This story was told by Jim Plummer, the Lockheed
program manager on CORONA. Plummer recounts how
the flag that was shown in the White House press
conference in August 1960 actually made it into
It was somewhere along Discoverer IV or
V--somewhere in there. And I was working in my
office in the little Skunkworks up in Menlo Park.
I got a call from one of the senior officers at
the Air Force that said, "Jim, can you still take
on a job for Lockheed without telling a soul?"
And that was an arrangement I had with the
president of Lockheed, Gene Root. Because of the
nature of the work, he'd say, "Go ahead and
commit, but tell me whenever you can."
And it was legal. So I says, "Well, sure. I can do
I thought he was gonna give me another big
contract. That'd be great. I'd be a hero. He says,
"What we want you to do is fly a flag, a United
States flag, in the next vehicle."
So I was a little surprised at that. And, uh, I
said, "Okay. We can do it. Where is the flag?"
He says, "We want you to go out and buy it."
It was when we'd just converted over to 50 stars,
and so I said, "Well, it might not be easy to find
a 50-star flag."
And he said, "Well, find a way to do it."
This was in the early morning. It was on a
Saturday morning. And so I got on the telephone. I
didn't have a secretary, so I got on the telephone
myself and I started calling around to all the
places I thought that might have a flag. And I
couldn't find any, until finally down at a
hardware store in south San Jose I found a guy
that said, "Yes."
He said, "I just got some real nice ones in."
And I said, "Do they have 50 stars?"
And he says, "Yes."
I said, "I'm on my way. I need one right away."
And he says, "Well, hurry, because at noon I'm
I had to have it that day to get it in the vehicle
for the launch. So I jumped in my little white
Porsche Speedster, and I went tearing down the
Bayshore Highway as fast as I could, and I rolled
up in front of this hardware store just as he was
locking the door. And I said, "I'm the guy that
just called. I need a flag."
He says, "Okay. Come on in."
So I bought four of them. And I got back in my car
and went back to the shop. And I asked the lead
shop man, the supervisor--I said, "I need some
special work done. I need to have you make me a
little aluminum container."
And I said, "I can't tell you what it's for, but
it's just a little experiment that the Air Force
And so he made me this to a sketch I gave him --
four by four by three-eighths. And, um, to be
enclosed and riveted. So he made me up one of
those, and then my job was to get the flag in that
little can. I said, "I have to do that at home,
'cause I can't spread out our flag in the
So I went home. And try as I could, I couldn't get
that flag in that little can. I would fold it and
press it and so forth. Until finally I said to
myself, "I've got to break security rules. I need
So I called my wife in, and I said, "I'm gonna
tell you something."
I said, "You can't tell a soul." I said, "I need
some help. Get your ironing board out."
So she got her iron and her ironing board, and we
folded the thing very, very carefully; ironed it
and got it into the container. And then I took it
out in my garage, and I riveted the little four
sides of this little container. And then I put it
in the black wax paper that you put around film.
Put it in there, and then I put that inside of
another black envelope that said, "Do not expose
to direct sunlight."
I was trying to lead everybody to the fact that
this was gonna be a cosmic ray experiment. And so
then in that form we sent it down to the base.
They put it into the vehicle, balanced it, and,
naturally, we didn't recover it. So I had to
completely continue that process until finally we
got the one that was brought back on Discoverer
>From Bill Obenauf May 19 1997
I worked on Corona from 1960 to 1967 at Vandenberg
AFB for Lockheed. For the first few years we used
the old army base tank repair building at VAFB,
which resembled a dirty barn, to assemble the
Corona system for Discoverer launches in 1960.
After a few successful flights we moved to a new
building with a 'clean' clean room. I helped
assemble the film recovery capsule for Discoverer
XIII and many others. From time to time Ralph King
and Jim Plummer delivered secret packages to us to
be taped to the inside of the recovery capsule. As
I remember the flags were sealed in a brown paper
envelopes and were soft to touch, (cloth inside)
not aluminum cans. It's possible someone realized
you can't attach a flat package to a spherical
surface. Bob Taylor, another engineer, worked with
me. There were two technicians. I wish I could
remember their names. Bob and I taped the envelope
to the capsule in a darkened environment so that
the others could not see what we did. Our
inspector wrote on the capsule cover "This one is
coming back". He caught hell for his graffiti when
Discoverer XIII "did" come back.
OTHER RECOLLECTIONS 1960 - 1967
On August 18, 1960 the fourteenth Discoverer
(Corona) was launched. It was the first satellite
to successfully return film, 3000 feet, with
pictures of the denied area of the Soviet Union.
Most of the previous missions were failures and
the customer was considering canceling the
contract. At one time the scientists wondered
whether it was a violation of the laws of physics
to bring back something from orbit.
As for the previous flights, Discoverer one
launched 2/28/59 had no recovery capsule and no
camera. It was just a dry run for what was to
The second Discoverer carried the first capsule
with a biomedical compartment to hold four mice.
The mice weren't ready and were simulated with
four multivibrators to put simulated heart beats
on telemetry. The capsule probably, errantly,
landed on Spitzbergen Island near Russia. No one
knows for sure. It was supposed to land in the
Pacific but due to a mix-up, the Hawaii tracking
station issued approximately 32 orbital-timer
advance commands instead of 22, causing the
capsule to eject half an orbit too soon. The 32
commands may have been intentionally sent so that
the capsule "would" land near the USSR and allow
the Russians to see the "mouse" configuration. The
Hawaii tracking station manager, Bob Powell, said
the extra commands were a true error and not
intentionally sent. The Russians may have the
capsule today. The mouse shots were a cover-up for
the camera mission. They also built a 'monkey'
biomedical capsule as a cover-up; but never used
it. One plan was to install the monkey capsule
onto the Agena satellite on the launch pad and in
the middle of the night, when the Agena people
were asleep, exchange it for the camera/capsule
The third Discoverer carried four mice but the
Agena never made orbit. It crashed into the Ocean.
