Corona the world’s first spy satellite

The United States and the Soviet Union competed in the 1950s over who could more effectively track an adversary from the air. The race shifted from the stratosphere to space in 1957, when first the Soviets launched their first satellite, Sputnik, and eight weeks later the Americans launched Corona.

Officially, Corona was a scientific facility. But in reality it was equipped with a powerful Itek camera using special 7mm film from Eastman Kodak. The first Corona had only one of these cameras, while subsequent Coronas had two.

Large concrete crosses were placed in the Casa Grande desert area for the sole purpose of calibrating Corona’s cameras. Many of them are still in the desert today. The film was returned to the ground in a capsule called a „film bucket“. It was a sophisticated device adapted for flight in the atmosphere and fitted with a heat shield. At a certain altitude, the parachute on the capsule then opened, and the capsule landed comfortably on Earth.

Things didn’t always go to plan, once the capsule landed in Venezuela 500 kilometres from the capital Caracas. Local farmers found and opened the capsule. They gave the contents to their children to play with. The films were irretrievably destroyed. Inscriptions like „Top Secret“ on the capsule then appeared in the local press. From then on, the Americans stopped putting any writing on the capsules, so there was nothing to identify their capsules by.

The Corona program lasted a total of 13 years from 1959 to 1972. During that time, Corona took 800,000 images and mapped 520 million square miles of surface located mostly in the Soviet Union. They were able to locate Soviet submarines, launch silos, military bases and other facilities. Important, for example, were the discovery of Soviet missiles that had been handed over to Communist China as part of a cooperative effort, or secret missile bases also located in China. The programme was secret for 20 years, only declassified during Bill Clinton’s presidency.


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