Category Something New Under the Sun




he scientific mind is a curious thing. It probes what others take for granted, including, on one night in 1950, a multilayered chocolate cake. Some of America’s brightest scientific minds were focused on that cake at the home of James Van Allen, who was to become famous as the discoverer of the earth’s radiation belts and who was hosting a dinner for the eminent British geophysicist Sydney Chapman. With admirable atten­tion to detail, the collective scientific intellect verified that the cake had twenty-one layers. That cake did much to put the scientists in the kind of mood from which expansive conversation flows and big ideas are born.

Led by Lloyd Berkner, the talk turned to science. Berkner was a charismatic individual, head of the Brookhaven National Laboratory and a veteran of one of Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic expeditions. Like his fellow diners, Berkner was fascinated by the new insights into the earth’s environ­ment that instruments aboard V2 rockets captured from Germany had been providing since 1946. These high-altitude sounding rockets were invigorating the earth sciences. Was the time right, asked Berkner, to pro­mote an international effort in geophysics, one that would exploit new and established technologies in a world-wide scientific exploration to illu­minate global physical phenomena?

This conversation was to lead to the establishment of the Interna­tional Geophysical Year of 1957/58. The IGY was the enterprise that by inadvertently dovetailing with a key element of President Eisenhower’s national security policy—establishing the freedom of space for reconnais­sance satellites—was to become the cradle of the space age.[1]

At Van Allen’s dinner party in 1950, Berkner and his fellow diners were not considering spacecraft, though they all knew of the imminent technical feasibility of launching satellites and were to play important roles in the opening years of the space age.

Berkner’s suggestion for a geophysical year captured Chapman’s attention. These two agreed to “talk the idea up” among their many con­tacts in the international scientific community. Chapman sent an account of the dinner party to the journal Nature. Within a few years, Berkner and Chapman had secured enough interest to win the backing of the Interna­tional Council of Scientific Unions for the IGY. Chapman became presi­dent of the IGY and Berkner the vice president.

Scientists had already established the idea of international collabora­tion in 1882 and 1932 when they had undertaken to study geophysics from the earth’s poles. Expanding the concept of the International Polar Years to encompass the whole earth was, agreed the diners, a good idea, and the best time for such an effort would be between July 1, 1957, and the end of 1958. They chose the dates to coincide with a period of maxi­mum solar activity, when there would be much to study.

During solar maxima, which occur once every eleven years, the sun throws out huge flares of matter and energy more frequently than at other times, adding peaks of intensity to the solar wind that is always racing through the solar system. Numerous terrestrial effects result. The northern lights, for example, move to lower latitudes than usual as more charged particles precipitate along magnetic field lines into the ionosphere, an area of charged particles at altitudes of between 60 and 1000 kilometers above the earth’s surface. Studying the ionosphere was to account for a significant portion of the IGY, including science that was important for long-range communication, missile development, and, as it turned out, the space age.

Others in 1950 wanted to set up observation posts in places where meteorological data were sparse. Some wanted to organize expeditions to places where they could observe total eclipses. And some, like Lloyd

available to McDougall, that the Eisenhower administration wished to finesse a satellite into orbit in order to establish the freedom of space. See also The Eisenhower Administration and the Cold War; Framing American Astronautics to Serve National Security; by R. Cargill Hall (in Prologue, Quarterly of the National Archives, spring 1996). Cargill Hall’s article, which is based on additional, recently declassified documents, makes the argument more explicitly that the IGY and national security policy were linked.

Berkner, were intrigued by the physics and chemistry of the upper atmo­sphere.

So, with endorsements from the international scientific community, the participating countries got down to business. Each needed a detailed research plan. And they needed money.

In the U. S., scientists turned for leadership to Joseph Kaplan, a pro­fessor of physics at the University of California, Los Angeles. He had proven his organizational abilities by cofounding the university’s Institute of Geophysics in 1944 and by campaigning successfully for degree pro­grams in sports. As chair of the U. S. National Committee for the IGY, he concealed the habitual tension that turned him into a five-cigar man dur­ing sporting events.

The first meeting of the U. S. National Committee for the IGY took place at the National Academy of Sciences on the afternoon of March 26, 1953. For a day and a half, the group struggled to define a program and budget. Frustration mounted. One scientist suggested that they should for­get the whole thing. Berkner, a consummate committee man, smoothed over such moments, and by the end of the twenty-seventh they had out­lined their aims. In the meantime, they had solicited thoughts from their colleagues around the country.

Ideas poured into the academy during April. Many of them would sound familiar today. Issues were raised that today’s scientists continue to address. Paul Siple wrote, “There is evidence that the earth is undergoing a significant climate change, advancing from cooler to warmer conditions… our knowledge is still imperfect as to the exact cause of climate changes.”

By May the list of subjects to be studied included geomagnetism, solid-earth investigations, atmospheric electricity, climatic change, geodet- ics, cosmic rays, ionospheric physics, high-altitude physics, and auroral physics.

It is hard to imagine any study of these subjects today that would not rely partially or wholly on satellite observations. Then satellites did not exist, and the National Committee of the IGY did not initially consider that satellites should be developed. It was, however, clear to them that they needed a strong program of sounding rockets to probe the upper atmo­sphere. Some scientists were concerned that the rockets would cost too much, and perhaps price dissuaded them from adding satellites to their agenda.

The estimated price tag for this unprecedented research proposal, between 1954 and its closure at the end of 1958, was $13 million—$2.5 million more than the National Science Foundation (NSF) was requesting as its total budget for fiscal year 1954. The NSF and the academy under­took the task of requesting the money from Congress.

Behind the scenes, Kaplan lobbied hard. There were times when the project seemed doomed. A scientist in the administration told him, “Joe, go home. Such a beautiful program does not stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting support.” Yet, it did.

Through the end of 1953 and 1954, planning for the IGY went ahead in the U. S. Concurrently, support for launching a satellite, despite deep skepticism from many, was gaining momentum among a vocal and persuasive minority in the military, industry, and academia. Some saw the IGY as the natural home for a satellite program, and they set in motion events that led to the General Assembly of the IGY endorsing the inclu­sion of satellites in its program.

This was in Rome in the fall of 1954. The night before, Berkner and others who were to become leading space scientists had debated until the early hours whether their enthusiasm was getting ahead of their ability, and whether they should seek the approval of their international colleagues. Slowly the enthusiasts converted the cautious. As they argued and won their case the next day, the Soviets simply observed—in silence. It was October 4, three years to the day before the launch of Sputnik I.

The International Geophysical Year was now close to its decisive encounter with the Eisenhower administration’s national security policy. While Berkner and his colleagues prepared for the Rome meeting, a top – level scientific panel, authorized by President Eisenhower in July 1954, was in the process of assessing the technological options available to prevent a surprise attack on the U. S., particularly by the Soviet Myacheslav-4 inter­continental BISON bombers. This panel, headed by James Killian, a confi­dant of President Eisenhower and the president of the Massachusetts Insti­tute of Technology, separated its task into three areas: continental defense, striking power, and intelligence capabilities.

Their final report contained a recommendation that the administra­tion fund development of a scientific Earth satellite to establish the free­dom of space in international law and the right of overflight.

The report was finally completed in February 1955, and later that month, Donald Quarles, the assistant secretary of defense for research and development, discreetly asked some members of the U. S. National Com­mittee for the IGY to formally request a scientific satellite.[2]

In response to the Rome resolution, the national committee had already asked a rocketry panel, which met for the first time on January 22, 1955, to “ … study and report on the technical feasibility of the construc­tion of an extended rocket, from here on called the long-playing rocket, to be launched in connection with scientific activities during the Interna­tional Geophysical Year.” “Long-playing rocket” was a euphemism for satellite launcher, and the new panel was told that its discussions should remain private.

By early March the panel had concluded that a satellite launch was feasible within the time frame of the IGY, but that guidance would be dif­ficult. On March 9, the executive committee of the U. S. national commit­tee debated whether to accept the panels findings. After some heated discussion, the report was accepted and the national committee requested that a satellite program be included in the IGY.

Quarles took the request to the National Security Council, which accepted the IGY’s satellite project on May 26, 1955. The next day, Eisenhower, too, endorsed the project. On July 29, President Eisenhower told the world that the U. S. would launch a satellite as part of the IGY. Thanks to Eisenhowers national security aims, the scientists who had campaigned for science satellites had what they wanted. Many of them, of course, did not know of the underlying agenda that had furthered their aims.

Within days of Eisenhowers announcement, the Soviet Union, by then a participant in the IGY, talked openly about its satellite plans at a meeting of the International Astronautical Federation in Copenhagen.

Leonid Sedov, an academician and chair of the impressively named Commission for the Coordination of Interplanetary Flight, made the announcement. He dropped into one of the sessions and, through his interpreter, called a press conference at the Soviet embassy During the conference, Sedov said that the Soviet Union planned to launch a satellite in about eighteen months, six months earlier than the earliest American estimate. The plans he outlined were for a much larger satellite than those the U. S. was planning. For those whose job it was to analyze Soviet inten­tions, here was public confirmation of the heavy-lift launch capabilities that the Soviets aspired to and a clear announcement that missiles capable of intercontinental distances were in the offing.

Sedov’s prediction of the Soviet launch date was wrong by ten months. But the Soviets did launch first, and their satellite was bigger than anything American scientists really believed in their hearts that the Soviets were capable of.

Chapter ten: The Realities of Space Exploration

The account of the launch of Transit 1A is pieced together from com­ments from different team members. Lee DuBois, for example, remem­bered the tears in his eyes when the satellite failed (page 105).

Details of the twenty-five-minute flight and the results gleaned come from the records that Henry Elliott had kept and from reports in APL’s archives (page 106).

Numerous memos and reports in the APL archives testify to Kershner’s industry in preparing for Transit IB and Transit 2A (pages 106 and 107).

John Hamblen’s undated, typed note requesting the team members to document component testing (page 107) is among the papers in the APL archives.

My description of how the launch might have been is pieced together from people’s memories and photographs of later launches found at APL.

A progress report details what happened scientifically following the suc­cessful launch of Transit IB (page 108- 109). Bill Guier explained what the report meant and supplemented it with his own memories.

A textbook consulted on the geoid (page 110) is Theory of the Earth, by Don L. Anderson (Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1989).

Information about how APL’s understanding of the geoid developed comes from papers and from interviews with Bill Guier and Harold Black (page 112).

Dave Smith, director of the division of terrestrial physics at the Goddard Space Flight Center gave me some very basic understanding of satellite geodesy.

Information about developing subsequent orbital determination programs and about the computers comes from reports in APL’s archives and from interviews with Harold Black and Lee Pryor (pages 113 and 114).

Information about the problems with the solar cells (page 114) came from Bob Danchik.

New Moon

“In Leningrad, Korolev could not then by any means know that, after many very hard times, sometimes cruelly unjust to him, a beautiful spring would come when… would be reflected a world of black sky and blue Earth, a world never before seen by Man/*

—Yaroslav Golovanov, Sergei Korolev:The Apprenticeship of a Space Pioneer

“And all of a sudden you wake up one morning, and here’s this doggone Russian thing flying overhead… Oh, no, there was a great deal of disturbance..

—William Pickering, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in 1957.

From a transcript of an oral history in the archives of the California Institute of Technology.


f they had known then what they know now, would they have done the job? They would surely have been daunted, even given the imperatives of the Cold War. But they did not know how difficult space exploration would be. The “cold warriors” had their incentives: intercontinental ballis­tic missiles and reconnaissance satellites. And the enthusiasts, who some­times were also cold warriors, had their long-held aim: to go beyond Earth’s atmosphere. By Thursday evening, October 3, 1957, their destina­tion was less than a day away.

That same evening was one of the last on which delegates gathered at a conference organized by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D. C. as part of the International Geophysical Year. The focus of the con­ference was on the rockets and satellites to be launched before the end of 1958. The IGY united sixty-seven nations in a seemingly impressive pax academica, yet, despite good intentions, the satellites of the IGY were about to push the world into a new phase of the Cold War.

Satellites were not part of the original plan. Indeed, when the IGY first endorsed satellites and chose as its logo a satellite orbiting the earth, many considered satellites to be little more than science fiction. In three
years that had all changed. By October 1957, the U. S. and USSR were fol­lowing one another’s progress keenly Each group of scientists wanted to be the first, and the meeting at the National Academy of Sciences gave them all an opportunity to probe each other’s intentions.

The Soviets were not very specific. Their delegation, led by Lieu­tenant General Anatoly Blagonravov, knew that a launch was imminent and had announced this on the first day of the conference. But they had not said exactly when. It is doubtful that they knew.

The Soviets would be gratified if the launch took place during the meeting, but they also knew, as the defector George Tokady was to say years later, that “ … the launch of Sputnik was too big a piece of cake to play games with.” Already the centennial celebrations on the birth of Kon­stantin Tsiolkovsky, Russia’s “father of spaceflight,” had passed on Septem­ber 17th without a satellite attaining orbit. The cognoscenti had speculated that the seventeenth might be the occasion for a Soviet launch.

But the satellite would be launched when all was ready, and one man would make that determination. Late Thursday afternoon, as the confer­ence workshop on rocketry struggled with the usual committee minutiae, that man, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, lay—perhaps—restlessly in bed. More likely, being who and what he was, he paced the sitting room of his small cottage. It would be nearly a decade before the Soviet leadership publicly acknowledged the existence of this man, whom they called the Chief Designer of Cosmic-Rocket Systems.

Korolev’s cottage was on the grounds of Baikonur Cosmodrome, near the village of Tyuratam in Kazakhstan, one hundred miles east of the Aral Sea. It lay on a parallel with northern Wisconsin and as far east of the Greenwich meridian as Halifax, Nova Scotia, is west.

In Washington D. C., as October 3 drew to a close, workshop coordinators pulled ideas together for the next day.

For Korolev, it was the early hours of October 4. That day Korolev’s team would open the space age.

In future years, on the nights before he sent cosmonauts into space, Korolev would sleep very little. Instead, he worried about the well-being of the young men whom he drove as hard as he drove himself, buoyed by an energy that made his days so much longer than those of other people. But his wakefulness had a second purpose. It helped him avoid dreams in which guards beat him and screamed at him, dreams from which he would wake to a visceral fear of annihilation. These were Stalins legacy, as were his memories of colleagues who one moment were working alongside him and the next were gone.

On October 4, as the sun rose on a clear, cool dawn, Korolev was— comparatively—free. On his wall hung a portrait of Tsiolkovsky. Tsiol – kovsky had died twenty-two years before, but he had been the first to write scientifically about this day. His books, calculations, and ideas had long ago seduced Korolev.

Less than a kilometer away, beyond the small knot of trees that sur­rounded his house, the rocket glinted in sunlight. Beyond that, where only two years before no launch site had been, the semiarid steppes of Kazakh­stan stretched to the horizon and beyond. The American government had known of this launch site, built with forced labor, since the spring of 1957, when a U2 spy plane had returned with photographs.

For Korolev there must have been tension, anticipation, excitement, and fear as he faced the day that would test all that he had become and all that he had dreamed.

As Korolev prepared to leave for the launch site, perhaps he thought briefly of the people waiting for him to fail, the naysayers and his rivals. Earlier in the year, as rocket after rocket had exploded and Nikita Khrushchevs impatience had mounted, Korolevs detractors had pushed for his dismissal. Then, in early August, his team had successfully launched the R7, the worlds first intercontinental ballistic missile. Not for eighteen months would the U. S. launch a missile capable of similar range. A se­cond successful launch followed, and on August 27 the Soviet Union announced that it possessed intercontinental ballistic missiles. It would have been more accurate to say that they had the beginnings of the capa­bility, but the success had satisfied Khrushchev, who now had a rocket that would eventually be capable of carrying a two-ton thermonuclear warhead to the heart of America. As a result, Korolev had won the final go-ahead for his dream, the opportunity to send an artificial moon into space.

The following two months were full of frantic activity. Korolevs team had immediately begun intense preparations for a launch, and toward the end of August the satellite was ready to ship to the Cosmodrome. Korolev moved to his cottage to supervise launch operations. In Septem­ber, the pace picked up and tempers frayed. The satellite developed an electrical fault. Everyone panicked. Korolev, always relentlessly demanding, became merciless. Time and again, the launch team watched with appre­hension as his little finger rose to stroke his eyebrow; it was the signal to move smartly to the next job. They knew his capacity for compassion and for explosions of wrath; that he found people who would argue a case interesting, but would take personal offense at anyone who did not do his job. Korolev drove his engineers and his engineers drove themselves until, crisis by crisis, they coaxed the novel technology to readiness.

At last, toward the end of September, the crane in the assembly building hoisted the small, shiny sphere into the nose cone of the rocket. The launch team was now ready to put on a show for VIPs from Moscow. Members of the State Commission, the secret group that was to control the country’s space program, flew in. Technicians ran a final check on the satellite’s radio transmitter, switching the signal to a loudspeaker so that the commissioners could hear it echo around the building. Then the engineers silenced the transmitter. Some recalled later that their skin tin­gled at the thought that the satellite would not speak again until it was in space.

