Dropping Giant Rolls of Film From Satellites to Spy from Space


By Allison Kubo

More cold war science in case you enjoyed our last cold war science article: the atomic-powered-nuclear-weapon-silo-ice-sculpture. In 1958, the Central Intelligence Agency started project Corona, a top-secret mission to perform photographic surveillance of the Soviet Union. Of course, this is before digital cameras. Current digital cameras use charge-coupled devices (CCD) which an array of capacitors transfer the photons that hit them into electrical signals. Although the development of the CCD began only a year after Project Corona, it wasn’t until the 1970s that it was employed by the military for imaging. However, before digital cameras film, photographic emulsions were used. These work in a similar way, except the light, hits a crystal in the film and changes its orientation. After the film is exposed to light, it must be developed in various chemical baths to “fix” the film so that it can be examined.

The Corona Project consisted of a series of eight satellites launched from 1959 to 1972 which carried up to 3 miles worth of 75 mm film. After flying over the sites of interest the film canisters were dropped from 60,000 ft (18km). The film buckets had to have heat shielding to survive the stress of reentry. The early satellites returned 16 pounds of film and proved to be more safe and effective than U2 flights over the Soviet Union. The early missions were cloaked with secrecy and misdirection using “science” as a motivator. The film returned were “biological specimens”. And to increase deception and go along with public enthusiasm for space the Corona satellites were built to convey a monkey passenger. Many of the intrepid test subjects were killed in the experiment.

After many apes were sacrificed and finally some film successfully retrieved, the project was deemed TOP SECRET by President Kennedy in 1962. After an unfortunate incident involving an accidental landing on a Venezuelan farm, engineers on the project designed a mid-air retrieval. They caught the film mid-air using a claw on the underside of an airplane. In addition, they employed a salt plug which if not retrieved in time would dissolve and cause the capsule to sink assuming it landed in the ocean.

In 1985, more than 800,000 images were declassified by President Bill Clinton. These photos have provided an important record of climate change and social change since their capture in the 1960s. Many areas, such as the Middle East, have since undergone significant urban development and industrialization and the CORONA images are now freely available for study. We see several patterns emerging when we examine these missions: the shrouding of military operations in the name of “science” and said study actually benefiting from these operations.

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