Declassified is an original Phoblographer series that digs deep into historical documents to examine how the government used photography. Hit the Listen to this Article button to follow along with the story.
If we mention the word Corona today, we’d be referring to the virus. That’s just the way of common vernacular. In the early 1970s, though, the word meant something different to the CIA. Corona was the name of a spy satellite. And according to many documents, it’s one of the first spy satellites. Satellites were used for many things back in the day. In an earlier Declassified episode, we talked about their use by civilians. In fact, citizens gathered lots of information about the Russians with their satellites at home. As the predecessor to drones, satellite use by common folk quickly fell out of favor. And none of them were as capable as the Corona.
Wikipedia states that this satellite was used for spying on both Russia and China. The process seemed a bit insane for today. The images needed to be shot, developed, scanned, and beamed over to stations. Today, we’d just do the equivalent of shooting and beaming the photos. Digital photography back then was nowhere what it is today. And after the CIA spent so many years with color and black and white film tests, this would have been a daunting task.
We’re a photography website, first and foremost. And you’re probably most interested in the imaging capabilities. A 68-page document released in 2005 references the Corona. It details the top-secret cameras it uses. First off, it was rooted in experiments done during World War II. The US was relying on other countries for better optics. But they found they were able to do it all themselves. They just needed skilled photographers. Quite literally, that’s what it’s implying.
The document details a variety of cameras trialed over the years. Many use a 40 inch f5 Tessar lens. And entire post along can be done on all of these cameras. So if you really want to dive into it, we suggest you click the document link and check them out. But one of the most interesting ones was the I-3 camera, which used a Petzval lens. If you’re unfamiliar with these, just think about swirly bokeh. We’ve written about a number of them. This is incredibly intriguing because we don’t typically consider these lenses to be high-resolution. But the CIA states that this lens was a massive step forward for them. There’s a discussion of panoramic cameras and stereographic cameras both. It was designed to use EK 3414 film. When we looked into that film, we got NASA and Kodak Secret Lab facilities giving us results. NASA called it a Skylab film. They also believe that it’s close to Plus-X, which isn’t available in America right now. It’s an interesting name, as I’d otherwise believe they were using Ektachrome Slide film.
Satellites became super popular. As we’ve talked about before, everyday folk got them. They’d use them to spy on the Russians and even their own neighbors. Eventually, they became regulated. The government grew concerned about terrorist activity. And we wouldn’t even think about them again until Drones came about.
A special thanks to Matt Lewis for this one.