On the night of October 2, the launch team moved the rocket. It was four stories high and weighed nearly three hundred tons. Slowly, so very slowly, they wheeled the rocket out of the assembly building on a flatcar, and it began its painstakingly careful journey down the railroad track to the launch pad. It swayed with each uneasy movement. The next morning, Thursday October 3, they began the final preparations for launch—the countdown.

As the day progressed, the launch team worried that the satellite would overheat despite the gaseous nitrogen circulating inside the sphere. They threw a white blanket over the nose to give the satellite further pro­tection from the sunlight. Later, dissatisfied with that solution, they pumped compressed air around the nose cone.

On Korolev’s recommendation, the satellite ensconced in the nose cone was of a very simple design—a two-foot diameter sphere weighing 184 pounds. A sphere, Korolev said, was a fitting shape for what might be the world’s first satellite because it mimicked the shape of the natural bod­ies of the universe. Consummate engineer that he was, it seems that he could never quite suppress the poet in himself.

Soviet scientists planned both optical and radio tracking for their satellite, with the intention of learning what they could about the earth’s gravitational field and the density of the upper atmosphere. That week in

Washington, Soviet delegates were reemphasizing the frequencies that their first satellites would transmit. And the conference workshop on tracking resolved to establish stations capable of tracking the Soviet satel­lites, a resolve that, even as they made it, was too late.

The Soviets called their satellite Prosteyshiy Sputnik (meaning “sim­plest satellite”). Inevitably, the design and launch team had shortened that to “PS”; and Korolev’s staff, who referred to him informally as “SP” (for Sergei Pavlovich), used the initials interchangeably for the man and the satellite.

PS’s surface was buffed, as were those of the American satellites, so that it would shine in orbit as a sixth-magnitude star and could be tracked visually. It had four whiplike antennas that were pressed between the inside of the nose cone and the satellite’s surface. When, or if, Prosteyshiy Sputnik attained orbit, these antennas would relay radio signals at a frequency that every amateur radio operator in the world would be able to detect.

Prosteyshiy Sputnik’s destination was not far away, for the boundary of space is less distant from Earth than New York is from Washington D. C. Yet every inch of that journey would be fought against Earth’s overwhelm­ing gravity, which would yield only reluctantly to human ingenuity. If the launch vehicle did not reach a high enough velocity, PS’s trajectory would be a ballistic path high through the atmosphere and back to the Earth’s sur­face, like that of the ICBM that Korolev had launched in August. Alterna­tively, PS might be released into too low an orbit and burn up in the atmosphere.

Prosteyshiy Sputnik’s launcher was designed to put a far heavier cargo in space, but Korolev was moving conservatively. The heart of the launcher was the R7 ICBM; four cone-shaped, strap-on boosters surrounded its base, resembling a stiff pleated skirt. The boosters would peel away when their fuel was spent, leaving the R7, minus the burden of the boosters’ weight, to make the final push to orbital velocity. At liftoff, the R7 and the boosters, each containing a cluster of engines, would push from the Earth with more than half a million kilograms of thrust: power enough, if the launch was successful, to boost Nikita Khrushchev’s domestic reputation and help him to ward off those remaining critics who had participated in a failed attempt to oust him from power just a few months earlier. Khrushchev’s improved status should, in turn, help Korolev win backing for a continuing space program. A failure would set back Korolev’s aspira­tions, for space was not Khrushchev’s dream.

As it turned out, the wave of excitement that was to sweep the globe when Sputnik was launched seemed to take Khrushchev—and President Eisenhower—unawares. Prosteyshiy Sputnik, the simplest satellite, changed completely the world public’s perception of the Soviet Union’s technical capabilities, and Khrushchev learned quickly that space could yield politi­cal advantages. As a result, Korolev’s aspirations were to be harnessed tightly to Khrushchev’s international political goals, often in ways that cost lives and held back scientific advances.

On the morning of October 4, Korolev knew none of this. He needed success. But Korolev was also a dreamer, on a grand and generous scale, and he had dreamed this dream for thirty years. He had first worked with rockets after graduation from the Moscow Higher Technical School. He had stood on a sidewalk in Moscow as Friedreich Tsander, a fellow dreamer and space pioneer, raised his fist and said,“Forward to Mars!” That was in 1930, after the two young men had spent the evening with friends planning a research group to develop rockets and rocket-assisted aircraft. They called themselves the Group for the Study of Reaction Propulsion (GIRD).

Korolev regarded Tsander, who talked of rockets as though they already existed, as an older brother. At first, the two men and their friends had worked with no official backing or financial support in the cellar of an abandoned warehouse. They soon attracted the attention of the Soviet armaments minister, Mikhail Tukhachevskiy, a stroke of good fortune that won the group financial success but within a few years would lead to tragedy. In the meantime, GIRD expanded and joined the Gas Dynamics Laboratory in Leningrad to form the Rocket Research Institute. Korolev was appointed the deputy director, responsible to Tukhachevskiy

Before GIRD moved to Leningrad, they designed, built, and tested the Soviet Union’s first liquid-fuelled rocket. Korolev lit the fuse. The rocket, which was based on many of Tsander’s ideas, flew successfully on August 17, 1933, and landed 164 yards from the launch site.[3] Sadly Tsander, who had died in March at the age of 46, did not witness the short flight.

Despite what must have been grief at the death of his friend, petty restrictions limiting access to foreign journals, and the scarcity of food, even with ration cards, those were good years for Korolev. The govern­ment funded the institute because rocket research conformed to the national political goal of establishing Soviet technical supremacy In Leningrad, Korolev met Valentin Glushko, another Soviet space pioneer who designed rocket engines. In future years, Chief Designer Korolev was to collaborate often with Glushko, though the two men were to develop a stormy relationship. At the same time, Korolev’s personal life expanded. He married his school sweetheart, Xenia Vincentini, a surgeon, and they had a daughter, whom they named Natalia. But when Natalia was three, every­thing changed.

In the early hours of June 27, 1938, Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, arrested Korolev. Though he did not know it at that moment, this was the end of his marriage and the beginning of torture, hunger, and years of imprisonment. He was charged with anti-Soviet activity, and his guilt was determined apparently by his association with Mikhail Tukhachevsky. Tukhachevsky was already dead, condemned and shot a year earlier on the strength of false documents that some suspect had been planted by the Nazis.

The NKVD packed Korolev into a boxcar of the Trans-Siberian Railway destined for Magadan. From there he was transported in the hold of a prison ship to the gold mines of Kolyma, concentration camps where thousands died each month. For nearly a year he was hungry, far hungrier than in the ration-book days of the early thirties. He lost his teeth, devel­oped scurvy, and in winter often woke to find his clothes frozen to the floor; but he survived.

He survived because the authorities transferred him to Moscow, to another kind of prison, one that held the cream of the Soviet Union’s aeronautical designers. Andrei Tupolev, the country’s most eminent aircraft designer at that time, headed the technical work of these scientists and engineers, though he was himself a prisoner.

When new prisoners arrived from the Gulag, Tupolev would ask them for a list of the engineers whom they had left behind in the camps. Some were reluctant to make such a list in case their colleagues had been freed and would be rearrested. That was probably not Tupolev’s intention, and he may have seen Korolev’s name on such a list and asked for him to be transferred to Moscow Tupolev would have recognized the name because he had supervised Korolev’s diploma project—the design of a two-seater glider—during Korolev’s final year at the Moscow Higher Technical School.

Whatever the reason for the transfer, Korolev found himself working long hours in a Moscow prison with sparse comforts. The authorities had a twofold work incentive scheme. They held out the hope of eventual freedom, and they threatened the prisoner’s families. Compared to Kolyma, it was paradise. But now Korolev knew that life could change any moment at the whim of a faceless bureaucrat. He tried repeatedly to impress this knowledge on fellow prisoners—that they might disappear without trace and no one would know of it. That knowledge was the darkness that would follow Korolev through his life, the darkness he would share with his friends in future years when late-night conversation lasted into the early morning hours.

Korolev spent his days like the other prisoners, designing aircraft for the war effort; at night, in the communal dormitory, he worked on rock­etry. With the end of World War II, his rocketry research once more emerged into daylight. The USSR and the U. S. were vying for men and equipment from Peenemiinde, the base where Germany had developed the rockets that bombarded London, Paris, and Antwerp in a new kind of warfare. As the Red Army swept into eastern Germany, Stalin remembered the rocketeers he had imprisoned eight years earlier. Back then a magis­trate had told Korolev, “We don’t need your fireworks and firecrackers. They are for destroying our leader, are they not?” By 1945, Stalin had changed his mind, and he turned to those rocketeers who had survived his purges.

Stalin was far more strongly committed to missile development than was the U. S. leadership at that time. In 1945, Stalin insisted on seeing pris­oner Korolev. Korolev always remembered how without taking his pipe from his mouth Stalin had demanded information about the potential speed of missiles, their range, payload, and accuracy. In his memoirs Khrushchev says that the rationale for official interest was that the U. S. could, if it wanted, station long-range bombers at air bases in Europe close to the Russian border, whereas the Soviet Air Force could not reach the continental U. S.

Korolev was sent under guard to Germany to glean what he could. He was under orders to track down those V2s that were not on their way to America and to select German engineers from among those who had not surrendered to American troops. Korolev sent both rockets and engi­neers to Russia. In the years immediately after World War II, both the Soviet Union and the U. S. learned as much as they could from German advances in rocketry while simultaneously developing their own missiles. In Russia, the Germans worked separately and did not know what Soviet engineers were doing, which disappointed western intelligence workers when Stalin sent the Germans back to Germany in 1951. Yet this should not have surprised them. Von Braun, who worked on intermediate range ballistic missiles in the U. S., could likewise not have known details of the Americans’ work on ICBMs.

By 1951 Korolev was no longer a political prisoner, at least not obvi­ously so. He and Xenia had divorced in 1946, and he had since remarried. He worked fanatically hard, prompting colleagues to wonder whether he had a home life. Of prison he rarely spoke. Occasionally, he would sip cognac late at night and reminisce with other former prisoners, telling them how those days still haunted him in his dreams. And a few nights before he died,[4] he told two close friends, the cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Alexei Leonov, of some of the pain. His death on an operating table in 1966 was, some speculate, a result of poor health stemming from his days in Kolyma.

In many ways Korolev’s early life must have prepared him for priva­tion.[5] He was born in Zhitomir, in Ukraine, in 1906. Three years later his parents separated, and Sergei went to live with his maternal grandparents while his mother went back to college. She left instructions that the child was not to leave the garden to play because she was afraid his father, who had already threatened her with a pistol, might kidnap him.

Korolev remembered those years as lonely ones. For a few years he wrote poetry. But he remembered vividly that when he was six, his grand­mother who was fascinated by gadgets and technology took him to see his first aircraft. This experience touched Korolev as deeply as seeing ballet or theater might define the destiny of another human being.

On weekends his mother would visit. Then they would play, and she would read to him, but she also made him go alone to distant dark rooms because, inspired by her reading of James Fenimore Cooper, she thought that in this way he would conquer fear.

As they did to millions of others, World War I and the Russian Revo­lution turned Korolev’s life upside down. In 1917, Sergei was eleven. By then his mother was married again, this time to an engineer called Grigory Balanin. The family lived in Odessa, on the Black Sea, and Grigory and Sergei settled to the prickly business of getting to know one another. The world war and foreign occupying forces depleted food stocks. Civil war followed world war. The family was often hungry, and Korolev would hike with his mother to the countryside to barter for potatoes.

When the civil war ended, with Lenin in charge, Sergei’s mother and Balanin sent Korolev to the First Construction School in Odessa. Here he learned physics and mathematics (one of the school’s mottos was “mathe­matics is the key to everything”) and how to tile roofs. He soon decided that he did not want to be a roofer, because by now he was fascinated by the idea of flying and designing aircraft and gliders.

After an obligatory summer as a mediocre roofer, Korolev applied to and was accepted by the Kiev Technical School. Two years later, he moved to the Moscow Higher Technical School where he earned his diploma in aeronautical engineering. A year later Korolev graduated from flying school. In the meantime he earned money by working in an aircraft design bureau.

He was now twenty-four, interested in rockets, but passionate about designing and flying sophisticated, record-breaking gliders. And in this role, anyone who cared to watch would have seen the character of the future chief designer emerge. Oleg Antonov, another of Russia’s great air­craft designers and also a gliding fanatic, met Korolev at about this time. Korolev was attempting a record flight in a glider of his own design. Inad­vertently, Antonov sent Korolev aloft with the anchor still attached to his glider. Korolev flew for four hours nineteen minutes, oblivious of the anchor. When he landed and saw the hole in the tail of his glider, he offered to tear Antonov’s eyes out with a pair of pliers. Yet Antonov remembered Korolev as a man of iron will and boundless humor.

By the morning of October 4, 1957, that combination of will and humor had carried Korolev to the position of chief designer of rocket – cosmic systems. Stalin had been dead for four years. After Stalin’s death, Korolev had been invited to join the Communist Party and had been elected a corresponding member of the USSR’s Academy of Sciences.

Ostensibly, he was a secure member of the establishment, yet the injustice of wrongful imprisonment ate at Korolev. He had asked repeatedly, and without success, to be rehabilitated—for his conviction at Stalin’s hands to be rescinded. Only after the successful launch of the satellite now sitting in the nose of the rocket on the launch pad would this happen.

So, on the morning of October 4, 1957, it was both the chief designer and the prisoner who awakened in terror, who turned a collar to the cold, climbed into his car, and drove to the concrete apron of the launch site. To the colleagues waiting for him, he was SP, a man rapidly becoming a legend among the few who knew of him. He was short and heavyset. He reminded them of a boxer or a wrestler, as much because of his personality as because of his physique. His brown eyes were bright with intelligence and passion.

Korolev saw himself as the designer whose role was to define the job, to listen to the team members, and then to make the decision. This he had done, paying attention to strategy and detail, balancing the consequence of one technical choice against another, seeking the right compromise. Now the product of hundreds of people’s work, of thousands of calculations, of designs and redesigns, was sitting on the launch pad. Would it open a new frontier?

Perhaps for propaganda reasons, perhaps because there would be an emotional symmetry in such an event, and perhaps because it is true, there is a persistent and disputed story that while at the Moscow Higher Techni­cal School, Korolev had visited Tsiolokovsky. The old man, so the story goes, told Korolev that rockets were a very difficult business, and Korolev had replied that he was not afraid of difficulties. It is hard to imagine that en route to the launch complex, Korlev did not remember Tsiolkovsky, who, when he died in 1935, was an old and nationally revered man. Per­haps, too, Korolev remembered Friedreich Tsander, his old friend from the free days in Moscow.

On October 4, 1957, Tsiokovsky’s, Tsanders, and Korolevs dream stood against the gantry, gleaming in the sunlight.

In Washington D. C., delegates awoke to the penultimate day of the rocket and satellite conference. A workshop was to debate what to include in the IGY’s manual on rockets and satellites.

New Moon

Korolev drove to the launch pad. The countdown was proceeding, and they were about to fuel the rocket. He mounted the platform to brief the engineers and to listen to accounts of the night’s doings. Then, while the launch team pumped liquid oxygen and kerosene into the tanks, he called Moscow with an updated report of the countdown.

Throughout the day, Korolev monitored everyone’s work, outwardly calm but fooling no one. By evening, technical difficulties had halted the countdown several times. Those who could stayed out of Korolev’s way The day moved inexorably forward. A day that for Korolev must have lain before him as a path to forever then passed in a second.

Thirty minutes before liftoff, everyone retired to their posts. Most went into a concrete bunker one kilometer from the launch pad. Those without a part to play in the final countdown climbed onto the bunker’s roof.

Korolev sat at a desk in the bunker, watching through a periscope. Floodlights bathed the rocket. Hope was palpable. As they waited and watched, someone walked beneath the floodlights. The unknown figure raised a bugle and blew clear notes into the midnight sky before hurrying back to safety.

Korolev listened as the loudspeakers relayed the deliberately spoken script of a space launch, a script that is still running, but which played that night to its first audience.[6]

“Duty crew, leave the pad.”

“Fire brigades, on alert.”

“Zero minus one minute.”

“Switch to start vents.”

Korolev knew that nitrogen was sweeping through the pipes, purging the giant rocket before oxidant and fuel met in a mighty chemical reaction. “Auxiliary engines pressurized.”

“Main engines pressurized.”


New Moon

Stillness enveloped the watchers. They dared not blink. And then it hap­pened. Incandescent vapors engulfed the rocket, throwing stark shadows on the surrounding concrete. The earth rumbled and a thunderous roar washed past their ears. They watched the huge rocket strain, and then—as if in slow motion—the engines lifted the rocket from the earth.

