71.

DISCOVERER GOES “BLACK” INTO CORONA

No time was wasted getting Discoverer XIV up into space on August 18, 1960, just eight days after its predecessor had been launched. XIV was the real thing, with a Space Age panoramic camera called the Itek mounted in its port. The Itek had been specially created for satellite photography by a recently formed firm of the same name in Massachusetts. One of the company’s founders was Richard Leghorn, an Air Force Reserve colonel who was a pioneer in high-altitude photoreconnaissance. He had worked for Schriever in earlier years as the reconnaissance specialist in the Plans and Programs Office at the Pentagon. A witty, iconoclastic man, Leghorn had been one of the instigators of the U-2 and of Eisenhower’s Open Skies program. An idealist, he believed that the United States and the Soviet Union could coexist in peace if they dispelled fear by allowing free passage of each other’s reconnaissance vehicles over any part of the globe. Discoverer XIV’s orbit took in more than 1,650,000 square miles of Soviet territory. The camera exposed and spun into the capsule 3,000 feet of film, virtually all of the twenty pounds that had been stored in the Agena. Ejection and recovery went perfectly, the C-119 snatching the parachute in midair, and after Eastman Kodak had developed the film, the CIA photo interpreters pronounced the results “terrific, stupendous.”

At least half of the frames were clear of cloud cover. The Itek camera was so exacting that from roughly 120 miles above the earth, it had taken photograhs with a resolution of fifty-five lines per millimeter. Objects on the ground ranging upward from thirty-five feet in dimension were identifiable. Less than a week later Edwin Land unrolled a reel of developed film across the carpet of the Oval Office to Eisenhower’s desk. “Here are your pictures, Mr. President,” he announced. After viewing the take, as the developed film was called in the photographic intelligence business, Eisenhower was extremely pleased and extremely emphatic. The success of this spy satellite and all future ones was to be held in utmost secrecy. No photograph from space was ever to be released for publication, a policy retained for many years by his successors. What seemed to worry him most was that if the United States boasted of its intelligence triumph, Khrushchev would raise the same brouhaha he had over the U-2, whereas if all was kept quiet, the Russians might not react even if they did detect what the satellites were doing. He was also fearful that they might attempt to interfere with the satellites.

As it turned out, neither fear was justified. The Soviets intended to put up their own photoreconnaissance satellites once they acquired the technology, which they did in later years, and Forrest McCartney’s “implied rules of engagement” during the Cold War applied as much to satellites as they did to other technological spy systems like the Turkish Radar. The Russians never attempted to interfere with or control an American satellite and the courtesy was returned. As McCartney phrased it: “You don’t tinker with my satellites and I don’t tinker with yours.” Discoverer XIV’s photography also discredited definitively the myth of a missile gap. As was the custom in 1960 for presidential contenders, Kennedy was given a top secret briefing. He stopped talking about a missile gap himself, but politics being a killer sport, he did not stop his supporters from talking about it, and Nixon suffered the consequences on election day.

The program now went “black” in the lingo of the intelligence community, Discoverer gradually disappearing into the darkness of Corona. The Air Force provided less and less detail about each subsequent launch until its press spokesmen would provide none at all. Eisenhower, who had always prided himself on restricting military spending to what he believed was necessary, had fostered creation of the means to perpetuate that policy through a constant flow of concrete information. Regrettably, not all of his successors were inclined to be guided by reality. Corona remained the nation’s principal source of photographic intelligence until 1972, when it was retired and replaced by a more advanced system that remains secret. There were many failed launches and malfunctions of the satellite in the years to come, but they were far outweighed by the successes. Its capacity and sophistication moved ahead rapidly. McCartney recalled that within six to eight months the crude plastic tape with thirteen punch-hole connections was replaced by a mechanism called the Lockheed Orbital Decoder and Programmer. This gave the satellite sixty-four commands. The controllers could turn the camera on when the satellite was over areas of the Soviet Union they wanted to photograph, and then off, rather than just letting the film run. They could even load fresh film into the camera from the ground. By 1964, camera life in orbit had been extended to eight days. In 1965, the satellite was equipped with multiple cameras to obtain a stereoscopic effect for height and depth. By 1967 camera life was fifteen days. The ejection and retrieval systems became so dependable that between 1966 and 1970, twenty-eight capsules were launched and twenty-eight capsules were recovered.

Moreover, in addition to finding airfields, missile installations, nuclear weapons manufacturing facilities, and other targets in the Soviet Union, the Corona satellite greatly enhanced the power of the American deterrent by making it possible to determine the exact location of these targets. Prior to the existence of the satellite, targeting had to be done with maps and photography from the U-2, the occasional SAC penetration flight on the periphery of the Soviet Union, or even from Second World War Luftwaffe aerial reconnaisssance photos in the captured German archives. All of this involved a certain level of error. The targeting officers at SAC headquarters in Omaha always had to ask themselves exactly how far and on exactly what bearing was the center of Moscow or the Soviet missile complex at Plesetsk from an Atlas missile silo at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming or from their own nearby runways at Offutt. An inertial guidance system in a missile or an inertial navigation system in a B-52 could perform only as well as the information cranked into it. With the coming of Corona, error was dispelled. It became possible, as McCartney explained, to “tie continents together.” Because the parameters of the orbit were known and the satellite was fitted with a clock that recorded the time the photograph was taken, the precise distance and direction of the target from a known point in the United States or anywhere else in the world could be calculated. Even such factors as the curvature of the earth could be taken into account. That the missile would strike and the bomber would find its target became far more certain. As the Soviets built their own photoreconnaissance satellites, they would learn this and the knowledge would make them fear all the more the formidable deterrent they faced.

The CIA was to take credit for Corona, because Eisenhower had placed the agency in charge, but the dedication and skills of the organization Schriever built had put it into the sky. This first photographic reconnaissance satellite and its precious capabilities became the final brick in the foundation they laid for a nuclear peace.

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