United States Air Force
Command and Control
Air Force Systems Command/Air Force Space Command
Hickam AFB, Hawaii
“Catch a Falling Star”
The 6594th Test Group/6593rd Test Sq (Special) was a United States Air Force Unit stationed in Hawaii at Hickam Air Force Base from 1958 until it was deactivated in 1986.
The 6594th Test Group was established in 1958 to support U.S. Air Force Systems Command missile and space development operations in the Western Pacific area. It also provided support to the U.S. Coast Guard and Honolulu Joint Rescue Coordination Center on an as-available, non-interference basis.
Large portions of the Test Group’s mission were classified until 1995 when information concerning Project CORONA was declassified. The 6594th was largely concerned with retrieving film canisters, about the size of a garbage can, in midair that had been ejected from some of the United States’ earliest spy satellites. These canisters were among the first objects sent in to space that were designed to survive re-entry. Upon entering the ionosphere, they could resemble a shooting, or falling, star. Thus, the unit’s motto “To Catch a Falling Star”.
Because retrieval occurred over water in the Pacific, rescue swimmers were a standard part of the mission crew. Thus, when the 6594th was not busy with their primary mission, they were often available to support the US Coast Guard and other agencies in Search and Rescue (SAR) missions. The 6594th Test Group had one of the best records for open water rescues in the U.S. Air Force.
The 6594th Test Group / 6593rd Test Sq (Special) operated out of the Hickam Air Force Base for 27 years recovering film capsules in support of the Corona Program and follow-on reconnaissance satellites. Historians consider the Corona Program’s mission achievements to be equivalent in aerospace significance to the Wright Brothers’ First Flight or Yeager Breaking the Sound Barrier. The role of the 6594th Test Group has long been recognized as a singularly key element in the success of the Corona Program, which accomplished the following firsts:
First return of an object placed in Earth’s orbit
First pictures of Earth from space
First space program with more than one return capsule
First space program to reach 100 missions (145 total)
The 6593rd Test Squadron wasn’t really a test squadron at all, but was a secret unit that was part of Gen. LeMay’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) using C-119 “Flying Boxcars” out of Hawaii with the sole mission of picking up Project CORONA spy satellite cameras as they descended from space by parachute.
They would then fly the Itek camera and film to Rochester, New York to the secret lab at the Kodak headquarters at “Hawkeye Works,” where the film was processed and then distributed to “policy makers.”
Modified cargo planes (C-119 and C-130) were used to make a mid-air recovery (catch) of each capsule as it descended by parachute. USAF SH-3 helicopters and Navy ships were utilized to retrieve a capsule if it had to go in the water.
The 6594th Test Group was the only organization in the free world that performed this important mission and the Hawaiian Islands was the only location for U.S. satellite film capsule recovery.
Shortly after the unit began using the HH-53C in 1974, the search and rescue unit at Hickam was decommissioned and the test group provided the Hawaiian Islands and the mid-Pacific with long-range rescue capability. The helicopter and tanker crews took great pride in accomplishing sixty rescues for the United States Coast Guard over a period of twelve years.
After 27 years and 40,000 aerial recoveries, the 6594th Test Group was decommissioned Sept. 30, 1986. The test group supported a technology that rapidly advanced the state of the art in photography and ultimately resulted in today’s amazing computer capabilities and digital cameras.