Discoverer XIV was a Key Hole KH-1 satellite of the Corona Program. It carried a 70mm reconnaissance camera, and was launched into a polar orbit aboard a Thor-Agena rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. After 17 orbits, 7 of which crossed over “denied territory,” the satellite was de-orbited.
A Fairchild C-119J Flying Boxcar, 51-8037, of the 6593rd Test Squadron, Hickham Air Force Base, Hawaii, was sent to recover the satellite as it descended through the lower atmosphere by parachute. The air crew sighted the parachute at about 8,000 feet (2,438 meters), 360 miles (580 kilometers) southwest of Hawaii. On their third attempt, they were able to snag the satellite and parachute with recovery equipment deployed under the transport and then pull it inside. This was the first time that film from a satellite had been recovered.
The Discoverer program was publicly explained as an Earth sciences research project, but was actually a Central Intelligence Agency reconnaissance of the Soviet Union and China. Corona 1 missions located 64 Soviet airfields and 26 surface-to-air (SAM) missile sites.
51-8037 had been built as a C-119F, but was converted to a C-119J in 1957. The satellite recovery airplane is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
2 December 1988, 14:30:34 UTC: At 9:30 a.m., EST, Space Shuttle Atlantis (OV-104) launched from Pad 39B, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida, on mission STS-27. This was the deployment of the first of five Lockheed Martin Lacrosse I reconnaissance satellites, USA-34, for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office and the Central Intelligence Agency.
STS-27 was the third flight for Atlantis. It would eventually be flown 33 times.
Space Transport System Flight STS-27 was commanded by Captain Robert Lee Gibson, United States Navy, with Colonel Guy S. Gardner, United States Air Force, as the shuttle pilot. Three mission specialists were aboard for the mission: Colonel Richard M. Mullane, USAF; Colonel Jerry L. Ross, USAF; and Captain William B. Shepherd, a United States Navy SEAL.
Approximately 1 minute, 25 seconds after liftoff, insulating material from the right solid rocket booster (SRB) came off and struck the orbiter. The damage to the thermal tiles on the shuttle’s right side was extensive. More than 700 tiles were damaged and one was completely missing.
Atlantis completed 68 orbits during this mission. It landed on Runway 17, Edwards Air Force Base, California, 6 December 1988, at 23:36:11 UTC (4:36 p.m., PST). The duration of the flight was 4 days, 9 hours, 5 minutes, 37 seconds.