Eye in the Sky : The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites

Eye in the Sky : The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites (1998) edited by Dwayne Day, John Logsdon and Brian Latell is a fine book about the US Corona spy satellite program with a chapter on the similar Soviet Zenit program. The book is a collection of essays that was inspired by a conference on the history of the program that was held in 1995. The Corona and the Zenit program,were critical technology during the Cold War. They enabled the superpowers to gauge the military strength of their opponents accurately. The START treaties between the US and USSR would not have been possible with these satellites. The history of space exploration is incomplete without reference to the importance of the ICBM and satellite reconnaissance programs and their need for precision and control in space.

The book is a collection of essays which together provide an overview of the remarkable Corona program. The competition between the US Air Force, Army, Navy and the CIA in space is outlined along with President Eisenhower’s critical role in the creation of the NRO ( National Reconnaissance Organization) is described. Eisenhower understood the importance of reconnaissance and also did not trust or like the Air Force. The role of the 1957 International Geophysical Year (IGY) in establishing the legality of space overflight is also outlined. The book maintains that the US, which believed it could, and did, put up useful spy satellites first, was quite happy for the Soviets to have their own satellite’s first as this would establish the principle of freedom in space in contrast to state’s rights over airspace.

The Corona program was intended to be an interim program that would only last a few years until the more sophisticated SAMOS program took over but was rapidly more successful. The first successful return from Corona returned more film than the entire U2 program had. Even so, the first 12 launches of the Corona system were not successful. In one of the books chapters apparently some of the engineers maintained that each flight returned useful data, but even so there must have been a lot of faith kept in a program that took so many launches to achieve success. The program itself was originally pushed by giving one of the lead engineers drawings, giving him 2 months to work out how to build the satellite and then 2 months to build the first prototype. The achievement is just astronomical. The camera, built by Itek from Boston was also a fantastic achievement, built incredibly skillfully. The camera would also have to overcome some strange obstacles, the static in space would produce coronas on the film that were very hard to deal with.

The chapter on the Soviet Zenit program is fascinating. The Soviets were creating similar technology but made a few changes from the US systems. They chose to keep more of their system insulated from the vacuum of space which made their spy satellites heavier than the US ones and also more complicated. The US successfully obtained film from Corona in 1960, the Soviets took until 1963.

For anyone interested in a story of truly remarkable and crucial engineering achievement the book is well worth a read. 4/5

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