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Mid-Air Recovery of a Satellite Capsule

On August 18, 1960, a U.S. Air Force plane recovered the Discoverer XIV capsule in midair over the Pacific Ocean; it was the first time any airplane had ever recovered a satellite data capsule in flight.

Discoverer 14 was the first successful low resolution photo surveillance spacecraft launched by the US Air Force. It was launched into a polar orbit by a Thor booster from Vandenberg AFB. After the Thor exhausted its fuel, the Agena A vehicle atop the Thor separated from it. The Agena's main engine then ignited, increasing the satellite's top speed to 17,658 mph, thereby achieving an orbit of 116 miles above the earth at the low point and 502 miles at the high point. Over Alaska on the 17th pass around the earth, the Agena ejected Discoverer 14 from its nose and retrorockets attached to the reentry vehicle fired to slow it for the return from orbit. After Discoverer 14 reentered the atmosphere, it released a parachute and floated earthward. The descending parachute was sighted 360 miles southeast of Honolulu, Hawaii, by the crew of a US Air Force C-119 recovery aircraft from the 6593rd Test Squardon based at Hickam AFB, Hawaii. On the C-119's third pass over the parachute, the recovery gear trailing behind the aircraft successfully snagged the parachute canopy. A winch operator aboard the C-119 then reeled in the Discoverer after its 27-hour, 450,000 mile journey through space. This was the first successful recovery of film from an orbiting satellite and the first aerial recovery of an object returning from Earth orbit.
[taken directly from National Space Science Data Center website:]

recovering the Discoverer XIV capsule

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This page was last updated on 05/27/2017.