Nova: Season 35, Episode 4

Sputnik Declassified (6 Nov. 2007)

TV Episode  -  Documentary | Biography
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Nova examines the goals of the highly secretive American space program prior to Sputnik. The Eisenhower Administration's covert objectives in space gave the impression that the Soviets had a commanding lead in space technology.

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Nova examines the goals of the highly secretive American space program prior to Sputnik. The Eisenhower Administration's covert objectives in space gave the impression that the Soviets had a commanding lead in space technology.

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Actually, Project Corona Declassified.
30 April 2011 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

You simply cannot understand the American space program without knowing about Project Corona. That's what this documentary is about, not Sputnik. But if the title was Project Corona Declassified, very, very few people would know what it was about.

Most older Americans know the date Oct. 4, 1957 as well as they know Dec. 7, 1941; it was the day Sputnik was launched by the Soviets. I am ashamed of the xenophobic reaction by the American press, for 1957 was the International Geophysical Year for space, a year devoted to the study of space and the upper atmosphere. Sputnik presumably was the Soviet's contribution, not a military provocation.

But to the American press it was the beginning of a space race. Americans wanted to know why we had already lost. But President Eisenhower wouldn't be baited, and pretended we were far behind. We were not.

This program explains that we had two types of rockets available, but had only tested the Navy version, which kept blowing up. The version designed by the German rocket scientists at Huntsville, Alabama, could have been launched years earlier, and was the one that ultimately worked.

We were also already designing and fabricating a spy satellite vastly more sophisticated than Sputnik, one that would take extremely high resolution photos from space and send the film back to earth in canisters with parachutes. These spy satellites, called Project Corona, were first launched in 1960, overlapping with the U-2 spy plane flights over Russia. But the program was a secret from Americans at the time, and for decades later.

I learned about Project Corona while researching Kodak Tech Pan film, a super high resolution film rated 25 ASA for home use with special developer, on a mylar base that had heightened red sensitivity to cut through blue atmospheric haze (and allowed use in extreme cold). I was using it in my 35 mm camera and getting resolution similar to 4 by 5 inch sheet film.

I later happened to interview one of the crew from the first flight to successful snag the film canister while still aloft; the first crew, he told me, had crashed and died.

So I can attest that Project Corona is a true story, something I should not have to do, except it seems there are foreigners who don't believe America did half of the things claimed in the space program.

I was listening to a program on the BBC the other day in honor of Yuri Gargarin's first manned orbital flight. The BBC "journalist" not only failed to mention Project Corona, he also failed to mention the entire Apollo program, firsts in communications satellites, and America's landing of men on the moon. And yet he pronounced the Russians the winners of the space race. Is this the official stand of the BBC, that the moon landings were faked?

He is not the only Brit I have encountered who denied that Americans landed on the moon. The reason, I suspect, is because they don't understand the historical time-line of technology.

First of all, the Nazis were sending ballistic missiles to England during WWII, called the V2, and were designing intercontinental missiles to send to New York City, the V3.

Americans had nuclear tipped intercontinental missiles ready to launch in the early 1950s called Minutemen missiles. All that was missing was a rocket to send a payload into orbit.

What we learn in Sputnik Declassified is that Eisenhower did not want to be the first to send a satellite into orbit because it might be viewed as a military provocation by Russia. So when the Russians sent Sputnik hurtling over America, Eisenhower and others were secretly delighted because it set the legal precedent for us to send spy satellites already being designed over Russia.

That Project Corona satellites were already functioning in orbit may well have been one of the reasons President Kennedy dared to promise to send, and return, men to the moon by the end of the decade.

We already had greater space capability than the public knew. And there were other more sophisticated secret spy satellites launched in the 1960s overlapping with the race to send men to the moon.

However, Project Corona was not such a well-kept secret. Watch Ice Station Zebra (1968), and you will see a fictional movie clearly inspired by rumors of Project Corona.

You can also see declassified photos from Project Corona online now. Sadly, you can no longer buy Kodak Tech Pan film, which was made obsolete by spy satellites using CCD sensors instead of film.

There is a sequel to this in Nova called Astrospies. It begins where Sputnik Declassified leaves off.

These Nova science documentaries are among the best ever made. They hold your interest because the facts, writing and presentation are interesting. The pacing allows you time to absorb the complex information, without losing your attention.

Too bad not all science documentaries follow this model. I just tried watching a Naked Science / National Geographic documentary on melting glaciers (Earth Under Water!!!!!!!), and it was painful to watch because of the distracting special effects, annoying music and mediocre narration.


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