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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 633-634

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Book Review

Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites

Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites. Edited by Dwayne A. Day, John M. Logsdon, and Brian Latell. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. Pp. xiii+303; illustrations, figures, notes/references, bibliography, index. $29.95.

The historian's delight in discovering new archival sources is evident in this anthology of narratives chronicling the clandestine cold war spy-satellite program known as CORONA. Eye in the Sky grew out of a May 1995 conference on CORONA that sought to celebrate the declassification of program documents under an executive order signed into law by President Clinton in February of that year. CORONA satellites were remarkable technical achievements, combining advances in photogrammetry, propulsion, optics, and electronics. Equally noteworthy was the conduct of the program as an integrated means of intelligence gathering: true Hughesian "system builders" were needed to meld hardware with human elements in order to bring imagery to the desks of decision makers. These essays stress the difficulties involved in coordinating the military services, federal bureaucrats, contractors, pilots, analysts, and other constituencies in the program.

Notwithstanding the unpopularity of "great man" histories, CORONA does seem to have been very much guided by a small number of individuals, "tall, thin men" like Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid, who moved in the penumbra of policy circles to great effect. One is reminded of similar seminal figures in contemporary secret programs, men such as Bernard Schriever (Atlas), Robert Oppenheimer (Manhattan), and Kelly Johnson (U-2). These individuals were system builders in the classic tradition, marrying great personal influence with technical understanding to corral competing interests into a cogent unit, bringing their environment under control to the degree necessary for program success.

In approaching Eye in the Sky, readers ought to skip immediately to the second chapter, Albert Wheelon's meta-level description of the program. Wheelon will make reading the rest of the book much more worthwhile, as he provides a context for the more granular, narrowly focused chapters. Not mentioned adequately in any of the chapters, however, is the role of air force pilots. CORONA satellites took panoramic photos of a region of interest, jettisoning film capsules containing this imagery through the atmosphere where they were then retrieved by pilots dragging a catchpole behind their aircraft. It is hard to imagine a more improbable system (apart [End Page 633] from Monty Python, perhaps), and yet this arrangement was highly effective. It demanded an outstanding display of skill by secret teams of aviators and crewmen.

Another, more serious, criticism is the lack of context with respect to the "prehistory" of CORONA, one based on the Lockheed U-2. A somewhat dismissive subtext is evident in this book regarding the U-2's capabilities and its usefulness to U.S. intelligence; one is reminded of E. P. Thompson's phrase about "the enormous condescension of posterity." As a corollary, the importance of CORONA is overestimated with respect to the book's contention that it was the principal means by which the American government established that there was no "missile gap." There are many more features to the intelligence landscape, both with respect to the cold war era and generally, than this book appears ready to admit. For example, as recently as 1998 there were thirty-seven U-2s flying, completing some twenty-four thousand hours of flight time, while the book seems to suggest that with CORONA the U-2's useful lifetime was over. The role of HUMINT (human intelligence) is also dismissed.

In the matter of the missile gap, the hinge on which swings the book's principal argument, it was only after CORONA and U-2 imagery was corroborated with the testimony of Soviet GRU colonel-turned-U.S. agent Oleg Penkovsky that the United States finally believed this information. Even accepting the book's premise at face value, the case for CORONA "keeping the peace" can still be moot: historians of the cold...


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