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Corona Satellite Program, Technology and History Celebrated

Los Angeles Air Force Base -- The launch of the Sputnik satellites in 1957 caused policy makers in Washington and the U.S. intelligence community to think hard about the apparent success of Soviet military space technology. While the U.S. fretted over this accomplishment, Soviet Premier Nakita Khrushchev gloated about the possibility of a world consumed by Communism.

President Eisenhower saw the need to determine with more certainty the Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missile capability. and work with his military advisors and direct them to come up with another way of providing this information.

As the tensions of the Cold War era grew, the U.S. relied upon the U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and reconnaissance balloons from the Genetrix Program. But they didn't provide enough coverage of the USSR to determine to determine Soviet military operations.

In the 1955, the U.S. Air Force was given the responsibility to develop a military satellite program. That responsibility came to the Western Development Division; a predecessor of today's Space and Missile Systems Center and in 1958 research and development began on the early phases of the Corona Program.

Initially called Weapon System 117L, the program suffered from a lack of funding and it wasn't until the launch of the Sputnik satellites that the U.S. increased its funding for the program and stepped up the pace on its development efforts.

By the end of 1959, the program had developed into three distinct programs. The Discoverer and SAMOS programs focused on missions involving reconnaissance and the MIDAS program provided an early version of missile warning capability.

Described publicly by many as a scientific test program, the Discoverer Program became highly classified and given the top secret code name Corona. 

Air Force Colonel Lee Battle was given the job of Program Manager in 1958. Under his direction, the Corona Program completed its initial development and successfully conducted its first successful missions.

The launch of a Discoverer/Corona satellite was accomplished by a Thor launch vehicle, an early version of a Delta rocket. Carried inside an Agena spacecraft, a capsule containing a camera would take photographs as it passed over Soviet airspace.

Discoverer 1, the first of 38 public launches, occurred on Feb. 28, 1959, launched from Vandenberg AFB. This became the world's first polar orbiting satellite.

Discoverer 2 launched in April 1959 was the first satellite to be stabilized in orbit in all three axes, receive maneuvering commands from earth, to successfully separate its reentry vehicle on command and send that vehicle back to earth.

The first successful mid-air capture occurred after the launch and return to earth of Discoverer 14. A specially modified C-119 "Flying Boxcar" conducted this capture in August 1960.

Although the Discoverer Program officially ended with the launch of Discoverer 38 in Feb. 1962, the Corona Program remained secret and continued to conduct operations until May 1972 after completing 145 missions.

To celebrate the successes of the Corona Program, luminaries from the program's past, SMC leaders, other military members, employees, wives and friends gathered April 21 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the program.

SMC Commander Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel provided opening comments for the celebration that was followed by a panel discussion about the early days of the program and its operations.

"The military forces, the public, day in and day out depend upon what it is we do from space whether that is reconnaissance or surveillance or how we assure communications or how GPS ensures that you get to where you are going," said Lt. Gen. Hamel. "These are capabilities that the world has come to depend upon and the spirit, the practices and the culture that was begun with the Corona program some fifty years ago are the bedrock of how it is we do our business today here at SMC." 

Panelists taking part in the discussion of the Corona Program included:

Maj. Gen. (Retired) John E. Kulpa Jr., came to Space Systems Division, Los Angeles Air Force Station as a project manager for the research sub-satellite Program Director for the Air Force Program 417 the covert weather satellite program that provided weather data for Corona. Program 417 later became the Defense Meteorological Support Program (DMSP).

Maj. Gen. (Retired) Donald G. Hard, was assigned to the 6594th Test Group, Air Force Systems Command and was the JC-130 pilot who flew the aerial recovery of the last Corona capsule in May 1972.

Brig. Gen. (Retired) William G. King Jr., came to Los Angeles in 1959 and was assigned to the Directorate of Special Projects, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force and in 1966 became commander of the Air Force Satellite Control Facility located at Los Angeles Air Force Station.

Col. (Retired) Frank "Buzz" Buzard came to Program WS-117L in 1958 and became the Deputy Director and Operations Officer for the Discoverer/Corona Program.

Col. (Retired) Robert Kleinman, Corona Field Test Force Director at the Satellite Test Center in Sunnyvale.

On Aug. 31, 1961, President John Kennedy directed that the management of the Corona Program and other subsequent satellite reconnaissance programs be passed to the newly formed National Reconnaissance Office.

The Corona Program was the world's first reconnaissance satellite and provided vital military intelligence about the Soviet Union and its ICBM arsenal during the Cold War. The program was declassified in 1995.