CORONA was a classified effort within the Air Force's Weapon System 117L (WS-117L), awarded to Lockheed in 1956. As the program from which all space reconnaissance evolved, WS-117L is best understood in relation to earlier programs. < 1 >
In the early years of the Eisenhower administration, concern gave way to alarm as intelligence sources revealed several Soviet technical accomplishments that for the first time put American soil at risk of a nuclear surprise attack, including: test of a hydrogen bomb in 1953; operation in 1955 of the BISON bomber; and hints of a ballistic missile program. As Soviet expansionism increased, Soviet homeland activities became increasingly secretive, eliminating the reassurance a nation normally obtained from knowing, day-to-day, what another nation was doing.
Rejection of a 1955 initiative to exchange military installation blueprints with regular aerial photographs of each site led Eisenhower to conclude that "Khrushchev's own purpose was evident--at all costs to keep the USSR a closed society." Such an intention was a call to action. "When the Soviets rejected Open Skies . . . I conceded that more intelligence about their war-making capabilities was a necessity." < 2 >
Following the rebuff, Eisenhower, on December 27, 1955, authorized a project of camera-carrying balloons called GENETRIX. Flying at altitudes of up to 90,000 feet, the balloons drifted across the Soviet land mass, photographing areas of interest, then were recovered in mid-air over the Pacific ocean. Flights began on January 22, 1956, and were continued until February 24 with 516 releases. The operation was discontinued because of vigorous Soviet objection.
Intelligence gathering resumed as the U2 aircraft began operation on July 4, 1956, though sparingly and discreetly until May 1, 1960, when Francis Gary Powers was shot down during a flight from Pakistan to Norway. When the President decided to cancel additional aircraft overflights, the U.S. was, once again, "blind."< 3 >
In 1957, the USSR took the lead in the space race with an August flight of an intercontinental ballistic missile, causing dismay since the U.S. had suffered five highly publicized missile test flights that year, all failures. Immediately after the Soviet success, the expression "missile gap" came into use. The scope of national anxiety was reflected in Eisenhower's statement that "there was rarely a day when I failed to give earnest study to reports of our progress and to estimates of Soviet capabilities." < 4 >
The USSR placed the first satellite, Sputnik, in orbit on October 4, 1957. One month later, Sputnik II was launched, with a live dog as passenger. The U.S. responded by launching the Navy's Vanguard satellite in early December, which in full television view of the American public, malfunctioned and was destroyed by fire on the launching pad.
Amid the turmoil, U.S. Defense Secretary Neil H. McElroy authorized the acceleration of WS-117L to proceed "at the maximum rate consistent with good management." < 5 > Five earlier achievements made satellites now possible: (1) availability of the Thor booster in 1957; (2) development of the Agena spacecraft for housing and operating payloads; (3) reentry vehicles developed for ballistic missiles that could shield the payload's fiery return to Earth; (4) an improved GENETRIX-model camera for satellite use; and (5) GENETRIX-proven equipment and techniques for retrieval of payloads.
The need for WS-117 was outlined in 1954 by Air Force General Operational Requirement No. 80. A government board in March 1956 recommended selection of Lockheed's proposal and a letter contract issued on October 29 made Lockheed the prime contractor for WS-117L. On January 1, 1957, Lockheed established its first Space Systems organization in Palo Alto, California, which was later moved to Sunnyvale.
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