The U2 Program and Project Corona
- Spies in Space
“Of course, General Trudeau has been in touch with Don and the whole
development team here, “Dr. Fredericks continued as he watched me
open the night vision file that I’d taken out of my briefcase.
I’m aware of the nature of the material you’ve got. It’s not
something we wanted to talk about over the phone. “
“I appreciate your being discreet about this, Dr. Fredericks, “ I
said. “If you think what I’m about to show you can help you in the
development process, it’s yours to use. But the arrangement will be
that everything is originated here at Fort Belvoir. All R&D will do
will be to provide the budget necessary to fund this development.
You use your own sources to manufacture the product and take all the
credit for the process. “
“And this conversation?” Dr. Fredericks asked.
“Once you tell me you can use what I’ve brought and we get you the
budget you require, “ I began, “this conversation never took place
and you will take my name off your appointment schedule. “
“Now you really do have my interest, “ he said with just the edge of
a bemused sarcasm in his voice as if he’d been down this road many
times before. “What did you bring in that briefcase that’s so
And with that I held up the first of the army’s 1947 sketches of the
night viewer we pulled from the wreckage at Roswell. I handed it
across to Dr. Fredericks, who looked at it and turned it around with
his fingertips as if he were holding one of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“You don’t have to be so careful with it, Dr. Fredericks,“ I said.
“I made a few thermal copies. “
“Do you have the actual device?” he asked.
“Back at the Pentagon. “
“Who was wearing this?” he continued.
“At the time, nobody, “ I told him. “According to the field report,
they found this in the sand near one of the bodies. “
“Bodies? At the Roswell crash?” Now he was completely incredulous.
“General Trudeau didn’t tell anyone about bodies. “
“No, that’s true, “ I said. “That’s not information we give out.
General Trudeau authorized me to answer any questions you have up to
a certain level of security classification. “
“We’re not there yet, “ Dr. Fredericks asked and asserted at the
“But we’re close, “ I suggested. “I can talk about the device, talk
about where it was found, but that’s probably as far as I can go
myself. If General Trudeau wants to give a background briefing and
authorizes me to do so, then I can go deeper. “
“Funny, but I always thought Roswell was a kind of legend. You know,
they found something but maybe it was Russian, “ Dr. Fredericks
said. Then he asked again if anyone at the Roswell retrieval had
actually seen any of the creatures wearing the night vision device
in the sketches.
“No, “ I said. “There was a lot of debris that spilled out of the
craft. The soldiers on the retrieval team looked through one of the
seams that had been split open running along the craft’s lengthwise
axis and they saw view ports built into the hull. Well, what
astonished them was that when they looked through the view ports,
they could see daylight, or a greenish, hazy kind of diffused light
that looked like dusk, but outside it was completely dark. “
Paul Fredericks was on the edge of his seat now.
“No one at the crash site knew anything about the night viewers the
Germans were developing during the war, “ I explained. “So even the
officers on the retrieval team were amazed at what they were seeing.
When they autopsied the alien at the 509th and pulled off these
‘eyepieces,’ is the only word I can use for them, they realized that
they were a complicated set of reflectors that gathered all the
available light and turned them into night time image intensifiers.
I continued, pointing to the sketch in Paul Fredericks’s hands.
“Some medical officer tried to look through it down a darkened hall
and it made the images stand out, but nothing was ever done with it
and they packed it away with the rest of the alien. “
“Did they perform any analysis on this when they brought it back?”
“Some, “ I told him. “But they had no facilities at the 509th and
had to wait until they brought it back to Wright. It wasn’t until
the intelligence boys at the Air Materiel Command got hold of it
that they realized that this was something the Germans were trying
to deploy. “
“But this is far more sophisticated, “ Dr. Fredericks said. “The
Germans weren’t even close to something like this. “
“Yes, sir, “ I said. “Not even close. And that’s what got the
intelligence people at Wright so concerned. Just how close were the
Germans about to get when the war ended? What else had they gotten
their hands on? Did they have help?”
