Category Something New Under the Sun

Follow That Moon

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

—William Pickering, October З, 1957


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The space age was underway.

Meteorology section

During two trips to Wisconsin in the summer of 1992,1 spent many hours interviewing Verner Suomi. He provided a lot of background and color to the early story of meteorology satellites. True to his experi­menter’s approach to life, he was at the time trying a novel therapy fol­lowing three heart operations. He had the same degree of curiosity about the experiment he was participating in as he had in his meteorological work.

Others interviewed for this section include

Dave Johnson, Robert White, Joseph Smagorinsky, Pierre Morel, P. Krishna Rao, Bob Sheets, Leo Skille, Bob Sutton, and Bob Ohckers.

When I interviewed P. Krishna Rao and Bob Sheets, I was considering writing a book that brought the story of meteorology satellites right up to date. In the end, that wasn’t possible but these interviews helped give me a sense of the evolution of the technology, and what I learned from them is, I hope, implicitly present in this section.

Keep it Simple, j| Suomi

We just got along like brothers. His interests and personality were what was missing from mine. I tend to dream a lot and jump to conclusions. He was thorough and patient. How hard we worked.

—Verner Suomi, talking about his friend and former colleague, Robert Parent

As I look back, I can see all the trial and error. I don’t want to use the word comedy.

—Leo Skille, an electronics technician who worked with Suomi and Parent from 1959


t rained on the morning of Verner Suomi’s memorial service. Deep – throated Midwestern thunder played its inimitable summer accompani­ment. And as one might expect among people gathered to celebrate Suomi’s life, there were questions—asked humorously, sadly—about just who it was that was responsible for the weather.

Ponytailed graduate students joined family, visiting scientists, and col­leagues from Suomi’s own academic home at the University ofWisconsin, Madison, in the Lutheran church on the edge of campus. Soon organ and trumpet released the opening notes of Giuseppe Torelli’s Sonata in D Major: lively notes that grew thoughtful, a little sad, and again lively.

Suomi’s son Stephen spoke of a man who could be stubborn, even too stubborn, but who would fake footprints and sled marks in the snow to convince him for one more year that Santa Claus existed. The minister spoke of a great scientist, but here he missed Suomi’s essential strengths, which lay in his engineering ingenuity, in his experimenter’s determina­tion to collect data, and in the stubbornness that his son recognized.

Suomi’s engineering ability, his “practical eye,” helped him to see how to build instruments that took advantage of the spatial and geometric relationships between orbits, the rotating Earth, and the satellites, which were themselves spinning. Time and again he watched as instruments

embodying his engineering concepts were launched. During interviews in the late spring of 1992, Suomi recalled that “what was exciting was to see this big rocket with ‘United States’ written on it, and your gadget was in the nose cone.”

It was Suomi’s stubbornness that placed the instruments in those rockets and kept his interest in satellite meteorology alive during the two decades it took him and other pioneers to find ways of extracting useful information from satellite data and to convince the wider meteorological community of the information’s validity. Verner Suomi held his own in the competitive and dynamic arena of meteorology. He knew quite well that he was stubborn, and said of himself, “I just yell and holler until I get my way.”

Building things was important to Suomi throughout his life. He was fascinated as a teenager by radio and flying. To his generation—the teenagers of the late 1920s—these comparatively new technologies were what computing is to the scientifically inclined youngsters of the late 1990s. It was almost obligatory to build your own radio set, which Suomi did during his summer holidays. He took a car mechanics course at school and worked on an aircraft engine as he trained to be a teacher at Winona State College in Minnesota.

As Suomi was contemplating these memories in his office, he recalled that some years past he had met an old girlfriend, someone from the days before he met his wife, Paula. This woman had commented on his patience with things but lack of patience with people.

“I thought a lot about that; it had a big affect on me and was a mile­stone. Since then, I’ve tried to be patient with people. Whether I was suc­cessful or not, well that’s another story The thing is, it’s easy to work with things, they don’t talk back.”

Given this aspect of Suomi’s character, it makes sense that at the age of twenty-seven he gave up teaching high school to take a degree in mete­orology at the University of Chicago.

Chicago’s meteorology department was run at that time by one of the giants in the history of the subject, Carl Gustav Rossby. Reportedly, it was after learning from Rossby of Lewis Richardson’s failed attempt to make a numerical weather prediction that John Von Neumann concluded that weather forecasting was an ideal problem for the new “high-speed” computers.