Telemetry indicated one of the mice urinated on
the humidity sensor before launch; and that they
probably all died before launch.
The fourth Discoverer satellite had a camera as
did the remaining satellites. The film broke in
most of the early cameras because it was acetate
just like drugstore film and since space is very
dry it crumbled like dry leaves. The first one
that worked used polyester film; strong enough to
tow a truck. The film was black and white, 70
millimeters wide with no sprocket holes.
None of the first eight camera capsules were
recovered by the Air Force planes but on some of
them radio beacons were heard and flashing strobe
lights were seen. Lockheed made changes in the
recovery system, using cold gas for spin and
despin, instead of rocket motors, before the
Discoverer XIII capsule successfully hit the drop
area near Hawaii.
My wife Mitzie, a housewife, took a small part in
the operation. It seems that the Lockheed
'Shipping and Receiving Department' at Vandenberg
would misplace the parachutes that were sent to us
by General Electric Company, via UPS. (The capsule
came down from orbit on a parachute.) In
discussing the problem with GE I suggested they
send the parachutes directly to my house in Santa
Maria instead of to Lockheed Shipping and
Receiving at Vandenberg. Each was addressed to
General Electric 723 East Fesler St., Santa Maria.
Mitzie had to sign as if she was a GE employee. I
would take the parachute to work in my old pickup
truck the next morning.
We had some exciting times and long hours. During
one launch, at about 20,000 feet up, the Thor
booster lost it's guidance and headed toward Santa
Maria and had to be destroyed by the range safety
officer. Everything landed between the high sand
dunes near the beach. Since most of the Lockheed
people were not supposed to know there was a
camera on board and since the camera was smashed,
a few of us were sent out with a pickup truck to
gather up all camera parts and clean the glass
from the broken camera lens out of the sand. It
was a mess, but only the lens filter broke. The
lens was whole. We loaded the 'delicate'
honeycomb-constructed camera into the truck with a
"crunch", and were happy that none of the
Fairchild people saw our carelessness. We used a
big tarp to hide everything.
The first camera was a Rube Goldberg contraption
called a "Stove Pipe Camera" made of honeycomb
structure. The stove pipe, two feet long, had a
lens at the bottom end and a slit at the top end.
The stove pipe moved back and forth like a
windshield wiper. It pivoted at the lens-end and
painted a picture through the slit on the top end
across a length of curved 70 mm. film. That's in
one direction. The slit closed on the return trip
while the film advanced to bring in a new piece.
The stove pipe made a sweep-and-return in about 5
seconds. The speed of the stove pipe was adjusted
by radio command to match the altitude. To help
keep the Agena from rocking, a flywheel was used
to counteract the momentum as the stove pipe swept
back and forth. The gears were very noisy
presenting a security problem when uncleared
people were near during ground testing. To orient
the curved 70 mm picture, two separate star
cameras were use to record the position of the
stars at the time the ground was photographed. The
supply spool was on the camera and the takeup
spool was in the recovery capsule. They used a
number of rollers to move the film through the
camera. They turned the camera 'on' over places to
be photographed using a preprogrammed onboard
timer also made by Fairchild. The first camera had
about 3000 feet of film and orbited for only one
day (17 orbital revolutions).
The recovery command was given by a tracking
station radio signal. A cutter on the capsule
chopped the film and sealed up the slot so that no
water or light would leak in. The capsule was
pushed off by springs, spun up to 60 RPM using
compressed gas jets and a retro rocket was fired
to remove orbital velocity. Next, compressed gas
jets reduced the spin to about ten RPM. A
parachute deployed and a strobe light flashed. A
radio beacon on the capsule aided the search. An
airplane snagged the parachute, or if it missed,
the capsule floated in the Pacific Ocean until a
ship arrived. Just in case it was hopelessly lost
and the Russians were looking for it, the capsule
had a 12 hour sink valve. In 12 hours it sank.
There were a few iterations of improvements over
time. They employed two cameras for a stereo view,
a wide angle mapping camera and two recovery
capsules to give a second, later batch of imagery.
The later date flights carried a total of 32,000
feet of film.
Cameras take poor pictures through clouds. One of
my jobs was to receive a call on launch day
morning, sometimes a little after midnight, for a
"GO", or a "HOLD" because of clouds over the
places in Russia that were to be photographed. If
it was a HOLD I called the other Lockheed people,
who knew nothing about the camera, and told them
we had a payload problem and wouldn't be ready to
launch today. They would be very unhappy with us
but we accepted the guff while spending the day
playing ping pong and drinking coffee. I had to
lie to them because I couldn't mention a camera or
clouds over Russia. There were weather satellites
reporting on the Russian clouds. The fake payload
problem probably affected a thousand people more
or less when you consider Douglas who maintained
the Thor booster, and all the tracking stations
around the world.
When Francis Gary Powers was shot down in May 1960
I thought for sure our cover was "blown". But no
one seemed to make a connection. Fortunately the
Corona project began to return photos soon after
the Russians put an end to the U2 program.