Category Something New Under the Sun

The Space Age

All of us living beings belong together.

—Erwin Schrodinger


hat does the space age offer, and what might it yet be? Perhaps it is no more than an age in which new tools and weapons expand our knowledge and ability to trade and fight wars. A glorified Stone, Bronze, or Iron Age, during which our usual activities will be different only in that they extend beyond Earths atmosphere. Or is the space age essentially dif­ferent; was the launch of Sputnik I the turning point Tsiolkovsky predicted when he wrote of mankind leaving the earth in pursuit of light and space? Not Russians, Chinese, Frenchmen, or Americans, but mankind, building cities together in space, as he advocated in his science fiction book Beyond the Earth.

Space clearly has defense and commercial implications. On the other hand, the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe, and Japan are joindy planning an international space station. The beginning of Tsiolkovsky s vision? Perhaps.

From the beginning, the space age has been home to a well-known threesome: science, human exploration (of which the international space station is the most recent example), and the application of science to mili­tary and commercial technologies for Earth. One might expect that the first two, science and exploration, would be the aspects of the space age that would lead toward Tsiolkovsky s vision of a unified humanity. But maybe space science and exploration are not so different in the ways that they can influence our outlook than are science and engineering in other arenas of endeavor—the international effort to map the human genome, for example, or all of the exploration that humanity has undertaken to date. Perhaps in the end it will be the third, at first glance the least different and least glamorous aspect of the space age, that will contribute most to an alternative outlook on the world.

Both space science and exploration have caught our attention with the vastness of their aspiration. Pioneers 10 and 11, the first spacecraft to be sent to study the outer planets, have done their job. Pioneer 10 is now rac­ing down the sun’s magnetotail, heading for the interstellar medium and away from the galactic center. Pioneer 11 is heading for the interstellar
medium with the galactic center lying beyond. (William Pickering and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, incidentally, contributed significantly to these early successes of NASA.) The whole was grandly conceived and has since been surpassed by spacecraft with even grander ambitions.

The Pioneers each carry plaques with drawings of a man and a woman, showing their size with respect to the spacecraft. There is a draw­ing of a hydrogen atom (intended to show our familiarity with the most abundant gas in the universe, but also—unintentionally—a symbol of one of our more devastating weapons). Two other drawings give the space­crafts path through the solar system from Earth and show our sun’s posi­tion relative to fourteen pulsars—messages launched from a remote island in space to unknown recipients who may never receive them and, if they do, may not understand them. The urge is familiar, as is the spirit of that blithe inclusion of a return address and the need to believe that the addressees, if they are in a position to respond, are essentially benevolent.

What might that expectation of benevolence be based on? Humility in the face of eternity? “Eternity… like a great ring of pure and endless light”; the awe expressed in Henry Vaughan’s lines written three centuries ago appeared on the faces of the mission controllers in Houston as they gazed at the pictures that the Apollo spacecraft had relayed to Earth of Earth.

Here was form for a poetic metaphor. Yet the view of Earth against the blackness was so spectacular that it has itself become a metaphor.

Science and exploration cannot sustain poetic awe in this or any other age, for all their glamor and beauty.

So what does the application of space technology to solving earth – bound concerns have to offer? When men looked to Earth (women were, for the most part, still waiting in the wings in 1957) and asked what value the space age might have, they thought about tasks they had thought about for millennia: among others, navigation, weather forecasting, and commu­nication—enterprises that in the tradition of previous ages improve the quality of life and facilitate warfare. The hilltop fire flashes news of a battle or of the birth of a child. The general and the farmer have always wanted the weather forecast. Both the master of a merchantman and the captain of a nuclear submarine benefit from better navigational aids.

Of the men and few women who did these things, some were more brilliant than others. Some worked with passionate belief or fascination, others to pay the mortgage. Some had an eye to the main chance, aware that there was money to be made, reputations to be built. Most, doubtless, reconciled more purposes than one. Nor is it possible to say who held what motives in what proportion. At the best of times, the motives of oth­ers are difficult to discern and classify. Across time, in a different world, the task is almost impossible. Certainly those in America believed in the importance of their work to the welfare of the United States of America.

The world of 1957 gave good cause for such an outlook. When James Reston interviewed Nikita Khrushchev for the New York Times after the launch of Sputnik, Khrushchev’s speech was littered in all seriousness with descriptions of Westerners as reactionary bourgeois and imperialist warmongers. The background noise included Korea, the Suez crisis, the Hungarian revolution, hydrogen bombs, and advertisements for nuclear shelters in suburban backyards. The searing images then were of the Holo­caust and of atrocities in China.

The memory to be lived with and the crucible that formed the par­ticipants and in which relationships were forged, was the Second World War. Nearly every nation on Earth was involved. Pearl Harbor had been an unimaginable shock to the American psyche, and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were known but not fully realized. Some Ameri­cans saw those atomic bombings mainly as a reprieve from witnessing fur­ther horrors in the Pacific.

Against this background, when Vietnam, with its legacy of doubt was a thing of the future, America developed a determination to keep the peace through military and economic strength. In defense laboratories, university departments, and industry, scientists and engineers developed satellites that would improve navigation, weather forecasting, and communication. Each now has its place in everyday civilian life as well as in defense.

The military application of providing more accurate positioning for nuclear submarines was the impetus behind the development of navigation satellites. Today, there are more civilian than military users of space-based navigation. This trend began with Transit, the long-lived first generation of navigation satellites. A similar duality exists in the history of communica­tion and weather satellites. Ostensibly, commercial and military applica­tions were developed separately, but the scientists and engineers working on civilian satellites often worked on military projects as well. There was an inevitable cross-fertilization of ideas.

These satellites, pointing to the earth, were truly earthbound in their conception and inception. They were rooted deeply and consciously in defense and commerce and the competition of nations—no transcending idea of mankind in pursuit of light and space. Yet unexpectedly, and in practical ways, these technologies are building from the messy foundations of confused human motives a picture of the earth and its inhabitants that is harder to dismiss in daily life than are the inspirational views revealed by Apollo. Wonderful though that inspiration is, the mundane application satellites are beginning—only beginning—to encourage a practical appre­ciation of one Earth.

The hurricane that devastates the eastern seaboard of the United States begins as an innocuous atmospheric disturbance over Africa. Navi­gation satellites can be used worldwide. Satellites make communication possible with places landlocked among political enemies (as in some African countries) or from war and disaster zones that we might otherwise be able to ignore. Faced by the reality of global physical phenomena as revealed by the unique bird’s-eye view of satellites, international organiza­tions have sprung up to manage satellites. At the height of the Cold War, ideological enemies cooperated with varying degrees of amity within groups like the International Telecommunication Satellite Organization and the World Meteorological Organization.

Thus these inward-looking satellites offer more than we have yet realized. They are for the first time, and in a very practical sense, a technol­ogy that can be fully realized only by considering the earth as an intercon­nected whole. On October 4, 1957, the first step was taken. Later, as the technology of navigation, weather, and communication satellites evolved, it became clear that the greatest gains or advances in knowledge would come from a holistic view of the world. Of course, the knowledge gained can still serve confrontational purposes. Yet, irrespective of our motives, we see that the nature of the technology itself urges cooperation rather than confrontation. Cooperation might become a habit that sustains the promise inherent in Apollo’s luminous images of a blue-green earth.



4 4 Л /e had from our first presentation improved the control system У У quite a lot and we continued to improve it over the years. We got it down to two thrusters; then we started to work on the precession capabilities of one thruster. I had at first thought it would take four, but Don had come back very quickly with a major improvement. We had four for redundancy, but we still could precess it with one jet. NASA was skep­tical about the single-pulse thruster.” Thus Rosen thirty years later.

NASA, which had some contact with Hughes in February 1960, was skeptical about considerably more than the single-pulse thruster. Rosen had proposed that the inexpensive Scout rocket, which Richard Kershner also favored for Transit, should launch the twenty-four-hour satellite. In the same month that Hyland authorized an in-house program, NASA’s Langley Research Center completed an analysis of the Scout rocket, and concluded that it could not place a twenty-five-pound satellite (the Rosen-Williams satellite had now grown from twenty pounds and would put on more weight, but not as much as Advent) in a twenty-four-hour orbit. Nor could any other launch vehicle.

But Puckett and Hyland were now supportive. Puckett coordinated the marketing, keeping Hyland informed of his progress. There were approaches to GTE (a common carrier) and CBS, attempting to promote interest in the idea of a communications satellite, and to E. G. Witting, the director of research and development in the Department of the Army.

On April 1, 1960, Puckett briefed Herb York, formerly the head of the Advanced Projects Research Agency, now the director of defense research and engineering, and John Rubel’s boss.

In May, the month that the first attempt to launch Echo failed, Williams was immersed in dynamic analyses of the satellite. Rosen was preparing another proposal, specifying Thor-Delta, which had a greater lift capability than Scout, as the launch vehicle. Hughes sent an unsolicited copy of the revised proposal to NASA on June 15, 1960. NASA, however, was confined to work on passive satellites at the time by its agreement with the Department of Defense.

In July, AT&T disclosed its $170 million plan for a constellation of fifty medium-altitude satellites and argued that the Federal Communica­tions Commission should reserve frequencies for satellite communication. Williams was as usual preoccupied with engineering, this time concentrat­ing on calculations of moments of inertia. Hughes made a presentation soliciting support to the space science panel of the president’s science advi­sory committee. They received a polite letter of thanks, but no encourage­ment.

In the meantime, Hughes’ man in Washington had also been busy. He knew one of Vice President Nixon’s bodyguards, and the vice president, said Rosen, owed the bodyguard a favor. He arranged for Hughes to make a presentation to the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who told them that they looked like nice people—surely they didn’t want to get mixed up with politics. They did, however, get a meeting with NASA administrator T. Keith Glennan out of the encounter. “So you can see,” said Rosen, “we were grasping at straws.”

In August, the policy confining NASA to work on passive commu­nications satellites was formally abandoned. Within days, John Pierce and senior AT&T executives briefed NASA on Bell’s experimental active satel­lite plans. On the same day, Hughes executives, by now contemplating a joint venture, had another meeting with GTE.

A few days later Puckett, in the meeting that resulted from the encounter with Hall of the Republican National Committee, briefed the NASA administrator T. Keith Glennan. Glennan said that Puckett was talking through his hat and recommended that Hughes work on medium – altitude satellites.

Glennan’s comment must be judged in context. NASA’s Langley Research Center concluded that the Hughes proposal was marginal, and the new agreement with the Defense Department, signed only days earlier, would soon preclude NASA from involvement in communications satel­lites in twenty-four-hour orbits.

Despite Glennan’s negativity, NASA’s head of communication satel­lites, Leonard Jaffe visited Hughes on September 1. To Samuel Lutz, it looked as though Rosen and the supporters of a twenty-four-hour satellite now thought that they had a NASA contract in the bag. If they did, they either did not know some important things, for example the agreement between NASA and the Defense Department, or there was a high degree of wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, Puckett was hearing negative views from colleagues within the company. Critical memos reached him saying that Hughes was presenting a fragmentary approach to potential military customers and that the best role for Hughes was as a supplier to AT&T. On the other side of the country, at AT&T’s corporate headquarters in New York, the issue of the Hughes repeater surfaced at a meeting of Bell’s engineers on Sep­tember 1, 1960. A report of the meeting says “Hughes is supposed to have an ingenious twenty-pound repeater (TV bandwidth is claimed).” Those at the meeting agreed that if the repeater was any good, Bell should try to obtain it for trial.

The supporters of the twenty-four-hour satellite within Hughes continued to try to involve GTE, and GTE’s technical staff spent four days at Hughes in early September. They made no commitments, but Rosen sensed that GTE would join Hughes. At Hyland’s request, Hughes briefed the RAND Corporation. Puckett warned his people to say nothing about the discussions with GTE. And later that September, John Rubel, who had worked at Hughes before moving to the Office of the Director of Research and Engineering in May 1959, visited his old workplace. Puckett had already briefed Herb York about the Hughes twenty-four-hour satel­lite in April, and presumably, Rubel now learned more.

On October 2, in a meeting that must have been full of tension, Rosen, Williams, and Hudspeth briefed the engineers at Bell. Among those present were John Pierce and Leroy Tillotson. As Pierce listened he became convinced that Rosen was a wild-eyed dreamer, willing to say anything to sell his satellite.

