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Peterson Space Observer

Discoverer 14 changed the face of reconnaissance

By Danan Pacheco | 30th Space Wing Public Affairs

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Almost 50 years ago, the Discoverer 14 satellite, equipped with a Thor and Agena booster, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and became the world’s low-resolution photo surveillance spacecraft. The Discoverer project was under the codename Corona 14 to mask the sensitive nature of the program and collected over 800,000 photographs during roughly 100 missions from 1960-1972.

According to Scott Bailey, 30th Space Wing historian, the Discoverer 14 operation was managed by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force in order to monitor opposing threats at the time. These threats included producing assessments of enemy deployment of long-range strategic missiles and the photos acquired from the satellite were used to produce maps and charts for the DoD and other U.S. government mapping programs.

On August 18, 1960, the Discoverer 14 was launched from Vandenberg AFB with the Thor booster, helping the spacecraft to excel to over 17,000 miles per hour.

The following day, the second stage Agena booster ejected the Discoverer 14 from its nose. After successfully capturing its intended photo surveillance mission, a payload ejection system helped propel the film canister back to earth to descend back into the planet’s atmosphere.

Bailey shared that the descending parachute was sighted 360 miles southwest of Honolulu, Hawaii, by crewmembers of a U.S. Air Force C-119 recovery aircraft from the 6593rd Test Squadron based at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. The 6593rd Test Squadron was one of the first Air Force organizations to combine air and space mission functions associated with Vandenberg AFB as an integral component of the Discoverer missions.

The successful launch of the Discoverer 14 payload from Vandenberg AFB, and subsequent aerial recovery by the C-119 was the first successful recovery of film from an orbiting satellite.

In all, the Discoverer program launched 38 satellites by February 1962, although the satellite reconnaissance program was discontinued in 1972.

Discoverer also demonstrated the unique air and space capabilities of the United States in the 1960s, and highlighted the unique opportunities for space science and technology that are still sustained today at Vandenberg AFB. Due to the achievements of the Discoverer 14 and the Discoverer project was able stop adversary threats, making the nation safer, and maintained air and space superiority.

Discoverer 14 changed the face of reconnaissance
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