Did Korolev remember what Tsiolkovsky had written? “Mankind will not remain on the earth forever, but in the pursuit of light and space, we will, timidly at first, overcome the limits of the atmosphere and then conquer all the area around the sun.” Well it had begun. And what would those earlier versions of Korolev have thought of his fifty-one-year-old self, sitting, eyes glued to a periscope, watching his dream and an ancient dream of humanity’s ascend? Would the frozen wretch in Kolyma, with hunger griping in his belly, have believed this moment? What of the man who would start awake in terror or the child who saw with joy his first aircraft? What of the teenager in a civil war, the student, or the test pilot? Each gave a gift to the chief designer; surely they watched with wonder what together they had wrought?

Korolev slowly came to himself. Only minutes had passed, and already the rocket was a distant point of light. Around him people hugged and kissed, unshaven chins scraping cheeks a little damp. They danced and shouted, “Our baby’s off” Soon they fell silent and listened. The loud­speaker reported all systems nominal, later that the rocket had reached orbital velocity, and then that the satellite had separated from its rocket.

Now they faced another wait. Was the satellite in orbit? It should be overhead again in about ninety minutes. As the time approached that the satellite should be coming into range, they looked gravely at the radio operator. Then they heard the distinctive beep of their satellite in orbit, the signal they had last heard in the assembly building on that day a lifetime ago. The earth had a new moon. Sputnik I was in orbit.

Korolev notified Khrushchev and received the first secretary’s muted congratulations. The party machinery swung into operation. Soon the world’s teleprinters would carry news of the triumph and Soviet propa­ganda. Editors around the world would be galvanized as they read reports that included the words, “Artificial Earth satellites will prove the way for space travel, and it seems that the present generation will witness how the freed and conscious labor of the people of the new socialist society turns even the most daring of Man’s dreams into reality.”

At the cosmodrome, Korolev returned to his engineers. The chief designer, who had already experienced tragedy, now knew triumph. He was to know both again. That night, he mounted a platform and thanked his staff, those present and those at home. He was radiant. He continued, “Today we have witnessed the realization of a dream nurtured by some of the finest men who ever lived, including our own Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky. Tsiolkovsky foretold that mankind would not forever remain on the earth. The sputnik is the first confirmation of his prophesy. The conquering of space has begun. We can be proud that it was begun by our country. A hearty Russian thanks to all.”

The Players

Direct evidence of field strength above the earth’s atmosphere could be obtained byV2 rocket technique, and it is to be hoped that someone will do something about this soon as there must be quite a surplus stock somewhere.

—Extra terrestrial relays: can rocket stations give world-wide radio cov­erage, by Arthur C. Clarke. Published in Wireless World


n October 4, 1957, only thirty-six people in the United States could call Europe simultaneously, via AT&T’s recently installed transat­lantic submarine cable—TAT-1. If the ionosphere was stable that day, about a further one hundred high-frequency radio circuits would have been available.

AT&T laid TAT-1 in 1956. It was a power-hungry coaxial cable, costing $2 million. To provide enough bandwidth (a wide enough range of frequencies) for live television would have needed twenty such cables. It was not until the mid 1970s that live cable TV was theoretically possible. By then satellites already spanned the oceans, though submarine cables made from optical fibers would mount a stiff challenge to satellites in the 1980s. But that, as they say, is another story.

So, in 1957, two or three people per state could have called Europe at the same time; even fewer could have called countries on the Pacific rim; there was no live transoceanic TV; and the information superhighway was an idea beyond even the most exotic pipe dream. Though computers, televi­sion, and telephone all existed, the oceans were truly barriers to communi­cation. And the world that contained these familiar-sounding technologies was very different from our own. After October 4, satellites, too, became a reality. Within decades, communications satellites had done much to change the world. Satellite communication is now a multibillion dollar business. Where did the story begin?

Before there were spacecraft, there were science fiction writers. Most imagined that ground controllers would communicate via radio with their spacecraft. Then in 1945 a junior officer in the Royal Air Force spotted the unique advantages for communication of putting a satellite into an orbit where it maintained the same position with respect to its subsatellite

point—geostationary orbit. The satellite would be like a huge microwave tower. Any antenna on Earth within sight of the satellite could beam a sig­nal to it, which the satellite would then amplify before beaming it back to another antenna at a different spot on Earth.

For a satellite to seem to remain stationary, it must meet two condi­tions: the orbit must take the same time to complete as the Earth takes to rotate once around its axis (be geosynchronous), and the plane of its orbit must coincide with the plane through the equator (zero inclination). If a geosynchronous satellite has an inclination of zero degrees, it is geostation­ary, and its place in orbit is designated by the longitude of its subsatellite point on the equator. A satellite is travelling at the velocity needed—more or less—to maintain a geosynchronous orbit when it is at an altitude of about 22,300 statute miles. At such an altitude, the satellite is within site of nearly one third of the Earth’s surface, excluding the poles. In 1959, satel­lites in this type of orbit were referred to as a 24-hour rather than geosta­tionary satellites.

The junior officer in the RAF imagined that this orbiting telecom­munications relay station would carry a crew, which, though wrong, was not a strange thought given the future science fiction career of the young man—Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke ran through some calculations, and in July 1945, he sent an article on the subject to the magazine Wireless World.

The editors were reluctant to publish something that seemed to them like science fiction, and they balked at acceptance. By October, they had relented, and the article appeared in print. It talked of field strengths and transmitter power, of solar power, and of how little time the satellite would spend in the shadow of the earth; and it suggested the best positions in orbit to provide a global system.[14] Clarke’s predictions turned out to be prescient.

At the other side of the Atlantic, an electrical engineer at the Bell Tele­phone Laboratory, John Robinson Pierce, who knew nothing of Clarke’s article, spent his leisure hours writing short science fiction stories and his working hours immersed in the complexities of microwave communication. Later, it was Pierce who was largely responsible for persuading NASA to carry out communication experiments with the passive Echo spacecraft in August 1960. Like the Moon, which reflected military communications between the East coast and Hawaii, Echo, which acted as a huge mirror in the sky, bounced a signal across the U. S. The two-way Moon relay was oper­ational between 1956 and 1962 and was manned when the Moon was in radio sight of both stations, usually for three to eight hours at a time. Often, when ionospheric storms shut down the usual radio channels, the Moon provided the only link to and from Hawaii for several hours at a time. In 1953, Pierce first suggested that if an artificial reflecting surface could be launched, it could bounce radio signals across oceans.[15]

Pierce joined Bell Laboratories after being awarded his doctorate by the California Institute of Technology in 1936. During World War II, he came across publications by an Austrian refugee, Rudi Kompfner, who was working for the British Admiralty. In 1943, Kompfner invented a class of vacuum tube, known as a traveling wave tube (TWT), that was to have an enormous impact on missile guidance and on communication through submarine cables and via satellite. In 1945, Pierce wrote his first paper about the new concept of traveling wave tubes and developed the first practical application of the technology. Kompfner would later say that he had invented the traveling wave tube but that Pierce had discovered it.

Pierce may as well be allowed to define a TWT in his own words, written in 1990 for a Scientific American publication, Signals, the Science of Telecommunication.

The traveling wave tube is a type of vacuum tube that gives high gain over a broad band of frequencies. An electromagnetic signal wave travels along a spring-shaped coil of wire, or helix, while electrons in the high voltage beam travel through the helix at close to the speed of the signal wave. The electrons transfer power to the wave, which grows rapidly in power as it travels down the helix.

Essentially, the vacuum tube allows electrons to flow from cathode to anode with few collisions and permits an energy exchange from the elec­tron beam to a radio wave constrained to travel the length of the tube. Thus the radio wave is amplified. There have been many versions of TWTs since 1945.

Pierce was impressed by what he knew of Kompfner’s work, and after the war he encouraged senior staff at Bell to recruit Kompfner. They were eventually successful, and Kompfner joined the lab in 1951. Pierce and Kompfner worked together cooperatively and productively for many years, and Kompfner was supportive of Pierces interest in satellites. Their work was the starting point for the Bell team that designed a second type of communications satellite, one with an active repeater that would, like the satellites envisaged by Clarke, amplify the signal before radiating it to Earth. This satellite became known as Telstar.

Telstar was not a twenty-four-hour satellite but rather was planned for a medium-altitude orbit, and so could only be seen by two ground sta­tions simultaneously for about twenty minutes. AT&T calculated that about forty 150-pound satellites in random medium-altitude orbits could provide a communications system with Europe. As soon as one satellite disappeared over the horizon, the transmitting and receiving antennas would lock on to the next mutually visible spacecraft. Such a system, said AT&T in the spring of 1961, could provide sixty channels by 1963 from North America to Europe and three thousand by 1980. The system would give ninety-nine percent probability of a satellite being simultaneously within sight of ground stations located in Maine and in Brittany.

In the summer of 1959, while the lab was still working on Echo, Pierce, Kompfner, and their colleagues at Bell were beginning to think that medium-altitude active repeaters rather than passive satellites were the most promising technology for transatlantic communication. For sound technical reasons, it seemed to them that geostationary satellites would not be feasible for many years.

On the West Coast, unbeknownst to Bell, a handful of engineers— Harold Rosen, Donald Williams, Tom Hudspeth and John Mendel— would soon solve, at least on paper, the problems then facing engineers considering a geostationary orbit. When Leroy Tillotson, at Bell, finished a technical paper on the specifications for a medium-altitude satellite in August 1959 and sent it to Pierce, Kompfner, and other senior members of the research department, Rosen and Williams were putting the finishing touches to their proposal for a twenty-four-hour satellite. The lightweight TWT designed by John Mendel, who had learned his trade in John Pierce’s lab, was critical to the proposal. The proposal, in Rosen’s and Williams’s names, was the beginning of a development that led to Syncom, the first geosynchronous satellite, and to Early Bird, the first commercial communications satellite.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s view, Pierce and Rosen are the fathers of com­munications satellites. During the early 1960s, however, there was little love lost between the two men. Rosen saw Pierce as obstructionist; Pierce thought that Rosen was making wild claims and would say anything to win support for his twenty-four-hour satellite. It is said they almost came to blows on stage during one conference. Yet they had far more in com­mon than either could have imagined. Both were told at different times by their superiors that they could not go ahead with their work. “Cease and desist,” is what Mervin Kelly, head of Bell Telephone Laboratories, told Pierce in 1958. Both had a fine disdain for the Department of Defense’s plans for a twenty-four-hour satellite and for NASA’s specifications for a medium-altitude active repeater called Relay. Both wanted to keep the government out of communications satellites.

Both, too, had been educated at Caltech, which in the 1930s was like an American Gottingen for the physicists and engineers who would become America’s leaders in aerospace. Pierce was a contemporary ofWilliam Pick­ering and sought his cooperation for the Echo experiments. Rosen was Pick­ering’s student and says that he was one of the teachers from whom he learned most. Each left Caltech in little doubt of his own intellectual ability.

The players, then, were John Pierce, Harold Rosen, and Donald Williams, with Tom Hudspeth, Rudi Kompfner, and John Mendel in strong supporting roles. Passive, medium-altitude active, and twenty-four – hour active satellites were the engineering concepts they contemplated.

Men and ideas fitted into a larger, more complex tapestry. It was not just that communications satellites were now within the state of the art, but there was also an increasing commercial and military demand for bet­ter communications.

TAT-1 remained the only transatlantic cable for telephony until AT&T laid a second link in 1959, bringing the number of simultaneous calls that cable could carry across the Atlantic to seventy-two. Adding these to the number of high-frequency radio circuits available on a good day, as many as four people per state could simultaneously have called Europe on the day of John Kennedy’s inauguration as president in January 1961. It was still not possible to make live transoceanic TV broadcasts. Instead, recordings were flown by jet or fed slowly down cables.

In response to growth in demand, particularly for calls to and from Europe, AT&T planned to lay a third transatlantic cable in 1963, adding a further two hundred telephone circuits. Even this would not be enough to meet predicted growth in demand. But there seemed to be insurmount­able engineering obstacles to developing higher-capacity cables, and the radio spectrum was already overcrowded. Worse still, solar minimum would occur between roughly 1962 and 1966. With less solar energy enveloping Earth, the ionosphere could be less active and thus would not reflect certain frequencies. Experts calculated that this would cut by two – thirds the available high-frequency radio channels worldwide.

The Department of Defense, with troops stationed around the world, often in places with which it was difficult to communicate, was deeply concerned.

With such a paucity of communications infrastructure coupled with the commercial and defense advantages of enhancing communications, it is not surprising that the Kennedy administration placed a high priority on the development of communications satellites. Communications satellites (and meteorology satellites) figured in Kennedy’s famous moon speech of May 25, 1961.

And there were strategic advantages for the United States in devel­oping communications satellites. Communications technology looked as though it could serve as a versatile foreign policy tool that could extend American influence throughout the world. John Rubel, deputy director of defense research and engineering (DDR&E) and for a while the acting director, pointed out in a white paper written in April 1961 that countries newly emerged from colonialism were often reliant for communication on their former colonial powers. He cited the cases of Guinea and Nigeria, which had to go through France and England to communicate with one another. It would be of “incalculable value” in the battle for men’s minds, wrote Rubel, for the United States to maintain a lead in communications technology. “Many feel that the United States should support satellite – based telecommunications systems to achieve these aims, even though there were no immediate commercial advantages resulting therefrom.”

The DDR&E held the third highest civilian position at the Penta­gon, roughly on a par in some circumstances with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thus Rubel was in a position of some influence. He had exerted that influence once, at the prompting of NASA administrator T. Keith Glennan, to change an agreement that NASA and the Defense

Department had made in November 1958, confining NASA to work on passive communications. It was an agreement that deeply frustrated NASA’s engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center. A new agreement, formalized in August 1960, permitted NASA to work on active commu­nications satellites. Both parties observed a tacit understanding that NASA would work only on medium-altitude satellites, while Department of Defense developed twenty-four-hour satellites.

By April 1961, Rubel seems to have been feeling his way through a complex strategy that would also set aside this second agreement and per­mit NASA to develop Rosen’s twenty-four-hour satellite. This was neces­sary because the Defense Department’s own plans for a twenty-four-hour satellite, called Advent, were going disastrously wrong, but there would have been too much opposition to simply canceling the satellite and replacing it with Rosen’s. If, however, the agreement between NASA and Defense could be set aside, then NASA could place a contract for the Rosen proposal. The agreement was dropped.

By August 1961, NASA had placed a sole-source contract with the Hughes Aircraft Company for a twenty-four-hour satellite, and the Department of Defense was to make the Advent ground stations available. The idea was that the twenty-four-hour proposal, now called Syncom, would be a cheap interim satellite to meet military needs until Advent could be developed. A year later, Advent was canceled.

The Syncom decision was a sweet triumph for Harold Rosen and Donald Williams. Before placing a contract for Syncom, both NASA and the Defense Department had been dismissive of Rosen’s and Williams’ engineering concepts. The first Syncom satellites were transferred to the military, and in the mid 1960s these provided links to Southeast Asia in support of America’s growing presence in the region. Thirty years have passed, and Harold Rosen is not yet tired of telling people how the Army and Air Force rejected [his ideas] but within a few years had to rely on Syncom.

By funding the development of Syncom, launching Telstar (at AT&T’s expense) and developing Relay, NASA enabled two approaches to a global satellite communications system to be demonstrated. When the International Telecommunication Satellite Organization (Intelsat) was formed in 1964, it was not yet clear whether international communica­tions would be based on twenty-four-hour satellites or constellations of medium-altitude satellites. If one twenty-four-hour satellite operated suc­cessfully, however, Intelsat would know that it was well on the way to pro­viding a global system, whereas tens of Telstar (or Relay-like) satellites would have had to be launched to prove that a global communications sys­tem of medium-altitude satellites would work. Thus it was sensible to first launch one twenty-four-hour satellite, and the success of three Syncom satellites was encouraging.[16] The successful launch of Early Bird settled the question, and most commercial communications satellites today occupy geostationary orbits (the countries of the former Soviet Union use another orbit, one better suited to communications at high latitudes).[17]

Though the decision to “go geostationary” has been validated since 1965, the merits of the alternative technological approaches were still being debated in the early 1960s. The technical arguments were enmeshed in and obfuscated by a highly charged policy debate about the role of government versus private industry in the development of communications satellites.

The debate began during the closing months of the Eisenhower admin­istration, when T. Keith Glennan announced that NASA would facilitate the development of communications satellites by providing launch oppor­tunities for industry on a “cost reimbursable basis,” which meant that industry would pay for the launch, but not at a true commercial rate. Glennan, like President Eisenhower, believed that private industry should be involved in the development of communications satellites. At the time, the most aggressive private industry in this field was AT&T. By October 1960 it had started Project TSX, which became Project Telstar, and had begun spending millions. Senior NASA staff and the attorney general were leery of AT&T. The company already had a virtual monopoly on voice transmissions. Neither NASA nor the Justice Department wanted to make decisions that would exclude from the new field companies that were not starting from the strong position of an existing monopoly.

