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Charles J. Vukotich, Jr.(SU#502), 635 Ridgefield Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15216-1161

This article and checklist first appeared in the Astrophile, a publication of the Space Topic Study Unit. It is being used here with the permission of the author and the Space Topic Study Unit.

One of the most important contributions of the space program has been imaging. This technology has contributed to weather forecasting, natural resources conservation, prospecting and a multitude of business and public interest applications. Imaging from space started with the military and the need to spy on our cold war adversaries, primarily with regard to nuclear capabilities. With the end of the cold war, imaging is still important to determine the spread of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological. It also plays a role in combat reconnaissance, as witnessed in the Gulf War.

The Military developed imaging technology that went on to have significant civilian applications. Today, the military still enjoys the best technology, but space images for civilian use are of high quality, including images from French and Russian sources. This technology began with a Defense Department program called Corona.

Corona was the first operational space imaging reconnaissance satellite program, approved in February, 1958. Its' goal was to take pictures from space of the Soviet Bloc countries and return the photographic film for processing and analysis. In the 1950's, it became increasingly difficulty to obtain intelligence data about soviet military capabilities, especially nuclear. Balloons carrying cameras(Genetrix) at high altitude were tried starting on January 22, 1956 but were not reliable. High altitude U-2 spy planes were used to gather intelligence, starting July 4, 1956, but were discontinued when Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a Soviet SAM May 1, 1960. Outer space became the ultimate 'high ground'.

Corona camera systems were integrated into an Agena upper stage and launched into Polar orbit by Thor booster from Van den Berg AFB, CA. Corona used an innovative constant rotating panoramic camera system, which provided a stable platform which was constantly pointed toward the Earth. The basic camera technology was a breakthrough developed as part of the Genetrix Project. Film was loaded into a recovery vehicle and returned to Earth for air recovery by USAF C-119 aircraft, while floating to Earth on a parachute. Sea recovery was used as a backup.

Corona was developed in secrecy so that targeted nations would not know what was planned. Even the existence of Corona was not acknowledged. The Corona project management structure became the National Reconnaissance Office(NRO). NRO is a supersecret agency whose exist was not even acknowledged until recently. On December 23, 1958, the government created an project, called Discoverer, with an acknowledged goal of scientific research: testing of returning vehicles to Earth for the recovery of occupants, instruments, films and other scientific payloads; development of an early warning system for the detection of enemy missiles; development of a stable platform for scientific observations. The entire Discoverer Project was a ruse. No scientific objectives were planned. Discoverer actually had a staff working on scientific instruments, including launching pods for space mice, but none were ever launched or intended to be launched. Discoverer Project staff did not know about Corona. The cover was so elaborate that scientific instruments placed on Discoverer satellites were removed before launch. Although Corona developed recovery techniques, these were never intended as research for manned space programs. The Discoverer program was publicly classified after the launch of Discoverer XXXVIII, December 12, 1961. Those involved in Discoverer went on to other projects.

We know about Corona today, because President Clinton signed an executive order on February 24, 1995, releasing more than 800,000 images of the Earth taken by the project. These will be available to the public via the National Archives and Records Administration and the USGS EROS DATA Center. NRO now has a website, and data on Corona and Corona images are on that site. Current Landsat archives provide a photo record back to 1972. These images will add coverage for the period 1960-1972, and give those studying environmental developments an extra decade of data. These images are generally consistent with Landsat data. The resolution of the first systems(KH-1) was 40'. Each model improved resolution, ultimately reaching 6 feet, with the KH-4B(stereo image). Individual pictures usually cover an area 10 x 120 miles. Additional Corona memorabilia has been donated to the National Air & Space Museum.