“Or, “ Dr. Fredericks said very slowly, “did they find a crash just
like we found?”
“That’s exactly the point, Dr. Fredericks, “ I said. “What did they
“And if the Germans could get their hands on this material, what
about the Soviets?” he asked. But he was talking to himself now,
talking in a way that made him sound as if he were really thinking
out loud. “Why not the Chinese or any of our European allies? Just
how much of this stuff is out there?” he finally asked me.
“We don’t have any of those answers, “ I told him. “At least not
those of us in the army. And for obvious reasons nobody’s walking
around sharing this information back and forth among the services or
with any other agencies. We have what we have, and that’s as far as
we’re willing to go. “
“And you don’t want me talking about this or trying to sniff around
for any information, “ he said.
“If we thought you were going to do that I wouldn’t even be here, “
I said. “I have these reports here and descriptions of the device.
I’ll leave them with you. If you think you can work these into your
development program, I’ll have the material itself sent over and
then it’s out of our hands completely. Farm it out to wherever you
want it developed. Offer your defense contractor the right to patent
it. Never tell them where you got it or what its origin might be. As
far as we’re concerned whoever comes up with the night viewers you
ultimately contract with to build can own the whole product and slap
their name on it. All we want to do is get this thing developed.
That’s it. “
“May I?” Dr. Fredericks asked, reaching for the reports I’d spread
out on the arm of the leather chair.
I handed them across in a bundle, and he flipped through them as if
he were my old college professor looking at a term paper,
grunting, and nodding at every page.
“That’s more about how they handled the alien at Wright Field than
about the eyepieces themselves, “ I said.
“Because in reality, they didn’t know what made the thing tick and
they didn’t really want to tear it apart. “
“So they just threw it in a package?” he asked.
“Basically, that’s exactly what happened, “ I said. “At first they
didn’t know how it was supposed to work. Or maybe they thought it
would turn human beings blind or something. They were that afraid.
After a while, they just let it stay in dead storage and hoped
someone else would take it off their hands. “
“And that’d be you, “ Dr. Fredericks said.
“Actually, “ I told him, “that’d be you, if you want it. “
“I need to read this material more thoroughly and see where we can
slip your night vision into the project without causing a ripple on
the surface, “ Dr. Fredericks explained.
“How easy will that be?” I asked.
“At Fort Belvoir, “ he answered, “teams here are taught to keep
their own thoughts to themselves. If you tell them this is a piece
of foreign technology our intelligence boys got from some other
country and we’re supposed to make it disappear into what we’re
doing, that’s the story. “
“Nobody asks any questions?” I pushed.
“Nobody asks questions under any circumstances, “ he said. “It would
move along faster and create its own little development bureaucracy
if we had the budget to turn it into a crash development project
with a real development phase deadline. “
“Then what happens?” I asked.
“It’s just like Santa’s workshop on the first day of winter. None of
the elves looks up from his workbench until it’s done. Then the next
project comes along and everybody forgets. By the time the troops
are wearing these things in the field and they’re handing out the
gold watches over a prime rib at the Potomac Inn, night vision is
just one big happy memory with the details rewritten to fit the view
of history that serves the moment. No one will ever even guess,
Colonel Corso, “ he said. “From the moment your boys hand the
material over, it goes into the developmental soup at Fort Belvoir
and comes out the other end as a weapon in the field. “
I stood up and closed my briefcase while he walked around his desk.
“So what are you going to recommend to General Trudeau?” he asked.
“I’d like to suggest we send the device over, you come up with the
budget you need, and General Trudeau finds the allocation, “ I said.
“And you?” he said.
“It was a pleasure not meeting you, Dr. Fredericks, “ I told him.
“Of course, there will be a liaison over in Army R&D who will
officially be placed in charge of night vision development. He will
report to General Trudeau and anything I need to know I’ll find out
from the general. I look forward to seeing the development reports
as they come out. Congratulations on your new piece of technology.