When President Kennedy took office and James Webb replaced T. Keith Glennan, the emphasis shifted somewhat to a concern about how much control the government should retain over the development ol communications satellites given their strategic importance. Webb, whom

AT&T viewed as anti-industry, said that he did not want to put AT&T up against the whole Soviet Union.

Engineers at Bell perceived that the debate had become truly heated in February 1961 when Lloyd Berkner, whose proposal of an International Geophysical Year ten years earlier had set so much in motion, said in a speech that communications satellites would be a billion-dollar business in ten to fifteen years. The newspapers picked up the comment. Congress took note, and the Justice Department quoted Berkner in submissions to the Federal Communications Commission and Congress. Berkner’s com­ments were used to bolster the argument that space communication was too big for one company. Though his prediction was to prove correct, Berkner modified his views shortly after making them known, making the not unfamiliar claim that the media had exaggerated them.

But verbal arabesques could not change the course of the debate. Berkner had tapped into some widespread and deeply felt issues: the previ­ous administration’s concern about extending AT&T’s monopoly; the cur­rent administration’s desire to have some control over the development of a technology with strategic implications for the military, for commerce, and as a foreign policy tool; the current administration’s concern that a private company should not represent the United States in negotiations for a global system; and industry’s objection to being excluded by monopoly power from a potentially lucrative new market.

By February 1962, the Kennedy administration had sent a communi­cations satellite bill to Congress. The bill set up a private company called Comsat under strict governmental control. Half the stock was offered to the general public and half to the common carriers. The Federal Commu­nications Commission was responsible for distributing stock fairly between the common carriers, including AT&T. Key members of Congress had their own ideas about the bill, but by the end of the summer, the Senate had passed it, 66 to 11, and the House by 354 to 9.

President Kennedy signed the Comsat Act on August 31, 1962. It was the death knell for Telstar, though the concept of medium-altitude satellites had not yet been abandoned. Comsat would be the driving force behind the formation of Intelsat and thus behind the “go geostationary” decision. In the larger world of national and international policy, it was surely the right decision. To the engineers at Bell and to John Pierce, the man who pioneered the idea of commercial communications satellites and developed some of the critical technologies, the Comsat decision was a bitter disappointment.

Подпись: Of Moons and Balloons

More than thirty years later, in his home in Palo Alto, John Pierce dis­poses concisely and precisely of questions about his pioneering days, tugging all the while at a bushy eyebrow. With his sloppy yellow Labrador retriever in attendance, Pierce reminisces politely about Echo and Telstar. Clearly, he has told the story many times, and he says,“I prefer to look for­wards rather than back.”

Asked to explain how a klystron works, he grows more animated. He becomes even more interested when writing down the names of mystery and science fiction writers he has not previously come across or talking of the Chinese poetry he translates, the haiku he writes, his admiration for Milton and Blake. Only when I asked him about the Comsat decision did passion flash with the sharpness of a disappointment almost, but not quite, forgotten. Pierce, a loyal son of “Ma Bell,” would not leave Bell Labs, so the Comsat decision that excluded AT&T from international communication via satellites excluded him personally from a field he had pioneered.

As Pierce talks, his movements and speech are like those captured on video in the early 1960s, when he was the executive director of research at the Bell Telephone Laboratories. They are characteristically incisive move­ments, suggestive of someone who does not suffer fools or pretenders gladly. For a while, he thought that Harold Rosen was a pretender. “I was wrong,” he says. He is less charitable about some of those he encountered at NASA headquarters during the Echo and Telstar days.

Pierce retired from Bell Labs in 1971 at sixty-one, an age when, as he says, he was still young enough to do something else. He joined the faculty of the California Institute of Technology for nine years, then moved briefly to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as chief technologist. He is now visiting professor of music emeritus at Stanford, where he pursues an inter­est in the psychophysics of music—the relationship between acoustic stim­ulus and what we perceive internally. It is an interest he developed at Bell in his postsatellite days.

John Pierce’s interest in science started when he was very young and his mother read to him from “very unsuitable books.” Long before he could read, John could say words like electromotive force, even if he didn’t

quite know what they meant. “She was the mechanical member of our family,” recalled Pierce. She also seems to have had faith in Pierces mechanical ability, because when he and his friend Apollo built a glider, she went up with him, apparently unfazed by the earth flashing by beneath her feet. This, despite knowing that the first glider they had built had fallen apart as it taxied for takeoff. “I was crazy in those days,” says Pierce, “doing things with very little information. I call it gadgeteering.”

Pierce studied at Caltech, and after changing his major a few times, he settled for electrical engineering. He graduated in 1933, looked around at his Depression-era employment prospects, and decided he would be better off staying at Caltech. He gained his master’s in 1934 and his doc­torate in 1936. This time the world outside the ivory tower was less hostile to him, and Pierce got a job at Bell Laboratories.

He was told to work on vacuum tubes and left to get on with it, despite knowing next to nothing about the topic. This was typical of Bell Laboratories, where there was a lot of intellectual freedom to pursue research as well as the money to pay for it. Perhaps that accounts for the nobel prizes awarded to physicists at the lab.[18]

By the time World War II broke out, Pierce was expert in the basic theory and design of various classes of vacuum tube. He applied that knowledge during the war and learned a lot about electron optics and broadband amplification. Pierce contributed to the body of work that opened the spectrum above thirty megacycles, which before World War II was almost empty of artificial signals. Developing that technology was essential to the feasibility of communications satellites.

It was while undertaking a mathematical analysis of broadband amplification that Pierce came across Rudi Kompfner’s work on traveling wave tubes. He was impressed. He wrote to Kompfner in 1946, adding his voice personally to that of the management whom he had persuaded to recruit Kompfner.

After working on traveling wave tubes, Pierce and others at Bell Labs turned their attention to MASERs (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). These devices generate or amplify microwaves. When they amplify a weak signal, they add little noise. It was the MASER at the heart of the ground antenna that made it possible to pick up the reflected signal from Echo, which was only a million-million-millionth of the ten kilowatt signal beamed to the satellite for reflection across the coun­try. The MASER improved the antenna’s sensitivity by a factor of one hun­dred compared with what Pierce had envisaged when he first speculated on the use of an Echo-like satellite for communication. And it was this MASER, protected from extraneous ground noise by a horn-shaped dish, with which Penzias and Wilson detected the cosmic background radiation.

So by 1954, many of the ideas and devices that were crucial for Bell’s satellite communication work existed. And it was about now that Pierce became the first of the pioneers of communications satellites, which came about because he wrote science fiction stories (under the pseudonym J. J. Coupling, a concept familiar to electrical engineers). As a science fiction fan and author, Pierce was asked to give a talk on the subject of his choice to the Princeton, New Jersey, branch of the Institute of Radio Engineers. He must have had an erudite audience, given that RCA and Princeton University were nearby

Over the years, Pierce had given talks about man in space, but he decided that for this audience he wanted a less fanciful subject. He began to wonder what role satellites could play in his own field of communica­tion. At the time, says Pierce, communications satellites were “in the air,” though it was a rarefied air. In 1952 he had written an article about inter­planetary communication and had concluded that it was easier to commu­nicate between the moon and Earth than across the United States. Now he did some quick calculations of the power needed for transmission to and from orbiting spacecraft and was surprised to discover that communica­tions satellites were feasible.

Pierce gave the talk, which was to form the basis of his pioneering ideas for communication satellites.

Professor Martin Summerfield told Pierce that he should publish his talk. So, in November 1953, Pierce sent an article to Jet Propulsion, the journal of the American Rocket Society, which published it in April 1954.

The paper proposed three types of communications satellite: a one- hundred-foot sphere that could reflect a signal; a hundred-foot mirror in a twenty-four-hour orbit; and an active repeater in a twenty-four-hour orbit. The latter two, while theoretically stationary with respect to the ground, would actually be affected by solar and lunar gravity and so would need steerable ground antennas and stabilization by remote control.

The first of the three options—a hundred-foot sphere—was to be Pierce’s inspiration for the Echo communication experiments in 1958. In 1954, shortly after Pierce’s article was published, the U. S. Navy began experimenting with the voice transmissions to and from the moon that became the moon relay. But the moon is not an ideal reflective surface; its roughness gives multiple echoes at different wavelengths. A smoothly reflecting artificial satellite would, Pierce knew, provide a much higher – quality passive relay.

In 1954, few believed that satellites would be launched. Undeterred by the common view, Pierce told his audience in Princeton and wrote in his paper that if one found a way to build and launch a satellite, two classes of problem would remain, celestial mechanics and microwave communica­tion. First, they would need to know where their satellite was and would be; then they would need to send and receive radio signals. All the satellite operators had to come to grips with celestial mechanics; some, like Transit, needed a very detailed understanding of the earth’s gravitational field and its impact on an orbit. Pierce’s paper acknowledged the problem but devoted more time to the issues of microwave communication: signal losses on passage from the satellite through the ionosphere and atmosphere to Earth (path losses); the diameter of transmitting and receiving antennas; signal frequency and strength; radio beam width; the method selected for superimposing the signal, such as voice or music, onto the radio carrier wave (modulation); the nature of the polarization of the radio beam; the frequency of the carrier radio wave; sources of noise (that is, other fre­quency sources that would make the signal difficult to hear); the power of the signal; the signal-to-noise ratio and the sensitivity of the receiver. These were among the topics that five hundred scientists and engineers would later address during the Telstar project.

The science fiction books that Pierce had begun reading as a teenager made spacecraft and radio communication commonplace ideas to him. So the topic of his talk to the Princeton radio engineers is not sur­prising. But his early love of science fiction also held him back. He had been so used to thinking of spacecraft as romantic fantasies that he did not at the time realize how close they were to realization in his own field of communication. Pierce discussed the idea of communications satellites with people around the lab, but he was concerned about the reliability of vacuum tubes (and who better to know their limitations) in space and the limited abilities of the primitive transistors that then existed. “I was conser­vative about satellites,” he says.

Nonetheless, Pierce was responsible for persuading NASA to con­duct communications experiments with Echo.

The satellite that became Echo was not initially intended to be a communications satellite. It was suggested by William O’Sullivan from the Langley Research Center when James Van Allen’s satellite panel was selecting experiments for the International Geophysical Year. O’Sullivan wanted to launch a giant, aluminized Mylar balloon that could be inflated to a diameter of one hundred feet. With its small mass and large surface area, the balloons would be sensitive to comparatively small changes in force and thus would allow scientists to record how atmospheric density varied with position and solar activity and affected Echo’s orbit. Van Allen’s panel thought the balloon would be a good idea if they had sufficient resources for more than four launches.

In spring of 1958, Pierce and Kompfner read about the balloon and realized that it was exactly what Pierce had imagined would make an ideal passive communications satellite. They packed an ohmmeter and went to Langley to measure the conductivity of the plastic balloon. They decided that it would have a high reflectivity for microwaves. They took some samples of the aluminum-coated mylar back to the lab with them and confirmed its reflectivity. All they needed now was someone to launch the balloon. Unfortunately, the balloon was not one of the high – priority experiments for the IGY. NASA had not yet been formed, and the Department of Defense was already thinking in terms of the elaborate satellite that eventually became Advent and was to go so drastically wrong.

That summer, Pierce and Kompfner went to a meeting on commu­nications satellites at Woods Hole. William Pickering (director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) was there and showed himself sympathetic to Pierce’s ideas. Pickering suggested to the meeting that O’Sullivan’s balloon would be ideal for a passive communication experiment. If Bell could find someone to launch the satellite, said Pickering, JPL’s Goldstone ground sta­tion would participate in coast-to-coast communication experiments. To

Pierce, it seemed that Pickering’s support was vital to the success of the lab’s subsequent discussions with NASA.

Pierce returned from the meeting to a mixed reception. Mervin Kelly, the president of Bell Telephone Laboratories, asked a mathematician to study Pierce’s proposal. The mathematician’s report was negative. Kelly told Pierce to “cease and desist.” Kompfner thought that their plans could go no further, but Pierce developed a severe case of deafness. He continued to think of Kelly as one of his heroes but concluded that “even great men” can be wrong. In October 1958, he delivered a paper on transoceanic commu­nication via passive satellites to a national symposium on extended-range and space communications.

Later that same month, Pierce served as a consultant to the Advanced Research Projects Agency’s ad hoc twenty-four-hour satellite committee. He listened to what he thought were impractical and inefficient proposals from “these completely uninformed men.” It was clear after this meeting, in which elaborate satellites were discussed, that the Department of Defense was not going to launch the hundred-foot balloon. And shortly afterwards the Defense Department and the newly formed NASA agreed that the Department of Defense would develop active satellites and NASA would develop passive ones.

In the meantime, William Pickering had remained interested in a communication experiment, and NASA had been born. The new agency immediately inherited the Langley Research Center and the Jet Propul­sion Laboratory.

In November 1958, T. Keith Glennan, NASA’s administrator; Hugh Dryden, the deputy administrator; and Abe Silverstein, the director of space flight development visited Bell. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss global communications problems. Pierce made a general presenta­tion about communications and satellites, and Kompfner talked about components, data processing, and tracking and guidance philosophy. The NASA contingent was interested, but nothing seems to have come of the discussions.

At the end of December, NASA took over Project Vanguard, thus gaining control of a launch vehicle. By January, the agency was showing an interest in BTL’s ideas. On January 22, NASAJPL, and Bell discussed what they hoped to learn from transmitting a signal between the East and West Coasts. Kompfner wrote to Leonard Jaffe, who headed NASA’s communi­cation satellite work, on February 10, urging him to let Bell know soon whether the project with JPL was to go ahead because of the large amount of work that had to be done. Less than a week later Kompfner warned all technical staff that a considerable amount of work of an unusual nature was coming up. Until now, Pierce had been deeply involved in selling the project to NASA. Now he took a back seat. The day-to-day running of the satellite work was handed over to Bill Jakes, who was responsible to Kompfner. At the end of February, Jakes was immersed in technical discus­sions with NASA about the MASER and how much bandwidth was needed given the signal and its Doppler shift. Pierce was already toying with the idea of active broadband satellite communication. NASA was by now enthusiastic and was contributing more money to Echos than was Bell. The lab was building the horn antenna for experiments.

On June 10, 1959, there was a large meeting of all those involved with the project. O’Sullivan reported that one full-size balloon, including its inflating mechanism, was already being tested.

The balloon was made of 0.0005-inch-thick Mylar, coated by a 2,000 angstrom layer of aluminum. It weighed 136 pounds and had an optical reflectivity of seventy-five percent for tracking and a radio reflec­tivity of ninety-eight percent. Being passive, it did not have the compli­cated electronics needed for active repeaters, but it did carry a radio bea­con so that it could be tracked by Minitrack. The sphere was to be inflated in one second by the release of four pounds of water through a plastic nozzle in the sphere. Langley calculated that the vapor pressure would last for seven days, and they were testing six subliming solids in an effort to extend the lifetime. After seven days, they expected a gradual loss of pres­sure because of micrometeorite impacts. The sphere would get wrinkled, decreasing its usefulness as a reflector for communications. Between November 1959 and July 1960, BTL and JPL practiced bouncing signals to one another first off the moon and then, three times, off TIROS. Their pointing accuracy needed to be good because Echo’s dimensions at an alti­tude of 1,000 nautical miles would be the equivalent of an object a little over an inch long a mile away, and it would be moving at four and a half miles per second.

The first launch attempt failed because the balloon did not inflate. But the second attempt, on August 12, 1960, was a success. Tracking Echo turned out to be tricky. The original plan was that NASA, at Goddard, would compute the orbital parameters and turn them into tracking in­structions for Goldstone and the Bell antenna. A. C. Dickieson, Transit’s project manager, writes in an unpublished manuscript that the tapes as received were late and full of errors. More success, he says, was achieved by taking orbital parameters generated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and calculating tracking errors locally Errors in orbital pre­diction were, however, inevitable in the fall of 1960. Only a few months earlier Bill Guier had predicted Transits position in orbit and realized how much more complicated the earth’s gravitational field was going to be than anyone had thought.

From Bell’s perspective, Echo provided background information for system planning and the design of Earth stations—information that fed into the Telstar project. Echo also demonstrated the effectiveness of the lab’s low-noise receiving equipment as well as the predictability and stabil­ity of the transmission path.

Echo was the first satellite that was visible to the naked eye, and T. Keith Glennan had anticipated that it would cause a sensation. It did, bolstered by AT&T’s brilliantly executed publicity campaign. On the night of the launch, the company sponsored a news special on NBC. It was replete with portentous music and massive radio telescopes. Another AT&T-sponsored video opened with ‘America the Beautiful’ and tugged at the patriotic heartstrings. AT&T won the publicity stakes hands down, but alienated NASA. The company’s expropriation of Echo did not win it any friends at the agency. Pierce wonders whether AT&T’s publicity suc­cess with Echo influenced NASA’s selection of RCA for the Relay satellite. If it did, it was a minor influence compared with the much larger policy issues that were at stake.

