The First Payloads Returned from Space Were Spy Satellites

The Soviet launch site at Baikonur as seen by the Discoverer 14 satellite, one of the Corona missions, in 1960. Credit: National Air and Space Museum

The Soviet launch site at Baikonur as seen by the Discoverer 14 satellite, one of the Corona missions, in 1960. Credit: National Air and Space Museum

The U-2, America’s spy plane conceived by Lockheed Martin, was designed to cruise at 70,000 feet, an altitude that would allow pilots to photograph enemy nations safely out of range of anti-aircraft missile systems. But when the first U-2 flew over the Soviet Union on July 4, 1956, it was spotted right away. The flight returned a wealth of valuable information, but having lost the element of surprise, the US military was keen to develop a successor system that would be harder to detect and truly impervious to any future weapons. The advent of the space age presented the perfect opportunity: orbital reconnaissance satellites.

The first program to make use of this nascent technology was the Corona program, which found success in the fall of 1960. On those initial missions, Corona racked up another first in the space age: it was the first time a payload was safely recovered and returned from orbit. Film canisters from the satellites were recovered manually; the information was too sensitive to transmit by telemetry that could be interrupted by the very nation about which America was gathering reconnaissance.

The story of how the US military recovered film canisters from orbit is as interesting as the story behind the Corona program, and it’s all in my latest article on DVICE.

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