Satellite reconnaissance before digital photography

Fascinating piece by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic.

[US] satellite programs were ridiculous collaborations between optical specialists like the Perkin-Elmer researchers, Lockheed Martin’s satellite makers, Kodak’s film creators, and the Air Force’s pilots. Check out the AP’s description of the program and note the many points of virtuosity.

From 1971 to 1986 a total of 20 satellites were launched, each containing 60 miles (100 kilometers) of film and sophisticated cameras that orbited the earth snapping vast, panoramic photographs of the Soviet Union, China and other potential foes. The film was shot back through the earth’s atmosphere in buckets that parachuted over the Pacific Ocean, where C-130 Air Force planes snagged them with grappling hooks.

All of this is now detailed in the National Reconnaissance Office’s declassification reports about Hexagon, which include a 72-page overview produced in 1978 and marked TOP SECRET.

Interesting (if corny) video about it here.

Imagine a device containing 100km of film. I used to have trouble with less than 1m of 35-mm celluloid.

Wonder what the cameras were like.