Echo’s success, technically and with the public, encouraged AT&T to go ahead with the development of a medium-altitude satellite as a proto­type of a global system of communications satellites. That satellite— Telstar—became every bit as famous as its predecessor.

General comments on satellite navigation

1. At different places in this section, I have alluded to alternative ideas for navigation satellites. One, explained in “Navigation by Satellite” in Missiles and Rockets in October 1956, even talks of utilizing the Doppler shift for a navigation satellite. But this paper envisages almanacs and tables of posi­tion and calculations of the distance at closest approach. It implicitly assumes that the orbit would be known and, inevitably because it was written in 1956, does not account for the impact on orbits of Earth’s complex gravitational field, nor for the impact of the ionosphere on the received signal. The paper does envisage the use of computers, but not the sophisticated curve-fitting techniques of Guier and Weiffenbach.

2. “Possible Use of Syncom as a Navigation System—Microwave Loran.” Memo for files, From L. M. Field cc L. A. Hyland (НАС archives 1990-09 box 6 folder 22).

This memo argues that Syncom would make a better navigation satellite than Transit if the station keeping were adequate. It expands on a memo by Donald Williams (see communications section) written on September 1, 1959.

Cocktails and the Blues

“I think there is very little doubt that the Russians intend to start firing [satellites] sometime on or before the first of the year [1958].”

—Richard Porter, chairman of the U. S.Technical Panel on Earth Satellites,

October 3, 1957

“As it happened, the public outcry after Sputnik was earsplit­ting. No event since Pearl Harbor set off such repercussions in public life.”

—William McDougall,.. .The Heavens and the Earth, a Political History

of the Space Age


ieutenant General Anatoly Blagonravov sipped vodka. In Tyuratam it was the early hours of Saturday, October 5, 1957. But in Washington, D. C., it was still the evening of Friday, October 4, and Blagonravov was hosting a reception at the Soviet embassy for delegates to the IGY’s con­ference on rockets and satellites. Sputnik I was in orbit, had, in fact, already passed undetected over America. It would not again go unnoticed.

The people at the Soviet embassy did not yet know that the space age had begun. As the guests circled the buffet of Russian delicacies spread beneath sparkling chandeliers, the Americans probed Blagonravov for hints of when his country planned to launch a satellite.

Although Blagonravov headed the Soviet delegation, the Americans could not have known quite how ideally placed he was to answer them. He was an academician and chair of the Soviet Academy’s Interdepart­mental Commission of Interplanetary Communication; as such he knew what the Soviet scientists wanted to do with satellites. He was a former head of the rocketry and radar division of the Soviet Academy of Artillery Sciences, to which Sergei Korolev had been elected in 1954. Finally, Blagonravov was a member of the State Commission and one of the VIPs who had listened to Prosteyshiy Satellite’s test signal in the assembly build­ing at Tyuratam little more than a week earlier.

What no one who saw Blagonravov that night can say is whether he knew at the beginning of the reception that Sputnik was already aloft. The white-haired, scholarly figure mingled genially with his guests, his demeanor much the same as it had been all week. His blue eyes masked an inner intensity. His Russian cigarette was tilted between his lips.

What is indisputable is that Blagonravov knew that a launch was imminent. So did the American scientists—at least intellectually—includ­ing William Pickering, a native New Zealander of great charm and under­lying sharpness. In 1957, Pickering was a veteran rocket scientist and had been the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, for three years. He worked closely with the German rocket pioneer Wern – her von Braun. These two knew that with comparative ease they could convert one of the intermediate range ballistic missiles (range 2,000 miles) they were developing into a satellite launcher.

Pickering had first become involved with rocketry in 1942, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The lab had analyzed intelligence reports about a V2 rocket that had landed in Sweden. In 1943, Army Ordnance asked JPL to investigate the possibility of developing an American long – range rocket, which in those days meant rockets that could fly at least one hundred miles.

When the war ended, von Braun surrendered to American troops and was moved eventually to the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama. The U. S. Army also shipped home about one hun­dred V2s, which von Braun had designed. These rockets were distributed to groups around the U. S. that were interested in upper-atmosphere research and rocketry. A group of scientists known as the Upper Atmo­sphere Research Panel selected and analyzed the experiments that the rockets would carry Members of this group, including James Van Allen, went on to head the IGY s satellite efforts.

Pickering, in cooperation with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and von Braun, was soon testing the V2s while JPL—known as the “army smarts”—simultaneously continued its own rocket development. At times, as rocket after rocket exploded, it seemed to Pickering that rocketry was an unpredictable art, not a science. But JPL and the Army persevered.

By the early 1950s, the V2s were proving the truth of what Sergei Korolev had said in 1934 in his book Rocket Flight in the Stratosphere: “ … a rocket is defense and science.”

Von Braun, too, had always known this. Like Korolev, he dreamed of space and worked on missiles. In his new country, von Braun was a highly visible advocate of space exploration. In the early 1950s, he drew headlines by promoting grandiose ideas of space stations and Martian colonies at a time when the general public and most scientists thought that even a sim­ple satellite was science fiction.

While the idea of a space station was indeed science fiction at that time, the technical pieces that would make the launch of a satellite a prac­tical project were in place in 1954. That September, von Braun and a small group of scientists drew up a plan for a satellite that would become famous in the annals of space history. His idea was that a Redstone rocket would lift a five-pound satellite from Earth and that an upper stage, comprising a cluster of Loki rockets atop the Redstone, would give the satellite its final kick into orbit. If the small satellite was successful, a second, larger, “bird” carrying scientific instruments would follow. This proposal was called Project Orbiter.

The result of the first shot would be five pounds of metal circling hundreds of miles above the earth at a speed of roughly 17,000 miles per hour, more than four miles per second. Impressive, but how could they prove that such a small, swift, and distant object was really in orbit?

Nowadays, of course, radio links satellites to observers on the ground. Then radio was not an obvious choice. Von Braun turned to astronomy. The satellite would, after all, be a new heavenly body.

No one was better qualified for the job of finding a body speeding through space than the man he turned to, Fred Whipple. Whipple was the director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A tall, slender man with a widow’s peak and steel-rimmed glasses that gave him an air of erudition, he was expert at tracking meteors and comets. Whipple concluded that optical tracking could follow a bur­nished satellite at an altitude of two hundred miles, even though the satel­lite would be visible only for the twenty minutes at dawn and dusk that the sun would illuminate it against a dark sky. So the proposal for Project Orbiter included no plans for radio tracking, a decision that—seemingly— was to tell against von Braun less than a year later.

Von Braun sent the proposal to the Department of Defense, JPL, and branches of the armed services. Whipple approached the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences.

The proposal came at a time when others with influence were strongly advocating that the U. S. should begin a satellite program. Among these were the scientists who had gained the support of the international scientific community for the inclusion of a satellite in the IGY, and, secretly, those in the Air Force who wanted satellites for reconnaissance. In addition, the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), in Washington D. C., made its own pitch for a satellite program and launcher.

The NRL had been one of the groups to receive V2s, and under the technical leadership of Milton Rosen, it had developed its own rocket—the Viking—for upper-atmosphere research. Rosen persuaded a few forward­looking thinkers to write about the job that satellites could do when rock­ets were developed that could reach orbit. Among these was John Pierce, from AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, who, along with Harold Rosen from the Hughes Aircraft Company, would later be christened “the father of com­munication satellites” by the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke.

It was the IGY’s scientists who won Eisenhower’s public support, and on July 29, 1955, the president announced that the U. S. would launch a satel­lite as part of the IGY. He deferred a decision as to which of the armed services would provide the launch vehicle.

The day before the formal announcement, the White House press office summoned journalists, telling them that the briefing was embargoed for the next day. The day’s grace was to allow American scientists time to notify their colleagues overseas. One scientist flew to New York to give a letter for Sydney Chapman, president of the IGY, to a friend who was fly­ing to London.

In a two-hour background briefing at the White House, James Hagerty, Eisenhower’s press secretary, announced that America planned to launch ten basketball-sized satellites sometime during the International Geophysical Year. The journalists rushed to the phones, only to be brought up short by the locked doors. Hagerty was determined that the journalists should understand that the story was not to be broken until after the official announcement the next day. One journalist asked what he, a crime reporter, was supposed to do with the story.

Jet Propulsion, the sedate journal of the American Rocket Society, stopped the presses. The editor wrote, “We cannot imagine anything more exciting than to look up and see through our binoculars the brilliant point of light in the sky that will represent a new astronomical body created by man. We expect to be deeply moved.”

Until the announcement, only about a hundred people knew of the satellite plans. Now the secret was out. But the launch vehicle decision was still pending.

The unenviable task of recommending a launch vehicle fell to a panel of scientists headed by Homer Joe Stewart. Stewart, widely referred to as Homer Joe, was well respected for his technical expertise. He was an aerodynamicist from the California Institute of Technology and a prime mover on the Upper Atmosphere Research Panel. Homer Joe s panel was guided in its deliberations by two precepts: satellites must not interfere with missile development, and the project should have a strong civilian flavor and scientific component. Both charges to the Stewart committee must surely have stemmed from the more secret deliberations within the White House that the Killian report stimulated.

The first requirement was largely taken care of when the Air Force, which had earlier been assigned responsibility for military space projects, dropped out of the competition, saying that it could not develop a rocket in time to launch a satellite during the International Geophysical Year without compromising its missile development. Not a surprising decision, given that the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles had top priority with the Department of Defense and that parts of the Air Force were lobbying for funding to develop reconnaissance satellites.

The second requirement was more difficult to fulfill. Only the mili­tary were then sponsoring launcher development.

But the Army and the Navy squared off: the ring, the committee rooms ofWashington D. C. and private offices in the Pentagon.

In one corner was Wernher von Braun with an updated version of Project Orbiter. At his back, the formidable figure of General John Medaris and the technical expertise of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The laboratory had suggested important changes to the upper stages of the launcher, but the size of the proposed satellite—five pounds—stayed the same.

Nevertheless, the Army’s proposal had an immediate strike against it, because the Army was developing intermediate-range ballistic missiles. While not as high a priority as those that the Air Force was developing, they were undoubtedly missiles and compromised perception of Orbiter as a civilian project.

In the opposing corner was the Naval Research Laboratory with its proposal, called Project Vanguard. That proposal contained a much stronger scientific component than the Army’s, a component that the Naval Research Laboratory, with its strong background in upper atmo­sphere research, was well qualified to implement.

The laboratory had additional advantages. It had successfully devel­oped the Viking sounding rocket as a replacement for the V2. The Viking was not part of a weapons system but was intended for scientific explo­ration of the upper atmosphere—albeit in support of military purposes.

Further, the Viking project had provided the lab with a record of developing a large project on time and to cost. The Glenn L. Martin Company had been the contractor for Viking, and the laboratory pro­posed to work with them again on Vanguard.

Finally, the NRL had what was for that time a sophisticated radio tracking plan, whereas the initial Project Orbiter included only optical tracking.

Much of Project Vanguard was technically innovative, relying on miniaturization to beef up the satellite’s capabilities. While miniaturization is today a technological cliche, in 1955 the concept was new. Vanguard would have tiny batteries and radio equipment and in principle would be able to carry ten pounds of scientific instruments, far more than Project Orbiter offered. The batteries were chemical because the designers decided that solar-battery technology, generating electricity from sunlight, was unlikely to be practical in the time available.

The Navy won the first round, but the Army bounced back with a plan that took account of technical criticisms, including an improved tracking proposal. Milton Rosen, who had headed the Viking develop­ment and would be the technical director of Project Vanguard, listened to them argue their case for most of an afternoon. He watched tensely, afraid that von Braun’s eloquence was swaying the panel.

In the event, Homer Joe’s committee confirmed its original decision, and on September 9, the secretaries for the Navy, Army, and Air Force were notified that the Navy would head the three services in the develop­ment of a satellite launcher. When the news reached the NRL’s site by the Potomac in Washington D. C., there was jubilation, some surprise, and a conviction that they could do the job.

The decision of Homer Joe’s panel was not unanimous. Homer Joe himself was one of two who thought that the Army should get the job. The nation could save time and money, he thought, by piggybacking the satellite program on the Army’s missile work. Many, then and now, believe that he was right, and that if the U. S. had picked Project Orbiter, America would have been the first into space.

Thus Project Orbiter became famous as the proposal that could have begun the space age but did not. In retrospect, and in the light of the emerging evidence concerning the Eisenhower administration’s desire to establish the freedom of space by launching a civilian scientific satellite, one suspects that the Army could not have won. Certainly, the guidance given to the Stewart committee seems to have been fashioned to favor the somewhat less militaristic Navy proposal.

The administration’s decision to back Project Vanguard has pulled down much vilification on President Eisenhower’s head. Though it seems now that Eisenhower’s decision was more subtle than it appeared at the time, he did underestimate the blow to America’s self-esteem and the con­comitant gain in the Soviet Union’s international prestige that would fol­low the Sputnik launch.

During 1955, as wheels of policy turned within wheels, the scientists who in the fall of 1954 had won backing from the international scientific com­munity for the inclusion of satellites in the IGY had also been busy. Early in 1955, the executive of the national committee had established a rocketry panel to evaluate the feasibility of producing a rocket that could launch a satellite. The task was delegated to William Pickering, Milton Rosen, and a young hawk, also from the Naval Research Laboratory, John Townsend.

They met in Pasadena in February of 1955. This trio concluded— unsurprisingly—that a satellite launch was feasible. Milton Rosen reported their findings to the rocketry panel in March 1955. He outlined three pos­sible rocket configurations, which, unbeknownst to many scientists of the IGY, had much in common with proposals which were then vying for attention at the Pentagon.

On March 9, Joseph Kaplan, chair of the U. S. IGY, sought approval from the U. S. executive committee for the IGY for the inclusion of satel­lites in their research plans.

He met opposition. The debate, recorded in scribbled, handwritten notes, is hard to decipher, but the language suggests that some of the scien­tists knew or had an inkling that national security issues were at stake. Merle Tuve, director of the Department for Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution (and founder of the Applied Physics Laboratory, which would develop the Transit navigation satellites), was very uncom­fortable with the idea of tying the satellite project to the IGY. Others, like Fred Whipple and Harry Wexler, who as chief sci’entist of the weather bureau would be a strong supporter of meteorology satellites, argued persuasively that satellites would expand the science that could be undertaken by the IGY.

His colleagues asked Tuve—wouldn’t it be better for satellites to be part of the IGY so that the data collected by the spacecraft would be unclassified and freely available? If the Department of Defense were to lead the way, there would be less opportunity for international collaboration. They could do an enormous amount of science with satellites, they argued. And if they were to exclude everything from the IGY that had a possible military application, there would be nothing left. Who were they, asked one scientist, to hold up progress?

Hugh Odishaw, the indefatigable secretary of the national commit­tee, finally summarized their options: say no, irrespective of whether the satellite project had scientific merit or not; embrace the satellite project as part of the American contribution to the IGY; decide whether it had merit and, if it was geophysically useless, say that the satellite program was more appropriate to the Department of Defense.

Clearly, satellites do have considerable potential for geophysics, and what seems to have persuaded Tuve to endorse the satellite project was that if the Pentagon took the initiative, cooperation with other countries would be difficult. Eventually, the executive committee approved the inclusion of satellites in the IGY.

The National Science Foundation then requested funds from Con­gress on behalf of the National Academy of Sciences, which was organizing the IGY (the National Academy of Sciences does not request funds directly from Congress). The National Science Foundation and the National Acad­emy of Sciences gave Donald Quarles, assistant secretary of defense for research and development, what he needed, two bodies with indisputable credentials in the world of civilian science. He now had a formal request for a civilian satellite as had been recommended by the Killian committee.

Kaplan sent a letter to the National Science Foundation explaining that the satellite project would need $10 million in addition to the nearly $20 million that congress had by now authorized for the IGY. At the same time, the IGY s satellite proposal was sent to the White House and the Pentagon. At the Pentagon, Quarles looked at Kaplan’s figures and doubled them. Even that turned out to be a serious underestimation of the ultimate cost (elevenfold what Kaplan requested, excluding the Pentagons expendi­ture), inevitably, perhaps, because no one had any idea of the technical dif­ficulties and costs of space exploration.

It was now May 1955, and the IGY’s organizers needed the money as soon as possible if they were going to launch a satellite before the comple­tion of the IGY at the end of 1958. But the project stalled. At least, that is how it appeared to the staff of the U. S. national committees secretariat, who were frustrated as phone calls went unanswered and unsatisfying memos arrived in response to requests for information about the satellite budget.

