Discoverer-19: CORONA Meets Missile Detection

Fifty years ago today — December 20, 1960 — the Discoverer-19 satellite launched from Vandenberg AFB.

(Discoverer-19 “launch cover” postcard, cancelled the day of launch. From the “Unmanned Satellite Philately” site created by Don Hillger and Garry Toth at Colorado State University.)

Part of the CORONA program and listed as an Air Force photoreconnaissance satellite, Discoverer-19 “did not carry a film capsule,” but was launched “as a test for the MIDAS missile-detection system.” MIDAS, the “Missile Detection Alarm System,” was an infrared detection system and precursor to the Defense Support Program and Space-Based Infrared systems.

The National Reconnaissance Office produced an interesting history of MIDAS, declassified in the late 1990s. That history points out that Discoverer-19 carried instruments to measure the background IR radiation emitted by the Earth “to confirm the technical feasibility of the MIDAS concept.”

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Congratulations to the X-37B Team!

A little over 7 months after its launch, this morning the X-37B landed successfully at Vandenberg AFB, according to this VAFB press release.

(Artist’s conception of the X-37. NASA image.)

This program has elicited some interesting commentary in the press. As I wrote in the Space Warfare Forum the day after the launch,

I find it interesting that the news outlets make such frequent use of the word “secret” to describe something that a) they’ve been given pictures of and written articles about, and b) they knew ahead of time was going to launch. Fox News, “a mission shrouded in secrecy,” really? Metro UK, “secret military robot shuttle”? They don’t know what secrecy is.

What a far cry from the days when only the launch and payload crews knew what was on top of the rocket, and the first time most other people found out about the launch was when it thundered away in the distance. And most people never knew what the payload was.

For the curious, here’s more on the X-37 itself.

And again, congratulations to everyone involved — well done!

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First New Millennium Program Earth Observer

Ten years ago today — November 21, 2000 — the EO-1 (Earth Observing mission 1), was launched from Vandenberg AFB on a Delta-II rocket.

(EO-1 image of the island of Oahu. NASA image.)

EO-1 was the first earth-observing spacecraft in the New Millennium Program, a NASA program to use low-cost spacecraft to test new technologies.

The same Delta-II rocket also launched the Swedish Munin nanosatellite designed to research the formation of aurarae, and the SAC-C remote sensing satellite built by a coalition of the U.S., Argentina France, Italy, Denmark, and Brazil.


Update: Edited to note that EO-1’s status not as the first spacecraft in the NMP, but as the first earth-observing spacecraft in the NMP.

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Radar Mapping the Earth

Fifteen years ago today — November 4, 1995 — Canada’s RADARSAT-1 launched from Vandenberg AFB atop a Delta-II rocket.

(Artist’s conception of RADARSAT in orbit. National Snow and Ice Data Center image.)

RADARSAT employed a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to map the earth, with particular attention to “sea ice and terrestrial ice sheets.” The radar satellite program was directed by the Canadian Space Agency (you can visit their page devoted to RADARSAT-1), and was launched by NASA under a joint agreement which allowed NASA access to the spacecraft’s data.

Take a look at this fantastic radar mosaic of Antarctica, as well as this radar image of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, both from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

And finally, on the same Delta-II NASA also launched SURFSAT, an experiment supporting its Deep Space Network.

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Last Titan Launch

Five years ago today — October 19, 2005 — the last Titan-IV rocket launched from Vandenberg AFB. (The next-to-last Titan rocket had been launched successfully about six months earlier, on April 29th, from Cape Canaveral.)

(Final Titan-IV launch, Space Launch Complex 4, Vandenberg AFB. USAF image. Click to enlarge.)

The rocket carried a classified DoD payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.

This last Titan launch was a milestone of sorts for me, for two reasons.

First, I’d worked on Titan twice in my Air Force career — at Edwards AFB, supporting Titan-34D and Titan-IV test firings, and in the Titan System Program Office at Vandenberg, managing the engineering and contracting for the facility that stored and processed Titan-IV solid rocket motor upgrade segments. (If you ever come to my office, ask me about the piece of a failed Titan-IV that sits on my desk.)

Second, I’d written a speech for the Under Secretary of the Air Force to honor the final launch. It’s not often that the speeches we write for others have to do with things that are so special to us.

Each Titan was a huge, complex machine built to carry out a difficult task. It was an honor to be associated with the program.