And congratulations to the company who winds up with this defense
“Congratulations, indeed, “ Dr. Fredericks said.
We shook hands and he walked me out of his office into the corridor.
For a moment, it was like stepping out of the surreal into the real.
We’d just stitched our own piece of fabric over reality, created a
piece of history. The technology boys in research and development at
Fort Belvoir would receive a device from one of their consultants
who would whisper to them that this was liberated from one of our
enemies. Don’t ask any questions. But it was just the thing that the
lab people at Fort Belvoir were looking for to show them how a
finished device might look. Can they come up with a reverse
engineering plan? Is there a company they’re already working with on
And within a few months, some company, whoever it
might be, would wind up with a plan in place, a development budget,
and a new identity for the strange looking eyepieces that turned up
in my Roswell files. It might take five or so years, but when it
came rolling off the assembly line somewhere in Pennsylvania,
Maryland, Ohio, or wherever, it would be “Made in the USA” and I’d
read about it in the papers or see it on television.
Night vision was the first project we actually seeded during the
first year of my tenure at Foreign Technology. It would turn out to
be easier than most because of the history of German development
during the war and the research already done through the 1950s. By
the time I brought the Roswell night viewer to Fort Belvoir, it fit
right in through the seam of an existing development program and no
one was the wiser. The actual weapons development program at Fort
Belvoir served as the cover for the dissemination of Roswell
technology so perfectly that the only distortion anyone could find
as he went back through the history is what might seem like a sudden
acceleration in the development program itself shortly after 1961.
Night vision got a boost in funding, a new officer was assigned to
the project by General Trudeau, and General Trudeau’s name starts
turning up on a regular basis as one of the apparent benefactors of
the program. By 1963, when he and I were gone from the Pentagon, the
project was at Martin Marietta Electronics - now part of Lockheed
Martin - and already on its way through the initial deployment that
would take place in Europe and Vietnam..
But I didn’t know that as I drove through the Fort Belvoir gate and
headed back to my Pentagon office. I only felt satisfied that it
looked like we had successfully inserted one of our own Foreign
Technology projects into an ongoing development stream already under
way and had camouflaged our appropriation of a piece of alien
technology. At this point, I believed, we’d kept it out of the hands
of the Soviets for the time being, and the aliens, if they were
monitoring what we were doing, maybe didn’t know what we were doing
with it either. It would give us time.
I headed north along the Potomac and through the green woods of
Fairfax County, Virginia, back to a desk that was quickly piling up
with other projects that needed disposition. One of them, which was
running parallel with the night vision I’d just handed off, was the
embryonic “Project Corona, “ an idea whose time was suddenly thrust
upon us by the shooting down of a U2 surveillance plane and the
capture of its pilot, Francis Gary Powers.
The air force and the CIA had been running the U2 program for awhile
during the Eisenhower administration, and the reports and photos
routinely crossed my desk at the National Security Council. Like so
many other events during the Cold War, the U2 didn’t have just a
single purpose, the surveillance of the Soviet Union to monitor
their guided missile development program. It had a triple intent. Of
course, we wanted to know exactly what the Soviets were up to, but
we also wanted to test their air defense capability.
We wanted to
know how accurately their radars could track the U2 and whether any
of their missiles could bring it down. So we deliberately provoked
them by making our presence known when we wanted them to fire at us.
Could they shoot us down? Cameras on the U2 picked up the launch of
enemy surface to air missiles as the pilot flew over sensitive
installations where the Soviets had to challenge us or cede to us
the control of top classified zones in their airspace.
So we played gamesmanship with them, probing their defenses,
deliberately sacrificing pilots who we believed died when their
planes were shot down, and always denying what we were doing even as
Khrushchev screamed at Eisenhower that the U2 program was putting
Khrushchev himself at risk inside the Kremlin. “We can deal with
each other, “ the Communist Party chairman told Ike. “But not if you
force me out of office. “
But as much as Eisenhower hated the U2
program and the jeopardy into which it placed our pilots, the
President had to accommodate himself to one of the other agendas of
the surveillance: the ongoing search for any evidence of
extraterrestrial spacecraft landings or crashes within the vastness
of the Soviet Union. We also wanted to see whether the Soviets were
harvesting any of the alien aircraft technology for themselves.
