CIA: A world without Google Maps or satellites?

CIA notes pictures from world’s first imaging recon. satellite were declassified 20 years ago this month.

National Archives

The CIA today noted an interesting anniversary – it was 20 years ago this month that the world was first “officially” introduced to the first imaging reconnaissance satellite, codenamed Corona.

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Developed in the late 1950s Corona’s exact role, that of taking pictures of eastern Europe, the USSR and Asia was classified, but Americans knew of its existence as the U.S. Air Force’s Discoverer program, which the government called a space research system.

“It’s hard to imagine a world without Google maps or satellite imagery, but when Corona was developed in the 1950s, satellite photo-reconnaissance didn’t exist,” the CIA wrote. “During its operational life [1959-1972], Corona collected over 800,000 images in response to the national security requirements of the time. On average, individual images covered a geographic area on the Earth's surface of approximately 10x120 miles.”

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Corona also had sister programs: Argon for mapping imagery and Lanyard, a short-lived program designed for higher-quality imagery, the CIA stated.

The satellites had a rather unique way of getting their film back to Earth. The satellite would eject a space-hardened capsule containing can of film that would renter the atmosphere and be grabbed midair by a passing specially equipped aircraft. See the image:

cor25h National Archives

The Corona recovery system

 It wasn’t until February 24, 1995, Vice President AL Gore visited CIA Headquarters to announce Executive Order 12951, signed by President Bill Clinton, which declassified and released Corona, Argon and Lanyard imagery to the public.

"Satellite coverage gave us the confidence to pursue arms control agreements--agreements that eventually led to dramatic decreases in the number of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems,'' Gore said at the time. Gore also noted that satellites, "Recorded much more than the landscape of the Cold War. In the process of acquiring this priceless data, we recorded for future generations the environmental history of the Earth at least a decade before any country on this Earth launched any Earth resource satellites."

cor5h National Archives

Corona took a snapshot of the Pentagon, 1967.

Some of Corona’s biggest hits included:

  • 1st photo reconnaissance satellite in the world
  • 1st mid-air recovery of a vehicle returning from space
  • 1st mapping of earth from space
  • 1st stereo-optical data from space
  • 1st multiple reentry vehicles from space
  • 1st reconnaissance program to fly 100 missions
  • 1st reconnaissance satellite program to be declassified
  • Imaging resolution was originally 8 meters (25 feet), but improved to 2 meters (6 feet)
  • Individual images on average covered an area of approximately 10 miles by 120 miles
  • Operated for nearly 12 years
  • Over 800,000 images taken from space
  • Collection includes 2.1 million feet of film in 39,000 cans
  • Itek Corporation designed Corona’s spaceborne cameras. Lockheed Missile and Space Corporation developed the upper stage and served as the integrator for the program. Eastman Kodak furnished film.

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