Watching the Space Race: Hidden Under the Tree

by Walt Staples

If you are the U.S. Air Force and you need to hide a spy satellite and its 95 foot (29 m) long launch vehicle from the KGB, where would you stash it? In 1959, the answer was: in plain sight under the Christmas tree of nearly every nine-year-old boy in America.

It was the day after Christmas, 1959, and times were good. We'd moved north from the Shenandoah Valley to the Virginia suburbs of Washington the year before. With the military building like crazy, there was enough steady ironwork that my father was able to live at home, and my mother had a job at the five-sided puzzle palace next to the Potomac. The trend for me that Christmas revolved around the Cold War and things airborne, the two major gifts being a Steve Canyon Jet Fighter Helmet and a Jet Interceptor Fighter Cockpit. Among the lesser--but still very appreciated--gifts were several model kits. This is where I and my parents colluded with the CIA and the Air Force in their security subterfuge, as one of the kits was a plastic model of the Discoverer weather satellite and its Thor-Agena launch vehicle.


The Corona program was a CIA “black” operation that used satellites launched by the Air Force for photo reconnaissance and electronic signals intelligence gathering (ELINT). The Air Force also provided in-flight recovery of the reentry capsules or “film buckets.” Discoverer was the “cover” for the secret program. This continued until 1962, when the Discoverer program was officially retired with Discoverer 38 and all flight activities moved over into total secrecy. The Corona program finally ended in 1972.

Development of Corona began in 1956 as the Discoverer program. From 1958 to 1969, The equipment was manufactured at Lockheed's Hiller Aircraft facility in Palo Alto. After that production was moved to Lockheed's Sunnyvale plant.

An interesting wrinkle of the program was the preferred method of recovery. A specially equipped U.S. Air Force C-119 “Flying Boxcar,” using a trapeze, would snatch the film bucket in midair as it descended after reentry. The bucket would then be brought aboard the aircraft through the open rear cargo doors between the tail booms. If the aircraft missed the catch and the film bucket hit the water, a time-delay device would allow it to float long enough for the Navy to recover it or, failing that, would sink it before anyone else could grab it.

Corona/Discoverer was declassified by President Bill Clinton starting in 1992.

Thinking back to that Second Day of Christmas, Boxing Day, or Feast of Stephen (as you prefer), it makes a body feel good to know that at the tender age of nine, I was aiding in my country's defense as I opened the supposed weather satellite kit's box and surveyed the white plastic parts.

  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • RSS


Post a Comment