Shortly afterwards, Witting, the Army’s R&D director, wrote to Hughes. He was unapologetically dismissive of the Hughes proposal and fluent in his condemnation of the weaknesses of many of the satellite’s sys­tems. Rosen was infuriated. He called Witting and wrote a deeply sarcastic letter, pointing out the errors in Witting’s evaluation. Just under a year later, Witting’s successor would respond to this letter, reaffirming every­thing that Witting had said. It was written on the day that NASA, sup­ported by the Department of Defense, placed a sole-source contract with Hughes for a twenty-four-hour satellite.

In November 1960, Puckett, Rosen, and Williams briefed ITT, Gen­eral Bernard Schriever, the British military, and Stanford Research Labora­tory. At the Cosmos Club in Washington D. C., Puckett talked enthusiasti­cally of the proposal to Lee DuBridge, the president of Caltech. But, despite the flurry of technical and marketing activities; the optimism and confidence of Rosen, Williams, and Hudspeth; and the support of Hyland and Puckett, the Hughes Aircraft Company was by the end of the year no further for­ward. No one wanted their satellite. GTE had made no more moves towards a joint venture. By the next spring, GTE would be in partnership with RCA and Lockheed, and that group would be proposing its own ideas for satellites in a twenty-four-hour orbit. Hughes had no contract, nor any likelihood of a contract, with NASA, which was bound by its agreement with the Defense Department not to develop twenty-four-hour satellites. The Army had rejected them, and in such a comprehensively dismissive way that there could be no hope remaining from that quarter. The Air Force said that the proposal was marginal and overoptimistic with regard to payload capability. These two branches of the military were engaged in one of their frequent skirmishes, with control of the development of communications satellites the disputed territory. Rosen’s proposal would not have been welcome.

Rather desperately, or so it seemed to some within the company, Hughes announced late in 1960 that it had an off-the-shelf satellite for sale. During the three months at the beginning of 1960 when Hyland had had the project on ice, Rosen, Williams, and Hudspeth had continued their work. Hudspeth had worked on breadboards for the electronics, while Rosen and Williams refined the mechanical structure and ideas about the satellite’s control mechanism. As soon as Hyland had given the go-ahead, they’d put together a little project lab and started making things. In May, Hughes had begun construction, and by the fall, they’d demonstrated the control mechanism in the lab and had tested the satellite’s ability to trans­mit television signals. Thus, with their ideas embodied in hardware, they sought a wider audience. They demonstrated the satellite in December at a meeting of the American Rocket Society.

During the winter of 1960 — 61, very few people were working on the satellite. Bob Roney wrote to Puckett seeking assurances that there would be money in the coming year for further development. Puckett, however, was under pressure to switch the Hughes effort to medium-altitude satellites and to bid in the forthcoming NASA competition for Project Relay. NASA put out its request for proposals in January, and with the same reluctance that characterized AT&T’s response, Hughes prepared to compete. Rosen and Williams remained aloof.

Yet the tide of their fortunes was changing, had probably been chang­ing all through that dismal Christmas in a way that is discernable only with hindsight. Between October 1960 and March 1961, three Centaurs blew up, which set back the Centaur development schedule and thus the sched­ule for Advent, the Army’s twenty-four-hour satellite. There were several downward revisions of the amount of payload that Centaur could lift, yet Advent was getting heavier. John Rubel, of DDR&D, was unhappy about these things and knew that the Department of Defense needed improved communications. Rubel had also visited Hughes in September 1960, and must have learned more about the twenty-four-hour satellite, and he respected Harold Rosen’s work. Together these events and Rubel’s attitude must have influenced circumstances in favor of the Hughes satellite.

An early indication of the changing tide came when Rosen was asked to brief the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) on January 11, 1961, about the Hughes twenty-four-hour satellite. The IDA was evaluat­ing communications satellites for the Office of the Director of Research Engineering. Rosen’s report of the meeting, written the next day, records that the IDA made generally favorable remarks about his presentation and was critical of Advent. He wrote that one panel member had said that pro­gram managers apparently placed more faith in the development of the Centaur rocket than of a traveling wave tube, and that the panel member did not consider the attitude justified.

This comment alluded to the reservations some felt about John Mendel’s prospects of successfully developing his lightweight traveling wave tube. In February, Rosen, in response to questions for Rubel, sent a telegram saying that the traveling wave tube had been chosen because of its superior performance. He cited publications by Bell and comments from John Pierce to bolster his case. If there were to be problems with the tube, Rosen wrote, it could be replaced with a triode even though the satellite would then operate at reduced power and bandwidth.

In California, Williams was preoccupied by the recently discovered tri-axiality of the Earth and its influence on the motion of satellites in geosynchronous orbit. During that same February, Hughes executives were discussing what the company should do if it did not win the Project Relay competition. And Samuel Lutz, at Puckett’s request, was again reviewing the twenty-four-hour satellite. This time Lutz was much more negative. The satellite, Lutz wrote, had not shown “the high degree of engineering conservatism which would give it sales appeal to the common carrier.” Competitors, he pointed out, offered satellites with a longer life for very little extra delay in development. Lutz recommended that no effort be spared to win the NASA competition for Relay. If successful, the company would save face and recover some of its half-million investment. Lutz’s report clearly shows that he was intimidated by AT&T’s monopoly position, by its financial resources, and by the technical resources of Bell. “Do we,” he asked, “want a future in this field badly enough to make the effort it will require?”

Even as the words clattered out of his typewriter, the moves were being made that would set the Hughes Aircraft Company on its path to Syncom, Early Bird and a preeminent position among satellite manufactur­ers. The hard work of balancing out on a limb had, though they did not know it, been done.

At the end of March 1961, Hughes made a presentation to Rubel in Washington. For the next few months Puckett and other Hughes execu­tives would hang on Rubel’s every word. If they talked with him over din­ner or at a meeting, a memo was circulated, reporting either what was said or what they read between the lines.

Puckett had learned from Rubel that the administration was con­cerned that the country was not moving quickly enough toward a com­munications satellite capable of either military or commercial operation. The current plans, Rubel had told Puckett, were for a system that was “a long way downstream” as well as “very expensive,” and it would be appro­priate to seek an interim system. Puckett had asked what Hughes could do, and Rubel had replied that the Department of Defense had received proposals in varying degrees of formality, but had no reasonable means of choosing among them. Hughes, he said, could perhaps produce a white paper providing a historical and technical context for a decision.

On May 8, Puckett sent Rubel a letter, making no reference to their previous discussion. In it Puckett wrote that Hughes had prepared a special research study dealing with various aspects of the military communication problem. The study’s purpose, he wrote, was to examine the possible value of a lightweight spacecraft as an interim communications satellite. Puckett offered to submit a full proposal “if you believe this deserves continued consideration.” Hughes was at this stage close to having completed the pro­posal mentioned, and Puckett already knew from C. Gordon Murphy what would be an acceptable date for submission of the proposal to DDR&D.

It seems that the contents of these discussions did not filter down to Williams, who on May 11 wrote a long, critical memo to Hyland. It began, “You are aware of my bullish outlook regarding commercial com­munication satellites and my confidence in the Hughes stationary satellite concept. For the past several months, I have been concerned that Hughes is letting its technical advantage slip away for political reasons…He wrote persuasively and at length, but his views were at odds with company policy because he still hoped that Hughes would undertake the project without government involvement.

In Washington events moved apace. The policy debate provoked by monopoly considerations and by Berkner’s assertion that communication satellites would be a billion dollar business was well underway, and a decision had been taken that Advent would continue. But Hughes’s star was still rising.

On June 6, 1961, events had reached a stage allowing Jaffe to recom­mend that NASA negotiate with Hughes to develop a twenty-four-hour satellite. Jaffe thought there was no doubt as to the ultimate desirability of twenty-four-hour satellites even though he remained convinced they would not be operational for years.

Given the division of labor that NASA and the Defense Department had agreed to, this recommendation was possible only because Rubel, along with Robert Seamans, NASA’s associate administrator, was plotting the agreement’s abolition. Seamans viewed the idea of an operational com­munications system based on tens of medium-altitude satellites as imprac – tical. Where, he had asked Bell, do you propose to get all your computers from? Rubel, of course, knew that the Defense Department needed an interim satellite to provide some cover during the solar minimum, but he judged that the time was not right for canceling Advent. If, however, the agreement between NASA and Defense could be set aside, NASA could place a contract with Hughes to explore the alternative technology of a lightweight twenty-four-hour satellite.

On June 17, Rubel was holding discussions with NASA. Another senior Hughes executive, A. S.Jerrems, happened to be in Washington that weekend, and he met Rubel in the evening. Jerrems wrote to Puckett, “He was inscrutable about the detailed content of the meeting, but he made a statement to the effect that, in his opinion, HAC’s [Hughes Aircraft Com­pany] proposal for getting a geosynchronous satellite funded are better now than they have ever been.”

On June 21 the odds in favor of Hughes improved again. The Institute for Defense Analysis met to discuss the merits of an experiment with a light­weight satellite. The IDA concluded that if the country decided to have only one program in active satellites in addition to Advent, then that program


Thomas Hudspeth (left) and Dr. Harold A. Rosen stand atop the Eiffel Tower during the Paris Air Show of 1962. Between them is the prototype Syncom satellite which they and Dr. Donald D. Williams fought so hard for.

should be for medium-altitude satellites. Further, they said that an experiment with lightweight satellites should not interfere with Advent (the Army) or Project Westford (ne Needles—the Air Force), nor should it affect the deter­mination to pursue medium-altitude satellites. Having saved everyone’s face, the panel said that the experiment with a lightweight active repeater was


Harold A. Rosen (right foreground) and Thomas Hudspeth hold the prototype of Syncom, the world’s first synchronous orbit satellite. Behind them is IntelsatVI, a later generation of communication satellite. The tiny Syncom would fit in one of the fuel tanks which Dr. Rosen is pointing toward.

unique and should be undertaken. Two days later, the deputy secretary of defense, Roswell Gilpatrick, wrote to James Webb effectively releasing NASA from its tacit agreement not to work on active satellites in geostationary orbit.

There was still much for the administrators to do, but the Hughes twenty-four-hour satellite was now secure. On July 27, Abe Silverstein,

NASA’s director of spaceflight programs, told Goddard to put together a preliminary project plan for Hughes that was to be prepared with the Army’s Advent Management Agency. On August 11, NASA announced that the Hughes Aircraft Company had been chosen on a sole-source basis to build a twenty-four-hour satellite. Goddard decided that the satellite should be called Syncom (for synchronous communication). The first launch attempt failed. Somehow, it seems almost obligatory that it should have done so. It was a black day for Harold Rosen—elation followed by despair. The second attempt, on July 26, 1963, succeeded. It was launched into a “quasi-geostationary” orbit, which was easier to reach than a true geostationary orbit: it was at geosynchronous altitude but was not coplanar with the equator. Still, Syncom proved that communication was possible via a radio relay at geosynchronous altitude. It had just one voice channel. But together with Syncoms II and III, it demonstrated the technology and led to the selection of one of Harold’s spinners as Early Bird, which opened the still unfolding era of global telecommunications.

But all of you have lived through the last four years and have seen the significance of space and the adventure of space, and no one can predict with certainty what the ultimate meaning will be—

—John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961

Chapter twelve: A Time of Turbulence

The promise of satellites for weather prediction was intuitively obvious to a few engineers and scientists in the 1950s (page 130). See RAND publi­cations itemized under chapter thirteen.

Harry Wexler’s extensive work in promoting Verner Suomi’s experiments to the IGY and in the early days of satellite meteorology (page 131) is obvious from the minutes of the IGY’s TPESP, from Wexler’s letters to Verner Suomi, from his role as a consultant for Suomi’s and Parent’s radia­tion balance experiment (shown by TPESP minutes), and from minutes of the National Research Council’s Committee on Meteorological Aspects of Satellites in the immediate post-Sputnik days. Wexler died at the age of 50 in 1962.

Sig Fritz’s role in the early days (page 131), including his assignment of a broom cupboard for an office, is expounded on in Margaret Courain’s Ph. D. thesis, Technology Reconciliation in the Remote Sensing Era of US Civil­ian Weather Forecasting, Rutgers University (1991).

