Of Course the First Object Ever Recovered From Orbit Was for Spying

By Andrew Tarantola on at

In the early days of the US satellite surveillance programme, orbital cameras employed state-of-the-art technologies to get the physical film back to Earth for development and analysis. They shot it back into the atmosphere like 130-kilo bullets, and tried to catch the falling canisters by their parachutes using a passing plane armed with a sky hook. No, seriously.

Throughout the late 1950s and into the 1970s, the US Air Force ran a top secret spy satellite programme called Corona(that was the actual codename, not some convoluted acronym) to keep tabs on the Red Chinese and Soviets. The programme leveraged the optical prowess of six hulking, satellites orbiting 100 miles above the planet, individually codenamed "Keyhole" and each armed with ever-increasingly sophisticated imaging systems. The first iterations used a single-panoramic camera measuring roughly five feet (1.5m) in length with a 12-inch (30cm), f/5 triplet lens, which quickly evolved into nine-foot-long (2.7m) double-panoramic rigs with Petzval f/3.5 lenses by 1962.

These cameras would be loaded with a whopping 16,000 feet (4,876m) of 7.6 µm-thick acetate film capable of rendering 170 lines of resolution per millimetre of film — more than three times the 50 lines per mm that the best plane - based images of WWII could provide. When the 130-kilo role was fully exposed, the satellite would jettison the film in a specialised re-entry canister dubbed the "film bucket".

Built by GE, the film bucket measured 29 inches (73cm) long with a 17 inch (43cm) diameter. It was constructed of aluminium but clad in a gold heatshield and equipped with a parachute to break its momentum once it broke through the atmosphere as well as a salt plug that would sink the capsule to the bottom of the ocean should the US Navy not be able to retrieve it within 48 hours.

That is assuming, of course, that the gently falling parcel wasn't first plucked from the air by a passing USAF plane's trailing airborne claw.

Of Course the First Object Ever Recovered From Orbit Was for Spying

Given the highly classified nature of the operation, the USAF (working in conjunction with the CIA) performed a test run of the retrieval system before entrusting actual intelligence photographs to it. As such, the record for first man-made object to be recovered from orbit goes to the Discovery XIII re-entry module, recovered from the seas near Hawaii on August 11, 1960.

It carried a slew of magnesium-constructed instruments in lieu of film. The Discoverer XIV, however did carry film as did every Corona satellite for the next decade until the programme's termination. In all 144 Corona satellites are known to have launched and a reported 102 returned serviceable photographs. [Smithsonian - Wiki]