Cresting America's First Spy Satellite Captain James S. Coolbaugh and the Student Airman at MIT.

Author:Wildenberg, Thomas

CORONA was the codename for the highly classified program conducted by the CIA and the Air Force during the 1960s that produced the United States' first spy satellite using the Discover space exploration program as a cover. Launched into polar orbit on U.S. Air Force Thor boosters, CORONA satellites took pictures of the Soviet Union while in orbit one hundred miles above the earth. The exposed film capsule was ejected from the spacecraft in reinforced capsules and captured by parachute from specially equipped aircraft. The photographs photos retrieved from CORONA, were crucial in enabling U.S. military debunk the so called "missile gap" that some American experts had been advocating. By eliminating the guesswork regarding the Soviet military's capability during an era when the threat for nuclear conflict loomed large, CORONA and the subsequent satellite reconnaissance systems that followed, as a deterrent against the outbreak of nuclear war.

Included in the small group of CIA, Air Force, and industry experts, who were tasked with designing this first spy satellite, where three young Air Force officers attending MIT. Their role in CORONA's engineering development began after Air Force Capt. James S. Coolbaugh's visit to the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory in the early part of 1955. The laboratory, under the direction of Dr. Charles Stark Draper, better known as "Doc" to his students and associates, was the leading center of research for guidance and control in the United States. Coolbaugh was there seeking information on the guidance and control system needed for the reconnaissance satellite the Air Force was developing. (1)

Two years earlier, Captain Coolbaugh, a graduate o the U.S. Military Academy with a master's degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan, was assigned to the New Developments Office of the Bombardment Missile Division at Wright Air Development Center in Dayton, Ohio. (2) One of his duties was to study the use of drone aircraft at for reconnaissance mission. This was undoubtedly the reason he was name in December 1953 to head the Air force's first satellite in the New Developments Project Office, becoming the first Air Force Officer assigned to space reconnaissance systems. (3)

During his call at Doc's laboratory, Coolbaugh learned that three Air Force reserve officers enrolled the master's degree program at MIT were doing theses on a horizon scanner program for one of the reconnaissance projects his office was working on. (4) The students had signed up for Doc's two-year program for military officers in the Weapons Systems Section of the Aeronautical Engineering Department. (5) The Air Force sponsored the students in exchange for a three-year tour of duty after they graduated.

The Weapons System program, previously known as the Armament Engineering and the Fire Control sequence of study, was initiated by Draper after the end of World War II in order to prepare military officers with sufficient science, engineering, and practical experience to permit them to fulfill assignments as research and development project officers. (6) His aim was to educate these officers so that they could "hold their own" with professional scientists and engineers should they find themselves in such assignments. By participating in the internships available in the Instrumentation Laboratory and completing the thesis requirements provided these officers with a practical understanding of engineering, research, and the personnel involved. Doc was responsible for the course until he became head of the Department in 1951, at which time his teaching responsibilities, as well as coordination of the program was turned over to Walter Wrigley.

When Coolbaugh discovered that Doc's students could contribute to the laboratory's research on the Air Forces's satellite program, he requested, and Doc agreed, that it would be to the Air Force's advantage to assign several graduate students to work on a reconnaissance satellite that had been tagged Weapons System 117L (WS-117L) by, Lockheed Aircraft, the prime contractor. (7) The satellite being developed under the WS-117L program was designed to photograph the earth's surface and beam its images back to earth via a television camera. It was based on a report submitted by the Rand Corporation on March 1,1954, for an unmanned reconnaissance satellite called Project Feedback. (8) The satellite would deliver images to a resolution of 100 feet while operating 300 miles above the earth.

Three Air Force graduate students assigned to the classified project were Lieutenants John C. "Jack" Herther, Malcolm R. Malcomson, and William...

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