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Space History at Two of My Duty Stations

Forty years ago today — October 14, 1970 — test pilot John A. Manke flew the X-24A lifting body on its first supersonic flight over Edwards AFB.

(X-24A on the lakebed at Edwards AFB. NASA image.)

The X-24A was one of several lifting bodies used to study Space Shuttle flight characteristics.

And 45 years ago today, in 1965, the second Orbiting Geophysical Observatory — OGO-2 — was launched by a Thor rocket from Vandenberg AFB. It was the first OGO launch from Vandy, and was placed in a polar orbit.

I feel privileged, and somewhat awed, to have served (and done some neat things) at both of those bases.

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Pegasus Launches HETE

Ten years ago today — October 9, 2000 — a Pegasus rocket launched the High Energy Transient Explorer (HETE 2) over the Kwajalein Missile Range in the Marshall Islands.

(Front view of the HETE-2 spacecraft mounted on the Pegasus rocket, before shroud installation. NASA image.)

Including an array of instruments from the U.S., France, and Japan, HETE-2 was designed to investigate cosmic gamma-ray bursts, “the biggest explosions since the Big Bang” according to this press release. HETE discovered that

The distinctive signature [of a short gamma-ray burst] is that of two neutron stars or a neutron star and a black hole merging, followed by a colossal explosion.

You can read more about the HETE mission on this NASA page and this MIT page.

The first HETE spacecraft had been placed in orbit by a Pegasus rocket on November 4, 1996, but it did not separate from the third stage and so was unable to perform its mission. The Pegasus for this mission originated out of Vandenberg AFB and was launched over Kwajalein from its L-1011 carrier aircraft.

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Operation Paperclip

Sixty-five years ago today — September 20, 1945 — “Operation Paperclip” brought Dr. Wernher von Braun and six other German scientists to the United States.

The first seven technicians arrived in the United States at New Castle Army Air Base, just south of Wilmington, Delaware, on September 20, 1945. They were then flown to Boston and taken by boat to the Army Intelligence Service post at Fort Strong in Boston Harbor. Later, with the exception of von Braun, the men were transferred to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to sort out the Peenemünde documents. These would be the documents that would enable the scientists to continue their rocketry experiments.

Finally, von Braun and his remaining Peenemünde staff were transferred to their new home at Fort Bliss, Texas, a large Army installation just north of El Paso. Whilst there they trained military, industrial and university personnel in the intricacies of rockets and guided missiles and helped to refurbish, assemble and launch a number of V-2s that had been shipped from Germany to the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico.

(From this article on Operation Paperclip.)

This Wikipedia article also mentions September 1945, though it locates Fort Strong in New York instead of Boston Harbor; in contrast, this article states that the first scientists did not come to the U.S. until November 18th.

But come to the U.S. they did, and they helped us win the space race. As Dan Berlinrut, one of my USAF colleagues, put it many years ago, we beat the Soviets to the Moon “because our Germans were better than their Germans.”

However, their Germans were very good — and the Russian rocket scientists were no slouches themselves. We see whose launch systems are being abandoned and whose continue to operate, don’t we?

We ran the space race as a sprint, but it’s really a marathon. Will we decide to run a different race, or will we continue to lag?


I missed a space anniversary yesterday: 50 years ago yesterday, on September 19, 1960, NASA launched an Argo D-8 rocket from Vandenberg AFB carrying the “Nuclear Emulsion Recovery Vehicle.” As stated on this history page, the suborbital launch “reached an altitude of 1,260 miles before landing 1,300 miles downrange where it was picked up by U.S. Navy ships. It was the first manmade object to travel to such an altitude in space and be recovered upon its return to Earth.” (It was also NASA’s first launch from Vandy.)

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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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Spy Satellite Proof-of-Concept Launch, 50 Years Ago

A half-century ago today — August 10, 1960 — Discoverer-13 launched from Vandenberg AFB on a Thor-Agena rocket.

(President Eisenhower presented with U.S. flag flown inside Discoverer capsule. Dwight D. Eisenhower Library image from the National Air & Space Museum.)

Discoverer-13, and indeed the entire Discoverer series of spacecraft, was part of the highly classified CORONA program managed by the National Reconnaissance Office. Discoverer-13 did not take any images itself, however, as it was used to prove that all the systems would work. Discoverer-14 took the program’s first images a few days later.

The Discoverer-13 capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and became the first man-made object recovered from space. The first segment of this YouTube newsreel video shows President Eisenhower being presented with a U.S. flag that flew inside the capsule.

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