Dave Johnson’s participation in both the civilian and defense weather satellite programs is well known among satellite meteorologists (page 131). An unsigned letter to Dave Johnson dated July 29, 1991, which being from Wisconsin must be from either Thomas Haig or Verner Suomi, says, “Delighted to hear that you are about to set the record straight and tell the whole truth about the early met sat days. I’m espe­cially glad that you are the one who is going to do it, because you are really the only one who knew both the civilian and the military programs from the beginning.”

The writer puts his finger on the difficulty with writing about the early meteorological satellite days and makes the case for declassification, saying, “I have no clear idea what is still considered to be classified, and I can’t imagine why any of the old program history should still be under wraps except perhaps to hide some old CIA—AF feuding that no-one is interested in anyway.”

Information about numerical weather prediction (pages 135 and 136) came from my interviews with Joseph Smagorinsky, director of the Geo­physical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey, from 1970 to 1983. Smagorinsky has been involved in meteorology since his days with the Army Air Corps. He joined the meteorology group of the Insti­tute of Advanced Studies in Princeton in 1950. The group made its first numerical weather predictions on the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC);

The beginning of Numerical Weather Prediction, by Joseph Smagorinsky, in Advances in Geophysics 25, p. 3 (1983);

John von Neumann, by Norman Macrae, Pantheon Books (1992).

A variety of publications about the Global Atmosphere Research program (pages 132 and 133) are to be found in the library of the National Acad­emy of Sciences. One, published by the International Council of Scien­tific Unions and the World Meteorological Organization, provides an introduction to the program. It is No. 1 in the GARP Publication series.

Further, less formal, information about the potential role of satellites in the GARP is to be found in a presentation Verner Suomi made to a sym­posium in October 1969 (the paper doesn’t say which symposium, or where). The paper demonstrates Suomi’s abilities as a salesman for satellite meteorology.

Polaris and Transit

I don’t want any damn fool in this laboratory to save money, I only want him to save time. The final result is the only thing that counts, and the criterion is, does it work?

—Merle Tuve, speaking of the development of the proximity fuse as quoted by J. C. Boyce in New Weapons for Air Warfare.


hough Sputnik I was a shock to America, it also furnished the United States with the means to develop a technique that allowed the Polaris submarines to aim their nuclear missiles at Soviet cities with greater accu­racy.

This is not what two junior physicists, Bill Guier and George Weif – fenbach, thought they would be doing when they went to their jobs at the Applied Physics Laboratory on the Monday after Sputnik was launched. They tuned into the satellite’s signal out of an interest more akin to Roger Harvey’s and Florence Hazeltine’s than to Fred Whipple’s or Bill Picker­ing’s. They had no research aims in mind.

Within days their attitudes changed as they tried to characterize the satellite’s orbit as precisely as possible.

Guier and Weiffenbach were among many scientists worldwide who were attempting to determine Sputnik’s orbit. All but Guier and Weiffen – bach calculated the orbit on the traditional basis of finding angles to the orbiting body. The Moonwatchers recorded what they saw through their telescopes; Minitrack allowed angular measurements to be calculated from radio interferometry; and the radar dish at Jodrell bank, which would nor­mally have been trained on radio sources in the galaxy, swiveled to keep the satellite in its focus, thus giving direct angular measurements.

By contrast, Guier and Weiffenbach recorded the way that the radio frequency of the satellite’s transmitter appeared to change as it passed within range of the lab (the Doppler shift). Pickering’s committee at the IGY had considered and dismissed the possibility of calculating orbits from Doppler data, concluding that the results would not be accurate enough. Given the techniques of data analysis the IGY committee envisaged, this conclusion was correct. However, Guier and Weiffenbach were to develop an alternative interpretation of the Doppler data, one that was subtle and that relied heavily on new computational and statistical methods.

Those who break with tradition or with accepted modes of practice often provoke hostility, and Guier and Weiffenbach were no exception. Their methods were ridiculed twice: first when they calculated an orbit for Sputnik, and then when their method served as the basis for unraveling some of the secrets of the earth’s gravitational field.

Fortunately for them, not everyone was skeptical. Among those impressed by their work was their boss, Frank “Mack” McClure, who saw how their methods could provide the basis of a satellite navigational sys­tem that would serve the Polaris submarines. That system—Transit—also became the first civilian global satellite navigational system.

Before Transit, the only system of navigation effective worldwide was the one that had been available to Odysseus when he escaped from Calypso and “used his seamanship to keep his boat straight with the steer­ing oar.” Odysseus navigated by the stars, keeping the Great Bear to his left and his “sleepless eyes” on the Pleiades.

During the next three thousand years, with the introduction of increasingly sophisticated mathematics, nautical almanacs, accurate clocks, compasses, and instruments to measure angles to the sun, moon, stars, and planets, celestial navigation grew in sophistication and precision. By 1975, when William Craft (who later became a commander and the director of seamanship and navigation at the U. S. Naval Academy in Annapolis) took sightings from the deck of his cruiser, he could determine with a high probability that his ship was within a given circle of radius two nautical miles. By then, says Craft, the practitioners of celestial navigation had become high priests of a secret sect, performing their rites at dawn, noon, and dusk. Though Craft’s methods were more elaborate than those of Homer’s description, the idea was the same as that which guided Odysseus home—to navigate by the stars.

If Homer had written his epic five hundred years later than he did, Odysseus would have known to calculate his north-south direction from readings of the sun’s altitude at noon. Two hundred years after that, by the second century B. C., Homer could, with some loss of poetry, have de­scribed Odysseus’s journey in terms of latitude and longitude, the system then suggested by Hipparchus for defining position on the earth’s surface. However, like mariners of later centuries, Odysseus would have been very unsure of his position when clouds obscured the skies.

Dead reckoning would have helped, particularly in the Mediter­ranean, where currents are light. Knowing the point of departure, the ship’s initial speed (estimated) and heading, mariners learned from the sixteenth century onwards to calculate a new position relative to their starting point. They estimated (by eye) the effects of wind and current. By repeating the process for every tack, that is, by adding velocities (the speed and direction of every tack), and plotting them on paper, they navigated to their destina­tion, making estimated course corrections as they went. Much easier in the description than in practice.

As the journey progresses, the errors add up. If you are wrong in your first estimate of speed and position, clearly you will be even more wrong after the next tack. You might, of course, be lucky and have the errors can­cel one another. But how would you know? In clear weather on calm seas, one of the high priests of celestial navigation could check the position estimated by dead reckoning against a position fixed with reference to the stars. By the 1950s, sextants fitted with infrared filters permitted readings through light cloud cover of the sun’s position at noon. Nevertheless, sightings were not always possible. Navigators have stories of many days passing during which they could not get a celestial fix. In that time dead reckoning could lead a ship far off course, making steering an optimum course across the oceans difficult and adding danger and cost to the journey.

In the second half of the twentieth century, radar improved naviga­tion in coastal waters. Since the early 1980s, a system known as Omega has provided worldwide accuracies akin to those of celestial navigation, if one knows one’s position roughly to start with. But in 1957, when out of range of coastal radar, navigation still came down to dead reckoning and celestial navigation. Not a good system if for some reason you need to know your position as accurately as possible at any time of the day or night, fair weather or foul.

Yet an accurate position fix was exactly what the Polaris submarines would need should the order come to fire, and it was exactly what the submarines did not have. Thus the Polaris development, as a select few members of senior staff at the Applied Physics Laboratory knew, was vul­nerable to critics both within the Navy and in other branches of the armed services.

Polaris carried intermediate-range ballistic missiles, capable of travel­ling 1,200 to 1,500 miles, and was part of the U. S.’s strategic triad of land – based and submarine missiles and long-range bombers. The submarines were deployed in the Arctic and were intended to deter the Soviet Union from launching its own nuclear missiles, the idea being that the United States would always have the capacity for massive retaliation, thus nullify­ing the traditional military benefits of a surprise attack. Amidst widespread and intended publicity, consistent with the Eisenhower administrations “New Look” strategy, the first Polaris missile was fired from the USS George Washington in July I960.[7]

To achieve its aim, the Navy (specifically, the Special Projects Office of the Navy, later Strategic Systems Projects Office) needed to be certain that its missiles would land within a particular radial distance of the target.

The missiles followed ballistic trajectories. Like bullets from a gun, they were carried to their destination by momentum and gravity. Slight course corrections were possible during the ascent while the solid rockets fired, but these corrections were like those needed to steer down a partic­ular road; they did not permit you to change roads. Accurate positioning and targeting were crucial for getting on the right road.

Although the submarines needed an accurate reckoning of their position, their strength was (and is) in their stealth, constantly moving underwater, prepared to fire at any time and to move away. As long as they remain underwater they are virtually undetectable, and their nuclear fuel permits them to stay submerged without refueling for many months. A force of such submarines is practically invulnerable to a first strike. In this scheme of things, sitting on the surface taking a position fix from the Sun, Moon and stars was not an option.

The Special Project Office’s initial solution was that Polaris would carry what was then the comparatively new technology of inertial naviga­tion systems. These, effectively, are automated dead reckoners. They were originally mechanical and are now electronic. They compute from mea­sured accelerations the actual course of a ship, submarine, or missile. They do not refer to anything outside themselves but measure the accelerations experienced in each of three dimensions on the parts they are constructed from. As such, if the errors can be kept to a minimum, they are ideal for submarines, which may be out of port for some time and rarely surface.

Like dead reckoning, though, inertial navigators accumulate errors. It is difficult to say what those early errors were in Polaris because the target­ing and positioning errors of the system are still classified, even though the American Polaris submarines came out of service in the mid 1970s (the last of the British Polaris submarines was decommissioned in 1996). The errors were probably less than those of an inertial navigator on a surface ship, where waves would add to the measured accelerations.

Some of an inertial navigation system’s errors were a consequence of the difficulty of manufacturing the mechanical versions with sufficient precision. However, within the Polaris program, anything that money and expertise could have done to improve manufacturing techniques would have been done or attempted, because Polaris (and by extension Transit) carried the naval designation “Brickbat-01,” signifying that the project had a high procurement priority. If a computer was waiting to be shipped to someone else and a Brickbat-01 project needed it, the Brickbat-01 project got the computer.

Nevertheless, the accuracy of the inertial navigation system was not good enough. In one day, they accumulated errors that were far greater than those specified for Polaris’s positioning accuracy. Since the sub­marines were on station for months at a time, this was a problem. What was needed was an external reference system that minimized the sub­marines’ exposure; something that would correct inertial guidance errors in the same way that a celestial fix corrects errors in dead reckoning. Such a system was the raison d’etre for the Transit satellites and was made possi­ble by the techniques developed by Guier and Weiffenbach.

Transit was important to the Department of Defense for two reasons: first, for navigation; second, because the satellite orbits revealed details of the earth’s gravitational field and thus the shape and structure of the earth and the relative positions between geographic locations. It was this second aspect of the Transit program that led at times to a high security classifica­tion. By learning about the gravitational field, military planners knew both the position of Moscow, say, with greater accuracy as well as which course to select to the target and what course corrections were needed, and they didn’t want anyone else to know how much they knew.

Given that the Polaris submarines were to be deployed in the Arctic, the best orbit for a navigation satellite was one passing over the poles. In this orbit, a satellite would be visible to the submarines every time the spacecraft passed over the north pole, once every ninety-six minutes for a four-hundred-mile-high orbit. From the beginning of 1964, there was always at least one operational Transit satellite aloft. Transit’s appeal was that it worked in any weather and the submarine need only approach the surface once at night and deploy its antenna for ten minutes at most. An important attribute of these antennas was their low radar profile, which was important because radars capable of detecting a periscope’s wake were then being developed. The system was passive, and thus the submarine did not need to broadcast a betraying signal in order to get a fix.

Within a few years, when more satellites had been launched, it was possible to get a position fix anywhere in the world at least once every three hours, sometimes as often as once every ninety minutes. For the first time ever, navigators could fix their position with greater accuracy than was possible with celestial navigation and could do so more frequently and in any weather.

The original Polaris system specification called for satellites that would locate position to within a tenth of a nautical mile, or about six hundred feet. APL’s scientists say this accuracy was available from Decem­ber 1963, after the first operational satellite was launched. That accuracy improved by the mid 1980s to twenty-five feet. Accuracies of sixteen hun­dred feet were more typical for cheaper Transit receivers, while surveyors located position to within a few feet with observations of more than one


As a navigational aid at sea, Transit was a marked departure from the

past. First, it relied on frequency rather than angle measurements, and sec­ond, it made a psychological break with the long past of celestial naviga­tion (radar navigation in coastal waters was also contributing to the change). Instead of wielding sextant, charts, and nautical almanacs, the nav­igator need only look at the value of latitude and longitude calculated by Transit’s shipboard computer from the signals transmitted by the satellite.

