You Won't Believe How the First Spy Satellites Worked


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You Won't Believe How the First Spy Satellites Worked



When the first Spy satellites were put into orbit they were a long way from the type of reconnaissance satellites and even Google Earth that we are used to now and you won’t believe what they did to get the images back to Earth. This is the story of project Corona and how it changed the way we look at the world.

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Presented by Paul Shillito

Written and Researched by Paul Shillito

Images and Footage:
USAF, NRO, CIA, IWM

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46 Comments

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  1. There seems to have been a lot of comments about the title and it being click-bait but to be totally honest i never even thought about it like that. I wrote it as something to stand out to a generation that has known nothing but the electronic transfer of information. People forget that not that long ago and in my lifetime we did fly to the moon with less power than an iPhone and in an analogue pre-computer world (pre 1980) dropping real film from space was just the way it was done. It's really quite surprising just how well the "old style" of doing things worked even though now it looks incredibly old fashioned, slow and inefficient compared to now. It's only up until quite recently like 20 years, the film had higher resolution than digital imagery and for intelligence, they needed that quality. That aside even in 1960's they tried developing the film on the satellite , scanning it electronically and then beaming it back with the SAMOS satellites but they were so unreliable that they gave up and carried on with a method that worked and up until the 1980's.

  2. In the 1980s I worked in the US Army Satcom program at an intercept/listening post in Germany. We used to listen to foreign radio transmissions and could direction find the sources world-wide. Our job was to take the data that they found and send it to the "No Such Agency" (NSA) in Maryland. Not far from us was another site that downloaded video from spy satellites to send to the same place. Every day at a certain time the antennas would start moving across the sky as the satellites came over the horizon and downloaded the data. They finally figured out that the Russians had people sitting in cars noting the times and locations so they put the dishes inside geodesic bubbles. I believe that was the DSCS 2 or 3 system.

  3. The intelligence agencies told us the USSR would not have the atomic bomb for 50 years. Four years later, the USSR had the bomb. They told us we need to send troops into Vietnam because China and the Soviets were allied, when in fact the Chinese and Soviets had split. They saw no reason to track Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, but spied on Martin Luther King. They insisted the Soviets wanted to build a hydrogen bomb when in fact the Kremlin wanted to avoid having to build the H-bomb.
    We didn't need satellites to keep peace. We needed intelligence agencies and politicians who saw what was really there, instead of seeing what they wanted to see to further their ambitions of building weapons we did not need.

  4. 0:20 Шариков, Полиграф Полиграфович, замаскировавшись под Никсона, изучает секретные американские технологии, чтобы потом взять всё и поделить.

  5. I worked on the airplanes and helicopters at Hickam AFB that snatched the film packs out of the air, later in the program, mid 70's. We were using C-130's and H-53's, prior to that we had H-3's and a helicopter carrying ship. I got there right at the time we switched from H-3's to air refuelable H-53 that were coming back from Vietnam so the ship was no longer necessary. A very good friend of mine worked in the photo lab, although he never talked about what he actually did there. It was interesting times, the C-130 either were full of fuel bladders to refuel the helicopters or had a big winch with a hook to snag the chute of the film canisters. The helicopters carried para-rescue personel that would jump into the water to rescue the film incase the C-130's missed catching it before it hit the water.

  6. You didn't mention that these spy satellites had to enclose the film in pressurized containers because the film off gassed and delaminated when not under pressure in a vacuum. The pressure wasn't great just over one pound per square in did the job. The sealed pressurized containers were necessary. That brings up the question how Apollo chest cameras were able to work without such pressure vessels. Their film wasn't anything special. Several different films were used on the Apollo missions: Kodak Panatomic-X fine-grained, 80 ASA, b/w film, Kodak Ektachrome SO-68, Kodak Ektachrome SO-121, and super light-sensitive Kodak 2485, 16,000 ASA film. Since the Hasselblad camera they used were not equipped with any such pressurization how did the film deliver such great photos? Just the greatness of all things Apollo I suppose or will you just tell me that the film was specially made? It wasn't improved to withstand a vacuum. So why did the spy satellites need pressurization and Apollo cameras didn't. Think hard for your excuse!

  7. There is a manhole cover at each of these focusing targets, on one of the cross segments, concealing a small chamber. (That's the dot you see to the left of center in the aerial view) To date, I have not been able to discover what these were for and no one seems to know. I'd love to know if anyone has information on these.

    The collection of planes near the end of the video would seem to be the AMARG facility (aka "the bone yard") outside Tucson, AZ, next to Davis-Monthan AFB.

    On the Tell Rifaat image, note what seems to be a defensive trench or hill around a portion of the settlement. Details like that can often go unnoticed from the ground. (When you're on top of it, you don't realize its significance because you can't see all of it.) That's some of the value of these old photos. Now Google Earth is doing much the same thing, cataloguing changes over years and allowing you to view past images of a given area at much higher resolutions than you could with Corona or its successors.

  8. Hold on. So those ground markers used for testing photo quality. Does this explain the symbols in the cornfields people were freaking out about back in the 90s? Man-made for the same purposes?

  9. Like everybody else who has watched this video, I don't believe it! How can I when your title clearly states that I won't? If only you did not include the first three words of your title, I might have believed it, but, NO, you decided to hype up otherwise very interesting material.

  10. I remember a beaming Eisenhower on TV or the newsreel smiling as he held up a Flag on camera. "First satellite that sent experiments in to space orbit and recovered them", eager for details I thought that's all there is in it a flag. I was expecting mice or monkeys. Who knew?