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CORONA: The Original Spy Satellite Program

Written by Liam Bird

What would come to mind if I asked you to think of the word Corona? Demonetization, lockdowns, maybe you’d just think of the sun? Would you think of international intrigue and spies? Would you think of the depths of the Cold War? That is the topic of today’s MegaProject post; Corona, the world’s first spy satellite, America’s eye in the sky. 

Born out of Infamy

We start today’s MegaProject with a question. Why did America suddenly decide to launch a satellite into space with the sole purpose of gathering intelligence for military means? It should be stressed that this is no small means; up until Corona, space had pretty much only been used for scientific purposes. 


The short-term reason for the Corona program was a topic we have encountered many times before and will many times again, the Cold War. Specifically, the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Sputnik was the first man-made automated satellite humanity had ever launched into space and was launched by the Soviet Union primarily to show its dominance over the ‘decadent west.’ Sputnik was the end of an era in historical terms, no longer were the superpowers satisfied by strutting their stuff in a peacocking competition. They now had the means to measure their success by… the space race. If you’d like to learn more about the birth of the space race or humanity’s first satellite, then please go check out our MegaProject’s post on Sputnik.

Having said that, Sputnik was only the short-term cause of the Corona program. The precursor to Corona was approved by the American government a full year before Sputnik, in 1956. There are two reasons historians give to explain why Corona was approved. 

The first of these explanations was an event that would shape the remainder of world history, the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. Pearl Harbor would shape world history in more ways than one. Not only would Pearl Harbor be the event that dragged America into World War Two, but it shaped military strategy for not only the remainder of the war but is still used today. The surprise attack had demonstrated the strength in surprises in a brutal fashion. The American losses in the attack were small, the entire carrier fleet not being in port at the time. Despite this, the effect on American morale was catastrophic; the sleeping giant had not only been awoken but it had also been kicked in the nuts while it was asleep, and a crap had been taken in its cereal. However, this wasn’t the only way that the element of surprise was demonstrated to be valuable; as mentioned the Japanese attack had failed to catch the American carrier fleet by only a matter of hours. This attack demonstrated the importance in knowing where exactly your targets would be.

 In present times, we often hear of the failings of military intelligence, an idea that was birthed in the flames of Pearl Harbor. This was raised as one of the significant reasons for the Corona program, the idea that you could have the ability to take a picture of anywhere in the world at any moment. 

So, what was the second reason for the United States to militarise space? Well, as with almost all escalations in history it was born out of paranoia. Corona was approved in 1956, a time by which America had gained knowledge of the rumoured upcoming launch of Sputnik 1, and America was afraid.  They feared that the Soviets would place some dastardly unknown technology on the satellite and use it in some way to their military advantage. Up until now, space had escaped the blight of humanity( which was warfare) but America decided they could no longer afford this luxury with the upcoming Sputnik. 

Despite this belief, when Sputnik launched in 1957 it only contained a one-watt radio transmitting unit, designed to gather scientific information on the make-up of the ionosphere. Sputnik had not been some military masterpiece but rather a scientific marvel for the benefit of all of humanity. Regardless of this, the steps had already been put into motion. It was time to militarise space. 


The body of the United States military tasked with countering possible Soviet advancements in space was the Air Force.  Who quickly decided to refer to the RAND Corporation, the civilian-run think tank of the Air Force. This body began its discussion of how to weaponize space primarily due to the discovery of Soviet nuclear weaponry; which of course was only discovered by America after the Soviets had detonated nuclear weaponry. They wanted to be aware and prepared of the next surprise before it hit them next time. 

In 1956, America had heard whispers of the upcoming Sputnik program which began a whole new idea of how to combat the Soviets. As such, the Air Force approved the RAND conceived WS (weapon system) 117L in late 1956, a concept of satellites capable of returning pictures to earth using capsules. However, this program would not survive 1957.


1957 was a year of shock for America. Not only did the Soviet Union launch Sputnik 1, but they also launched their first-ever intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). These two events rang the death bell of the WS117L program; not because the American leadership felt that it would not work but because they felt it needed a bigger budget. 

As a result, both the Rand Corporation and the Air Force were removed from the leadership of the program. Instead, the Air Force was to assist the program’s new masters, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This was a circumstance virtually identical to the U2 spy plane which had been launched in 1956 and was the technology that Corona was designed to immediately replace. If you wish to know more about the world’s most well-known top-secret spy plane, then please go check out our MegaProject post on the subject. 

In early 1958, the WS117L program was officially shut down. Some of its leadership was transferred and all its early designs and technology were transferred to a classified location where they were rechristened as the project’s new codename, Corona. Initially intended to only last for a year, Corona would be a primary source of American intelligence for the next 14 years. 