Efforts have been made to acknowledge the scientific breakthroughs brought forth in the Corona Program:

First photoreconnaissance satellite

First recovery of a object from space(recovery vehicle in the Smithsonian)

First mid-air recovery of a vehicle returning from space

Quantum advancements in photoimaging from space

First mapping of earth from space

First stereo-optical data from space

First multiple reentry vehicles from space

Corona made todays high resolution imaging possible. The people working on this project were honored at a May 24, 1995 ceremony at the National Air & Space Museum. A book has also been published, Corona Between the Sun & the Earth: The First NRO Reconnaissance Eye in Space, by the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, April 7, 1997.

There were three diagnostic flights to test the Thor-Agena systems. These were designated Discoverer I, II and III. These were related to, but not part of the Corona series. Discover I has long been thought to be the first successful polar orbit. Data released from Corona suggests that Discoverer I did not actually achieve orbit. It was reported as a success by the military based on successful initiation of second stage burn. Orbital insertion was never confirmed by telemetry. The first polar orbit was probably Discoverer II.

Corona started with mission 9001, June 25, 1959, which failed to orbit. This was publicly called Discoverer IV. The early history of Corona is replete with hardware failures. Mission 9002(8/13/59) was the first to achieve orbit, but the camera failed. The camera also failed on 9003 and 9005. Missions 9004-6-7 failed to orbit. The camera worked for the first time on mission 9008, but the RV was not recoverable. A combination of extraordinary corrective action and two diagnostic flights brought success with the first photos from mission 9009. The first corona image was a soviet bomber base at Mys Schmidta in the far east, only 400 miles from Nome, AK. By mid-1961, Corona would supply a constant stream of intelligence data. Early Corona missions lasted one day. Later missions could take sufficient film and power supplies to last 19 days. A complete list of Corona missions follows this article.

The intelligence community used two sets of terminology for the Corona series. The Air Force and CIA - program managers - used program and launch designations. Those using the Photoreconnaissance('spy photos') referred to the camera systems, Keyhole or KH. Corona missions were numbered according to camera systems. These are listed below:

Series Camera Designations Remarks

90 KH-1 - KH-4

90 "A" KH-5 ARGON missions

80 KH-6 LANYARD missions

10 KH-4A

11 KH-4B

The initial camera systems were manufactured by Fairchild Camera Co. KH-1 had a resolution of 40'. This would be easy to fool if the enemy knew its' capability, so improvement was necessary. KH-2 improved the image motion compensation system and the film(all film was the product of Kodak) to gain 25' resolution.

Itek Corporation produced all subsequent cameras. The KH-3 was an upgrade of the earlier models, incorporating a faster lens, which allowed finer grain film, and improved resolution of 12 - 25'.

The first systems were all single camera. KH-4 was the first two camera system, using two KH-3 cameras to provide a stereo image. Resolution was only slightly improved(10-25'), but the stereo image gave more useable data. The next improvement was the use of two rather than one recovery vehicle(RV) which allowed two missions from a single launch. This was made possible through the use on strap on rockets on the Thor booster, the so-called Thrust-augmented Thor or Thorad. Which gave greater lift capacity. The KH-4A was a KH-4 with an additional film RV. KH-4A also had a larger payload of film. The KH-4B provided a new generation camera and operating system which allowed lower orbits(down to 80 nm), and greater resolution, generally 6'. In some circumstances, this system provided resolution to 4.5'.

KH-5 was a specialized camera used for the ARGON program, a part of Corona. ARGON was a project to provide broad based mapping for geodetic purposes so that the strategic targets could be pinpointed. ARGON images were 300 miles square, with a resolution of 460'. The first ARGON missions flew independently, but later missions were flown alongside the Corona imaging system. The 12 ARGON missions flew from February 17, 1961 to August 21, 1964, and succeeded in mapping most of the USSR and Eastern block. ARGON launches were identified by an "A" after the Corona launch designator.

The KH-6 system was designed to provide very high resolution photos(2'). The camera was part of a project called LANYARD, another specialized part of Corona. The initial stimulus for this added resolution was suspected ABM sites around Leningrad. The best resolution achieved was 6', the same as the KH-4B, so LANYARD was discontinued after 3 launches in 1963.

