First Successful CORONA Mission

Fifty years ago today — August 18, 1960 — Discoverer-14 launched from Vandenberg AFB. It was known to the public by that name, but to insiders in what would become the National Reconnaissance Office it was known as CORONA Mission 9009.

(Aerial recovery of Discoverer-14. USAF image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Discoverer-14 was the first CORONA mission in which the film canisters were successfully recovered from orbit.

The National Space Science Data Center describes the film recovery process:

Over Alaska on the 17th pass around the earth, the Agena ejected Discoverer 14 from its nose and retrorockets attached to the reentry vehicle fired to slow it for the return from orbit. After Discoverer 14 reentered the atmosphere, it released a parachute and floated earthward. The descending parachute was sighted 360 miles southeast of Honolulu, Hawaii, by the crew of a US Air Force C-119 recovery aircraft from the 6593rd Test Squardon based at Hickam AFB, Hawaii. On the C-119’s third pass over the parachute, the recovery gear trailing behind the aircraft successfully snagged the parachute canopy. A winch operator aboard the C-119 then reeled in the Discoverer after its 27-hour, 450,000 mile journey through space. This was the first successful recovery of film from an orbiting satellite and the first aerial recovery of an object returning from Earth orbit.

The NSSDC also notes that “38 Discoverer satellites were launched by February 1962,” although the CORONA project itself continued until 1972. CORONA was declassified in 1995.

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