At this point, you might wonder as to why this name was chosen? Is it indicative of the sun, the dominant solar entity within our local star system? Perhaps it is an example of the precognitive ability of the CIA? If you’re more conspiracy theory minded, then perhaps it was a warning? Well, no to all of those, the program was named Corona as the individual filling out the paperwork was not told what to name the program, so he named it after his typewriter’s brand “Smith-Corona.”

Development Begins

Now, if you’re a super-secret spy or an individual of at least average intelligence then I am sure you understand that when launching a super-secret spy satellite, you need to be able to pretend what you’re launching isn’t a super-secret spy satellite. Obviously, those ever-helpful agents at the CIA had remarkably little quarry with lying to the American public as to where their tax dollars were going. Formally the program known as the Discoverer was christened in 1958; a biomedical science program which would launch microbes into space and study the effects on them. 

You might also make the mistake of thinking that planning something like the launch of experimental technology into space takes time? After all, Sputnik had been in development for over 3 years at its time of launch. Well, if you know that view then you just don’t understand the American way! Only 12 months after the approval of Corona the first satellite was launched in June 1959. Given at this point it was still a test, but it was a fully operational prototype satellite. 

Yet again however, this project became a victim of history. Originally the project had not planned for non-prototype launches until at least 1961, but this all changed in 1960 when America’s biggest secret was blown wide open. On the 1st of May 1960, the CIA launched the 24th flight of the U2 spy plane over Soviet territory. The aim was to gather information on Soviet nuclear assets in preparation for the upcoming Paris Summit which would be held on the 16th. 


The CIA chose their most experienced pilot, the awesomely named Gary Powers. Powers launched from Peshawar in Pakistan intending to fly to Bodo in Norway. This was a change to all previous flight plans which had involved the U2 returning to a friendly airbase by turning back on itself. This ill-fated journey ran into a further issue in planning when taking into fact that the 1st of May was a national holiday in the Soviet Union, which meant there was very little air traffic to hide the U2 from Soviet radar. 

The CIA named the flight Operation Grand Slam as they knew it would have a grand impact. A few hours into the flight, the U2 was targeted by ground surface to air missile (SAM) batteries, having tracked the aircraft for 15 minutes before it even reached Soviet airspace. Three missiles were fired, none hit the U2 but one hit a friendly Soviet interceptor and another exploded close to the U2’s tail causing the plane to plummet to the ground. Fortunately, Powers survived the crash, unfortunately so did the U2, both were swiftly captured by their Soviet hosts.

This catastrophic failure meant that not only did the Soviets now have their hands on classified technology, but that they were aware of America’s strategies and now they’d be able to be on the lookout for any further U2 flights. It was this event that pushed the Corona program into overdrive, no longer were spy planes suitable for service. An alternative that the Soviets couldn’t just shoot out of the sky was needed. 


The Age of the Satellite

With the shooting down of Powers, it was decided that the satellite would be the new vessel of military intelligence. As such, the Air Force would soon facilitate the launch of 144 separate satellites for the Corona program, of which 102 would provide operational photographs. In launching these satellites, the CIA was keen to demand each would go into geosynchronous orbit to ensure coverage of almost the entire planet at the time. It was soon discovered though that the satellites were not good at completing every task set to them. One satellite may have struggled to capture fine detail but excelled at tracking ships or planes for instance depending on the exact details of that satellite. For example, the KH-1 specialized in searching for ICBMs whereas the KH-2 specialized in hunting more traditional military assets. As such six different models of Corona satellite were launched, referred to as KH-1, KH-2, KH-3, KH-4, KH-4A and KH-4B with the latter two being improvements of the KH-4 rather than separate models. Of course, though the CIA was never one to lose out on an innuendo, KH stood for ‘Keyhole,’ a name that Soviet intelligence was able to discover. Luckily for the CIA, the Soviet intelligence couldn’t understand the implied meaning which ended up being that old trope in detective novels of looking through a keyhole to see the interior of a room. 

Corona operated satellites from June 1959 to May 1972 all around the world and enabled America to avoid several surprises. An example of this is that America only learnt of the 1949 Soviet detonation of a nuclear weapon when the Soviets informed them. In contrast, they knew that the Chinese development of nuclear weapons in 1964 before it was even tested which allowed them to get a head start on the propaganda war. It was also the Corona satellites that allowed America to track the movements of Soviet convoys and assets throughout the Cuban missile crisis meaning that America knew that an attack, although possible, was not immediately inbound.


Linked to the Corona program were the Argon and Lanyard programs, codenamed KH-5, and KH-6; both of these programs were purely experimental launches of new satellite models. Argon involved the usage of a mapping camera which the army was experimenting with, Lanyard involved the usage of an experimental camera. Lanyard is most relevant as the camera used in Lanyard would revolutionise spy camera technology, going on to be used in KH-4B satellites. Just to briefly explain how accurate these cameras were, KH-1 to KH-4 all had a resolution of 7.5 metres. Meaning a satellite 675 km above sea level would be able to tell apart any objects 7.5 metres apart from each other, anything closer than that being a single pixel. For comparison, Lanyard had a resolution of 1.8 metres meaning from orbit it could pick out any objects as small as two metres across  without the loss of quality. It is speculated that this camera technology, although far more powerful, is still used today. 