Corona used other cameras "piggyback" on the Agena vehicle. ARGON used a secondary mapping camera. KH-3, 4, 4A and 4B used horizon cameras to determine the orientation of the bird, stellar cameras to accurately determine pitch, roll and yaw during operational cycles, and index cameras for small scale photos to help mine the location of the main images

Corona proved to be very successful. The U-2 program mapped 1 million sq. mi. with 24 flights. Corona covered 510 million sq. mi. Corona was important from a technology standpoint. When the project started, no one knew if you could even take photos in space. Corona also provided highly accurate intelligence data for senior US policy makers. The recently released data shows the scope of Corona's success:

Imaged all Soviet medium-range, intermediate-range and ICBM complexes

Imaged each Soviet submarine class from deployment to operational bases

Provided inventories of Soviet bombers and fighters

Revealed the presence of Soviet missiles in Egypt protecting the Suez Canal

Identified Soviet nuclear assistance to the People's Republic of China

Monitored the SALT I treaty

Uncovered the Soviet ABM program and sites (GALOSH, HEN HOUSE, etc.)

Identified Soviet atomic weapon storage installations

Identified People's Republic of China missile launching sites

Determined precise locations of Soviet air defense missile batteries

Observed construction and deployment of the Soviet ocean surface fleet

Identified Soviet command and control installations and networks

Provided mapping for Strategic Air Command targeting and bomber routes

Identified the Plesetsk Missile Test Range, north of Moscow

Since no one knew about Corona until now, no covers were prepared specifically for Corona launches. However, covers were prepared for Discoverer missions and "secret satellites", so covers probably exist for these launches. Horace Westbrooks, in his definitive article on the Discover series notes that Discoverer X " the only DISCOVERER for which no philatelic covers are known..." The existence of covers for most of the launches has been verified.

Summary of Corona Missions - Notes to Table

Dates listed in this table reflect those reported by Corona. There are some discrepancies between these dates and those which were reported to national and international authorities, and to which international designations were assigned in order to track objects in space. The US source for such data is the Goddard SFC Satellite Situation Report. These discrepancies also exist with those reported in the philatelic community, which agree entirely with the Goddard report. In many cases, the public, which includes the philatelic community, witnessed these launches, as all launches from Van den Berg are able to be observed due to the proximity of inhabited areas. Discrepancies are noted. It is likely that launches which occurred late in the day were reported the next morning, the date of launch being relatively irrelevant to Corona authorities. The Goddard dates are probably correct. Some Corona numbering is out of sequence.

Covers probably exist for all these launches except 9007(Discoverer X), however all have not been verified. Those not verified are so noted by an asterisk (*) in the mission field. Readers are invited to submit proof of existence, or doubt thereof.