That’s what made the U2 program too valuable to give up until we had
an alternative. And the alternative, although it was an air force
and not an army program, was part of a shared R&D between our
intelligence services and the National Security Council/CIA
apparatus. And it was already in development within Lockheed in a
division they called “skunk works. “
Because we had set up our U2 flights to provoke the Soviets and
because we knew that ultimately we would start to lose pilots and
planes, the National Security staff began looking aggressively for a
more secure surveillance program as early as 1957, my last year at
the White House. Intelligence decided to take orbital satellite
photos of Soviet installations, but only if they could get a bird up
there that would be reliable. Also, we didn’t want to let the
Soviets know we were turning earth orbit into a surveillance
facility because we didn’t want to encourage them to go after our
satellites. So the trick was to get a satellite up there in complete
secrecy. But how could you do that with the whole world watching?
The army and air force had an idea. Lockheed had already shown that
it could develop a surveillance plane, the U2 and eventually the
SR71, out of the public view and run those flights without too much
interference from Senate watchdog committees and out of the presence
of any newspaper reporters. Could they do the same thing with a
satellite? And if they could, would the satellite recon photos be as
reliable as the photos we were getting from the U2s?
Normally, I would have said that if the army were putting up a
satellite, it could do anything it wanted because everything we did
under our intelligence blanket remained relatively secure. However,
both the army and the air force were effectively put out of the
satellite launching business toward the end of the Eisenhower
administration by the civilian National Aeronautics and Space Agency
under a pooled resources crash program to get satellites up into
space to show the world the flag. The Soviets had beaten us in the
race initially with Sputnik, and the failed army and navy attempts
to launch satellites only made us look worse. I learned for a fact
that when the New York Daily News ran the full page headline, “Oh
Dear, “ after the Corporal rose a few inches, fell back onto the
launchpad, and blew up into smithereens, no one was laughing harder
than Nikita Khrushchev.
After a few of these attempts, the National Security Council advised
President Eisenhower to throw in the towel, pool all the national
scientific resources he could, and turn the U.S. entry into the
space race over to a civilian agency. The military services had
learned their lesson about competing over the same technology the
hard way and had to stand back and watch NASA take over.
NASA had some immediate successes, and before the end of the
Eisenhower administration in 1960, they had managed to put
satellites in orbit and experiment with the effects of orbital
flight on animals in far more sophisticated ways than the army’s V2
experiments with small primates at Alamogordo in the late 1940s and
early1950s. As the army and air force intelligence offices looked at
the successes of these NASA satellites and at the increasing
vulnerabilities of the U2 flights, they saw the possible answer to
their need for a fail safe surveillance program.
When NASA began its
Discoverer orbiter program, launching a payload into low orbit and
returning it, the military services thought they saw a solution. If
they could somehow manage to build a workable photo recon satellite
small enough to fit into the very limited space inside the
Discoverer payload capsule, recover the surveillance device when the
orbiter returned to Earth, and install the entire military spying
program within a civilian scientific exploration program that was
getting a lot of attention from the newspapers without alerting the
public to the military’s secret agenda, they would have their covert
We knew that the Soviets would very quickly find out about the
program, but that wasn’t such a bad thing. We reasoned that there
was no way, given the CIA’s penetration by the KGB, to keep the
program completely covert, but if the Soviets knew we were able to
watch them it might keep them honest. And Khrushchev wouldn’t have
to worry about our deliberately violating his airspace, so he was
off the hook at the Kremlin and thankful for it. All we had to do
was keep it out of the public arena and we’d be home free. The whole
program rested on our being able to slip what we now called “Corona”
into the existing Discoverer program without a whisper in the air,
the Soviets would go along without a protest, and we would get our
We added an additional incentive for the Soviets to discourage them
from getting their friends in the CIA to leak the story to friendly
journalists and blowing the cover on the whole operation. We
encouraged them to participate with us in the hidden agenda of
Corona: surveillance of potential alien crash landings. Army
Intelligence, upon Eisenhower’s and the NSC’s express approval, let
it be known to their counterparts in the Soviet military that any
aerial intelligence we developed as a result of Corona that revealed
the presence of aliens on Soviet territory would be shared with the
military. What they did with the information, we said, we really
But the military was more than grateful. The
professional military didn’t trust the commissars in the Communist
Party anymore than we did and hated being under their collective
thumb. Thus, in a perverse way, although we were tipping off the
Russian military about alien activity in their territory, we really
weren’t sharing information with the Communists because of the deep
division within the Soviet government between the Communist Party
and the military.
