Early this morning, the U.S. Air Force tweeted that today marks the 50th anniversary of their first orbiting satellite being launched into space. The satellite referenced in the tweet, known as OV1-2, carried a suite of instruments to better understand the space environment. But was it really the Air Force’s first satellite?
OV1-2 was launched from Vandenberg AFB on the central California coast, blasting into orbit atop an Atlas-D rocket. This rocket was really just an intercontinental ballistic missile, which the Air Force tested regularly during this era. By configuring the rocket to carry small research satellites such as OV1-2 on the Atlas-D’s upper stage, the Air Force was able to maximize the lessons learned from every launch opportunity.
However, by 1965 America had already sent several astronauts into orbit and had even successfully completed flybys of Venus and Mars. So for the military to be lagging behind the country’s civilian space agency (NASA) by several years doesn’t make much sense, and that’s because the Air Force did have a hand in successfully launching satellites prior to OV1-2. In fact, they even recovered some of those early satellites in mid-air (more on this in a moment) years before OV1-2 ever left the pad.
By the latter half of the 1950s, America was racing to keep pace with the Soviet Union in space. Under the program name “Discoverer,” the U.S. Air Force began a reconnaissance satellite program in 1956, aiming to improve Cold War strategy by returning images of the Soviet Union from orbit. However, in 1958 the Pentagon transferred the program to ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), which was the predecessor to today’s DARPA agency.
The “Discoverer” name for this early spy satellite program was actually a cover for its real designation, “Corona.” On February 28th, 1959, “Discoverer 1,” which was really the first test flight of a “Corona” spacecraft, successfully reached polar orbit. In July of the same year, a subsequent mission and spacecraft called “Discoverer 4” would’ve been the first satellite to carry a camera, although it failed to achieve orbit. Even though these programs were officially run by ARPA at the time, the Air Force contributed heavily to their development and funding.
The “Discoverer”/”Corona” program was eventually transferred to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in 1961, a highly secretive intelligence agency that has been referred to as the nation’s secret space program. Despite its multi-billion dollar budget, the very existence of the NRO wasn’t declassified until 1992. The “Corona” program wasn’t declassified until 1995.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the technology to transmit images wirelessly from space didn’t exist, so images from the “Corona” satellites had to be returned in a very rudimentary fashion. This was accomplished by shooting a canister containing the camera’s film back down to Earth, where aircraft attempted to intercept the canister in mid-air. This risky mid-air retrieval method was also intended for NASA’s Genesis spacecraft, which crashed spectacularly into the Utah desert on its reentry in 2004.
Even though the Air Force’s tweet wasn’t really telling the whole story, their presence in space is now greater than ever before. Today, the U.S. Air Force operates a multitude of assets in space, including communication satellites, weather satellites, spy satellites and even the shadowy X-37B spaceplane, which is currently in orbit on its fourth mission.
Meanwhile, OV1-2 (the Air Force’s “first” satellite) remains in orbit today, circling the Earth every 112.9 minutes. While it may be the first satellite fully managed and operated by the flying branch, it is important to acknowledge the role that the military has played in proving space technology since our earliest days in space.
Stay tuned for more space-themed stories all week long as Flight Club celebrates World Space Week!
Photo credit: Top shot via embedded tweet/USAF, Corona film recovery graphic via NRO/Wikicommons
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