The First Spy Satellite Images Were Retrieved By?
You’ve got a spy camera in space, orbiting the globe, and it uses honest-to-goodness film. You need to get that film back to Earth without damaging it, so it can be developed by your intelligence agencies and examined. What do you do? If it’s the 1960s, you’re the United States Air Force, and you’re flush with cash, Cold War bravado, and skilled pilots, then you snatch it right out of the air as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere.
We’re not being remotely hyperbolic with that statement either. The earliest U.S. spy satellites would jettison their film payloads, secured in very well insulated tiny re-entry vehicles called “film buckets”. The film buckets would deploy a parachute to drift lazily through the air for a few moments before being expertly intercepted by U.S. Air Force pilots soaring along dragging a tail hook capture device behind their planes.
In the rare instances the Air Force failed to retrieve the film buckets, the Navy was called in to pluck them out of the ocean using radio transmitters to locate them. As a final safeguard, should the Navy fail in retrieving them, a salt plug in the bottom of the device would dissolve when exposed to water for two days and sink the film to the bottom of the ocean.
Image courtesy of the United States Air Force.