Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites / Edition 1

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Presenting the full story of the CORONA spy satellites' origins, Eye in the Sky explores the Cold War technology and far-reaching effects of the satellites on foreign policy and national security. Arguing that satellite reconnaissance was key to shaping the course of the Cold War, the book documents breakthroughs in intelligence gathering and achievements in space technology that rival the landing on the moon.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This book chronicles in satisfying detail the origins of US satellite reconnaissance by focusing on the pioneering CORONA program, under which some 800,000 satellite images were made between 1960 and 1972.”—Scientific American

“Day (a research associate at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington Univ.), Logsdon (director of the Space Policy Institute), and Latell (editor of the CIA's journal Studies in Intelligence) have gathered together essays by many figures active in the program, producing a fascinating record of the evolution and impact of this crucial and revolutionary program.”—Kirkus Reviews
Scientific American
This book chronicles in satisfying detail the origins of U.S. satellite reconnaissance.
Reprint of the 1998 edition which is well reviewed in (3/1/98). Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
A history of the top secret CORONA spy satellite missions (not officially revealed until 1992), believed by many experts to be the most important modern development in intelligence gathering. Day (a research associate at the Space Policy institute at George Washington Univ.), Logsdon (director of the Space Policy Institute), and Latell (editor of the CIA's journal Studies in Intelligence) have gathered together essays by many figures active in the program, producing a fascinating record of the evolution and impact of this crucial and revolutionary program. The Cold War created a pressing need for more and better intelligence. While the U2 spy planes greatly increased the kind and quality of information the intelligence establishment could generate, the downing of a U2 by the Soviets demonstrated that the planes were not invulnerable. The CORONA program was initially conceived as a way of keeping a close eye on the Soviet military without violating Russian borders. The development both of cameras capable of taking detailed photographs from great distances and of the satellites capable of carrying them into orbit and responding to exceedingly precise commands, required a series of technological breakthroughsþall accomplished in great secrecy. As the book documents, the volume (800,000 photographs between 1960 and 1972) and quality of the information the satellites generated took the intelligence establishment by surprise, allowing the US to identify all of the Soviet ballistic missile sites, military bases, and secret industrial complexes. The unparalleled documentation allowed the US to plan its own missile program with accuracy, saving a considerable amount of money, and tonegotiate arms treaties from a position of strength. Because of CORONA, the Soviet Union and other potential enemy nations, once cloaked in secrecy, became open books. A story of a little known American achievement that played an essential role in containing hostilities during the Cold War. (63 b&w photos, 13 line illustrations, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781560987734
  • Publisher: Smithsonian Institution Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/1999
  • Series: History of Aviation Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.97 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

DWAYNE DAY is senior program officer for the National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences. He is also a prolific and acclaimed space historian who served on a board investigating the space shuttle Columbia tragedy.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 3: The Development And Improvement Of The CORONA Satellite

In 1956 the U.S. Air Force formally started design and development work on a reconnaissance satellite at the Lockheed Missiles and Space Company. Although by then the Air Force had been studying the concept of reconnaissance satellites for a decade, work on the satellite proceeded slowly, due to a lack of funds as well as other projects having higher priority. Ballistic missile research was considered more important, and until an adequate ballistic missile was developed, a reconnaissance satellite would have no way of reaching orbit.

Sputnik, and President Eisenhower's intervention in the reconnaissance program in February 1958, would dramatically change this, Eisenhower directed that the CIA play a major role in the development of an "interim" satellite that would serve until the more ambitious Air Force satellite became available. It would operate under the cover story of a scientific and engineering program called Discoverer. A team of CIA and Air Force officials, together with engineers from industry, began work on this interim satellite. It was later said that the small number of people involved and their devotion to the program led to few turf battles. Everyone involved considered the development of a reconnaissance satellite to be a top priority for the United States.

The basics of the CORONA program were established by early April 1958, but with a lot of details left to be determined. The CIA's Richard Bissell, who had overall responsibility for CORONA, scheduled the first CORONA spacecraft to be completed by June 1959. The interim program was planned to last only until June 1960. Bissell drafted a work statement for Lockheed on April 25 and began selecting supporting subcontractors. General Electric would be responsible for the reentry vehicle. Itek would also be a subcontractor, but to lessen the blow to Fairchild (which had assumed that it would design and build the reconnaissance cameras), Bissell decided that Itek would define the basic camera concept, manufacture the lenses, and oversee camera design and fabrication, whereas Fairchild would design and manufacture the cameras. This was also necessary because Itek lacked the resources to manufacture its own cameras. The contractors began work on April 28 and submitted designs for first review on May 14. Designs were frozen on July 26, 1958.

in a room in a small hotel away from the main Lockheed factory complex. Plummer was told by Lockheed management to run this program like Kelly Johnson ran the Skunk Works, which produced the U-2 aircraft. The Skunk Works was a unique production company with highly streamlined management, the ability to operate with a high degree of secrecy, and a distaste for paperwork. So the program managers decided to do most of the work off-site from the main Lockheed complex in Palo Alto. As part of the prime contract, Lockheed leased an unused advanced development facility from Hiller Aircraft in nearby East Palo Alto. The facility, labeled "Advanced Projects," was closed to all Hiller personnel, who assumed that Lockheed was conducting classified helicopter work. Those who worked at the facility referred to it as "AP" or as CORONA's "Skunk Works."