In fact the IGY was now a pawn in a bigger game. The chain of events was in progress that led ultimately to the National Security Coun­cil’s endorsement of the plan at the end of May, to the formation of Homer Joe Stewart’s committee, to President Eisenhower’s announcement of July 29, and to the September decision that Project Vanguard would launch America’s first satellite.

From the IGY’s perspective, things started to move again after Eisen­hower made his announcement. Despite not knowing which launch vehi­cle the administration would select, the national committee asked Richard Porter, a technical consultant to General Electric, to form a panel to over­see the IGY’s satellite work. Porter’s committee spawned two more. One, led by William Pickering, was responsible for radio and optical tracking and orbital computations. Fred Whipple was one of his committee mem­bers, and he took on the responsibility of organizing optical tracking for the IGY. James Van Allen chaired the second group, which was responsible for choosing the experiments that would fly.

As 1956 advanced, the cost of the satellite program escalated. Eventu­ally, one of the IGY scientists complained that the satellite program was costing as much as if each satellite had been built from solid gold. Berkner assured him that the value of the satellites to the international community and to the United States was worth far more than digging that much gold out of the earth.

Despite such enthusiasm, development of the Vanguard rocket was experiencing technical and financial difficulties. Milton Rosen, Van­guard’s technical director, was convinced that the Glenn L. Martin Com­pany was not giving the NRL its best efforts. He attributed this to the company’s also having the contract for the Air Force’s Titan ICBM. Whatever the reasons, the pitfalls and colossal nature of undertaking to develop and build a three-stage rocket from scratch in so short a time were now apparent.

These technical difficulties were compounded by the cutbacks in the program. By October 1957, Van Allen’s committee could count on only six launch vehicles, possibly far fewer.

Sputnik was about to change all that.

On Friday, October 4, 1957, Walter Sullivan, a science correspondent for the New York Times, filed a story for Saturday’s paper. After a week at the rockets and satellite conference he felt fairly certain that he had taken the right line. He’d written that the Soviets were close to a launch attempt.

Sullivan says that before going to the reception he called his office. He was told that the paper’s Moscow office had heard Radio Moscow announce that a satellite was in orbit. He was told to find out what he could.

Sullivan hurried to the embassy. He found the American scientists: Pickering, Richard Porter, Lloyd Berkner, and John Townsend. When Sul­livan told them the news, they looked at one another in consternation. To this day, Pickering believes that the Soviets at the reception did not know of their own successful launch.

The Americans went into a huddle and decided that they must con­gratulate their hosts. As the senior American scientist present, the task fell to Lloyd Berkner. Leaving his colleagues to assimilate the news as best they could, he took his glass and a spoon and climbed on a chair. He rapped the glass for attention. Slowly the conversation died down, and the guests turned to Berkner. His announcement was simple, and it caused a sensa­tion. He said, “I am informed by the New York Times that a satellite has been launched and is in orbit at an altitude of nine hundred kilometers. I wish to congratulate our Soviet colleagues on their achievement.” With that, he raised his glass. Blagonravov was beaming as he drank the toast.


Telstar captured the popular imagination in a way that it is hard to believe any satellite, especially a communications satellite, could do today Perhaps it was the name; euphonious enough to make the satellite the eponymous star of its own pop song, released by the British pop group the Tornados. Certainly AT&T’s impressive publicity machine, one that rivaled even that of NASA, aided the process.

Telstar was launched at 8:35 GMT on July 10, 1962. According to AT&T, more than half the population of the U. K. watched its first transat­lantic transmission, a remarkable percentage given that far fewer people than today owned television sets. Only two Telstar satellites were ever launched, because even before the first went into orbit it was clear that Comsat, not AT&T, would be responsible for operating international com­munications satellites.

Instigating the Telstar project was one of the boldest moves ever made by a private company. Fred Kappel, chairman of AT&T, said that the company would spend $170 million—a considerable sum for the time— on an international communications system if the government would either step aside or facilitate development.

Project Telstar had five objectives: to test broadband communication, to test the reliability of electronic components under the stress of launch into space, to measure radiation levels (electronic components fail and data are lost if radiation alters the dopants in semiconductor material), to pro­vide information on tracking, and to provide a test for the ground station equipment.[19]

A. C. Dickieson was appointed to head Telstar development in the fall of 1960. In his unpublished manuscript he says that he was told to go ahead in the shortest possible time and that he had whatever power and authority he needed to do his job. The team immediately started “spend­
ing with gusto.” For a while Dickieson did not know to the nearest $5 million just how much money was pouring into the project. But by early in 1961 he had spending under control.

The project’s starting point was the early work by Pierce and Kompfner.

On January 6, 1959, while Bell and NASA were still discussing whether they would collaborate on a communication experiment with a passive satellite, John Pierce was arguing internally that Bell should assume a leading role in research in satellite communication, because it seemed likely that “satellites will provide very broad band transoceanic communi­cation more cheaply than submarine cables.” He wrote, “Active repeaters in twenty-four-hour equatorial orbits stationary above one point of the earth have many potential advantages but pose severe problems of launch­ing, orientation, and life, whose solutions lie beyond the present state of the art.” On the other hand, passive satellites were within the state of the art. Bell could, argued Pierce, undertake a program of research because more knowledge about low-noise MASERs and horn antennas would be valuable irrespective of the orbit that communications satellites would eventually occupy. There was so much activity in the field, wrote Pierce, and so little was known.

A few months later, Pierce and Kompfner were contemplating medium-altitude-active rather than twenty-four-hour satellites. There seemed to be just too many technical obstructions to developing the latter.

To John Pierce and his colleagues at Bell, the greatest drawback to twenty-four-hour satellites was the six-tenths of a second that would pass between one person speaking and the other person hearing what was said. The listener, thinking that a pause meant the speaker had finished, might then interrupt. Nothing could be done about the delay because that is how long it takes a signal to travel to and from a satellite in a twenty-four – hour orbit. Also, at that time, the equipment that suppressed echoes from the far end of the telephone line was not very effective, and Pierce was concerned that poor echo suppression coupled with the time delay would make communications via twenty-four-hour satellite intolerable. If, that is, one could have placed a satellite in a twenty-four-hour orbit in the first place. The launch vehicles and guidance and control systems needed to place a satellite in such an orbit were only then being developed.

Power was another problem. Imagine that power is distributed over the surface of a sphere and that the greater the distance of the receiver from the antenna, the greater the surface of the sphere over which the same power is distributed. Thus, if the distance increases by a factor of two, the power available at a particular point will be reduced by considerably more than twice—the square of the distance between transmitter and receiver.[20]

The thinking was that if one was to receive a usable radio signal on Earth from a satellite 22,300 miles away, one needed a high-gain, direc­tional antenna on the spacecraft that would not waste power by broadcast­ing needlessly into space (high-gain directional antennas are common today). But if the satellite was to carry a directional antenna, then the satel­lite’s orientation with respect to the earth—its attitude—would have to be controlled so that it remained constant relative to the earth. This called for a more complex, weightier design. Even at the best of times, satellite designers do not like to add weight. When no launch vehicle yet exists that can reach the desired altitude, the potential weight of a satellite is an even greater problem.

And then there was the all-important question of station keeping, which is essential for a satellite in a twenty-four-hour orbit. The satellite must maintain its position in orbit relative to the subsatellite point despite radiation pressure, lunisolar gravity, and inhomogeneities in the earth’s gravitational field. If the twenty-four-hour satellite was to be constantly accessible to many ground stations and its antennas were to stay pointing toward those ground stations, then some mechanism for station keeping was needed as well as the fuel to operate that mechanism: again, extra weight.

Finally, launch vehicles do not place satellites directly into a twenty – four-hour orbit. The satellite is injected first into an eccentric orbit with its perigee at the altitude at which it separates from the launch vehicle and its apogee at geosynchronous altitude. So a twenty-four-hour satellite would need a motor that could fire at apogee and circularize the orbit: yet more weight.

Pierce and Kompfner were aware of all these problems and the possi­ble poor quality of communication via a twenty-four-hour satellite. Fur­ther, Pierce, who from the beginning had participated in the panels plan­ning military satellites, was aware of and unimpressed by the Advanced Project Research Agency’s (later the Army’s) plans for a twenty-four-hour satellite.

So, in March 1959, when Pierce and Kompfner wrote a paper demonstrating the theoretical feasibility of active broadband satellite com­munication, it was a constellation of medium-altitude satellites that they had in mind, not twenty-four-hour satellites. Bell still intended to work first with passive satellites simply because they would be ready first, but, wrote Pierce, the research department would work towards simple active repeaters. “If we manage to make better components than others and if we make a sensible design, we might take the lead in this field with a compar­atively modest expenditure of money and effort. The tendency of ARPA has been to project elaborate and complicated schemes… our own course has been to get into actual experimental work with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as early as possible. In this way we will encounter in an experimental way certain problems such as large antenna, low-noise receivers, tracking, modulation systems, orbit computations and the relia­bility of components which we believe will be important in all satellite communication systems.”

Even though active satellites were at the forefront of Pierce’s mind from the spring of 1959, he was publicly cautious, writing in June of that year to Hugh Dryden, the deputy administrator of NASA, “Right now, we don’t feel we are able to evaluate the merits of active satellite systems as compared with passive systems well enough to propose any concrete steps as the next desirable thing to do.”

Bell’s efforts in the field of active repeaters began to solidify when Leroy Tillotson completed a major memo on active satellite repeaters on August 24, 1959. Much of what he described was similar to what would, after the launch of Echo in August 1960, become an internal Bell project, labeled TSX, which was later renamed Project Telstar.

Central to Tillotson’s plan was the development of a six-gigahertz traveling wave tube. Pierce and Kompfner requested more information and were briefed in October and November 1959. An active-satellite plan­ning committee was formed. Kompfner and Tillotson, but not Pierce, who was more senior, were members. They continued to meet until the re­search effort on active repeaters turned into a full-fledged development project in the fall of 1960.

At the beginning of 1960, the work on Echo was proceeding well and the research staff were considering what to do next. One possibility was a larger passive satellite with enough antenna gain (on the ground), band­width, and transmitter power to relay television signals across the Atlantic. An internal ad hoc group put together an outline of such an experimental system for NASA. As it became apparent what kind of technical pirouettes would be needed for the successful transmission of even the lowest quality TV signal, those working on the proposal became convinced that active satellites were needed.

Thus consensus emerged at Bell that the main effort should be on active satellites—along the lines suggested by Tillotson. A memo from Pierce to Jaffe says that Bell would be putting a major effort into active satellites during the next couple of years. Another letter from Kompfner to Jaffe reviews Bells research on a long-life traveling wave tube and on the effects of radiation damage to solar cells and microwave circuitry. This work continued at a modest level in Bells research department until after the successful launch of Echo on August 12, 1960.

News of Bell’s interest in medium-altitude satellites did not filter out widely until the spring of 1960. When it did, some speculated that the pas­sive scheme had been a smoke screen to cover Bell’s real intentions. If it was, it had not been embarked upon as a smoke screen, though perhaps it was allowed to become one.

While Bell’s scientists and engineers pursued theoretical calculations, AT&T’s management in New York had been working on policy issues. In July 1960, AT&T argued before the Federal Communications Commis­sion that frequencies should be reserved for satellite communication because the company was convinced that satellites would be more eco­nomical than submarine cables for transoceanic communication. A filing on July 8 disclosed AT&T’s plans for a global communication satellite sys­tem costing $170 million. This plan called for fifty satellites without atti­tude control in a three-thousand-mile polar orbit. During the next twelve months the number of satellites, their altitude, and their design would change, but the idea of medium-altitude orbits remained.

In the midst of its political and technical preparations for an active satellite system, on August 9, 1960, the Department of Defense finally released NASA from its agreement to develop only passive satellites.

AT&T now focussed on persuading NASA to select its ideas for an agency led project to develop active communication satellites. On August 11, Pierce and colleagues were briefing senior NASA staff at headquarters in Washington on Bell’s medium-altitude active repeater work. They told NASA of AT&T’s discussions with the communication administrations of Britain, France, and Germany, and of those countries’ interest in joining AT&T in satellite communication experiments. Bell’s idea was that the Bell System would pay all costs, except those of general interest to the space community, such as investigating radiation effects. There was some discussion, too, about the technical difficulties of providing two-way chan­nels (with Echo, voice went via satellite one way and came back over a ter­restrial link).

The day after that meeting, Echo was launched. It was the brightest object in the night sky. In Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then called, Arthur C. Clarke looked upwards and followed its passage with wonder. In the United States, AT&T’s highly efficient publicity machine ensured that when the public gazed upwards, it was AT&T’s name rather than NASA’s that sprang to mind.

AT&T’s publicity capsized discussions with NASA about launching a satellite based on AT&T’s ideas. A little over two months after Echo’s launch, in a meeting about Bell’s plans for transoceanic communication via active satellite, T. Keith Glennan told senior staff from Bell and AT&T that the company’s methods of publicizing its plans, including making mislead­ing statements, had created difficulties for NASA. Glennan’s remarks about publicity were only a small portion of the criticisms he made. He said that AT&T was not taking account of the “facts of life” and acknowledging through its planning the limited availability of launch vehicles, the prob­lems of scheduling launches, and the aims of NASA’s research and devel­opment program.

By the time of this meeting, on October 27, 1960, NASA’s plans were known publicly to include medium-altitude active repeaters, and AT&T was now one of several companies waiting for the agency’s formal announcement of a competition. Whichever company won, NASA also intended to further the development of communications satellites through “cost reimbursable launch support for private industry.”

So, despite Glennan’s stern admonishments in October 1960, the auguries were not entirely unfavorable for AT&T. NASA, under the lead­ership of T. Keith Glennan, favored the involvement of private industry in the development of communication satellites. AT&T had a vibrant research effort in the supporting technology for medium-altitude active repeaters, and Echo had been a spectacular success.

The days of the Eisenhower administration, however, were numbered. Transition to the Kennedy administration would soon be underway. Though both administrations were concerned about the antitrust implications of policies that favored AT&T, some in the Kennedy administration, notably James Webb, were additionally concerned about the strategic implications of communications satellites and thought that government should retain con­trol over their development. The difference between the two administrations was apparent in a small but telling difference in the budgets that each sub­mitted to Congress for FY62. Eisenhower called for private industry to con­tribute $10 million toward NASA’s communication satellite program. Kennedy’s budget allocated that $10 million from the public coffers.

This was the first faint stirring of the policy upheavals that would exclude AT&T from providing international satellite communications, a role that the company saw as its own as a matter of public trust. In the end, AT&T would have to be content with being one of the common carriers owning Comsat stock.

In January 1961, when John Kennedy was inaugurated, and for sev­eral more months, AT&T moved confidently forward with its plans. Bell Labs was working on ways to keep the satellites’ weight down by develop­ing sensitive ground-based antennas that would allow the satellites to transmit at as low a power as possible. That month NASA issued a request for proposals for a medium-altitude satellite to be known as Relay. During the Relay competition, AT&T and NASA suspended discussions about the possibility of the agency launching the telephone company’s satellites. Bell, along with six other competitors, prepared a proposal. The others included RCA, which eventually won, and an outsider with no experience manu­facturing satellites—the Hughes Aircraft Company.

Bell, which did not think much of NASA’s technical specifications, submitted three versions of its proposals. One matched what NASA wanted, including frequencies and a radiation experiment as specified by the agency. The second retained NASA’s radiation experiment but worked at the frequencies that Bell (AT&T was discussing frequency allocation with its overseas partners) thought would eventually be selected for an operational system (AT&T and Bell were correct). The third proposal was Bell’s own design.

On May 18, NASA announced it was awarding the contract to RCA. At the technical debriefing, NASA told Bell that it was the best of the “amateurs” to submit a proposal. Bell’s weaknesses in its bid, according to NASA, were many. The agency awarded the lab poor marks for solar cells made from n-on-p semiconductors rather than p-on-n. Yet Bell’s sci­entists knew that the Evans Signal Laboratory had found that n-on-p semiconductors were more resistant to proton and electron bombardment than p-on-n semiconductors. Bell had fabricated n-on-p solar cells in December 1960 and confirmed the finding (these are what are used now).

The Bell proposal got a particularly low score for the low power of its transmitters, which would call for a low-noise ground antenna, and par­ticularly for further improvement of the MASER that was used for Echo. The agency considered that Bell’s tough specifications for a low-noise ground antenna would make the ground stations that NASA and others might build marginal. Its own course of action, said the agency, did not press the state of the art quite as hard. NASA judged, however, that Bell’s traveling-wave-tube design was excellent and that its radiation experiment was good. The agency asked Bell to design the radiation experiment for Relay. Bell’s view of this critique was that only one criticism—about a VHF antenna—was valid.

Preparing the stack of printed material for its proposal, wrote Dick – ieson, cost several hundred thousand dollars and “chewed up the time of a lot of key people who were sorely needed in designing the company’s own satellite and ground station. But we really had no choice but to bid; with­out launch support, all of our work would be wasted, and NASA con­trolled the launching.”

