The early space age is marked by Soviet accomplishments – the first satellites, the first living being launched into orbit, and the first man in space to name just a few. But there was one very important technological first secured by the United States in 1960. America was the first nation to safely recover a payload from orbit.
When we think about the early space age and history's first satellites, we think about launches. Launching into orbit was the exciting technology behind Sputnik that promised a future where men could travel beyond Earth orbit. Those early satellites weren't designed to be recovered. Sputnik's orbit decayed and it fell to Earth in January of 1958. But it didn't matter; it was the launch that was historically more important.
That was until satellites started being put to use as reconnaissance platforms - then recovering the satellites' payload took center stage.
ANALYSIS: The X-15B: The Spaceplane That Wasn't
In the United States, the idea to use satellites as reconnaissance platforms came in the wake of the U-2's first flight over the Soviet Union in 1956. Developed under a strict curtain of secrecy, the high-flying photo reconnaissance plane was detected as soon as it crossed into Soviet airspace. America had lost the element of surprise, and it was thought to be a matter of time before the Soviets found a way to shoot down the U-2 (which, of course, they did in 1960).