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.

“And 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 secret?”

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 same time.
“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?” Fredericks asked.
“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 find?”
“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, harrumphing, 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 contract. “
“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 night vision?


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 surveillance.

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 surveillance photos.

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 didn’t care.


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.


Eisenhower 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 impunity.

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 chance.

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.

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