Once the Department of Defense made Transit available to civilians in 1967, oceanographers and offshore oil prospectors became the first to use the system, followed by merchant fleets and fishing vessels, and finally pleasure boats.

These developments—both technical and marketing—took some time. The U. S. Navy’s surface fleet did not make widespread use of the sys­tem until the late 1970s. Aircraft carriers were among the first to be equipped; on cruisers such as that on which Commander Craft served, Transit was installed later. Even when Transit was widely available, naval navigators continued to check its output with position fixes calculated by traditional methods.

The first experimental Transit went into orbit on April 13, 1960. Tom Stansill, an early Transit participant who later joined Magnavox, which manufactured receiving equipment, recalls that the very first re­ceivers on Polaris submarines occupied four racks and cost (in today’s dol­lars) somewhere between $250,000 and $500,000. Typically a rack of elec­tronics was six feet high, two feet wide, one and a half feet deep, and held more equipment than one man could lift. By the late 1960s, when sales opened to civilians, a receiver occupied about half a rack and cost between $50,000 and $70,000. There was a breakthrough in receiver technology in the mid 1970s, and the equipment came down in size and in price to $25,000 and has decreased steadily since then.

Now, of course, the Global Positioning System (GPS) of navigation satellites, which is available every minute of the day, has taken over from Transit. The last operational Transit satellite was scheduled to be switched off at the end of 1996. GPS is so accurate that it can detect the sag on an aircraft’s wing. Almost daily, it seems, another unconventional use is found for the system, one of the most recent being as an aid to golfers negotiat­ing the perils of golf courses. Ships can carry electronic charts that GPS updates continuously, and the automation is opening the way to the con­troversial practice of ship bridges operated by one person. As with Transit, civilian users outnumber the military for whom it was intended, and GPS products are becoming major business opportunities.

Unlike Transit, GPS was designed to include aircraft navigation. To get an accurate position including altitude with Transit, two satellite passes were needed, with interpolation of these fixes by an inertial navigation unit. Transit was initially used in this manner by radar picket planes that remained in the air for many hours. However, a high-speed jet needs a much faster acquisition of navigational information. The great advantage of GPS for aircraft is that its radar imaging technique allows aircraft to get a three-dimensional fix without an inertial navigation unit.

But it was Transit that was the first to provide a worldwide, space- based system of navigation in any weather. And it was the Transit team that first encountered the unknowns of designing a navigational system for space.

The Applied Physics Laboratory, which masterminded the project, was well suited to the task. The lab started out in 1942 as an independent contractor for the Navy. It became part of the Johns Hopkins University after World War II, though the university was not initially keen to embrace a laboratory focusing on defense work.

Merle Tuve, one of the scientists who expressed most doubt about whether satellites should be a part of the IGY, was the laboratory’s first head. He had been an advisor to Robert Goddard and was an expert on the ionosphere. He was also among those eating the 21-layered chocolate cake at Van Allen’s home in 1950.

Tuve’s watchwords as head of the lab during wartime were those at the front of this chapter. To some extent, that ethos still pervaded APL in the mid to late 1950s. One of APL’s most important wartime develop­ments for the Navy—a proximity fuze—proved valuable for Transit’s development. The fuze was a significant advance for surface-to-air artillery, because it detonated a shell when it was closest to the target rather than on impact, thus increasing the artillery’s effectiveness. The development was prompted by the difficulty the Allies had in hitting fast moving aircraft and the Vis and V2s.

More than a decade later when Guier and Weiffenbach decided to determine Sputnik’s orbit, they turned first to concepts underlying prox­imity fuses. And when the Transit development began, the skill acquired by engineers building vacuum circuits for artillery proved, Weiffenbach says, invaluable in building components able to withstand launches.

In 1947, APL formed a research center to work on problems in basic research uncovered during the war years. Many of these were centered on aspects of the upper atmosphere that might affect missiles, and the lab was given some of the captured V2s for its work. In tandem with Princeton University, APL became one of the member institutions of the Upper Atmosphere Research Panel, and James Van Allen was the lab’s representa­tive until he left to concentrate on basic rather than military research.

After the war, two men joined APL who were to play an important role in the conception and development of Transit. They were Frank McClure and Richard Kershner. Like Ralph Gibson, who would become head of APL, they came from the Allegany Ballistics Laboratory. McClure, who was to have the idea for Transit, became the research center’s first head in 1947. Kershner would become the deeply respected team leader who brought the Transit system to fruition.

In early October 1957, when Guier and WeifFenbach tuned in to Sputnik, McClure was spending half of his time at the Navy’s Special Proj­ects Office. Kershner, too, worked with Special Projects and was later made responsible for APL’s consultative services to Special Projects. Both McClure and Kershner had a close relationship with Captain (later Rear Admiral) Levering Smith, then the deputy technical director of Special Projects. McClure was thus ideally placed to know of Polaris’s need for improved position fixing.

By 1957, Gibson had become head of the lab. Having been sounded out as a potential director of Defense Research and Engineering, he was well placed politically to further plans for a navigation satellite. Gibson had not wanted the job, which was the number three civilian position at the Pentagon, but he clearly had influence and contacts which doubtless were exercised in favor of Transit.

Transit was to encompass a truly formidable array of physics (most branches, including, eventually, quantum mechanics), mathematics, com­puting and technology. Often the whole Transit system was being designed in the expectation, maybe even blind faith, that when needed, the required new technologies (transistors, battery technology, solar cells, etc) would be in place. It was an approach with which Kershner and Levering Smith were comfortable, and which, in the end, proved successful. For more than thirty years Transit satellites have been in orbit. Now, as the twentieth century closes, GPS has taken over.


It is still only 1957.

It is the Monday after the Friday (October 4) when Sergei Korolev watched Sputnik ascend. Korolev is preparing Sputnik II. Fred Whipple’s orbital determination programs are being debugged. John Mengel is super­vising frantic modifications to the Minitrack stations. The police will soon catch Roger Harvey speeding. Bill Pickering has returned to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he is plotting deeply with Wernher von Braun. There is no such thing as Transit. Not even a whisper, nor will there be for another five and a half months. First, there are some important steps to be taken.


We are riding through the outskirts of a jungle in French Guiana. At the front of the bus a woman is instructing us in the use of a gas mask. The mask looks remarkably like a leftover from the First World War, and it seems to me unlikely that any of us will succeed in donning the apparatus should the rocket we are to watch spew noxious fumes in our direction. We are, after all, journalists and will have imbibed several glasses of something interesting by then.

The launch is to be at night, and we are to watch from Le Toucan, an open-air bar in the jungle some miles from the rocket. It promises to be spectacular—a very pleasant junket.

At this time I have never heard of Sergei Korolev, survivor of Kolyma and chief designer of cosmic rocket systems. I do not know of his triumphs and despair nor of his struggle to launch Sputnik. I have never heard of the team of engineers who stood with tears in their eyes in a smoke-filled room in Maryland while a satellite transmission faded. I know nothing of Verner Suomi and Robert Parent trapped in a bunker at Cape Canaveral while a rocket smoldered outside. The names John Pierce and Harold Rosen mean nothing to me.

These men and the things they did belong to a time nearly forty years before the launch I am waiting to watch, long before this launch site even existed. It was a time in rocketry when failure was more common than success. Vaguely we journalists know that space is still risky, but we expect in a few hours time to drink a toast to a successful launch. When we do, it will be because of those men and hundreds of others.

The satellite in the nose cone might be American, or perhaps French; maybe it’s Saudi Arabian or Indian. It might be a weather satellite or a science satellite or a communications satellite—one of the Hughes Aircraft Company’s Galaxy class, which barely clears the doors of a jumbo jet when it is loaded for its flight to South America.

Inside the Jupiter control room, there will be the usual concentrated prelaunch tension. But there will be no slide rules and no teletype machines.

After this launch, no one will inform the Kremlin. No one will call an American president.

The countdown proceeds.

With an inner frisson belying our outward nonchalance, we journal­ists hear a voice: “dix, neuf…”

No lone bugler has heralded this voice, which does not falter as did the voice during the launch of the first Transit. Goldstone is not waiting. William Pickering does not have a line open to the Cape. No car waits to whisk anyone through rain-soaked midnight streets to a room packed with the world’s press.

But there is silence. And our eyes are fixed on the rocket. We hold our breath. We dare not blink. And then, it happens. Incandescent flames billow around the distant rocket. Impossibly, it struggles upwards, gathers speed, and, as a thunderous roar washes past our ears, the rocket passes to become a distant moon.

Chapter thirteen: The Bird’s-Eye View

Information about ideas for meteorology satellites in the early 1950s can be found in: RAND’s Role in the Evolution of Balloon and Satellite Observation Systems and Related US Space Technology (page 140 and 141), by Merton E. Davies, William R. Harris; and Inquiry into the Feasibil­ity of Weather reconnaissance from a Satellite Vehicle, by S. M. Greenfield and W. W. Kellogg. This is an unclassified version of USAF Project RAND Report R-218, April 1951.

An unsigned letter, probably from Thomas Haig or Verner Suomi, talks of the work that the writer and Dave Johnson did toward promoting a single national satellite program in the early 1960s. They were unsuccessful, and both a civilian and military program have since run in parallel. Verner Suomi talks of the duplication he saw (page 147). The writer of the letter to Johnson says of a national program, “I don’t think anyone has come close since, and lots of dollars have been wasted as a consequence.”

The patent dispute between Hughes and NASA over the spin-scan cam­era went on for some time. An internal memo from Robert Parent to Verner Suomi of July 8, 1969, outlines the issues and suggests that he and Suomi should put together a chronology in case further action should be taken in future.

Five years later, the dispute was still bubbling along. In a letter dated October 10, 1974, Verner Suomi wrote to Robert Kempf at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. He described when and how he con­ceived of the idea for the spin scan camera and what he subsequently did. Suomi asserts that he considers the patent to belong to the U. S. govern­ment. The dispute was resolved in NASA’s favor.

The report “Space Uses of the Earth’s Magnetic Field” (unclassified report) by Ralph B. Hoffman, 1st Lt. USAF, and Thomas O. Haig, Lt. Col. USAF, describes the passive attitude control possible by designing the satellite so that it can take advantage of Earth’s magnetic field for attitude control.

Chapter fourteen: Keep it Simple, Suomi

I gathered most biographical details about Verner Suomi from interviews with him and his wife and crosschecked these where possible with writ­ten sources and the impressions of those who knew him, which includes nearly everyone in the world of meteorology. I interviewed Dave John­son, Joseph Smagormsky, Robert White, Pierre Morel, Thomas Haig, Leo Skille, Bob Sutton, and Bob Ohckers.

The feud between Reid Bryson and Verner Suomi (page 152) is explored by William Broad in the New York Times of October 24, 1989.

My favorite piece of correspondence to Wexler, clearly written in response to his efforts to drum up support for Verner Suomi’s radiation balance experiment, is from Herbert (Herbie) Riehl, of the University of Chicago (which then had a highly respected meteorology department). Riehl wrote to Wexler on November 28, 1956, from “somewhere over the Rockies” in a plane “with mechanical shakes, hope you have bi­focals.” He said, “Some hours have gone since our early morning encounter, but they have been enough for my latent astonishment at your remarks over satellites to solidify.” Riehl goes on to discuss Earth’s net radiation balance. He adds, “I think this is fundamental information for guiding meteorological research on long (and very long) period changes.”

Wexler presented Suomi’s idea for a radiation balance experiment to the Technical Panel on the Earth Satellite Program (page 154) on the second day of the sixth meeting of the TPESP on June 8, 1956. James Van Allen, with his credentials as the former chair of the Upper Atmosphere Research Panel, headed a Working Group on Internal Instrumentation formed by the TPESP at its third meeting, on January 28. The UARP had received many suggestions for satellite instrumentation following President Eisenhower’s announcement of July 29, 1955. One of these experiments was that of Bill Stroud, from the Signal Corps of Engineers. Van Allen pointed out that Stroud’s experiment had already been approved, and that while not as broad as Wexler’s proposal, it was simpler.

Wexler obtained the backing of the IGY’s Technical Panel on Meteorol­ogy, of which Wexler was chair, for both Stroud’s and Suomi’s experi­ments at the TPM’s eighth meeting, on October 9, 1956.