Mission Date Satellite


overy Remarks
9001 590625 KH-1 No No Discoverer IV; Agena did not orbit
9002 590813 KH-1 No No Discoverer V; Camera failed orbit 1; RV not recovered
9003 590819 KH-1 No No Discoverer VI; Camera failed on orbit 2; retrorocket malfunction- RV not recovered
9004 591107 KH-1 No No Discoverer VII; Agena filed to orbit
9005 591120 KH-1 No No Discover VIII; bad orbit; camera failure; RV not recovered
9006 600204 KH-1 No No Discoverer IX; Agena failed to orbit
9007 600219 KH-1 No No Discoverer X; Thor failure
9008 600415 KH-1 No No Discover XI; camera operated; spin rocket failure; RV not recovered
N/A 600629 N/A No No Discoverer XII; diagnostic flight; Agena failed to orbit
N/A 600810 N/A Yes Sea Discoverer XIII; diagnostic flight; RV recovered
9009 600818 KH-1 Yes Air Discoverer XIV; First successful Corona mission
9010 600913 KH-1 No No Discoverer XV; camera operated; wrong pitch angle on reentry; no recovery
9011 601026 KH-2 No No Discoverer xVI; Agena failed to orbit
9012 601112 KH-2 No Air Discoverer XVII; payload malfunction
9013 601207 KH-2 Yes Air Discoverer XVIII; first successful KH-2
N/A 601220 N/A YES N/A Discoverer XIX; Radiometric mission
9014A 610217 KH-5 No No Discoverer XX; first ARGON flight; orbital programmer failed
N/A 610218 N/A Yes N/A Discoverer XXI; radiometric mission
9015 610330 KH-2 No No Discoverer XXII; Agena failed to orbit
9016A 610408 KH-5 No No Discoverer XXIII; camera functioned
9018A 610608 KH-5 No No Discoverer XXIV; Agena failure; power and guidance failure
9017 610616 KH-2 Yes Sea Discoverer XXV;
9019 610707 KH-2 Partial Air Discoverer XXVI; camera failed on Rev 22
9020A 610721 KH-5 No No Discoverer XXVII; No orbit; Thor malfunction
9021 610803 KH-2 No No Discoverer XXVIII; No orbit, agena guidance failure
9022 610830 KH-3 Yes Air Discoverer XXIX; first KH-3
9023 610912 KH-2 Yes Air Discoverer XXX
9024 610917 No No Discoverer XXXI; power failure
9025 611013 KH-3 Yes Air Discoverer XXXII
9026 611023 KH-2 No No Discoverer XXXIII; Agena failed to orbit
9027 611105 KH-3 No No Discoverer XXXIV
9028 611115 KH-3 Yes Air Discoverer XXXV
9029 611212 Yes Sea Discoverer XXXVI
9030 620113 KH-3 No No Discoverer XXXVII; Agena failed to orbit. Covers canceled 1/15/62 for late Saturday launch.
9031 620227 KH-4 Yes Air Discoverer XXXVIII; first KH-4
9032 620418 Yes Air Reported 4/17/62(cover date)
9033 620428 No No Parachute failed to eject
9034A 620515 KH-5 Yes Air
9035 620530 KH-4 Yes Air Reported 5/29/62(cover date)
9036 620602 KH-4 No No Torn parachute

Reported 6/1/62(cover date)

9037 620622 KH-4 Yes Air
9038* 620628 KH-4 Yes Air Reported 6/27/62(cover date)
9039 620721 KH-4 Yes Air Reported 7/20/62(cover date)
9040 620728 KH-4 Yes Air Reported 7/27/97
9041 620802 KH-4 Yes Air Reported 8/1/62(cover date)
9044* 620829 KH-4 Yes Air
9042A 620901 KH-5 Yes Air
9043 620917 KH-4 Yes Air
9045 620929 KH-4 Yes Air
9046A 621009 KH-5 Yes Air
N/A 621026 N/A Non-photoreconnaissence engineering Flight
9047 621105 KH-4 Yes Air
9048 621124 KH-4 Yes Air
9049 621204 KH-4 Yes Air
9050 621214 KH-4 Yes Air
9051 630108 KH-4 Yes Air Reported 1/7/63(cover date)
9052 630228 KH-4 No No Separation failure
8001 630318 KH-6 No No First KH-6; Failed to orbit, Agena guidance failure; LANYARD mission
9053 630401 KH-4 Yes Air
9055A 630426 KH-5 No No Failed to orbit, altitude sensor problem
8002 630518 KH-6 No No Orbited; Agena failed in flight
9054 630613 KH-4 Yes Air Reported 6/12/63(cover date)
9056 630626 KH-4 Yes Air
9057 630718 KH-4 Yes Air
8003 630731 KH-6 Partial Air Camera failed after 32 hours

Reported 7/30/63(cover date)

