Published March 14, 2016
Satellite catching gear deployed from an Air Force C-119J. These aircraft recovered CORONA satellite film capsules beginning in 1960, and later gave way to the faster, more powerful C-130 Hercules aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo)
An Air Force JC-130B practices catching a satellite “bucket” with grappling gear and winch at Edwards AFB, Calif., 1969. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Airmen of the 6594th Test Wing with a practice satellite payload. Note the falling star logo on their JC-130B Hercules aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Informal patch from the USAF 6594th Test Group showing a C-130 “bird” catching a satellite payload. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Early informal emblem of the USAF’s 6593rd Test Squadron, which operated C-119 and C-130 aircraft to catch satellite payloads in midair. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Later informal emblem of the USAF’s 6593rd Test Squadron, which operated C-119 and C-130 aircraft to catch satellite payloads in midair. (U.S. Air Force photo)
GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites returned exposed film to earth in re-entry vehicles or “buckets” that separated from the satellite, fell through the atmosphere, and descended by parachute. US Air Force aircraft plucked the buckets from the sky at around 15,000 feet. This GAMBIT 1 return capsule’s parts are separated to show its inner mechanism.
Returning film safely and accurately from space was not simple. The re-entry vehicle had to be maneuverable, vacuum-sealed, temperature-controlled, lightweight, strong, and recoverable. It included a retro-rocket to slow the capsule into a precise descent and smaller thrusters to spin-stabilize it during its fiery fall to earth.
The outer cover of high-temperature resin charred away to carry off heat during re-entry. Another thermal cover, plus an array of thermostats and sensors, kept the film at the correct temperature in space and less than 150 degrees F during descent. Once the capsule reached about 55,000 feet, parachutes slowed its fall.
Battery-operated radio signal emitters helped aircraft locate the buckets, and they could float if they landed in the ocean. General Electric built the film recovery vehicles.
This artifact is on loan from the National Reconnaissance Office (Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance).
Film load: 3,000 feet
Film weight: 52 lbs.
Vehicle weight: 376 lbs. (at ejection with film)
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