Suomi and Parent received their formal go-ahead to produce their satel­lite for a Vanguard launch on December 31, 1957, from J. G. Reid, secre­tary to the TPESP.

The account of the Juno II explosion (page 161) comes from Wisconsin State Journal, July 17, 1959.

A draft of the IGY terminal report of Suomi’s radiation balance experi­ment prepared July 27, 1961, by Stanley Ruttenberg, head of the IGY’ program office, gives details of the instrumentation in operation (page 162). It says, “A huge amount of data is accumulating from this experi­ment… only a start has yet been made on reducing this data and analyz­ing it.” Daytime data was less useful than nighttime data, noted the report, because of interference from the ionosphere. It says, “Despite the neces­sary shortcomings of the data there does seem to be a clear indication that large scale outward radiation flux patterns exist and that these patterns are related to the large scale features of the weather.” The report concludes, “The experience being gained from this experiment will be an important factor in designing future meteorological satellite experiments.”

Heady Days

When interesting things like this come up, many of the most important results come out of people’s curiosity, just following up something, and someone over in a corner who is not sup­posed to be doing anything about it usually comes out with the best answers.

—Homer Newell, science programs coordinator for Vanguard, discussing Sputnik at a meeting of the IGY’s Technical Panel on Earth Satellites, October 22, 1957


hen Wall Street opened on Monday, investors scrambled to buy stock in companies connected with missile programs, abandoning other issues and pushing prices to their lowest level in two years.

Two hundred miles to the south in Washington D. C., there was another scramble as the Naval Research Laboratory briefed President Eisenhower and congressional members on the status of Vanguard. James Lay, executive secretary of the National Security council, called the head of the National Science Foundation, Alan Waterman. The status of the U. S.’s satellite plans, Lay said, would be second on the agenda at Thursday’s security council meeting, immediately after a CIA presentation about Soviet defenses. Later that day, Lay called Waterman again; discussion of the U. S. satellite had, he said, now moved to the top of the agenda.

As for the general public, the Saturday morning papers greeted any­one who still did not know of the launch with three-deck banner head­lines. Sputnik squeezed reporting of the drama surrounding desegregation in Little Rock and Jimmy Hoffa’s election as president of the Teamsters Union into a corner of the front page of the New York Times. By Sunday, nothing short of a declaration of war could have rivaled the satellite’s edi­torial supremacy. And a Times editorial stated soberly, “It is war itself rather than any designated enemy against which we must now defend ourselves.” At his home near the Applied Physics Laboratory, Bill Guier tuned in to every radio and TV broadcast. He was thirty-one, a theoretical physicist, and a news junky even in less exciting times. That weekend, Guier was as fascinated as the rest of the country He had no idea that the satellite would change his future.

Nor did George Weiffenbach, then a thirty-six-year-old experimen­tal physicist. He too learned during the weekend of the launch of the satellite. Weiffenbach recalls that he was not particularly excited. His wife says otherwise and remembers eager calls to friends and colleagues.

On Monday afternoon, October 7, Guier and Weiffenbach unknow­ingly took their first steps in the development of a new method of orbital determination and prediction.

Orbital mechanics—the behavior of satellites in orbit—lies at the heart of space exploration. Without a detailed and accurate knowledge of the subject, man-made satellites would be useless, because no one would know where they were or were likely to be. And no one would know the time and posi­tion at which a satellite instrument made an interesting observation, such as of an atmospheric disturbance with the makings of a hurricane. Yet it is impractical to follow all satellites throughout their orbits. Hence observa­tions are made of part of the orbit and that information feeds into the math­ematical relationships that describe behavior in orbit. Once the orbit is determined, the satellite’s future behavior—its position at given times—can be predicted. Orbital predictions allow mission planners to determine, say, when the space shuttle should lift off if it is to dock with the Mir space sta­tion. They allowed the operators of the Transit navigation satellites to calcu­late exactly where the spacecraft would be at every two-minute interval in their orbits, thus providing navigators with a reliable celestial fix.

All of the groups observing Sputnik—amateurs and professionals alike—were tackling the problem of its motion within the framework of classical physics laid down over the previous three centuries by the likes of Johannes Kepler (working with Tycho Brahe’s data), Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton.

Brahe (1546 — 1601) was an astronomer who in the days before tele­scopes designed and built instruments that enabled him to measure the angles to heavenly bodies. His story is well known in the annals of science because he recognized the importance of basing theory on accurate obser­vations rather than philosophical speculation. His observations of the orbit of Mars were invaluable to Kepler (1571 — 1630) when Kepler was seeking a fundamental description of planetary motion.

Kepler assumed, though this was far from generally accepted at the time, that Copernicus had been correct in asserting that the planets moved around the sun. With this assumption, Kepler explored numerous mathe­matical models, seeking one that would lead to a description of planetary motion consistent with Brahe’s data.

Kepler’s belief in the integrity of Brahe’s data kept him at his calcula­tions through years of poverty and illness, calculating and recalculating until finally, theory was consistent with observation. Kepler found that to fit Brahe’s observations, the planets must move in ellipses—a geometric figure that has two foci; in the case of Earth-orbiting satellites, one focus of the satellite’s orbit is the center of mass of the earth. Kepler next described in a mathematical relationship how a body in orbit sweeps out equal areas of an ellipse in equal times. In a third law, he described how planetary orbits relate to one another mathematically.

In reaching these conclusions Kepler was forced to burn his intellec­tual bridges, cutting himself off from both views of the universe that were accepted in his day. First, by accepting the Copernican assumption, he was no longer in sympathy with the Catholic Church; second, he had given up the Greek view of the planets moving in circles. This second view was particularly hard for Kepler to abandon. Indeed, it was a view that Galileo was never able to abandon.

At one stage, Kepler thought that the orbits might be circular, but when he made calculations based on this assumption there was a small dis­crepancy with Brahe’s data that kept him at his calculations until he finally concluded that the planetary orbits are elliptical. With less confidence in Brahe, Kepler could easily have stopped his laborious calculations before reaching his fundamental insight.

Kepler was ecstatic. Soon after he formulated the last of the three laws that bear his name, he wrote, “Nothing holds me; I will indulge my sacred fury…. If you forgive me, I rejoice; if you are angry, I can bear it; the die is cast, the book is written, to be read either now or by posterity, I care not which….”

Though Galileo (1564-1642) never accepted elliptical orbits, his giant strides in mechanics provided, along with Kepler’s work, a solid sci­entific basis for Isaac Newton (1642— 1727). Among other things, Newton discerned and formulated the all-important law that force is equal to mass times acceleration. All of the different methods of observing the satellite’s position, Guier’s and Weiffenbach’s included, sought different ways to gather information that could make use of this law—the so-called second law of motion—within the concept of orbits established by Kepler.

Newton’s second law (F = MA) and Kepler’s second law allow math­ematicians to deduce six numbers that give an approximate description of an orbit. In tribute, these numbers—or elements—are named after Kepler. One gives the orbit’s shape, that is, how elliptical it is, whether it is extremely elongated or close to circular. This element, termed eccentric­ity, is defined as the distance between the two foci divided by the length of the major axis. The closer the value of eccentricity is to one, the more elliptical the orbit. An eccentricity of zero describes a circle.

A second element, the semimajor axis, gives the size of the orbit. Two more describe the orbit’s orientation in three dimensions with respect to the celestial sphere, and a fifth pinpoints that orientation with respect to the earth (respectively, inclination, ascending node, and argument of perigee). The sixth element is the time at which the satellite is at the ascending or the descending node, that is, the time at which the satellite crosses the plane of the equator heading either north or south. It is more usual to use the ascending node.

Kepler’s elements, however, are only averages. Any additional force, such as an inhomogeneity in the earth’s gravitational field, that acts on the satellite causes it to deviate from the average path described by Kepler’s elements. The deviation might be small and local or might cause the entire orbit to precess; that is, the orbit can rotate about an axis in such a way as to sweep out a conical shape. Thus a description of a satellite in near-Earth orbit requires eight parameters: the six Keplerian elements and two preces­sion terms. While such a description is more accurate than that provided by the Keplerian elements alone, it is still only an approximation. Only by giving the positional coordinates at given times can an accurate orbit be described, and this is what the Transit team eventually did.

On Monday, October 7, people were still struggling simply to observe Sputnik. The Minitrack stations were being adapted; only some of the Baker-Nunn cameras were in place; the first confirmed Moonwatch sightings, in Woomera and Sydney, Australia, would not be made until the next day.

Across the ocean in England, at Jodrell Bank and the Royal Aircraft Establishment, radio telescopes were waiting for Sputnik. They tracked the satellite by keeping its signal at the focus of their dishes, and the angle of the telescope relative to a fixed north-south line and to the horizon gave respectively the azimuth and elevation of the satellite. These data can be used to determine the Kepler elements. When in April 1958 Guier and Weiffenbach published a brief summary of their methods and results in scientific correspondence to the journal Nature, they compared the orbit they calculated for Sputnik I with those from Jodrell Bank and the RAE. There was good agreement.

Once their technique was developed, Guier and Weiffenbach’s orbital determination could, unlike those from Minitrack and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, be based on observations from a single satellite pass. Eventually, for truly accurate orbital determinations their technique would be applied to the observations collected by many ground stations over a twelve to eighteen hour period. When reversed, the technique allowed position to be fixed at a receiver on Earth from one satellite pass, the basis of Transit.

As Guier and Weiffenbach made their separate ways to work that Monday, all this was shrouded in the future. They knew each other slightly as fellow members of the research center. They had worked together on some of the same projects during the previous few years. By chance, that Monday they ate lunch at the same table in the canteen. Just as at the White House and the Pentagon, Sputnik was the focus of conversation.

Guier thought the satellite was superb. Yet his history was not one that obviously suggested an admirer of Soviet ingenuity. As a graduate stu­dent in the late 1940s, he had heard Edward Teller, “father of the hydrogen bomb,” call for physicists to fight a new kind of technological war. In a world newly afraid of atomic power and rife with the political tensions that would lead to the Berlin Wall, Teller’s call to arms seemed logical to Guier. Guier joined APL’s research center in 1951.

Like Guier, Weiffenbach believed in the importance of weapons research and in the protection that technological supremacy could afford. He had been in Europe during the war and had been among those waiting in the summer of 1945 for orders to go to the Pacific. On his demobiliza­tion, the government paid for his education, something his parents could not have afforded to do, through the provisions of the GI Bill. It seemed right to Weiffenbach to work to strengthen national security, both because of what he had seen in Europe and to repay the nation for his education.

Guier’s choice had a consequence that, though small in the scheme of things, was indicative of the times. He had a German friend behind the

Iron Curtain. Their correspondence helped Guier with the language stud­ies necessary for his doctorate. Guier did not see this man through a polit­ical lens, and he was staggered when his thesis director advised him to end the correspondence. The Soviets might exploit the relationship, said the professor, and even if they didn’t, the letters could damage Guier’s career.

At first Guier ignored the advice, but a summer internship at Los Alamos changed his mind. Assigned to work on computer models of nuclear explosions, he learned of the secrecy surrounding nuclear weapons, of the comparative simplicity of some of the physics, and the great fear in government circles that the Soviets would soon have similar technology. These fears were heightened when the Klaus Fuchs and Rosenberg scandals erupted. Fuchs, a British physicist, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, an American couple, gave atomic secrets to the Soviets. Fuchs was imprisoned, the Rosenbergs executed. In this climate, Guier became acutely aware of the Cold War and reluctantly ended his correspondence.

Accepting the political realities of their world, Guier and Weiffen- bach settled down to conduct basic research in support of weapons sys­tems. The Soviets were the enemy.

And yet…

Here was something new, the first foothold in space. The lunch group asserted, with the scientist’s classic understatement, that Sputnik was not trivial. APL staff, deeply involved in missile and radar work, knew this well. And despite its provenance, Sputnik was intriguing.

The lab was not involved with the IGY. Thus people at APL, cer­tainly at Guier’s and Weiffenbach’s low level, had no inside track to what little was known about Sputnik. Nor was there any involvement with the planning for Minitrack. Their ignorance of the IGY’s discussions about the limitations of Doppler and the advantages of interferometry freed Guier and Weiffenbach from the conventional wisdom about satellite tracking and orbital analysis and ultimately stood the pair in good stead.

Lunch wound down.