To the engineers at Bell, NASA’s announcement that RCA had won the contract meant that they could revert to their own ideas for what would be known as Project Telstar. The announcement also left them with one rather major difficulty—the matter of a launch vehicle. Pierce and Kompfner joked with a visiting Soviet scientist that perhaps his govern­ment would launch the satellite.

A more practical discussion was going on between James Webb and Fred Kappel. Webb had called Kappel on May 18 to notify him that RCA had won the contract for Relay and to say that NASA was prepared to launch AT&T’s satellite. Kappel responded that it was important for AT&T to go ahead with its satellite plans. Hard negotiations, led by Webb and Dryden, followed. NASA insisted on being reimbursed for launching the two satellites and that AT&T should assign any patents resulting from the development to NASA. AT&T agreed, and Telstar, which Wilbur L. Pritchard later said was superbly engineered, was underway.

An important aspect of the Telstar project was the two ground sta­tions that Bell Laboratories built. The sophistication and sensitivity of these stations enabled Bell to put less power on the satellite. One station was in Andover, Maine, and the other in France. Britain used its own exist­ing antenna but was unable to receive signals on the first night because of an unfortunate misunderstanding about the polarization of the signal.

The ground station in Maine was 170 feet long and three stories high, and rotated to follow the satellite from horizon to horizon. It was intended to be part of the eventual operational system and had to work in any weather, so Bell contracted for a radome (a radio transparent, domelike shell) to protect the antenna. The wall to which the radome was to be fixed was a massive structure. Someone quipped that in a thousand years, scientists would debate why the entrance door was in precisely that place. Excavation for the antenna foundations began in May 1961, and in January 1962, the antenna was complete. A temporary radome was erected until the special air-supported fabric of the final structure could be delivered. It sagged under the New England snow. Efforts to dislodge the snow failed until someone took a shotgun from the trunk of his car and shot holes in the temporary cover.

Testing of Telstar began in November 1961 and took 2,300 hours. The satellite was due at Cape Canaveral in May 1962 but was delayed for two weeks until a loose wire could be traced. The launch was set for July 10. In late May Bell heard about Project Starfish, a high-altitude atomic – bomb test. They were worried that if Telstar was in orbit, radiation from the explosion would seriously damage its electronics. They relaxed when they heard that the explosion was set for the day before their launch, believing that by the time Telstar reached orbit, the worst would be over. They later learned, as did APL, which had its TRAAC satellite aloft, that fallout persisted and precipitated along magnetic field lines. Telstar began to falter on November 18, 1962, and failed the following February.

Nonetheless, Telstar allowed an examination of the signal after pas­sage at various angles through the ionosphere, the earths magnetic field, and the atmosphere. Different methods of frequency modulation were tested, and the impact on available bandwidth assessed. These and other results were published in the open literature. Harold Rosen, of the Hughes

Aircraft Company, said, “Telstar showed that there were no propagation anomalies, that it was easy to calculate what the propagation would be like. It was a confidence builder.”

Telstar attained orbit despite antagonism and suspicion between AT&T and Bell on the one hand and NASA on the other. Exactly how these tensions, which also existed under T. Keith Glennan, played out in the decision to select RCA for Project Relay is not easy to discern. Robert Seaman, who was NASA’s associate administrator at the time, said in his exit interview that the message came through loud and clear from the Kennedy administration that the AT&T design was not the one to pick. In 1966, Webb said that the RCA proposal was clearly the best proposal for the research requirements of NASA, even if it was “… not necessarily the best as the first step towards an operational satellite system as desired by AT&T.” Webb’s phrasing is telling.

The disagreements between NASA and AT&T covered everything from choice of frequency to operation of the ground stations and negotia­tions with foreign telecommunications companies. AT&T was particularly jealous of the relationships it had built over the years with common carri­ers in other countries. The transatlantic submarine cable TAT-t, for exam­ple, was a joint venture with the British and Canadians. A British cable ship had laid the cable.

It is also clear from Dickieson’s unpublished manuscript in the AT&T archives that Bell’s technical people did not respect the technical ability of some of those with whom they dealt at NASA and that they thought much of the required paperwork pointless. Dickieson wrote, “the NASA people assigned to receive this paper were interested in the shadow, and not the substance, so we were able to keep them happy without [hav­ing them] interfere with our work.”

The attitude of the Bell engineers comes through best in this follow­ing anecdote related by Dickieson. The National Physics Laboratory in the U. K. wanted to use Telstar in an experiment with the U. S. Naval Observa­tory to synchronize clocks in the two countries (this was before atomic clocks). Dickieson set things up. The experiment was performed and the results published. “At a subsequent meeting, Leonard Jaffe brought up the subject, and made it clear that the approved method was: first, discussions between the state departments of the two countries; second, reference to the technical organizations of the two governments, and finally down to scheduling by the Ground Station Committee.” Says Dickieson, “I did not argue the matter, because I thought that if another useful experiment appeared, we would do it first and argue later.”

Despite all this, the two organizations successfully launched the two Telstar satellites.

From February 1962, when President Kennedy submitted his Com­sat bill to Congress, it was clear to Bell’s engineers that the lab and AT&T were out of international satellite communication. They still had both satellites to launch, and the team worked on, fueled by the need to prove that private enterprise could operate in the field. To the public, the battles behind Telstar were unimportant. To them Telstar was the satellite that first broadcast live transatlantic television and promised a new era of interna­tional communication. Among those watching were a group of engineers at the Hughes Aircraft Company, in Culver City, California. After rejec­tions and ridicule, they had won a contract for their ideas for a twenty- four-hour satellite in August 1961—nearly a year before Telstar went into orbit. The engineers watching Telstars broadcast were envious. They had dispatched a telegram of congratulations to Bell but were eager to see their own satellite in orbit. One of them, Harold Rosen, said “It was interesting in two respects, one was the beautiful picture coming from overseas. And two, it didn’t last very long.” They knew their satellite would be altogether different.

Chapter 11: Move Over, Sputnik

Khrushchev’s belligerent attitude toward the United States, which pre­sumably set the tone for the excerpt from Soviet Fleet (page 119), is clear in an interview with James Reston for the New York Times that appeared on October 9, 1957. In the interview, Khrushchev said that the U. S. was causing all the trouble [between the two countries] because it negotiated with the USSR as if it were weak. Khrushchev told Reston that the USSR had all kinds of rockets for modern war and spelled out the fact that since the USSR could launch a satellite, it had the technology for intercontinental ballistic missiles. In his interview, Khrushchev uses the terms “imperialist warmongers” and “reactionary bourgeoisie” when speaking of the U. S.

Eisenhower’s attitude to this rhetoric is apparent in his State of the Union message on January 9, 1958. He said, “The threat to our safety, and to the hope of a peaceful world can be simply stated. It is communist imperialism. This threat is not something imagined by critics of the Soviets. Soviet spokesmen, from the beginning, have publicly and frequently declared their aim to expand their power, one way or another, throughout the world.”

The failure of the launch of Vanguard on December 6, 1957, (page 120) is retold in Green’s and Lomask’s book in the NASA History Series, Van­guard, A History.

General Medaris’s call to JPL et al. (page 121) is discussed by William Pickering in his oral history in the archives of the California Institute of Technology.

Pickering’s attempts to contact James Van Allen are discussed both in Pickering’s oral history at Caltech and in James Van Allen’s oral history in the National Air and Space Museum (page 121 — 122).

In the oral history and in his interview with me, Pickering described the journalist who tracked him down in New York immediately prior to the launch.

The account of the launch of Explorer 1 (pages 122-123) comes from the oral histories of Pickering and Van Allen, from Pickering’s interviews with me, from the Green and Lomask book (Vanguard—A History) and from accounts in the New York Times.

James Van Allen describes his isolation and concerns on the launch of Sputnik in his oral history at the National Air and Space Museum.

In his oral history and when talking to me, Pickering describes the wait for the acquisition of Explorer 1 and his trip to the NAS to face the world’s press once the satellite was in orbit.

Details on pages 123 — 125 are a synthesis of extracts from minutes of the USNC for the IGY, the executive committee of the USNC, the TPESP, the Technical Panel on Rocketry and the Working Group on Internal Instrumentation.

An ad hoc meeting of the TPESP, November 10, 1955, discussed the bud­get for the whole satellite program. Homer Newell emphasized the importance of allocating money quickly for optical and radio tracking and for scientific instrumentation.

The need to understand the organizational relationship between the different official bodies was mentioned. This was an early warning of a struggle for control of the program. The NRL was emphatic that it retain control of the launch vehicle and to a large extent over the scientific instrumentation. A formal statement said, “The NRL desires the advice and guidance of the USNC with respect to scientific instruments…. advice will be followed in so far as is possible without compromising the achievement of a first successful launch.”

The question of organizational relationships and responsibility resurfaced nearly a year later. In an attachment to the minutes of the sev­enth meeting of the TPESP on September 5, 1956, a note records an informal meeting at the Cosmos Club between Richard Porter and Admiral Bennet during which there was discussion about whether the satellite program was a DOD program with IGY participation or vice versa.

The third meeting of the TPESP took place in the Founders’ Room at the University of Michigan. The panel discussed the possibility that the

Soviets might launch a satellite in 1956 and agreed to make formal en­quiries through the CSAGI, the international organizing body for the IGY.

During the third meeting of the TPESP, the chair, Richard Porter, appointed James Van Allen to head a working group on internal instru­mentation. The panel’s job was to review the proposals for experiments submitted to the panel.

At the fifth meeting of the TPESP on April 20, 1956, Homer Newell said that a master schedule for the development of Vanguard was being drawn up and would be circulated to the TPESP as soon as it was ready. He described several satellite configurations and reported on development of the rocket’s first stage. During the same meeting there was discussion of budget overruns.

During the meeting, Richard Porter also discussed the concerns that there might be only one satellite launched. He said,“. .. if the plan really is to stop after you get one good one, then we had best discontinue most of the work of this panel. In fact, my own feeling is that the program would not be worth doing if this were the intent.” The DOD observer replied, “It is the feeling of the executive branch of government that our present job is to get one up there, and it is most unlikely… that we will answer in any other way than to say it is a future not present decision [how many satellites are launched] (page 124).

The meeting went on to question whether they had a right to spend taxpayers’ money on a tracking system when there might only be one satellite.

In an attempt to justify six launch attempts, Dr. Porter said, “Actu­ally, the six rides was determined by another group headed by Dr. Stewart as being the minimum that ought to be fired to get one good one. This is the best guess of some guided missile experts.”

Porter argued that there should be more ideas put forward for satel­lite experiments because he believed there would be an extended pro­gram of satellite launches and that once in place, the tracking system would be cheaper to operate than it was to set up.

Follow That Moon

I think we very likely face the embarrassing situation that, say, next spring, we have one or two [satellite tracking] cameras and the Russians have one or two satellites———————————————–

—William Pickering, October З, 1957


ickering drank the toast. He felt curiously detached from his surround­ings. What thoughts did the shock loosen? Probably something like,

“ … it could have been us, what now, they said imminent, they told us—- ”

Certainly he knew better than anyone else present that his laboratory, working with von Braun’s team, might already have had a satellite aloft. And he had speculated often enough with colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that the Russians must be ready for a launch soon. They’d feared the event, but they hadn’t truly believed it could happen.

Pickering remained deep in thought. When he looked around, his colleagues had gone. He knew where. Pickering followed to the IGY’s offices a few blocks from the Soviet embassy in downtown Washington D. C. There they sat, Dick Porter, Homer Newell, John Townsend, and Lloyd Berkner. Three years earlier, some of them had been together in a hotel room in Rome, where they had plotted late into the night how they would win backing from the General Assembly of the International Geo­physical year for a satellite launch. All had an emotional investment in the unfolding events. All had campaigned to persuade their government to build a satellite. And when President Eisenhower gave the go-ahead, they’d fought amid the turbulent waters of internecine and interservice rivalry. They had not wanted the same launch vehicle and satellite, but in the end they had found common cause. Together, they faced a bitter moment.

They looked at one another and asked, Now what? Into this intro­spection the telephone blared. NBC had interrupted radio and television programs with the news. At the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, the phone rang every minute. Most calls were from people wanting to know how to tune into the satellite’s signal or when they could see it. For the first night at least, curiosity was uppermost, though some called to say that the stories couldn’t be true, the Russians could not have
beaten the U. S. As yet there was no panic or concern; that came the fol­lowing week.

At the United States’ headquarters of the IGY, the little group remembered its priorities, decided early in their planning of Vanguard. First, place an object in orbit and prove by observation that it was there. Second, obtain an orbital track. The satellite’s path would give valuable knowledge about the earth’s gravitational field and the density of the upper atmosphere. Finally, perform experiments with instruments in the satellite. Here, too, orbital tracking and prediction would be important. An instrument isn’t much good if you don’t know where it is when it records a measurement.

All of this was for the future. That Friday night, the first priority had to be met. It wasn’t an American satellite, but something was aloft. Was it in a stable orbit, or would it plummet to Earth within hours? They let the task of learning as much as possible about the satellite’s orbit chase bitter­ness and disappointment away for a short time. The task was difficult, because the launch had caught them unawares.

And what was the task? They wanted to find and follow an object of indeterminate size, traveling several hundred miles above the earth at about 17,000 miles per hour. Ideally, they would have liked first to pinpoint Sput­nik’s position (to acquire the satellite) then to observe parts of its orbit (to track the satellite) and to determine from those observations the parame­ters of that orbit.

So that they would know when and where to look to acquire the satellite, they needed to know the latitude and longitude of the Soviet launch site, and the time, altitude, and velocity at which the satellite was injected into orbit.

Imagine an analogous situation. Hijackers have taken control of an Amtrak train and no one knows where or when this happened, nor which track the hijackers have coerced the driver to follow. How does Amtrak find its train? The company could alert the public to look for its train or, if the train had a distinctive whistle, the public could listen for it. When the alert public had called in the times and places at which they spotted or heard the train, Amtrak could calculate roughly where the train would be, given an estimate of speed and a knowledge of the network of tracks. The greater the accuracy with which observers recorded the time and place of the train’s passing, the more accurately Amtrak could predict its train’s future location.

With an exact location of the launch site and information about the position and time of the satellite’s injection into orbit, the group at the IGY could have predicted Sputniks position, then tracked its radio signal and determined an orbit. But the Soviets did not release this information. In fact, they did not publicly give the latitude and longitude of the launch site for another seventeen years.

Even if they had released the information, there would have been another problem. The Russian satellite was broadcasting at 20 and 40 megahertz, frequencies that the network of American radio tracking sta­tions set up to follow U. S. satellites—Minitrack—could not detect, even though every ham radio operator in the world could hear the satellite’s distinctive “beep beep.” The more sophisticated Minitrack stations, designed for the more sophisticated task of satellite tracking, could only detect signals of 108 megahertz. This was the frequency that the American satellite designers had adopted as the optimum, given available technology. Changing Minitrack to locate the Soviet signals involved far more than twiddling a tuning knob on a radio set.

In the days following the launch of Sputnik, Western newspaper sto­ries speculated that the Soviets had chosen the frequency purely for propa­ganda purposes. Early histories quote some American scientists as saying that perhaps the Soviets chose these frequencies because they had not the skill to develop electronics to operate at higher frequencies.

Yet at the rocket and satellite conference, before the launch of Sput­nik had colored everyone’s view, the Soviets’ choice of frequencies was considered in the context of science. One American delegate pointed out that the lower frequencies were better for ionospheric studies, though less good for tracking. A British delegate put forward a proposal for an iono­spheric experiment with the Soviet frequencies, which found unanimous backing. During the conference, the Soviets explained a little about their network and specified the type of observations they would like other nations to make.

None of which, of course, means that propaganda did not con­tribute, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that in addition to the political envi­ronment, there were also Soviet scientists and engineers with scientific agendas of their own.

Whatever reason or combination of reasons the Soviets had, Mini­track could not acquire and track the satellite. It was to be a week from that night before the first of Vanguard’s radio tracking stations was success­fully modified to receive the Soviet frequencies. The data, however, were not good, and the American scientists voiced their frustration to one another the following January as they prepared for their own satellite launch.

In the meantime, the phone at the IGY’s headquarters rang again. The caller had seen lights in the sky; could they be the satellite? At the IGY they didn’t know, but it seemed unlikely. For all of the men at the IGY’s head­quarters, the intensity of the public’s response was a shock. Many of the calls, with their conflicting reports, were a hindrance to the task of deter­mining where the Soviet satellite was and whether the orbit was stable.