Our incentive worked and the KGB encouraged the CIA - even I was
surprised at how effectively they worked together - not to leak the
story. Now it was up to the air force and the skunk works division
at Lockheed to build the Corona surveillance satellite out of the
public arena and load the vehicle into the Discoverer rocket right
under the noses of the American press. It was one of the trickiest
operations of the Cold War because the Russians knew what we were
doing, NASA was making the entire project happen, but the American
press, hungry for even the smallest tidbit of spaceflight
information, had to be kept completely in the dark.
If necessary, we
had to lie to them, provide them with cover stories, completely
trick them into thinking that all the American people had to think
about was the little chimp that was blasted into orbit wearing his
custom sized space helmet. And we didn’t have much time to do it
because we knew the Soviets were trying to embarrass Ike at the end
of his term by bringing down one of our U2 planes with a live pilot
inside. We were now in a race against the Soviets to replace the U2
with the Corona, even though the Soviets understood and accepted
what we were doing every step of the way. It was one of the ironies
of the Cold War.
The engineers at Lockheed designed the satellite camera package to
fit neatly into the payload cone of the
Discoverer capsule. They worked under brutal time constraints
because President Eisenhower was putting
pressure on the National Security Council to cut off the U2
overnights completely. The old general knew it was just a matter of
time before the Soviets would capture a living American pilot,
extract his confession, and march him in front of the television
cameras to the humiliation of the United States. Eisenhower was a
man of his word who disliked politicians because they always sought
the expedient solution, not the most honorable one.
disliked expedience for expediency’s sake and always preferred to
take the most directly honest path whenever he could. But, as
Khrushchev complained about the U2 flights, Ike always denied we
were sending them. It was such an obvious lie that Khrushchev kept
goading Eisenhower about exposing himself that way. “We will shoot
one of them down, you’ll see, “ he kept telling Eisenhower whenever
he complained. “Then what will you say?”
But President Eisenhower denied the existence of the U2, putdown the
telephone, and turned on his own staff, furious that they had put
him into such an untenable situation. “Stop the nights, “ he
ordered. But the CIA kept pushing for one more flight. It was
serving a purpose, they argued. They were learning about the Russian
air defense system at the same time they were surveilling possible
areas of alien spacecraft activity. With or without the Russians’
knowledge, the U2s denied the extraterrestrials a complete
camouflage because of our high resolution aerial surveillance. I
don’t know whether we actually found any evidence of an alien
landing on Russian territory from our U2 surveillance, but the
extraterrestrials certainly could see that we were able to surveil
the Soviet Union, and their knowledge of our capability served as a
deterrent to roaming the vast areas of the Soviet Union with
The CIA claimed the U2s were so important to our national security
that they were even ready to sacrifice one of their own pilots.
