These days, it’s easy to take for granted just how amazing Google Maps is. Not only is Google’s mapping service incredibly useful for getting where you want to go, the satellite imagery it provides is the stuff straight out of old school spy movies.
Before Google Maps became a ubiquitous service accessible to anyone with a smartphone, taking photographic stock of specific geographic regions of the world was a luxury exclusively afforded to the world’s most powerful spy agencies.
To that end, this past week marked the 20th anniversary of the CIA’s acknowledgement and declassification of CORONA, the United States’ first photoreconnaissance satellite.
Developed in the late 1950s, CORONA’s mission was plainly simple; keep tabs on the USSR and identify key missile production facilities and launch sites. After the first 13 attempts to launch CORONA failed, the first successful mission into orbit was finally completed in August of 1960.
Highlighting the efficacy and impact of the program, the CIA previously explained that one CORONA mission yielded more photographs of Soviet targets than all previous U2 overflights combined.
It’s hard to imagine a world without Google maps or satellite imagery, but when CORONA was developed in the 1950s, satellite photo-reconnaissance didn’t exist.
During its operational life, CORONA collected over 800,000 images in response to the national security requirements of the time. On average, individual images covered a geographic area on the Earth’s surface of approximately 10×120 miles.
Particularly fascinating is how images captured by CORONA were relayed back down to earth. Specifically, CORONA would release a capsule of exposed film — attached to a parachute — back down to earth where it was subsequently scooped up in mid-air over the Pacific ocean.
The following video, put together by the CIA, reveals a number of interesting tidbits about the entire process.