Project CORONA - A Tribute to my Father

Back in the late 1950’s, at the height of the Cold War, one of the first “black ops” was authorized by President Eisenhower to develop and launch a spy satellite to obtain direct evidence about whether the Soviet Union actually had the ICBM’s they claimed. The plan was to launch a satellite containing a camera, orbit over the Soviet Union, eject the film in a capsule, and recover the film for interpretation. Originally a joint CIA and DOD effort, a new agency was created, the National Reconnaissance Office, to both sponsor this effort and interpret the data. No one had launched anything into space and recovered it before so this team had serious challenges. The effort was undertaken with urgency which also added to the challenges.

My father, Robert Chamberlin, was tapped early on to design and shepherd the recovery vehicle. He worked for General Electric, the recovery subcontractor. He was the Chief Systems Engineer for the SRV and instrumental in the success of this mission.

Project CORONA was one of the most highly classified projects at the time. My father told me once that even knowing the name of the project was a breach of security if the person was not on the project. None of our family or friends knew exactly what he was working on. But for some reason he always knew when a satellite was going to pass over and took the family out to watch at night.

The project lasted into the 1970’s but was finally declassified in 1995. At that point all the living personnel were invited to a ceremony to honor the team for their effort. Among other things we watched a secret video that was recorded over the life of the project where several Secretaries of State, Directors of CIA, National Security Advisors, and Presidents who spoke directly to the camera and testified about the critical nature and value this project provided in keeping the world safe. Another much larger event was held at the National Air and Space museum with several thousand people in attendance from all agencies and companies involved. The museum has on display on the the actual recovery vehicle capsules.

The original recovery vehicle project manager, Ingard Clausen, spent many years after this contacting all the remaining project members he could find and asked them to tell the story of this project from each of their perspectives. He struggled to get this material pulled together in a book. I joined him in editing the material around 2005. We finally got the National Reconnaissance Office to accept the material and combined with other history they published the book. Chapter 15 is my father’s account.

Recently the NRO has made a PDF of the book available as a PDF file you can download from their web site. The URL is https://www.nro.gov/Portals/65/documents/history/csnr/corona/Intel_Revolution_Web.pdf

There is other fascinating material on the NRO site that is worth exploring. Just check https://www.nro.gov/