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Book Report “The Corona Project” by Curtis Peebles

Curtis Peebles is empowering readers with the newly declassified information on how the first American satellites were set into use for intelligence gathering. Through his book, The Corona Project: Americas First Spy Satellites, the author gives detailed information on the birth of the satellite program by watching the Corona project from its beginnings in the late 1940s to the declassification of the project and its exhibitions at the Smithsonians National Air and Space Museum. The book begins with a look into World War II and how the event of Pearl Harbor pressed the need for aerial reconnaissance.

The first chapter gives the different technological challenges that had to be faced in order to achieve aerospace superiority. This chapter takes a close look into the development of the WS-117L reconnaissance satellite and how the two projects are related. The main thrust that the project received was from the launch of Sputnik I. With the Soviets now seemingly ahead, the author explains how the project was taken away from the Air Force who was failing with the WS-117L and passed the mission onto the CIA for the development of the Corona satellites.

Peebles explains that the difference between the two programs is that the WS-117L promised almost real-time through radio-transmitted imagery while the Corona missions would drop the film from the nose cone for development. The engineering team faced numerous challenges in the task of getting the satellites into orbit as explained in chapter three. The chapter covers blundering trial after trial and the success finally achieved by Discoverer 13 after delivering its payload (an empty capsule) undamaged to the earths surface.

Peebles goes into depth about the first sets of films that were recovered and developed in chapters four through six and then goes into depth about how this new satellite program revolutionized the capabilities that the Americans now had in aerial reconnaissance. Peebles covers the continuing evolution of the KH or Key Hole cameras used aboard the Corona satellites. The author talks extensively about the Kennedy administration and the Corona project, which lead to the increase of security as the project grew. The bread and butter of the information provided in the text can be found in chapters seven through nine.

In these chapters the author provides detailed information about how the satellite preformed operations. Furthermore, Peebles begins sharing new information about recently declassified photography of Soviet (and a few other countries) installations. The humorous encounters that the imagery interpreters encountered on the job gives the reader a good relief in these chapters. The final two chapters put the program on its final missions and shows how the satellites have advanced in imagery. These pages show that the satellite has progressed enough to properly confirm small fighter aircraft by the projects end.

The author gives a good historical playback of the project by reviewing the lessons and the continuing importance of the imagery taken in the Corona years for comparative coverage today. Peebles talks briefly about the importance of Corona during the cold war years and how it contributed to the overall success of overcoming the Soviet Union. The author includes in the book an appendix that is invaluable to any satellite or space historian that gives extensive detailed information on each of the 145 Corona flights.

The pages of the appendix give detailed information about each of the Key Hole cameras used during the missions and how large of an area that they were capable of covering. The detailed mission catalog shows the timeline of how the different missions covered the earths surface as well as how the capabilities (or camera resolution) improved overtime. It is interesting to note that the cameras started out with a resolution of forty feet and ended up with a six-foot resolution by the projects end.

Peebles goal of breaking down the history of the Corona project was fulfilled with this text. The information was found to be plentiful and sometimes a bit overwhelming, but not incomprehensible. From the different specifications of camera lenses to the overall success story of the Corona project, the author successfully demonstrated a detailed historical account of the project as well as the individual missions that the satellite undertook. As an imagery analyst, I found the information provided on the satellites capabilities to be utterly captivating.

From the start of the program only an airstrip could be identified and only a decade later, the aircraft on that airstrip could be counted. The great accomplishment made in the twelve years of the project is definitely the improved resolution from forty feet to six feet (although planned for two feet). This type of progress, nearly 300 percent improvement, in such a short period of time has not been experienced since. The authors appendixes and charts give good insight into the timeline and the overall achievements of the program as well.

With the improvement of the resolution capabilities of the satellite, the Corona satellites greatly improved the platforms for imagery intelligence utilized in the U-2 program. With the new satellite photos of the 1960s, the entire battlefield could be outlined and military forces could be counted. The United States took a more comfortable approach to the cold war and didnt have to view the Soviets as such a big threat due to the improvement in imagery intelligence through the new Corona satellite systems.

The Corona Project: Americas First Spy Satellites is a must read in order to fully understand the beginnings of imagery intelligence as well as the utilization of satellite platforms with the theory of spin stabilizing. The author gives a good understanding of how painstaking the tasks were just to get the satellite into orbit as well as getting the images from the satellites hull (the nose cone) back to the earths surface. Curtis Peebles makes a somewhat complicated program easy to understand by starting from the basics and then building the readers knowledge on what is currently being instructed in the text.

Much more is taught than just the Corona Project. Peebles takes the reader to the administrations of the late 1950s to the early 1970s in order to give an inside look at the decision making process of the President as well as other key official department heads. One of the most impressive parts of this book that I found was the continuous references that Peebles makes to personal memorandums and conversations held by officials of the projects years.

The authors collection of hand-held snapshots, depicting individual engineers and other personnel that were involved with the project, gives a more personal attachment to the people associated with the project. It is sometimes hard to think about the hundreds or even thousands of people that had to be cleared and entrusted with the mission to document as much of the assets located behind the iron curtain. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone seeking information on how the United States began to embark on the task of aerial reconnaissance from above the earths atmosphere.

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