The AP facility was to be used for the design and fabrication of the spacecraft nose structure, support system, and for payload integration. The cameras and Satellite Recovery Vehicles (SRVs) would come from manufacturers on the East Coast. Everything would be assembled and tested before it was shipped to the launch site for integration with the Agena upper stage and the Thor booster. The AP facility started out rather simply, but grew as the program expanded. While Bissell and John Parangosky, Deputy Chief of the CORONA Program Office Development Staff of the CIA, ran the program from Washington, Brigadier General Osmond Ritland and Lieutenant Colonel Lee Battle ran the program on the West Coast. This new arrangement also relied upon streamlined management whereby program manager Jim Plummer and Lieutenant Colonel Battle reported only to Bissell and Ritland. This made decisions and accountability much easier than in other space programs of the period.

Due to the short life expected for the CORONA project, only twelve Thor boosters were procured; it was anticipated that the Air Force's WS-117L (now called SENTRY) reconnaissance satellite would replace CORONA rather quickly. But Bissell soon realized that the Air Force was not going to provide the boosters he had planned. He knew he needed four test launches and three launches for biomedical experiments in support of the CORONA cover story. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which felt that other military space missions also deserved support, refused to allocate DoD funds for these boosters. Bissell thus found himself having to go to a fiscally conservative president and ask for money to purchase nineteen launch vehicles not included in his earlier proposal. Although Eisenhower was not one to like these kinds of financial requests, he agreed to the additional funding.

Officially, Discoverer was supposed to be solely an engineering and scientific program. Five biomedical vehicles were scheduled to be built, two to carry mice and one to carry a primate, with the other two to be held in reserve in case the primate vehicle failed. General Electric was responsible for developing the life-support systems for the mice and monkeys. A camera was placed between the monkey's legs during tests of the life-support system, so that the monkey's actions and emotional state could be observed. When the monkey's stomach got in the way, the engineers installed a mirror over its head and shifted the camera so that it picked up the monkey's reflection. In protest, the test monkey smeared feces all over the mirror. Even more serious, during ground tests of the primate life-support system, the monkeys kept dying.

Launches And Recoveries

Photoreconnaissance satellites had to be in a polar orbit to maximize their coverage of the globe, which spun beneath the satellite as it traveled from pole to pole. The existing launch facilities at Cape Canaveral could not be used because the launch vehicles would overfly populated areas. Camp Cooke, located near California's Point Arguello, already selected as the launch site for the WS-117L program's Atlas launch vehicles, was perfect for CORONA's purposes. A rocket launched from Cooke to the south would not overfly any populated areas. Cooke was also the home of the 672nd Strategic Missile Squadron, which operated the Thor booster. In October 1958 Cooke was renamed Vandenberg Air Force Base.

One feature of Vandenberg presented problems for CORONA (as well as all other launches from the base). The Southern Pacific Railroad tracks run directly through the base. Because CORONA satellites had to pass over the Soviet Union in daylight as well as be recovered near Hawaii in daylight, they had to be launched from Vandenberg in the afternoon. The overall launch window was thus broken into several smaller windows dictated by the Southern Pacific schedule. This was a safety concern, not a security concern-launch crews did not want to risk damaging a train if there was a launch failure.

Development of the CORONA payload and Agena upper stage continued throughout 1958. The initial camera design consisted of a reciprocating panoramic camera that would sweep through 70 degrees of arc and then slide back to its initial position. The film would travel forward to a take-up reel inside a gold-plated and insulated bucket (which looked more like a round-bottomed kettle).

Requirements for the camera system conflicted. It had to be sturdy enough to withstand the high vibration of a launch, but it also had to be light enough to be carried by the extremely weight-limited Thor launch vehicle of the time. Once it was in orbit, the camera's lens/film relationship had to be maintained very precisely even though vehicle temperature would vary considerably as it traveled from hot sunlight to cold darkness every 45 minutes. All of this had to occur within an extreme vacuum, which was not a normal operating environment for any previous camera system.

The Agena would serve as a second stage for the Thor, placing the payload in orbit and then supplying orbital power and stabilization. The Agena itself worked surprisingly well despite its complexity." Once in orbit, the Agena would immediately yaw 180 degrees so that the SRV faced the rear. This minimized the amount of gas used for stabilization and protected the reentry vehicle from molecular heating, a poorly understood but worrisome phenomenon.

Tests began on the reentry vehicle's recovery system. Although the balloon program that contributed the basic camera design to CORONA had used an aircraft recovery system, that system had never been perfected or used extensively. The newly established 6593rd Test Squadron began training to make in air snatches of payloads descending on parachutes. It operated out of Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, one of the bases attacked during the Pearl Harbor raid that had so galvanized the American intelligence program. Initial tests using various types of parachutes were disappointing. A different chute was also tested, again with disappointing results. The parachutes had high descent rates, making it difficult for planes to approach and snag the parachute lines. A new chute reduced the descent rate from 33 feet per second to 20 feet per second." If a capsule was missed and landed in the water, it would float while its strobe light flashed and its radio beacon emitted a steady signal. After one to three days, a plug made out of salt would dissolve and the capsule would fin with water and sink, thus preventing its recovery by an adversary....

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Pt. 1 The CORONA Story
1 Strategic Intelligence and U.S. Security: The Contributions of CORONA 21
2 CORONA: A Triumph of American Technology 29
3 The Development and Improvement of the CORONA Satellite 48
4 Postwar Strategic Reconnaissance and the Genesis of CORONA 86
5 A Strategy for Reconnaissance: Dwight D. Eisenhower and Freedom of Space 119
6 The National Reconnaissance Office: Its Origins, Creation, and Early Years 143
7 Zenit: The Soviet Response to CORONA 157
Pt. 2 Voices of the CORONA Pioneers
8 CORONA and the U.S. Presidents 173
9 The Origin and Evolution of the CORONA System 181
10 CORONA and the Revolution in Mapmaking 200
11 Exploiting CORONA Imagery: The Impact on Intelligence 215
App. A Program Overview and Camera Data 231
App. B Launch Listings 235
Notes 247
Contributors 289
Index 291
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