How US Spy Satellite Photography Worked Before Digital Technology

Ever wonder how the US government managed to capture spy photos with satellites during the Cold War without the help of digital cameras, computers, or wireless transmission? The Atlantic has a fascinating article on the various techniques that were used:

From 1971 to 1986 a total of 20 satellites were launched, each containing 60 miles (100 kilometers) of film and sophisticated cameras that orbited the earth snapping vast, panoramic photographs of the Soviet Union, China and other potential foes. The film was shot back through the earth’s atmosphere in buckets that parachuted over the Pacific Ocean, where C-130 Air Force planes snagged them with grappling hooks.

You can check out all the details of the super secret photography program in this now-declassified report.

Your Briefing on the CIA’s Cold-War Spy Satellite, ‘Big Bird’ [The Atlantic]

Image credit: Creepy Spy Plane by substack

  • Spider- Man

    I wanna see the snagging operation!!

  • John Milleker

    I’ve got a few rolls of Kodak “Mapping Film” from the late 90’s that was designed for aerial mapping. The rolls are 42″ wide and 100′ long. They’re extremely low contrast and rated at around ISO 6. Developing it in a high contrast developer brings it back to usable. I enlarge to it to make large negatives for alternative process stuff.

    I’ll cut 8×10’s and 11×14’s from it all the time and the detail is fantastic. I can only imaging how much data you’d retrieve scanning the globe with the stuff.

  • Mario Liedtke

    Ahem.. are you sure that you dont wanted to post that on April 01?
    Please tell me also: Did LIVE-TV in the pre-eighties work the same way? People took the LiveTV Transmissions out of their mailboxes and dropped them into their TVs?

  • Spider- Man

    Only if they wanted to watch it in HD…

  • Nn-r

    Think a little before posting comments that make no sense. Since when was live tv any good? Especialy for survailance, do you really think they could get any high quality photos via a transmitted signal back then?? There is a reason why film is still used even today…