been released, John McMahon, a former top CIA and Lockheed manager, has said that the Corona program cost $850 million, which in today’s dollars would run into billions.

Lockheed established its Space Systems organization in 1957 in Palo Alto, Calif. As prime contractor for Corona, Lockheed’s role was central and set the stage for its subsequent success in producing intelligence satellites. The contractor integrated all Corona equipment from other contractors, developed the Agena system, and then conducted the mission from testing to on-orbit operations.

Several of the Air Force and industry managers who led the Corona program are deceased, while most of the others are retired. The program managers, Richard Bissell of the CIA and Air Force Brig. Gen. Osmund Ritland, died years ago.

Public tribute was finally paid to the Corona workers in late May at a symposium and reception in Washington, D. C., ending the long silence for the team members, who for thirty years had not been allowed to tell their families or friends about the role they played in the historic space program. Said Mr. Plummer, “It’s a relief to be able to talk to people [about Corona], including my own family, who never knew exactly what I was doing.”