Early Spy Satellites-Nazi Germany and US-Russian Space Race


The threat of a third world war emerged almost immediately after the second came to an end. Two nations had emerged as superpowers, the United States & the Soviet Union. Their ideological differences were vast. Western leaders were worried that the Soviets would develop nuclear weapons of their own & launch them against Europe & the US in a massive surprise attack. The problem was, no one knew what the Soviets were doing. The nation was vast and mysterious. The exact size & strength of the Soviet military was known to only a few outside Stalin’s inner circle.

Conventional spying was useless, nearly impossible for human spies to penetrate USSR. Aerial Reconnaissance looked promising but no traditional airplane could stay out of range of Soviet fighters & anti-aircraft guns. Forward thinkers realized the ideal vantage point for spying was outer space. Before World War II the idea of even breaking out of the earth’s atmosphere was laughable. But Nazi Germany’s V2 rocket (a 50-foot-tall rocket) was the most advanced weapon of its day and paved the way for rocket and space exploration after the war.

Nazi Scientists who helped build American Space Program

A major contribution to the American space program came from a very unlikely place, Nazi Germany. Lead Nazi scientist Wernher Von Braun, 120 other scientists & engineers surrendered to the U.S. Army. They were escorted from Austria back to the USA in the final days of WW2 by US army personnel.

As early as 1946 army scientists started testing captured V2 rockets which Hitler’s army had been using to terrorize Europe during the war. At the same time, the air force asked the RAND Corporation (short for the RAND Research and Development Corporation) a high technology think tank to study the feasibility of putting cameras into the earth’s orbit.

In the early 1950’s weather balloons were converted into high-flying reconnaissance platforms fitted with cameras and listening devices. But the problem with them was they couldn’t be guided over specific targets.

Weather balloons converted into Reconnaissance Platforms 


On October of 1957, the soviet union put the first man-made satellite Sputnik into space. It carried a Thermometer, a battery, and a Radio inside of a metal ball. It may sound like a high school science experiment, but in 1957, it captured the attention of the world, and its launch marked the beginning of the age of space exploration. The Soviets actually did Americans a favor by launching Sputnik first, because they eliminated any legal technological challenges.

After the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, the first manmade object to enter space, Von Braun and his team assembled and launched the first American satellite, Explorer 1, on Jan 31, 1958, four months after Russia orbited Sputnik.

The USSR had recently detonated its first hydrogen bomb. President Eisenhower’s fear of a nuclear sneak attack grew. Cold War with the Soviet Union created a need for the United States to know about the Military strength of the Soviet Union, especially with respect to the number of Long Range Bombers and Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that it possessed. Reconnaissance planes were being sent across the border into the Soviet Union and its allied nations. However, these planes could only penetrate the edges of the country and the information needed was in the middle of the Soviet Union’s large land mass. Many of these planes and their crews never returned. A new plane was required that could fly high enough that Soviet planes and surface-to-air missiles could not shoot it down. More importantly, this plane needed to be able to take detailed aerial photographs over the middle of the Soviet Union.

In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower had the CIA, working in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force, to negotiate an arrangement with Lockheed to create such an high-flying spy airplane U-2. President Eisenhower realized that the use of such a plane over the territory of another nation was in violation of the other nation’s sovereignty and could result in military reprisal. The first overflight of the Soviet Union by a U-2 spy plane occurred on July 4, 1956. It flew at 70,000 feet, about 25,000 feet higher than any other plane could fly at the time. The U-2 flights over the Soviet Union (images) showed that no bomber or missile gap existed.

But on May 1, 1960, using a cluster of 14 SA-2 Surface to Air missiles, the Soviet Union was able to shoot down a U-2 over its territory. The plane’s pilot, Francis Gary Powers, survived, and in August 1960 the Soviets staged a highly publicized trial to embarrass the United States. The United States agreed never to fly a reconnaissance plane across the Soviet Union again.

The Corona project (spy satellite program code-named Corona) was pushed forward rapidly following the shooting down of a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. The project’s code name is CORONA, but to hide its true purpose, it was given the cover name Discoverer and described as a scientific research and technology development program. Discoverer 1 (Feb 28, 1959) to Discoverer 12 seen failures until Discoverer 13 managed a successful capsule recovery for the first time, followed by Discoverer 14 & 15 launches. In 1963 the Discoverer label was dropped, KH series (keyhole satellites) followed and all launches became classified.

The CORONA Program occurred between 1959 and 1972 but the American public did not know about the project until 1995 when President Bill Clinton ordered the declassification of the imagery.

Corona Film Bucket Recovery

These were bus-sized satellites placed in low earth orbit, equipped with one, later 2 huge wide lens cameras nearly 3m long. The tubes were stuffed with thousands of meters of specially modified photo film. The satellites passed over enemy targets mostly the USSR, several times a day. Usually taking between a day and a week to use up all their photo film. 

Photographs captured by these so-called “Corona” satellites were shot on special 70 millimeter Kodak film using two panoramic cameras that evolved over the course of the program.

 Corona Film Bucket Catch Gif


The satellites carried anywhere between 8,000 and 16,000 feet of film per camera and once one of these rolls was spent, it would be jettisoned in a re-entry capsule nicknamed Film Bucket Once it survived the intense heat of re-entry, (on re-entering earth’s atmosphere air resistance slows down the object to safer speeds but at the same time friction causes intense heat) the heat shield would pop off at about 18Km and the ‘bucket’ would deploy a circular parachute to slow its descent. Fears were high that the Russian submarines might capture corona capsules after they fell into the ocean. So this capsule would be snatched out of mid-air by a passing US Air Force plane using an Airborne Claw as shown in the above Gif image.

Corona Bucket/Capsule (or Discoverer-13 Satellite)


Note: Heat shield protects object (in our case photo film) from excessively high temperatures during capsule re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Without the heat shield, it would burn up like a Meteor.

Corona satellite had a limited film supply, it remained in orbit only for hours or a few days, requiring that a new Corona be launched each time a new set of photographs was desired. Corona, therefore, did not keep the Soviet Union under constant surveillance but instead ran a series of reconnaissance missions with specific goals. Meanwhile, improvement in rocket boosters and cameras had extended corona satellites from hours to weeks. Over 120 Corona satellites were flown before being replaced in the early 1970’s by the larger and more sophisticated film-return satellite known as KH-9 HEXAGON (or “Big Bird”).

The Corona Satellites returned excellent images, with later models probably achieving a resolution of about 1 foot (0.3 m). One of Corona’s first achievements was to debunk the Air Force’s claims that a huge “missile gap” existed in the early 1960’s between the Soviet Union and the U.S.—that is, that the Soviets many more ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) than the U.S. But in real as Corona showed, the Soviets actually had far fewer missiles than the U.S. at that time.

Corona provided solid facts about Military strengths, Economic health & social organization. It was corona imagery which uncovered soviet Anti-ballistic missile activity. Corona was retired in 1972. As such, the US invested vast sums of money into high-altitude research—from early weather balloons to the SR-71 Blackbird and U-2 spy planes to orbital telescopes—and established not one but three Federal agencies—the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the National Security Agency (NSA), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—all in an effort to glean any speck of information that could give US an advantage.

Next generation satellites had digital imaging systems and downloaded the images via encrypted radio links instead of film recovery buckets.

After corona, next came KH-9 hexagon series (total 20 flights, 1971-1986), KH-10, KH-11 Kennen, KH-12 etc.

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Patricia is the founder and editor of Little Bytes News, a former elementary teacher, radio talk show host, political activist and political blogger. In 2012, Patricia was nominated one of “Circle of Moms” top 25 political bloggers.

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