However, I also believe that the KGB moles who had penetrated them
wanted Eisenhower to be embarrassed before the entire world. And
when Francis Gary Powers took off in May 1960, they had their
There is still a great deal of doubt about the shoot-down of Powers’s
U2. His mission was to fly over the most sensitive Soviet missile
installations and make himself a target. We believed the Russian SAMs couldn’t reach his altitude. But, whether
Powers fell asleep at
the stick because of oxygen deprivation or whether his CIA
controllers forced him to a lower altitude to get better photos or
even to make himself a more provocative target, we’ll never know. I
believe that Powers was probably startled out of a low oxygen
lethargy by the explosion of a SAM close enough to force him to lose
control. His plane was not hit by the missile. The U2 was the type
of aircraft that was very difficult to fly. Powers probably pulled
into a stall and was unable to bring it back. As his plane spun
toward the ground and Powers became too disoriented to regain
control, he pulled on the lever next to his seat, blew the canopy
off, and ejected.
Powers was captured alive, paraded before cameras, and forced to
confess that he was spying on the Soviet Union. Khrushchev had his
excuse to cancel a summit meeting with Eisenhower and put on one of
the great performances of his career in front of the Supreme-Soviet.
Eisenhower, as he had most feared, was publicly humiliated and
forced to admit to Khrushchev that he had sent the U2s over the
Soviet Union. He promised Khrushchev that the U2 flights would end,
eliminating a valuable surveillance tool and potentially blinding us
not only to what the Soviet Union was doing but potentially to what
the extraterrestrials were doing in Asia as well. It was a terrible
experience for the old man, who believed he had been compromised by
his own administration.
All the while during the final months of preparations before Gary
Powers’s U2 flight, NASA was completing the engineering details to
insert the Corona payload into the Discoverer payload. If all went
well, the first launch of Corona would give the National Security
Council the results they wanted and the U2 program would come to an
end because it had been made obsolete by Corona. Then Gary Powers
was shot down and the U2 program came to an end because Eisenhower
terminated it. We were blind. Then Discoverer was launched from Cape
Canaveral and those of us in the army and air-force missile programs
who were aware of Corona and what was at stake in the mission held
our collective breaths. If it worked, we had eyes. If it failed, our
best surveillance opportunity would have failed.
You can imagine the jubilation at the Pentagon when the Corona
payload was recovered and we developed the first photos. They were
better than what we had gotten from the U2, and the Corona was
completely invisible to the Soviets. Khrushchev hid the information
from his own Supreme Soviet, and Eisenhower certainly didn’t make a
public statement to the American people. We were back in the photo
intelligence business, and in addition to keeping tabs on Soviet
missile developments, we had a way to track any possible EBE attempt
to set up a base in the remotest parts of Asia, Africa, or South
America. We were gaining parity with the EBEs, a small victory, but
a victory nevertheless.
What satisfied me the most about
Project Corona, I thought as I
reached the outskirts of Washington on my way back from Fort Belvoir,
was that it was elegant as well as successful; Just like the ease
with which we had slipped the Roswell night visor into the
development and engineering stream at Fort Belvoir, so had we
slipped the Corona photo-surveillance payload directly into the
ongoing Discoverer program, reverse engineering Discoverer to make
the payload fit. No one realized what we had accomplished or how
effectively the military utilized traditional programs as a cover
for their own secret weapons development systems.
At the same time, we knew we were gaining on the aliens. With each
successful start of a new project, some based on the Roswell
technology, others initiated specifically to counter the alien
capabilities we had discovered at Roswell, we believed we were
advancing our game piece to the next square. We believed that no
matter how hostile the aliens’ intentions were, they didn’t have the
raw power to launch a global war against us. They would study us,
infiltrate us, wear us down until we might not be able to resist
them, but they had neither the intention nor the capability, we
believed, of destroying the planet so as to take it for themselves.
In that, we held the upper hand.
But what we needed was a real outpost in a location that would
enable us to establish a strategic advantage, a base to strike at
them far enough away so that we wouldn’t create a panic on Earth. We
needed a base on the moon. It was something the army had dreamed
about from the very first months after our encounters with the
aliens outside of Roswell and something we had tried to fund without
the public’s knowledge. It was an ambitious project that had bounced
around from skeptic to skeptic inside the military for over a year
before it landed in front of me. And when I took over the Foreign
Technology desk, it was a project we almost had.