The Nuts and Bolts

Okay, so we’ve dealt with the historical background of these satellites, but how did they work?

There are three parts to the working of the Corona program satellites; their launch, their operation, and their collection.

When launching these satellites, the Agena-A upper stage system was used. Agena-A was a rocket housing designed by Lockheed and would also provide the housing for the Titan ICBM, which provided much of America’s nuclear arsenal for the cold war. Titans also provided the base blueprint for NASA’s Gemini spacecraft. Unlike their Gemini cousins, these satellites would not leave their housing when in orbit. Instead, they would spend their entire operational lives within these Agena systems. On the decommissioning of these satellites, they would then be launched out of the system through a General Electric Satellite Return Vehicle (SRV) which would pilot the satellite to land harmlessly in the ocean for collection by the Air Force who had specially designed Boeing aircraft specifically for catching satellites. 

Early in the life of Corona however, the program faced consistent issues with camera failure. It was discovered that the Agena systems were exposing the acetate-based films to the vacuum of space, destroying the brittle materials required for proper usage. As such, the CIA commissioned Kodak to develop a specialist resilient replacement for the film. Kodak invented a new form of polyester-based film in co-operation with Dupont made out of polyester which had proved to have a higher resolution and weigh half as much as the previous solution. The first successful deployment of this system occurred on the 10th of August 1960 with the launch of Discoverer 13. 


Once in orbit, the life of these satellites was a simple task. They maintained their strategic placements over key positions on the ground below. On rare occasions, the Lockheed designed rockets could even be manoeuvred to different positions using specially designed manoeuvring thrusters. When in orbit, the satellites took pictures using their specially designed cameras and then fired them back at the blue marble below in special cartridges designed to be resistant to the pressure of the atmosphere. 

At the same time, the Air Force was working on developing an aircraft capable of both reaching the atmosphere required to retrieve the cartridges and flying slow enough that they could realistically hit the cartridges without stalling. They eventually had luck in the Fairchild C-119 ‘Flying Boxcar’; they had borrowed a few of these from the Marines who had used these planes as regular transport planes ever since the Korean war in 1950. With minor alterations, these planes were able to fly at a high atmosphere with their rear-loading cargo door open which is where the film cartridges would be caught from. The first successful recovery of a film cartridge occurred on the 18th of August 1960 only two days before Sputnik 2 returned to earth with dogs Belka and Strelka, making it the first successful recovery of a payload from space in human history. Not that America would be quick to publicise this feat, allowing the Soviets to claim the record until the early Corona program was finally declassified in 1992. 

The satellites themselves would be recovered similarly at the end of their lives, a further augmented C-119 was specifically designed with the task of capturing the satellites as they fell towards the Earth. Little is known about this procedure as this is one element of the program which was never declassified. 

Always There Always Watching

Corona ceased to be used in 1972 as the technology was getting old, no longer were pure photographic cameras enough. With the development of new infrared and thermal technology, there were now better alternatives. It is not known what formed the next stage in spy satellite development as such has never been divulged by the American government. Rather unsurprisingly, however, most are convinced there are some spy satellites, especially as often American military personnel will refer to the fact that they do have top-secret images of other countries. One would hope however that in a day of google maps these cameras are at least more specialised than google street view. 

This is not to say we know everything about the Corona program though. Even though most of the project was declassified in 1992 with many of the pictures declassified in 1995 there is much we don’t know. For example, the Corona photos and operations taken after 1967 but before 1972 have never been declassified despite the fact we know that Corona operations took place in this period.

To confuse this classified area even more, even though Corona only encompassed KH-1 to KH-4 in 2002, President Bill Clinton declassified pictures taken from KH-7 and KH-9 cameras, seemingly in the process admitting that America had continued its old routine of spy satellites. Today these photos, 860,000 of them, may be viewed on the US Geological Survey’s website, many of them being used to better maps and our understanding of the world’s geology. 

The final thing to note on these spy satellites is the people who worked on them. Little is known about the employees who designed these satellites beyond the handful who have come forward to speak to the press. For obvious reasons, details, and information they were given little chance of ever being corroborated. Either way, these people revolutionised how not only the US but all states with the capability to launch satellites operate in modern military intelligence. We’ve even recently seen a civilian field of intelligence satellites develop, particularly with the developments of Google Maps and Elon Musk’s new Starlink network. Both programs make use of technology and lessons learnt under Corona. For their actions in this field of science, the key designers received the Draper Prize in 2005, an American engineering prize designed to award those who have made key contributions to the development of technology.


So, when you go out into your garden at night or camping and you look up at the sky and wonder if somebody out there is looking back at you just know…. they are.

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