Guier and Weiffenbach decided to rectify the surprising fact that in a lab bristling with antennas and receivers nobody was listening to Sputnik’s signal. That was all: an indulgence of curiosity. They did not intend to make a serious attempt to determine and predict Sputnik’s orbit, but only to calculate roughly when the satellite would reappear over Washington.

When he got back to his lab, Weiffenbach attached a wire to the back of a receiver and prepared to tune in. He knew—how, given the wide­spread publicity, could he not—that Sputnik was broadcasting an intermit­tent signal at about twenty megahertz.

Serendipity, that great friend to science, now lent a hand for the first time. Weiffenbach’s receiver, working on the same principle as any ham radio operator’s equipment, added the satellite signal of approximately twenty megahertz to a reference frequency of twenty megahertz, resulting in an audible “beat” note—Sputnik’s distinctive beep beep. But Weiffen­bach’s reference frequency was special; it was broadcast by the nearby National Bureau of Standards as a service to scientific laboratories, and it was at a precise twenty megahertz.

Some few hours later, when their rampant curiosity turned slowly to a controlled scientific interest, Guier and Weiffenbach started recording the beat frequency along with the national time signal during each pass of the satellite from horizon to horizon. And that was the raw data from which they developed a new technique for orbital analysis and provided the sci­entific underpinning for a satellite navigational system. Without a precise reference signal, they could not have extracted the information they did. Had the reference signal been broadcast from a more distant site, its quality would have been degraded on passage through the atmosphere, and again they could not have extracted the information they did.

As they waited for the satellite to come over the horizon, Weiffen­bach fiddled with the knobs of his receiver. The airwaves were buzzing. Disembodied voices mimicked the satellite’s signal. Others repeated, “this is your Sputnik … this is your Sputnik.” Then—faintly—Weiffenbach picked up an English-language broadcast from Moscow. It gave the times when the satellite would be over the world’s capitals. They knew when to listen.

By now a crowd had gathered. During the next few days there would at times be so many people in the lab that Weiffenbach could scarcely squeeze through to his receiver. As they waited, there were a few mur­murs, not serious, that perhaps the signal was a fake. Most wondered whether the signal would carry information; measurements, perhaps, of the satellite’s temperature—the first remote measurements (telemetry— measurement at a distance) from space.

The same question arose at a meeting of the IGY’s satellite panel on October 22. Inevitably, the main topic on the agenda was a discussion of when America would be ready to launch its own satellite. But the panel also discussed, without reaching a conclusion, whether it could squeeze money from the budget to analyze Sputnik’s signal for telemetry Bill Pick­ering said that even if the signal did carry temperature or pressure mea­surements, they would be useless without knowing how the Soviet instru­ments were calibrated. Homer Newell observed that maybe someone unconnected with the IGY’s work would decipher Sputnik’s message. (The Soviets had said, incidentally, that there would be no telemetry from their first satellite.)

The discussion was academic: Sputnik stopped transmitting a few days after that meeting. And long before October 22, Weiffenbach and Guier had concluded that there was no telemetry.

In Weiffenbach’s lab, the crowd heard Sputnik’s beep for the first time late on Monday afternoon. Guier, an amateur musician with good relative pitch, cocked an ear. Surely the pitch of the beat note was changing. Of course, he said, it must be the Doppler shift. The change was subtle, a mat­ter of about an octave over twenty minutes. It was this phenomenon, known to every physics student, that was to provide the key to the Applied Physics Laboratory’s work on geodesy and Transit.

The Doppler shift is, at heart, conceptually quite easy to grasp. Its consequences can reveal much about the natural world. Astronomers, for example, find it of great utility when studying the motion of stars. But, as with much else in physics, once one goes beyond the basic description of a phenomenon, things become complicated, and the Doppler effect is not easy to exploit in the real world. For this reason, some mistrusted Guier’s and Weiffenbach’s work. Others were suspicious of their mathematical analysis. The two scientists, recalled Guier, would be told “reliably” what criticism this scientist or another had made of their work and were all but told they were cheating.

A straw poll soliciting descriptions of the Doppler effect elicited com­ments ranging from the general statement that it has to do with the way the sound of a car’s engine changes, to the statement that frequency increases as a source moves toward you and decreases as it moves away. Given its importance to Transit and the understandable vagueness of many, it seems worth describing the basic concept in some detail.

The Doppler shift, which is a consequence of a moving frequency source, is usually introduced to unsuspecting physics students through a discussion of how and why the pitch of a train’s whistle changes as the train races past. It is pointed out that the change in pitch occurs even though the pitch of the whistle would not be changing if you were sitting next to it on the train’s roof.

I’d prefer to start at the seaside, and to tackle the train analogy later.

Imagine facing the ocean for twenty seconds and counting the waves as they crash into you. Now imagine walking into the ocean to meet the waves head on. More waves will reach you in those twenty seconds than if you had stood still. Now imagine walking out of the ocean directly away from the waves, and you can see that fewer crests will reach you in twenty seconds than if you had remained stationary. So the number of waves gen­erated by the ocean in a given amount of time (the transmitter frequency) remains constant, but the number of wave crests encountered (received frequency) increases or decreases because of your motion relative to the waves. The difference between the transmitter frequency (ocean waves rolling in per second) and the received frequency (wave crests encoun­tered) can be thought of as the Doppler frequency—the amount by which the received frequency differs from the transmitter frequency because of relative motion between a frequency source and a receiver.

Now imagine that the ocean is unnaturally well behaved and that the wave crests are spaced evenly (the transmitter frequency is constant). You are walking into the ocean at a steady pace. In the first twenty seconds you encounter a certain number of wave crests. If your pace and direction for­ward stay the same, how many wave crests do you encounter in the next twenty seconds compared with the first twenty seconds?

The same number, of course, because nothing about the ocean waves or about your motion with respect to them has changed between the con­secutive twenty-second intervals. So the frequency received, which was Doppler-shifted upwards by your initial motion forward, remains constant. A graph of received frequency against time would be a straight line parallel to the horizontal, or x-axis. When you turn around and retrace your steps at exactly the same pace, the frequency received will be Doppler-shifted downwards and will remain constant at that value. A graph of received fre­quency against time would also be a straight line parallel to the x-axis, but this time at a value below the transmitter frequency. Momentarily, as you stop and turn, you will be buffeted by waves at the natural frequency of the ocean.

Once you make it to dry land, turn back to the waves. They are now behaving in a very peculiar way The wave fronts are aligned exactly paral­lel to one another, wave crests evenly spaced. They roll in at a rate of 100 per second. You walk directly into them, along a path perpendicular to the wave front. You are walking at a pace which in one second permits you to cover a distance equal to six wavelengths. So in one second you encounter 106 wave crests. (Transmitter frequency is 100 waves per second, or cycles per second; the received frequency is 106 cycles per second and the Doppler frequency is 6 cycles per second.)

Now instead of walking a path perpendicular to the wave front, walk into the ocean at a slant. The number of waves crests you encounter in a second will still be greater than if you stood still (will be Doppler shifted upwards), but it will not be as great as if you took the perpendicular path. The received frequency and whether or not it is shifted upwards or down­wards and by how much depends on the relative motion between you and the wave front. See the diagram below.

The same logic can be applied to the sound waves of a train’s whistle and to radio waves from a satellite.

Let’s take the train. If you and the train remain stationary, the number of sound waves emitted by its whistle in a given time is the number that you hear in that time, just as the number of waves rolling ashore in a given time interval was equal to the number of wave crests that hit you when you stood still.

If you are standing on the track and the train is moving directly towards you at a constant speed, the rate at which the range between you and the train changes remains constant just as when you were moving into the water along a path perpendicular to the wave front at a pace of six
wavelengths per second. So the frequency received from the train’s whistle is shifted upwards because of forward motion and remains constant at the new value as long as that relative velocity (speed and direction) remain constant. Then as the whistle moves through you, for a moment you hear the natural frequency of the whistle (the Doppler shift is zero). Then the train moves away and the frequency is Doppler shifted downwards, and that Doppler shift also remains constant while the relative velocity remains constant. This is all logically equivalent to what happens as you walk in, turn, and walk out of the ocean.

Now what happens if you are standing off at some distance on one side of the track? The rate at which the distance between you and the train changes is no longer constant. That is, the relative velocity between you and the source is no longer constant. So the Doppler shift is no longer constant.

The diagrams below, where marks on the track represent the train’s position at, say, fifteen-second intervals, show how the rate of change of distance between train and observer changes with time, and how that change depends on how close the listener is to the track.

Heady Days Heady Days

Again there is a logical equivalence between walking into the ocean at a constant angle or changing the angle as you walk into the waves. Thus, the amount by which the Doppler frequency is shifted above the transmit­ter frequency decreases gradually as the train moves towards you, until at the point of closest approach the received frequency is affected neither by the forward nor retreating motion of the train. Afterwards, the frequency con­tinues to decrease.

Graphs of received frequency against time would look like those in the next two diagrams.

Heady Days

The observer is further away from the track in the example below com­pared with the one above. If you look at the way distance is changing with time in the train diagrams, that is, at the way the relative velocity changes with time, the graphs make sense. This relative velocity, on which the Doppler shift depends, changes less the further away the moving source remains from the listener. Hence the change in frequency is less pro­nounced in the diagram below.

Sputnik was in motion, so its transmission was Doppler-shifted. Unlike the train whistle of our example, however, the frequency arriving at the lab was way outside the range of human ears. Instead, the received frequency was combined with a reference signal to give a “beat” signal in the audible range. Guier’s musician’s ear detected changes in the beat frequency as a change in pitch.

Many amateur listeners who heard the phenomenon dismissed it as receiver drift. Guier and Weiffenbach did not, first, because they were physicists listening to a moving frequency source and the concept of Doppler shifting was probably hovering not too far from conscious thought; second, they both knew that they had a good reference source and that Weiffenbach’s experimental experience would have enabled him to recognize receiver drift or the consequences of a poor reference source for what it was.

Before Guier and Weiffenbach heard the Doppler shift, they were lis­tening to Sputnik out of the same curiosity that drove the Moonwatchers and the rest of the country. Once they recognized the Doppler shift, they became more serious.

As Sputnik’s beep faded over their horizon for the first time, they decided to record the sound of the Doppler shift simultaneously with the national time signal. Although they had no particular idea of what they would do with the recordings, they knew that those beeps, which were exciting imaginations across the world, would give them the scientist’s bread and butter: data. And with application and imagination, data can become information.

Another pass was to occur that night. Guier went home to collect a high-quality tape recorder he had recently bought. Back in the lab, Weif­fenbach tuned in well before the satellite appeared. They wanted to collect the complete Doppler shift resulting from a pass from horizon to horizon. During the remaining two and a half weeks that Sputnik transmitted, they recorded the Doppler shift every time the orbit carried the spacecraft within range of the lab. And thus the Soviets provided the experimental setup that was the first step to enabling the Polaris submarines to fix their position at sea more accurately and opened the way to a global naviga­tional system.

Serendipity, in the form of timing and human relationships, now made its second appearance. Weiffenbach, the experimentalist, and Guier, the theoretician, found they worked well together. Experimental and the­oretical physicists, and this is something of an understatement, do not always see eye to eye. During the coming six months, the two men’s skills and outlooks would mesh, gearing up their productivity In later years as they got to know one another better and were part of the team developing Transit, they would have their offices close together so that they could more easily discuss the problems they encountered.

Sputnik’s launch came at the right time for both men. Each was ready for a new project. Guier was feeling a new-found confidence, having emerged recently from chairing an APL committee doing technical work on long-range missile guidance systems for the president’s Science Advi­sory Committee. Weiffenbach had things to prove. He had been scooped twice, once on work for his doctorate.

By Tuesday, Guier and Weiffenbach knew that there was no teleme­try, but they had the recordings. With these they intended to calculate roughly when the satellite would next appear over their horizon. To esti­mate the satellite’s next appearance, they decided to apply physics in the way that the lab had when designing the proximity fuze which detonates a shell on its closest approach to a target. All they needed to do was to find the distances at the point of closest approach between the satellite and the lab—the point where the Doppler frequency was zero—during several passes. If they found these distances, they would have enough data to determine approximate values for the Keplerian elements and to pre­dict roughly when a satellite in that orbit would next be at its closest to the lab.

In taking this approach, Guier and Weiffenbach were applying physics in a well-known way, but the difficulties they encountered were to lead to an innovative interpretation of the Doppler data.

