Cold War Espionage From Space

Modern satellites capture images digitally, but CORONA used film, which was stored in the nose cone and parachuted back to earth. Source: Smithsonian' National Air and Space Museum, NASM 97-15881-10.
Baikonur, in what is now Kazakhstan, housed the Soviet space base, but its primary purpose was to test intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The areas within the boxes are shown in detail in the following images. Source: USGS/Jason Ur, 1966.
Detail of Baikonur image. The Soviet nuclear missile complex is surrounded by several fences. The three silos at center have domed covers that would slide on rails to the left before launch. Source: USGS/Jason Ur, 1966.
Detail of Baikonur image. The primary launch pad, used for Sputnik, Gagarin’s flight, and ICBM tests. The basin below the pad funnels rocket exhaust out to the right. Source: Jason Ur/USGS, 1966.
Detail of Baikonur image. Surface-to-air missile battery. Source: USGS/Jason Ur, 1966.
Detail of Baikonur image. Helicopters and a plane on the cosmodrome’s airfield. Source: USGS/Jason Ur, 1966.
Detail of Baikonur image, Launch tracking station, with rocket fuel storage to the upper right. Source: USGS/Jason Ur, 1966.
China joined the world nuclear powers on October 16, 1964 with the detonation at Lop Nur in western China. CORONA satellites had identified the test area earlier (left), and took the righthand image of the site four days after the test

Events like the attack on Pearl Harbor and the first Soviet atom bomb test inspired America’s intelligence community to seek new tools to predict adversarial aggression. The CORONA program of spy satellites began in the 1950s and flew 120 successful missions. Most targeted the Soviet Union but other regions of interest were included, such as the Middle East.

The CORONA program identified Soviet missile bases, naval facilities, and airfields. At a time when Americans feared a “missile gap,” CORONA, as well as the later GAMBIT program, revealed that the gap actually favored the United States.

Photographs from the CORONA and GAMBIT programs were declassified by presidential order in 1995 and 2002. They are now used for environmental, historical, and archaeological research.