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CORONA and Spy Satellites

On February 22, 1995, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12951, a directive instructing the declassification of all images obtained from America’s first group of spy satellites: CORONA, ARGON, and LANYARD. Before this point, no spy satellite photos had ever been released to the public. In fact, although the intelligence achieved as a result of satellite reconnaissance played an integral role in the formation of U.S. foreign policy towards countries like the Soviet Union and China during the 1960s and 1970s, the American public had no knowledge of the secret activity until 1978 when President Jimmy Carter disclosed the U.S. relied on satellite images to monitor arms control treaties. The recent release of the satellite imagery therefore, signifies not only an end to the silence surrounding the American space reconnaissance program but also represents another advance in the gradual disclosure of Cold War secrets.

As a result of the unexpected Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, government officials looked to reorganize the American system of intelligence so as to ensure that the country never again be surprised by the actions of a foreign power. Members of the War Department and the Office of Scientific Research and Development agreed that the establishment of a private “think tank” would help produce more efficient intelligence gathering because such an organization could bridge the gap between recent scientific research and military strategy. Formed in December 1945, Project RAND (composed of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and psychologists) soon began offering advice on how the government could better scrutinize the actions of its potential enemies. Aware that the U.S. implemented U-2 spy plane missions over Soviet territory between 1955 and 1958 to learn more about the country’s military capabilities, RAND nonetheless recommended a different type of investigation — a man-made satellite that would take photographs from space. Unnerved by the Soviet launch of their own artificial satellite Sputnik in October 1957, President Eisenhower authorized the C.I.A. to secretly develop spy satellites to protect the interests of the United States both at home and abroad.

Recent technological advances such as radar, computers, and rocket engine design, in addition to the fear that the launch of Sputnik might signal a new period of Soviet scientific supremacy over the U.S., prompted the government to act quickly in the creation of a satellite reconnaissance system. The centerpiece of the effort, CORONA, soon revolutionized the art of assembling intelligence. Between 1959 and 1972, the government launched 145 CORONA satellites aimed at uncovering the essential military secrets of the Soviet Union and other potentially hostile foreign nations. During these 13 years, the CORONA satellites took pictures of military targets and returned the exposed film back to Earth in reinforced capsules, providing American leaders with essential information otherwise unobtainable. For instance, owing to photos retrieved from CORONA, the U.S. military determined that whereas the “missile gap” proposed by American experts did in fact exist, it actually favored the United States, not the Soviet Union.

Since the first successful launch of a CORONA satellite returned more photos of the Soviet Union than the 24 combined U-2 spy missions, satellite reconnaissance rapidly occupied an essential position in the determination of U.S. foreign policy towards cold war adversaries like the Soviet Union. Rather than being forced to make vague predictions about the military strength of other nations, American leaders used the data retrieved from satellites to form specific strategy initiatives. All in all, CORONA and the subsequent satellite reconnaissance systems served as the foundation for US space policy during the Cold War. By eliminating the guesswork regarding the military arsenals of nations around the world, during an era when the threat for nuclear conflict loomed large, the American satellite program actually served as a deterrent against the outbreak of war.

Research by Kathleen Johnson Volunteer for the Cold War Museum


Broad, William J. “Big Picture of Cold War: U.S. Spy Photos Go Public.” The New York Times [New York] 25 February 1995.

Day, Dwayne A., Logsdon, John M. and Latell, Brian, eds. Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Peebles, Curtis. The Corona Project: America’s First Spy Satellites. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.

Stares, Paul B. The Militarization of Space. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. Rand. [accessed 24, June 2002] (

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