Given APL’s previous work with proximity fuzes, perhaps it was inevitable that Guier and Weiffenbach should have started as they did. An artillery shell emits a radio signal that is reflected from the surface of the target. At the point when the shell has made its closest approach to the tar­get and begins moving away, the Doppler shift is zero and the fuze deto­nates the shell. The technique was important, too, to the lab’s missile work. Missiles would telemeter the Doppler-shifted radio signals that were reflected from the target back to APL’s engineers, who would analyze them to ascertain how closely the missile had approached its target.

Guier’s and Weiffenbach’s first step, therefore, was to turn their recordings into the tables of frequency versus time needed to plot a graph of the satellite’s Doppler shift, because the information from that graph, the Doppler curve, was needed in the equation to find the distance when the satellite was closest to the lab (in missile parlance—the miss distance).

Today, and indeed not too long after Weiffenbach and Guier began their work, automated equipment, the inner mysteries of about which the scientist need not be concerned with, would have done the job. That October, Weiffenbach operated the equipment—a wave analyzer—manu­ally. It was standard equipment, and the natural frequency of the electrical circuits it contained could be adjusted by hand. When a frequency on a recording coincided with that of the analyzer’s circuitry, the analyzer would record a spike. All of the recordings were fed through by hand and the circuitry adjusted laboriously until fifty values of frequency and time had been extracted for each pass.

Sometime early in the process, Guier and Weiffenbach had been joined by two engineers, Harry Zinc and Henry Elliott. Zinc had also been keen to listen to Sputnik. Unknown to Guier and Weiffenbach, he and Elliott had put together equipment with a moderate-gain antenna that was capable of providing a stronger signal than that obtained by the wire attached to Weiffenbach’s receiver.

The four took turns with the tedious job of turning the recordings into tables of frequency and time. An unglamorous task, but an essential part of the scientist’s life—data reduction.

Work began in earnest on Tuesday, October 8. Very quickly, things began to look ambiguous and complicated. Eventually, from this confusion came the idea that led the scientists to being able to determine an orbit from a single satellite pass—the idea that, when turned on its head, was the basis for the Transit system.

Notes and Sources

The relative importance of written and oral records varies from section to section and even within sections, as does the balance between primary and secondary sources. In chapter one, for example, secondary sources were the only ones I had access to.

Even when there are records, they can be scanty or one-sided. The IGY, for example, is well recorded by the National Academy of Sciences, but the individual scientists, such as Verner Suomi, do not have extensive records. Often, the scientists and technologists were too busy as pioneers to record in detail what they were doing, and posterity was the last thing on their minds.

The NAS archives, which were of importance to the prologue; chapters two, three, and eleven; and to parts of the other sections have been well mined, and others have written extensively of the IGY and its relationship to the subsequent development of space science in the U. S. My “angle” was to explore the same material for the seeds of space technology and of application satellites.

Both oral and written primary sources are of equal importance to the navigation section. The pre-Transit chapters were possible only because of long and repeated interviews, while the chapters on Transit were possible only because of the material in APL’s archives.

The meteorology section is based on interviews, a few primary sources, and secondary sources. It provides the clearest example of the emergence of application satellites from the IGY. But access to declassified primary sources will eventually make the history of meteorology satellites much more complete.

The communication section is the most heavily based on primary source written records, supplemented with a few interviews.


The primary source of material for the prologue (also for chapters two, three, and eleven) is the archival material about the International Geo­physical Year stored at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC.

Of particular importance were minutes of the USNC Committee of the IGY; minutes of the Executive Committee of the IGY, and the minutes of the Technical Panel on Rocketry The account of James Van Allen’s din­ner party (page 1) comes from an oral history given by Dr. Van Allen to David DeVorkin in February, June, July, and August of 1981 for the National Air and Space Museum.

Observations about Lloyd Berkner’s character were pieced together from impressions gained by reading minutes of IGY committee meetings (page 1). His name crops up in records for communications and meteorology satellites and in the development of early U. S. space policy. The biograph­ical files at the NASA History Office describe a naval officer who, when he died, was buried with full military honors and someone who opposed scientific secrecy. Besides being the originator of the idea for the IGY, Berkner was president of the International Council of Scientific Unions.

Drawer 1 of the archives of the National Academy of Sciences contains program proposals for the IGY, including one from Paul Siple highlight­ing concerns then felt about global warming (page 3).

Drawer 2 of the NAS archives contains the minutes of the first meeting of the U. S. National Committee for the IGY held 26-27 March 1953. Also in drawer 2 are to be found tentative proposals for the IGY 1957-1958 prepared by the USNC for the IGY, 13 May 1953 (page 3).

The anecdote that administration officials said, “Joe, go home,” was related by Kaplan himself in a speech to mark the tenth anniversary of Explorer (page 4). A copy of the speech was among Verner Suomi’s papers.

The account of what happened in Rome in 1954 and the budget figures for the IGY are found in Vanguard—A History, by Constance Green and

Milton Lomask (page 4). The book is part of the NASA History Series, SP4202.

Information about President Eisenhower’s intelligence needs (p. 4-5) and his national security policy comes mainly from. . . the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, by Walter McDougall (Basic Books, 1985). This book addresses what has been the central mystery of the U. S. space program—why the Eisenhower administration chose the Vanguard rather than the Explorer program for the development of the first U. S. satellite.

The existence of the Killian panel is well known, and its existence is writ­ten about in numerous accounts of the time, but McDougall’s discussion is the most exhaustive I encountered (page 4).

The most detailed and up-to-date information about the Killian panel (page 4) and its influence on the Eisenhower administration’s policy and of the way that national security considerations impacted the develop­ment of the IGY are to be found in R. Cargill Hall’s article “The Eisen­hower Administration and the Cold War, Framing American Astronautics to Serve National Security,” in Prologue, Quarterly of the National Archives.

The exact sequence of events in which Donald Quarles, assistant secretary of defense for research and development, approached senior scientists of the IGY is not clear when one looks at Cargill Hall’s article and the sequence of events that surrounded planning of the IGY (page 5). How­ever, minutes of the IGY suggest that in the light of Cargill Hall’s article, some senior scientists other than Joseph Kaplan knew or guessed the national security agenda that necessitated developing a satellite with a largely civilian flavor.

The first meeting of the USNC of the IGY was chaired by Joseph Kaplan (page 3).

During the third meeting on November 5 — 6, 1954, James Van Allen commented on the usefulness of rocketry studies. At this time, though various international bodies had endorsed the idea of a satellite program forming part of the IGY, Van Allen’s presentation referred to sounding rockets, i. e., those that carry instruments aloft but fall back to Earth with­out entering orbit.

During the fourth meeting, on January 14 and 15, 1955, Harold Wexler spoke of gaps in the meteorological data, and Homer Newell, in the absence of James Van Allen, told the committee that the sounding rock­etry work would be undertaken entirely by the agencies of the Depart­ment of Defense, provided that the National Science Foundation secured the necessary funding from Congress.

By this time, much of the debate concerning the importance to the United States of adopting a satellite program as part of the IGY had moved to the USNC’s executive committee and to a working group of the technical panel on rocketry (see notes and sources for chapter three) as well as to the National Security Council.

Reports on Leonid Sedov’s announcement at the sixth meeting of the International Astronautical Federation in Copenhagen appeared in the Baltimore Sun as well as in other newspapers, dateline August 2, 1955 (page 6).

Chapter fifteen: Storm Patrol

Details scattered through chapter 15 come from the following: Interviews with Verner Suomi, Bob Ohckers, Bob Sutton, and Leo Skille.

“Initial Technical proposal for a ‘Storm Patrol’ Meteorological Experi­ment on an ATS Spacecraft” by V. E. Suomi and R. J. Parent, September 28,1964;

“Spin Scan Camera System for a Synchronous Satellite” prepared for NASA by V. E. Suomi and R. J. Parent—July 1965; and “The Spin Scan Camera System: Geostationary Meteorological Satellite Workhorse for a Decade.” Optical Engineering 17 (1),January—February 1978.

Books of Value for the Meteorology Section

Planet Earth: The View from Space, by D. James Baker (Flarvard University Press, 1990).

Watching the World’s Weather; by W. J. Burroughs (Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Weather Cycles: Real or Imaginary; by W. J. Burroughs (Cambridge Univer­sity Press, 1992).

Pursuit of Orbit

Bill Guier sees an equation as paragraphs of lucid prose. There are nuances and implications stemming from the relationship that the equation establishes between different aspects of the physical world. To George Weiffenbach, numbers, their intrinsic values and relationship to one another, are like a film. How they change tells him how the physical events that they represent are unfolding. These ways of viewing the world are quite usual for physicists, and the one is typical of theoretician, the other of the experimentalist.

Each understood something of the others outlook and could, to some extent, see from the other’s viewpoint. The combination proved in­valuable.

Some textbooks still describe the miss-distance method that Guier and Weiffenbach initially adopted as the basis for Doppler tracking. It is not the technique that APL developed. Had Guier and Weiffenbach stuck to determining miss distances, they would not have had tracking data that were accurate enough for a good orbital determination, because one of the values needed in the calculation is satellite transmitter frequency. Sputnik’s oscillator, though loud and clear, was varying slightly from its nominal value in an unknown way. Those at the IGY who had discounted Doppler as a means of obtaining tracking data had done so precisely because they were concerned about the stability of the oscillators that generated the radio signals. Oscillator stability would be of concern, too, in the method that Guier and Weiffenbach developed, but their approach offered a way to tackle the problem.

On Tuesday morning, October 8, Guier and Weiffenbach were still thinking in terms of miss distance. And they were conceptualizing the problem. As is usual when creating a mathematical model of a physical phe­nomenon, they simplified the problem. In this way, they would find out what general principles were at play before turning to the inherent com­plexities of this particular case. They assumed that the satellite was moving in a straight line, just like our train. Since they were looking only for the range at the point of closest approach, the simplification was reasonable.

Guier and Weiffenbach knew all but one of the values needed to calculate miss distance, and that value—the range rate when the Doppler
shift was zero—was available experimentally from the slope of the curve as it passed through T = 0 in the graphs of frequency against time. It is the steepest part of the curve.

Guier recalls watching colleagues plotting graphs, fitting plastic splines to them and measuring the slope, then looping string around the lab to represent an orbit and marking the miss distances with rulers. It was for fun as much as anything, though such a physical representation of the orbit does give a conceptual idea of what is going on in three dimensions.

To two people who saw what Guier and Weiffenbach saw in equa­tions and numbers, the ruler and string approach was not the way forward. They determined the maximum slope from tables of frequency and time using a mechanical calculator. Soon, they switched to the lab’s new Umvac ПОЗА, APL’s first fully digital electronic computer. With its combination of vacuum tubes and transistors, the ПОЗА could perform several thou­sand additions per second, zipping through the tables of time and fre­quency far more rapidly than was possible with a mechanical calculator. It was an advance on APL’s partly analog machine—a type of computer that performed arithmetic operations by converting numbers to some physical analogue, say length or voltage.

By the late 1950s, university departments were slowly converting to digital machines, but not all scientists and engineers had, as yet, seen the value of computers. So, even though their project was not sanctioned offi­cially, Guier and Weiffenbach had no problem getting time on the computer, something that would not have been the case even a few months later.

When Guier and Weiffenbach first turned to the Univac, some of their colleagues asked, Why do you need a computer to calculate the slope of the curve? Given that they intended only a rough calculation, the ques­tion was reasonable. Guier, however, had worked with computers at Los Alamos. Though those machines were mechanical and rattled and banged around once Guier had fed in the numbers and instructed the machine to add or multiply, he had been won over by them. To him, the 1103A was a luxury, and he was happy to find a problem for the new machine.

It was no easy job, however, to program those early computers. A task that would take an hour to code in a higher-level language such as FOR­TRAN might take eight hours to code in assembly language, where each mathematical operation had to be coded for separately. If two numbers were to be multiplied together, the code needed to tell the computer in which memory locations to find each number, in what location to carry out the multiplication, and where to store the result.

Guier wrote instructions for those writing the code. As the orbital determination grew more elaborate, the number of code writers increased, and it not always possible to tell what each programmer had done. Guier started to insist that code be accompanied by notes describing why a par­ticular approach had been taken, and, though it looked like a tedious task, he learned assembly language himself in order to provide some continuity in the software effort (of course, this all took place before the word soft­ware had been invented). Thus APL, like others at the time, started to for­malize software development.

