Special U.S. Air Force Squadron Snatched Spy Film Capsules From Mid-Air
'Star Catchers' flew modified transports
On Aug. 11, 1984, a special U.S. Air Force squadron flew its last mission in heavily-modified C-130 transports, snatching a spy-satellite film capsule dangling from a parachute as it descended from Earth’s orbit.
It was all part of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office’s Falling Star initiative, supporting the Discoverer/Corona satellite program, which the federal government finally declassified in 1995.
“The Discoverer/Corona reconnaissance satellite was a revolutionary breakthrough in intelligence gathering and altered the course of the Cold War,” the NRO explained in an official history.
From 1960 to 1972, the film from these satellites provided vital military intelligence to the United States about the closed interiors of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam and others. The United States used space reconnaissance to finally determine the truth of the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile threat, among many other discoveries.
With all the information gained from Corona, the United States developed military strategies and national policies to contain the communist threat. The recovery of the Corona space capsules was among the highest priorities of the U.S. Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community.
The “Star Catchers” flew modified C-119J and JC-130 aircraft from Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, capturing the film capsules in mid-air. Eventually technology evolved to allow satellites to transmit data electronically, rendering the Star Catchers obsolete.
The NRO recounts the final film-grab in the video below.
“The United States Air Force 6594th Test Group and 6593rd Test Squadron operated from Hickam Air Force Base for 27 years from 1958 to 1986 retrieving film capsules in support of the Corona and other follow-on early imagery reconnaissance satellite programs,” the NRO recalled on Facebook.
Speaking to the audience of Falling Star veterans [in Honolulu on Sept. 17], NRO director Betty Sapp said, “You made approximately 40,000 mid-air recoveries. While most occurred during training, about 300 were from NRO film-return satellites and other national security and scientific projects — these missions provided our nation with a strategic decision advantage and more importantly, allowed us to closely follow our adversaries’ capabilities and intentions.”