Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Seeing from Space: Cold War Origins to Google Earth

Posted on | March 2, 2011 | No Comments

President Eisenhower had been secretly coordinating the space program as part of the Cold War since the early 1950s. He had become accustomed to the valuable photographic information obtained from spy planes and considered satellites a crucial new Cold War technology. The D-Day invasion of Europe, which he had managed as the head of the Allied Forces, had been meticulously reconnoitered with low and high altitude photography from a variety of reconnaissance aircraft.

When his Presidential administration took office in early 1953, tensions with Communist countries were increasing rapidly and his “New Look” policy identified aerospace as a decisive component of future US military strategy. Given the growing nuclear capacity of the USSR, he particularly wanted satellites that could assess how rapidly the Communists were producing its long-range bombers and nuclear ballistic missiles, as well as where they were being stationed.[1]

Rocketing into the “High Ground”

Consequently, after the Sputnik debacle, Werhner Von Braun, the German captive/immigrant who headed the US space program was cleared to launch the Jupiter-C, a proven military rocket modified to carry a satellite designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). On January 31, 1958, America’s first satellite launcher lifted off, carrying the 10.5-pound Explorer 1 into orbit. The Soviet Sputnik satellite had established the precedent of overflight, freeing up orbital paths above sovereign national spaces.

Later that year the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) was created, and within a week, Project Mercury was approved to place a human into orbit.[2] While motivations for the human cargo were numerous, one significant reason was that rocket thrust capability was still limited and more was needed to place heavier payloads into space. Initially this meant cameras and other sensing devices but of course thermonuclear devices were still very heavy. In order to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, much work was needed on increasing the transport and guidance capabilities of the rocket launcher. Initially, however, the Eisenhower administration was concerned with the surveillance possibilities that the “high ground” offered.

Upon the successful flight of the America’s first rocket launcher, the Corona spy satellite program was initiated. Operating under the name Discoverer, the highly covert program was started to put a series of satellites designated Keyhole (KH) into low earth orbits (LEO). Outfitted with 70mm cameras, KH-1 and its early successors failed to achieve orbit or suffered other technical failures.[3] By the late summer of 1960, however, a capsule containing the first film stock was retrieved in mid-air by an Air Force cargo plane as it parachuted back down to earth.

The Keyhole satellites could see where the US spy planes could not. The U-2 high-altitude spy plane could fly up to altitudes of 70,000 ft and photograph military installations and movements but were in increasing danger as Soviet radar and surface-to-air missiles improved. The satellites could cover a wider distance from much safer altitudes.

The limits of the U-2 were highlighted infamously on Mayday of 1960 when U-2 pilot Gary Powers was shot down over Soviet space and captured. Eisenhower, thinking Powers was dead and the plane destroyed, downplayed the incident as a probable technical failure on a weather plane. The incident proved highly embarrassing and provided a major international public relations boost for Khrushchev when the largely intact remains of the spy plane were paraded by the Soviets in front of the international press along with images of Powers.

The Powers incident provided a strong motivation for the Corona satellite surveillance program which retrieved film, snatched from the air by US aircraft. The retrieved film contained images from locations deep inside the USSR where the U-2 couldn’t reach. These new pictures of the USSR, while not immediately as clear as the U-2 pictures, used new techniques for taking and interpreting images that were constantly improving and proving the worth of the satellites.

Contemporary Developments

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) emerged as one of the most secret intelligence services in the US and is part of the Department of Defense. It now has its own website and offers overhead intelligence services to a number of government agencies, warning of potential environmental and political trouble spots around the world and helping coordinate military operations.

In 2004 Google acquired Keyhole, Inc. for its Google Earth, Google Maps and Google Mobile operations. Keyhole had been formed in 2001 as a software development company specializing in geospatial data visualization applications to commercialize some of the Keyhole satellite data. They developed the Keyhole Markup Language (KML) for geographical annotation and visualization with Internet browsers.


[1] Recently unclassified documents show a much more active President Eisenhower than the public had believed at the time.
[2] Winter, F. 1990. Rockets into Space. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 70-80.
NASA was established on October 1, 1958 with the passage of the National Aeronautical and Space Act.
[3] The mishaps are said to be the inspiration behind the spy novel Ice Station Zebra which later became a full motion picture hitting the cinemas in 1968.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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