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.
The Discoverer program was managed by the Advanced Research Projects Agency
of the Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force. The primary goal of
the program was to develop a film-return photographic surveillance satellite
to assess how rapidly the Soviet Union was producing long-range bombers and ballistic missiles and where they were being deployed, and to take photos over the Sino-Soviet bloc to replace the the U2 spyplanes. It was part of the secret Corona program which was also used to produce maps and charts for the Department of Defense and other US government mapping programs. The goal of the program was not revealed to the public at the time, it was presented as a program to orbit large satellites to test satellite subsystems and investigate the communication and environmental aspects of placing humans in space, including carrying biological packages for return to Earth from orbit. In all, 38 Discoverer satellites were launched by February 1962, although the satellite reconnaissance program continued until 1972 as the Corona project. The program documents were declassified in 1995.