Eventually, they realized that the best information was coming from the commercial antenna of the Radio Corporation of America near New York. Engineers there recorded a strong signal at 8:07 P. M. and again at 9:36 P. M. Pickering and his colleagues considered this information, assumed a circular orbit, and then calculated a very rough orbit from the time between signals. They concluded that it was stable. They wrote a press release, then, realizing they’d made a basic mistake in their calcula­tions, recalculated and rewrote. They finally fell into their hotel beds at eight o’clock the next morning. Years later, after numerous glittering suc­cesses in space science, Pickering still wonders why he didn’t spot the sig­nificance of the RCA data sooner. He wonders, too, about the basic error they made, one that was too simple for this group to have made. Yet how could it have been otherwise when they had lost a dream?

Today, when military tracking equipment can locate an object the size of a teacup to within centimeters, when some antennas are set up to follow potential incoming missiles, and track across the sky at ten degrees a second, it is hard to imagine the situation the American scientists faced that night.

Had the satellite been American, elaborate plans for acquisition and tracking would have kicked in. These plans included both optical and radio techniques. Optical because, reasoned many scientists, satellites are heavenly bodies, and who better to track a heavenly body than an astronomer. Radio tracking because this was the obvious next technical development. Radio could work at any time of the day or night, unlike optical tracking, in which observations could be taken only at dawn or dusk in a cloudless sky. For both radio and optical techniques there was to be a reiterated cycle of observation and prediction, gradually refining the orbital calculation.

The scientist knew that the initial acquisition would be difficult because of the anticipated inaccuracies with which the rockets would place the satellites in orbit. The Vanguard team calculated that there would be an inaccuracy in the launch angle of perhaps plus or minus two degrees. Thus, there could be a horizontal position error in a 300-mile – high orbit of about 150 miles at any time. Added to this, the satellite would be traveling at an average of 4.5 miles per second. Further, the anticipated inaccuracy in the satellite’s eventual velocity would be equivalent to plus or minus two percent of the minimal velocity needed to stay in orbit. These errors would change a nearly circular orbit into one with some unknown degree of ellipticity.

For the sake of comparison, today’s Delta rockets can place a satellite into a low-Earth orbit with a horizontal accuracy of a little under four miles. The angle and velocity of the launch vehicle’s ascent to the point where the satellite will be injected into orbit are worked out in preflight computer simulations. Inertial guidance controls monitor the ascent, mak­ing whatever angular corrections are necessary to the path to orbit. Such was not the case in the 1950s.

In December 1956, Pickering had told the IGY’s planners that the problem they faced was whether they would ever see the satellite again once it had left the launch vehicle.

But of course, the planners worked hard to solve this problem. Mini­track would acquire the satellite, and later Minitrack observations would be complemented by optical observations.

The Vanguard design team at the Naval Research Laboratory took on the radio work under the leadership of John Mengel. Mengel’s group used a technique known as interferometry. Several pairs of antennas are needed for this technique, and the distance between each pair depends precisely on the frequency that the array is to detect. Because new posi­tions for the antenna pairs had to be surveyed, it took a week to prepare some of Vanguard’s tracking stations to pick up Sputnik.

As soon as Mengel heard of the launch, he and his experts on orbital computation set out for the Vanguard control room in Washington D. C. He ordered modifications to the Minitrack stations so that they could receive Sputnik’s signal. These stations were located along the eastern seaboard of the United States, in the Caribbean, and down the length of South America. Within hours, additional antennas were on their way to Minitrack stations. The technicians at these sites worked round the clock, improvising in ways they would never have dreamt of the day before. In the Vanguard control room in Washington D. C., others were beginning a seventy-two-hour effort to compute the Russian satellite’s orbit from observations that were far less accurate than what they would have had, had their network been operational. The Vanguard team had planned to conduct that month the first dry run of their far-flung network’s commu­nication links. Now Minitrack was getting what an Air Force officer called “the wettest dry run in history.”

Nearly everyone agreed that radio interferometry would be the best way to acquire the satellite. But radio techniques with satellites were unproven. The transmitters might not survive the launch or might fail. Nor were radio techniques as accurate as optical tracking. Optical tracking was the job of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Under the leadership of Fred Whipple, the SAO had plans both for acquisition and tracking. Hundreds of amateur astronomers around the world were to be deployed to find the satellite (the Soviets were involved in similar efforts as part of the IGY). The amateurs’ observations would allow the computers at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to make a crude prediction of the satellite’s course, but a prediction that was precise enough for the precision camera, specially designed by James Baker, a consul­tant to Perkin-Elmer and Joseph Nunn, to be pointed at the area of the sky where the satellite was expected to appear. These precision cameras, roughly the same size as their operators, would photograph the satellite against the background of the stars. The satellite’s position would then be fixed by refer­ence to the known stellar positions also recorded in the photograph.

While Berkner was toasting Sputnik at the Soviet embassy, Fred Whipple was on a plane from Washington to Boston. He had been at the conference on rockets and satellites and was on his way home. When Whipple boarded his plane late that afternoon, there was no artificial satellite in space. But satellites can’t have been far from his mind. Perhaps he thought fleetingly of the gossip among the American scientists about Soviet intentions. From this thought, it would have been an easy step to recall the previous day’s meet­ing of the United States IGY’s satellite committee. They’d tackled the vexed question of delays in production of the precision tracking cameras. Perkin- Elmer was fabricating the optics for these cameras, while Boiler and Chivens in Pasadena were building the camera proper. The press had reported that delays were holding up the Vanguard program. These reports were irritat­ing to Whipple. Vanguard had been held up and would have been irrespec­tive of the cameras. But production of the cameras was also delayed. In fact, as far as Whipple could tell, the cameras would not be ready until August 1958, only four months before the IGY was scheduled to end.

This news had not pleased Whipple’s colleagues. Dick Porter had summed up, pointing out that by August, there would be only four months of the IGY left to run. If the satellite program was discontinued at the same time as the IGY packed up, the public was going to get a very poor return on the $3.8 million it was spending on precision optical tracking. They’d discussed at length whether they should cancel the cameras but had finally decided to continue because they believed that the space program would continue. That Thursday, the day before the space age began, the IGY par­ticipants seriously considered that the satellite program might be canceled.

The big unknown that Whipple must have pondered was the Soviets. Perhaps he remembered Bill Pickering’s remarks during the meeting: “I think we very likely face the embarrassing situation that, say, early next spring, we have one or two cameras and the Russians have one or two satellites. We can live with it, but it would be embarrassing; but I think, nevertheless, it is desirable for us to have cameras as quickly as possible.”

As far as Whipple was concerned, the problem was that Perkin-Elmer had not put its best people on the job. During the meeting Porter said that he felt like going up to the plant and beating on tables, but that Whipple had discouraged such a move. Whipple’s reaction was one of incredulity. He told Porter that he would now encourage this.

Later that month, when Porter did visit Perkin-Elmer, he found that the company had underbid and was now reluctant to pay for overtime when they expected to lose money on the contract. Porter renegotiated the contract so that the company would break even. Together with the launch of Sputnik, this greatly speeded up the camera program.

By October 4, 1957, Whipple was battle-scarred. Besides the frustra­tion of the cameras, he faced budgetary problems in the optical program. He was constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul (not that Paul always got paid on time) and he had a lot of explaining to do to both Peter and Paul. Yet he was excited. There were still things to do. It is plausible that Whipple made a mental note to check how the debugging of the computer pro­gram for orbital calculations was coming along.

Whipple knew that even if there were still a few wrinkles in the soft­ware, his staff were ready to track a satellite. On July 1, the opening day of the IGY, he had told them to consider themselves on general alert. What he did not know was that all of his preparations were at that moment being put to the test. No one enlightened him at Logan Airport, but when he got home his wife was waiting on the doorstep. Within minutes he was on his way to the Observatory.

That evening it looked as though optical acquisition was going to be more important than had been anticipated. Clearly, there could be no radio acquisition and tracking for the time being. RCA’s commercial antennas gave enough information to establish that the orbit was stable, but not enough to do any useful science or to predict the orbit with enough accuracy for aiming the precision cameras. Admittedly there were no pre­cision cameras yet, but that was about to change.

Whipple arrived to find Kettridge Hall, which housed the tracking offices, humming with activity. At some point during the evening a fire engine arrived because a woman had reported that the building was on fire. Perhaps she thought that some nefarious activity was underway.

The news of the Russian satellite had reached the observatory at six fifteen. Everyone but J. Allen Hynek and his assistant had gone home for the weekend. Hynek was the assistant director in charge of tracking and had worked with Whipple on the tracking proposal that they had sent to the IGY satellite committee in the fall of 1955. He was discussing plans for the following week when the phone rang. A journalist wanted a comment on the Russian satellite. When the journalist had convinced Hynek that the question was serious, Hynek cleared the line and started recalling those staff who were not already on their way back to work. Those who were members of the Observatory Philharmonic Orchestra were still in the building, rehearsing for a concert. They quickly abandoned their musical instruments for scientific ones.

Hynek was particularly keen to reach Donald Campbell, Whipple’s man in charge of the amateur astronomers. Campbell, too, had been at the satellite conference but had remained in Washington because he was leav­ing the next day for a meeting of the International Astronautical Federa­tion in Madrid. Part of Campbell’s job was to ensure that all the amateurs were notified when the time came. The amateurs were called Moon – watchers, after the official name for their venture, Project Moonwatch.

Hynek eventually reached Campbell in Springfield, Virginia, about fifteen miles south ofWashington, where he was visiting one of the groups of amateurs. That night, they were conducting a dry run to demonstrate their methods to Campbell. Campbell took Hynek’s call, then told the assembled group, “I am officially notifying you that a satellite has been launched.” They were thrilled to be part of the first group in the world to hear these words from Campbell. Campbell went on to make a few remarks, the coach rallying the team, but someone stopped him and set up a tape recorder to catch what he said. The next morning the Springfield Moonwatchers were at their telescopes before dawn, but they saw noth­ing, and would not until October 15.

Whipple had wanted armies of amateurs, but he had had to defend the idea against his colleagues’ charges that the amateurs would not be suf­ficiently disciplined. Ultimately, these amateurs provided invaluable infor­mation to teams operating the precision cameras. Although the Moon – watchers had not expected to begin observations until March 1958, when the first American satellite was expected to be in orbit, they were well enough organized that night to begin observing. The first confirmed Moonwatch sightings were reported by teams in Sydney and Woomera on October 8.

During the first night, Whipple, like Bill Pickering and John Mengel, tried to make sense of confusing reports, reports that were not the sort that a professional astronomer was used to. Where were the precise measure­ments of azimuth (distance along the horizon), elevation (height above the horizon), and time of observation? And, of course, the observatory’s pro­gram for orbital computations had still to be debugged. IBM, which was under contract to provide hardware and software support, came to their assistance the next day, dispatching experts who helped to debug the program.

Early Saturday morning, Whipple received his best observations so far from the Geophysical Institute, in College, Alaska. By nine o’clock Sat­urday morning, Whipple was ready for a press conference. He was dressed in a sober suit and accompanied by the props of a globe and telescopes. He gave the appearance of a man who knew what the satellite was doing. Of course, by his own standards, he had no idea.

Over that first weekend, Whipple considered the observations: the object seemed brighter than it should be. He called Richard McCrosky, a friend and colleague at the Harvard Meteor Program, and asked whether the Alaskan observation might be a meteor. McCrosky said no, and specu­lated that the final stage of the Russian rocket was also in orbit. Whipple contacted the Russian IGY scientists in Moscow, who confirmed that the final rocket stage was indeed in space, trailing the satellite by about six hundred miles. The rocket was painted brightly and had the luminosity of a sixth-magnitude star—bright enough to be visible through binoculars. The official nomenclature for the rocket and Sputnik I gave them the names “1957 alpha one” and “1957 alpha two.” The rocket, being the brighter object, was “alpha one.”

Eventually, Whipple concluded that Sputnik I itself was probably painted black. Although he was wrong, it is doubtful that any of the ama­teurs ever spotted the satellite; their observations, about two thousand of them by the end of 1957, were probably all of the rocket. Certainly, the Baker-Nunn precision cameras never picked up Sputnik I, though special meteor cameras that McCrosky lent to Whipple until the Baker-Nunns were ready did acquire the satellite on Thanksgiving day.

The observatory published its first information of scientific quality October 14; the document was called The preliminary orbit information for satellites alpha one and alpha two. Later the Observatory issued regular pre­dictions of the time and longitude at which alpha one would cross the for­tieth parallel, heading north. More detailed information was available to Moonwatch teams so that they would know when to be at their telescopes to make observations.

One of the Springfield Moonwatchers was a teenager named Roger Harvey. On the evening of October 4, he was driving his father’s 1953 Ford back from Maryland, where he had picked up a mirror for a ten-inch telescope that he was building for a friend. He was listening to the radio. When he heard about the Russian satellite, he was exhilarated. Someone had really done it—sent a satellite into space. Now, he thought, we’ll see some action.

When President Eisenhower had announced that the United States would launch a satellite, Harvey and his fellow amateur astronomers had wondered what it would mean to them. They’d decided that they would establish an observing station on land owned by the president of their local astronomy club, Bob Dellar. Nowadays Springfield is part of the seemingly endless conurbation of Washington D. C. and northern Virginia. Then it was rural and had a beautifully dark sky for observing.

The group had modeled the layout of their observing station on one that they’d seen in Bethesda, Maryland. One weekend, they’d arranged the observing positions in a single straight line, extending on either side of a fourteen-foot high, T-shaped structure. Harvey thought that the T, which was made out of plumber’s pipe, looked like half of a wash-line support for the Jolly Green Giant. The six-foot crossbar was aligned with the merid­ian, with the north-south line immediately overhead. A light shone pre­cisely where the T crossed the upright. Like most of the Moonwatchers, they’d made their own telescopes, each of which had a 12-in. field of view. The fields of view overlapped one another by fifty per cent, so that it wouldn’t matter if one observer fell asleep or missed something.

If one of the team was lucky enough to see the satellite, he would hit a buzzer and call out the number of his observing station at the moment when the satellite crossed the meridian pole. Bob Dellar would have his double-headed recorder switched on. One channel would be recording the national time signal from a shortwave radio, while the other channel would record their buzzers and numbers. The T would determine the meridian; they knew their latitude and longitude; the double-headed tape would have recorded the time of the observation accurately; and they could work out the satellite’s elevation to within half a degree by measur­ing the distance between the central light and the point where the satellite crossed the meridian. Thus they would have elevation for a specific time and place. When they made an observation, Dellar would call the operator, speak the single word, Cambridge, and be put through to the observatory. After that it would be up to the professionals.

There had been dry runs. The Air Force had flown a plane overhead at roughly the right altitude and speed to simulate the satellite’s passage. The aircraft had trailed a stiff line with a light on the end. It was important that the Moonwatchers not see the light too soon, so the Air Force had taken the rubber cup from a bathroom plunger, threaded a loop through it to attach to the line to the aircraft, and put a small light and battery in the plunger. The practices had worked well. The plane had flown over with its navigation lights out, which, while strictly illegal, was necessary.

When Harvey got home, he was anxious to hear from Dellar. The arrangement was that the observatory would call team leaders with pre­dicted times that the satellite would cross the equator. Dellar would work out at what time the Moonwatchers needed to be at their telescopes. Of course, it would be a little different now, because it wasn’t their satellite and the observatory might not have good predictions. All the same, Har­vey was ready when Dellar called the next morning. For the next few weeks, Harvey lived at a high pitch of excitement. He felt himself part of history. Even the police seemed to be on his side. When he was stopped for speeding, he told the officer he was a Moonwatcher, and he was sent on his way without a ticket. The Springfield Moonwatchers felt great cama­raderie, and no one pulled rank. On cloudy nights, they would swear at the sky on the principle that if they generated enough heat, they would dissi­pate the clouds.

On the other side of the continent, in China Lake, California, the skies were much clearer and very, very dark—ideal for observing. Florence Hazeltine, a teenage girl, who was later to become one of the first doctors in the United States to use in vitro fertilization techniques, would bundle up against the cold and ride out on her bike to answer the same calls that drew Harvey to Dellar’s house. Like Harvey, she was buoyed by her sense of being part of history.

In Philadelphia, sixteen-year-old Henry Fliegel reported to the roof of the Franklin Institute. He wrote in his observing notes:

“On October 15, I saw with all the other members of the station a starlike object move across the sky from the vicinity of the pole star across Ursa Major to Western Leo. It attained a magnitude of at least zero when in Ursa Major, but then rapidly faded and finally became too dim to see when still considerably above the horizon, disappearing very near the star Omicron Leonis.”

The Philadelphia Moonwatchers had seen Sputnik’s rocket. When the news hit the papers, sightseers and reporters turned up and sat at the telescopes, sometimes taking the telescopes out of their sockets as soon as anything appeared.

Elsewhere, the initial confusion was beginning to sort itself out. By the fifteenth, the first precision camera was nearly ready to begin opera­tion. Moonwatchers deluged Cambridge with news of sightings. These were of the rocket, but it didn’t matter. It was a body in orbit and the teams were honing their skills. Engineers were ironing out the inevitable wrinkles of the Minitrack system.

The space age was underway.