1001 630824 KH-4A Partial Yes First KH-4A flight; 2 RVs, RV 2 lost
9058A 630829 KH-5 Yes Air
1002 630923 KH-4A Partial Yes RV-1 recovered; RV-2 lost
9059A 631029 KH-5 Yes Air
9060 631109 KH-4 No No Booster unstable; no orbit
9061 631127 KH-4 No No Agena failed; recovery prevented
9062 631221 KH-4 Yes Air Last KH-4
1004 640215 KH-4A Yes Air
1003* 640324 KH-4A No No Failed to orbit; agena power failure
1005 640427 KH-4A No No No photos; agena failed:RV impacted in Venezuela
1006 640604 KH-4A Yes Air
9053A 640613 KH-5 Yes Air
1007 640619 KH-4A Yes Air
1008 640710 KH-4A Yes Air
1009 640805 KH-4A Yes Air
9054A 640821 KH-5 Yes Air
1010 640914 KH-4A Yes Air
1011 641005 KH-4A Partial Yes No RV-2 recovery
1012 641017 KH-4A yes Air RV-2 recovery in sea due to bad weather
1013 641102 KH-4A Partial Air Both cameras failed on orbit 52
1014 641118 KH-4A Yes Air
1015 641219 KH-4A Yes Air
1016 650115 KH-4A Yes Air
1017 650225 KH-4A Yes Air
1018 650325 KH-4A Yes Air
1019 650429 KH-4A Partial Yes No RV-1 recovery
1021 650518 KH-4A Yes Air
1020 650609 KH-4A Yes Yes Sea recovery on RV-2
1022 650719 KH-4A Yes Air
1023 650817 KH-4A Partial Air Forward camera failed
N/A 650902 KH-4A No Destroyed on launch by range safety
1024 650922 KH-4A Yes Air
1025 651005 KH-4A Yes Air
1026 651028 KH-4A Yes Air
1027 651209 KH-4A Yes Air Malfunction: control gas loss
1028 651224 KH-4A Yes Air
1029 660202 KH-4A Yes Air
1030 660309 KH-4A Yes Air
1031 660407 KH-4A Yes Air
1032 660503 KH-4A No No Agena failed to separate from booster
1033 660524 KH-4A Yes Air Reported 5/23/66(cover date)
1034 660621 KH-4A Yes Air
1035 660809 KH-4A Yes Air
1036 660920 KH-4A Yes Air
1037 661108 KH-4A Yes Air
1038 670114 KH-4A Yes Air
1039 670222 KH-4A Yes Air
1040 670330 KH-4A Yes Air
1041 670509 KH-4A Yes Air
1042 670616 KH-4A Yes Air
1043 670807 KH-4A Yes Air
1101 670915 KH-4B Yes Air First KH-4B mission
1044 671102 KH-4A Yes Air
1102 671209 KH-4A Yes Air
1045 680102 KH-4A Yes Air
1046 680314 KH-4A Yes Air
1103 680501 KH-4B Yes Air
1047 680620 KH-4A Yes Air
1104 680807 KH-4B Yes Air
1048 680918 KH-4A Partial Air Forward camera failed
1105 681103 KH-4B Yes Air
1049 681212 KH-4A Yes Air Degraded film
1106 690205 KH-4B Partial Air Aft camera failed
1050 690319 KH-4A Partial Air Terminated early, agena failure
1051 690502 KH-4A Yes Air Degraded film

Reported 5/1/69(cover date)

1107 690724 KH-4B Partial Yes Foreword camera failed; RV-1 recovered in sea; Reported 7/23/69
1052 690922 KH-4A Yes Air Last KH-4A mission
1108 691204 KH-4B Yes Air
1109 703004 KH-4B Yes Air
1110 700520 KH-4B Yes Air
1111 700723 KH-4B Yes Air
1112 701118 KH-4B Yes Air
1113 710217 KH-4B No No Thor booster failure
1114 710324 KH-4B Yes Air
1115 710910 KH-4B Yes Air
1116 720419 KH-4B Yes Air
1117 720525 KH-4B Yes Air Final Corona mission; final photos returned 5/31/72

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