Catch a Falling Star: Historical top-secret mission will celebrate 50th anniversary

Retired MSgt. Al Blankenship holds one of the recovery hooks used to make aerial catches of film capsules that were launched over the Pacific Ocean from orbiting spy satellites. From 1969 to 1986, Blankenship was a crewmember of 6594th Test Group at Hickam Air Force base, responsible for carrying out recovery missions of film capsules containing important reconnaissance data. The mission was part of the highly classified Corona Satellite Program, a top secret Air Force spy satellite project.

Blair Martin
Contributing Writer

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the first successful aerial recovery mission made by the 6594th Test Group Squadron, formerly based at Hickam Air Force Base.

As part of the highly classified Corona Satellite Program, a top secret Air Force spy satellite project, the 6594th Test Group’s mission was to retrieve film capsules, returning from orbiting U.S. spy satellites, that contained important photo reconnaissance data.

On Aug. 19, 1960, the first successful aerial recovery of a de-orbited Discoverer 14 film capsule was made, marking two major milestones for the U.S.; the first return of an object placed in earth’s orbit and the first pictures of earth captured from space.

Initially called the “Discoverer Space Technology Program” in 1958, the program was later referred to by its code name, “Corona.”

Since the Hawaiian Islands were the only location for U.S. satellite film capsule recovery, the 6594th Test Group, which employed nearly 1,000 Air Force personnel, was the only organization that performed this important mission and their slogan became “Catch a Falling Star.”

Between 1958 and 1986, the group accomplished 40,000 aerial recoveries and captured more than 200 film capsules, ranging in cost from $7 to $250 million each. In 1996, the Corona Satellite program was finally declassified.

Retired Master Sgt. Al Blankenship worked as a crew member for 6594th Test Group from December 1969 until September 1986, when the mission ended.

After joining the Air Force right out of high school in 1965, the Oregon native said he was lucky to be assigned to a unit responsible for carrying out such a rare but important mission.

“Because I had taken physics and chemistry classes in high school, I got into a smaller research and development electronics career field which would later lead me to this one-of-a-kind unit,” he said. “I was very lucky because my career field used the latest technology and we went on very important missions. It was a lot more interesting than other jobs where you sit behind a desk all day.”

Blankenship served as an airborne telemetry operator and maintainer for the JC-130 “Hercules” aircraft that were used to catch the satellite film capsules. Later he wasinchargeofmaintaining the electronic and electrical systems used for both aerial and surface recoveries that utilized JC-130 and HH-53C aircraft.

He said his unit used modified cargo planes rigged with a winch, dolly and two 34-foot poles holding eight large recovery hooks that would be extended during flight to make “mid-air catches” of film capsules as they descended by parachute over the Pacific Ocean.

In the early 1970s, Blankenship flew on 13 mission aerial recoveries and witnessed the mission firsthand from the plane.

“Everything was focused around the estimated time the parachute would deploy,” he said. “There would be five planes flying in the ballpark 600 miles long and 50 miles wide. We would take off to be in our place one hour before the parachute deployment and listen for the telemetry signal. Once we got it, the commander made the call and the crew in the best position proceeded to make the catch.”

According to Blankenship, aerial recoveries were used in capturing more than 90 percent of all launched film capsules throughout the 27-year mission.

“Aerial recoveries were preferred because the capsules were coming down at 1,500-feet-a-minute so when they hit the water they would go under about 12 to 15 feet,” he explained. “When they go under, salt water gets inside, damaging some of the film and data inside the capsule.”

When surface recovery was needed, helicopters and Navy ships were on hand to help retrieve the capsule from the ocean.

“The Navy was there the whole time supporting our mission,” said Blankenship. “From 1962 to 1974, we had two naval ships that went out with us on every mission in case we needed a surface recovery.”

In the 1980s, advances in digital video technology provided satellite data in a time-lier manner and removed the need to recover actual film capsules. On Sept. 30, 1986, the 6594th Test Group unit’s mission was finally decommissioned.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the 6594th Test Group’s first successful mission, a special plaque ceremony is scheduled for 9 a.m. Aug. 19 at the Hickam flagpole, located on Atterbury

Circle, near the Pacific Air Force Headquarters (PACAF) building. Retired Air Force General Bruce Carlson from the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) will be featured as a guest speaker.

Blankenship said he hopes others will realize the historical significance of the Corona Satellite program, which was America’s first operational space reconnaissance project.

“These missions are now flaunted by historians as being equivalent to what the Wright brothers did and Yeager breaking the sound barrier,” he said. “The Corona program was the first time mankind put something into space and brought it back and it was a very rewarding time in my life.”

Blankenship said a “Falling Star” reunion is planned for former members of 6594th Test Group the week of Aug. 16 to 20.

For more information on the 6594th Test Group’s 50th anniversary or the “Falling Star” reunion, visit www.6594thtestgroup.org.

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