Today s computers can translate high-level languages, which are rich in symbolic notation, into the low-level assembly language that the machine “understands.” Computers then did not have the memory to hold the pro­grams needed for such a translation. To make matters worse, code writers often had to go back to the basic binary words of zeros and ones, which the limited symbology of assembly language represents, in order to find errors.

Despite what today would seem to be daunting limitations, the Uni- vac ПОЗА was a godsend to Guier’s and Weiffenbach s research.

As the two sought values for the miss distance, they soon recognized the ambiguities inherent in the approach. In the case of the train, it is easy to see that the way the frequency varies depends on how close the listener is to the track. But if you have only a tape recording, how do you know whether that recording was made two yards to the east or two yards to the west of the track? In the two-dimensional case, you are stuck with the ambiguity. In the case of the satellite, the earth is rotating beneath its orbit, and the east-west symmetry is broken.

But there are other ambiguities. Consider the train again; a recorder two yards west of a north-south track will record the same frequency shift if it maintains its westward distance but moves a mile due north. Fortu­nately, satellites inhabit our three-dimensional world. Rather than moving in a straight line, the satellite’s path with relationship to the lab might be a shallow or pronounced arc, near to the lab or like a distant rainbow, low or high on the horizon, and the arcs could be at many different angles. For each arc, the relative motion between the lab and the satellite, and thus the Doppler shift, was different.

Guier and Weiffenbach began to recognize the richness of the situa­tion, its complexity. The miss distance soon ceased to look like a particu­larly interesting value to calculate. They were beginning to suspect that their Doppler curves might contain a lot more information about satellite motion than was immediately apparent.

So they decided to explore, to find out how much information the data contained. To do this they needed to know how the Doppler data changed for different orbits. But only one satellite was aloft. Guier turned to the computer and created a general mathematical description of an orbit that would then generate the theoretical Doppler shift associated with a hypothetical satellite’s motion.

Guier pulled together the geometry, trigonometry, and algebra required to describe a generalized ellipse in space and the relationships between the ellipse, the lab, and the center of the earth. He drew up flow charts showing how his mathematical description of this physical phenom­enon could be turned into a computer program.

The model assumed the earth to be spherical, which it is not, and orbits to be circular, which they are not, though Sputnik’s orbit was nearly so. The idea, again, was to deal first with the simplest possible situation in order to clarify the underlying principles. This construction of a general­ized mathematical representation is akin to preparing a canvas for an oil painting. Guier’s and Weiffenbach’s painting would prove to be ambitious.

They began to generate theoretical Doppler curves. Of course, they were not creating curves but churning out lists of Doppler-shifted fre­quencies and times for the computer to work through, looking for ways in which the Doppler data varied as the orbital path varied. These numbers were octal rather than decimal, so instead of a counting scheme based on the digits 0 to 9, the digits run only from 0 to 7.

Guier and Weiffenbach pored over these numbers, and as necessary turned to their mechanical calculator to convert octal to decimal. They decided to make their model more realistic and so included mathematics describing the earth’s oblateness (a bulging at the equator caused by the centrifugal force resulting from the earth’s rotation). Oblateness causes orbits to precess because the Earth’s gravitational field is not uniform, as it would be around a homogeneous sphere. Inclusion of a term for oblate­ness was the first brush stroke on the newly prepared canvas.

In 1957, geophysicists thought they had a good understanding of the earth’s shape and structure and thus of its gravitational field. They turned out to be very wrong. Observations of satellites in near-Earth orbit showed all kinds of deviations from Keplerian orbits, each one rep­resenting some variation in the gravitational field, which in turn was a result of inhomogeneities in the earth. The field of satellite geodesy was established to tease a new understanding of the earth from these observa­tions of satellite motion. In 1957, the revolution that satellite geodesy pre­cipitated in our understanding of the earth had not yet begun, and the mathematical model that Guier devised to generate orbits was extremely rudimentary compared with what is possible today. In the years following Sputnik’s launch, observations of satellite motion would lead to many more brush strokes on Guier’s mathematical canvas, each representing a newly understood aspect of the Earth’s structure and its associated gravi­tational field.

Using their basic model in October 1957, Guier and Weiffenbach generated more theoretical orbits. They changed imaginary perigees, then the inclinations, ascending nodes, and eccentricity, and they observed what impact these changes in the Keplerian elements had on the theoretical Doppler curves generated by the computer. By this stage, they had com­pletely lost interest in calculating miss distances.

Given the multiplicity of tasks and the extent to which they exchanged ideas, it is hard now for Guier and Weiffenbach to remember who did what when, but they agree that at some point in those first days, Guier recognized that the detail of the Doppler curve must change in a unique way, depending on the geometry of the satellite pass. This was the conceptual breakthrough that others failed to see or, if they saw it, did not use: that each ballistic trajectory of the satellite generates a unique Doppler shift. They asked, Could they find the Keplerian elements that would generate theoretical Doppler curves that matched experimental observations of a real pass? If they could—bingo! The Keplerian elements fed into the theo­retical model would be the elements defining Sputnik’s orbit. They could test their findings by predicting the time that the real satellite would be at a given position if it had the Keplerian elements they had found by this method.

They knew enough from their observations and knowledge of physics to make rough initial guesses about Sputniks Keplerian elements. They fed these to the computer, generating theoretical lists of Doppler shifts. They watched the output, the reams of octal numbers, looking at how closely the theoretical values matched the observations for a particular pass.

Their project was still not sanctioned officially, but other members of the research center knew that something potentially interesting was afoot.

Their boss, Frank McClure, always insightful if not always diplomatic, was watching—at a discreet distance. From time to time, the trademark pipe of Ralph Gibson, APL’s director, appeared stealthily around a corner.

At some time in the first few weeks, when things happened in a less orderly fashion than this account suggests, Guier heard that Charles Bit- terli, one of APL’s few computer programmers, was writing an algorithm for a standard statistical tool, known as least squares fitting, that would be very useful in Guier’s and Weiffenbach’s research. Guier went in search of Bitterli.

Bitterli, who needed a real-life test problem, was happy to oblige by making his work available. An algorithm is a step-by-step set of instruc­tions for carrying out a computational process. When translated into a computer program, it becomes a standard tool to be pulled out when needed. Today, thousands exist in software libraries. Back then the task of building such libraries had scarcely begun.

Guier’s and Weiffenbach’s problem was that vast numbers of theoret­ical Doppler curves could be generated by varying the Keplerian elements. If it were not for the fact that the physics ruled out some combinations, the number of options would have been impossibly large. Even with the limits that physics imposed, there were many possibilities.

Each theoretical curve had to be checked point by point against observations of Sputnik’s Doppler curves. One theoretical curve might at first look like the best match, but then a comparison point by point could well show that it was not. Further, once they found the best possible match, they needed some quantitative way of assessing how good that fit was, and thus what the errors in the Keplerian elements probably were. So an algorithm for least-squares curve fitting, a statistical technique for find­ing the curve that best represents a set of experimental data, was very desirable to Guier and Weiffenbach. Bitterli’s program, which was for linear equations only (those whose graph is a straight line), had to be generalized for nonlinear equations relating many parameters. It was now that it became apparent that new methods would have to be learned and that specialists in numerical analysis would be needed.

Bitterli’s algorithm worked well, and the comparison of theoretical and observed curves speeded up. Even so, and despite the fact that their intuition was working full time as they made informed guesses about the input values of the Keplerian elements, they couldn’t generate a match that was close enough to be of any help in defining Sputnik’s orbit. Yet, theoret­ically, the method should work.

What next? Check everything; examine the setup for recording the Doppler shifts—connection by connection. Review the raw data, the cal­culations. Weiffenbach combed through everything he could think of. He concluded that the data were good. Guier reviewed the theory, the equa­tions, and the computer programs, which by now could have covered enough rolls of wallpaper to decorate a small room. They discussed the problem with one another and with colleagues, listened to critiques, and incorporated suggestions that seemed apt.

They continued to feed the computer the initial conditions that rep­resented their best guess about the satellite’s orbit. Then the computer would run through the calculations to produce the Doppler shift associ­ated with those elements. The process was iterative, with small changes being made to the starting conditions and fresh Doppler curves generated for each set of conditions. Sometimes, it looked as though they had found as good a fit as they were going to find. Listening still to their intuition, they were convinced they could find a set of Keplerian elements that would generate a theoretical Doppler curve even closer to the experimen­tal data. The new Keplerian elements would sometimes make the curve first grow away from a fit, but then as small changes were made, the theo­retical curve would grow closer than it had been before. The process was a little like finding yourself in a valley, only to climb through trees and find a deeper valley beyond. But still, the match was not good enough.

They grew despondent, questioned themselves, and searched some more. They noticed that from one experimental curve to the next, the fre­quency of the transmitter varied. Sputnik’s oscillator was not stable. Exactly as those planning tracking for the IGY had feared, transmission frequency could not be treated as a constant. But Guier and Weiffenbach needed to know the transmitter frequency in order to generate theoretical Doppler curves.

Now they started varying the value of the transmitter frequency. The same principle applied as when varying the Keplerian elements: if they could find a fit between theory and experiment, then the theoretical val­ues of transmitter frequency as well as of the Keplerian elements must be the values of the actual setup. The task was now way beyond what would have been possible without the recently installed Univac.

The whole process was barreling along when Sputnik I suddenly stopped transmitting. Guier and Weiffenbach had data to work with retro­spectively, much of which still had to be reduced. In practice therefore, Sputnik’s, silence made little difference, but psychologically it was disap­pointing to Guier. The pair were also beginning to suspect that an aspect of the physical world that they had thought could be ignored—the iono­sphere—was, in fact, significant. They were right. But to solve the problem they needed another satellite transmitting two frequencies.

Once again the Soviets obliged. Sputnik II was launched November 3, 1957. It transmitted at twenty and forty megahertz. With these two fre­quencies they could make the correction necessary to solve their problem. Theory and experiment started to come together.

Shortly after the launch of Sputnik II, they did it—found a theoreti­cal curve that gave them Sputnik’s orbit. It was nowhere near as accurate as later orbital determinations would be, but they had a method to determine all the Keplerian elements and the transmitter frequency from data col­lected during one satellite pass over one ground station. Guier and Weif­fenbach were delighted. It was the first time, recalls Guier, that they jumped for joy. Henry Elliott, who with Harry Zinc had joined Guier and Weiffenbach shortly after their work started, recalls being ecstatic. Bitterli, who went on to code far more complicated programs than a least-squares algorithm, came to see this work as one of the most important accom­plishments of his professional career.

Guier and Weiffenbach were now on the edge of new ground, sur­veying terrain that was full of quagmires and briars. The basic computa­tional and statistical methods existed for a novel method of orbital deter­mination and prediction, one that did not rely, as did every other, on measurements of angle. The same computational and statistical techniques would be applied, in an inverted manner, to satellite navigation.

Guier and Weiffenbach suspected that their method was correct to within two or three miles. McClure suggested checking their predictions against orbits determined by other groups. They compared their results with those from Jodrell Bank and the Royal Aircraft Establishment and found good agreement. Later they checked their orbital predictions for Sputnik II and the first American satellite, Explorer I, with Minitrack’s results. Again, the methods gave comparable accuracies.

The insight that each orbital trajectory had a unique Doppler shift associated with it was not new physics; rather, it was an inevitable conse­quence of the Doppler phenomenon in the dynamic, three-dimensional world. Nevertheless, Guier and Weiffenbach were the first to recognize that consequence and its implications for orbital determination.

More importantly, they got the process to work in the real world, where very little behaves ideally. If they had stopped to think about the task too much, they might have concluded that the method would never work to any useful degree of accuracy. If they had known more than they did initially about orbital mechanics, the ionosphere, or the discussions at the IGY, they might not have started their work as they did and thus not developed their techniques.

Some people who heard of their research found it hard to believe that all of the Keplerian elements and the transmitter frequency could be found by fitting a theoretical curve to one experimental set of data. But the trajectory of every satellite pass, part of a definable orbit, has a unique Doppler shift. And in three dimensions the ambiguities of two dimensions are eliminated. The method, to use their terminology, worked because of its exquisite sensitivity to the range rate. It was an excellent example of applied physics, and the danger is that it might sound trivial in the telling, particularly a telling that leaves out the mathematics. To fall back on scien­tific cliche, the task was nontrivial.