Suomi had learned a little about meteorology and weather forecast­ing while he was learning to fly but had dropped the subject after he had received his license. (As he talked about flying he wistfully remarked that he would like to fly “one of those big planes.”) At Chicago, he found Rossby to be an original and fascinating person, someone who “could talk you out of your shirt and make you think you had a bargain.”

Suomi also met Reid Bryson, who established a meteorology depart­ment at the University ofWisconsin, one that became among the best in the country. Bryson asked Suomi to join him in developing the depart­ment, which subsequently proved to be a source of discord between the two men. Suomi and Bryson developed a complicated relationship that incorporated friendship and professional rivalry. They had both moved to the University ofWisconsin in 1948, where Suomi completed the doctor­ate he had begun in Chicago, earning his degree at the age of thirty-eight in 1953.

In many ways, Bryson’s and Suomi’s rivalry typified the greater rivalry that existed in meteorology between atmospheric modelers and advocates of satellites. Suomi, of course, was the satellite advocate, inter­ested in improved weather forecasts; Bryson was more interested in com­puter modeling and climate. With these interests, both placed themselves out of what was then the mainstream of meteorology—Suomi because satellite instrumentation was not providing what meteorologists needed, and Bryson because in the late 1950s and early 1960s climate modeling and prediction were not quite respectable. In the pursuit of more accurate weather forecasts, both for long-range and short-term predictions, tension over resources and staffing arose between the two men. Neither was con­tent to rely only on traditional instruments and weather maps. Both satel­lite technology and bigger and better computers on which to run more detailed models cost money and call for expensive expertise, and local ten­sions mirrored these at a national level. The fierceness of the disagreement at all levels was fueled by genuine scientific disagreement about the correct way to move meteorology forward.

As a general rule, the modelers were theoreticians at heart, while the satellite advocates had the souls of experimentalists. Of course, experimen­talists had to understand theory and theorists had to incorporate the results of experiment, but there seemed and seems to be a difference between the two groups that can set the two sects at one another’s throats.

The difference was manifest between Bryson and Suomi. Bryson worked on theories of climate. Suomi wanted to design instruments to learn more about what were then the largely unexplored regions of the atmosphere in the Southern Hemisphere and at higher altitudes, regions which, in an interview with William Broad of the New York Times, Suomi called the ignorosphere.

In the end, of course, meteorology proved to be big enough for both of them and to need both of their approaches. And they continued to live as neighbors in the houses they had helped one another build.

During the 1950s, Suomi formed another important professional relationship, one that was synergistic. This was with Robert Parent, from the university’s Department of Electrical Engineering. Their first collabo­ration was in the design and construction of an experiment known irrev­erently as Suomi’s balls, and more properly by the title of their proposal to the International Geophysical Year, which was “satellite instrumentation for the measurement of the thermal radiation budget of the earth.”

This property of the earth—its thermal radiation budget—is a cru­cial aspect of meteorology. It may even be the most basic factor influencing the world’s climate. Thus, the radiation budget is of more interest to basic research than in the applied field of weather forecasting. And there is some irony in the fact that Suomi, who became known for designing satellite instruments for improving short-term weather forecasting and who had the differences of opinion that he did with Bryson, should have been the first to put forward a proposal to measure the earth’s radiation budget.

The radiation budget is the driving force behind both atmospheric and oceanic circulation. Very simply stated, it is the balance between the incoming solar radiation and the outgoing radiation from the earth. Over time and over the whole earth, the incoming and outgoing radiation streams balance one another. The importance of the radiation budget, however, lies not in this balance but in the way that the balance of the incoming and outgoing radiation varies with geographical location and time.

The outgoing radiation falls into two broad categories: that which is reflected from the atmosphere and the surface without any change in wavelength, and that which is absorbed and reradiated at longer wave­lengths from the surface and the atmosphere. The amount of radiation reflected by some structures, such as ocean, cloud, or icecap, is known as the albedo of that surface. Meteorologists know now that the mean albedo of the earth is thirty percent, but that individual surfaces can have albedos ranging from ninety percent for dry snow at high latitudes to fourteen percent for dark, moist soil. Since the albedo is greatest at the poles, and concomitantly, absorption and reradiation are lowest at these latitudes, heat flows to the poles from the equator, driving the atmospheric and oceanic circulation without which there would be no weather.

Many types of atmospheric behavior and processes connect the global radiation budget to the weather. They range from large-scale struc­tures, such as the circumpolar vortices that spawn the jet stream, down to familiar weather features like cold fronts and storms. So the radiation bud­get, while it is the reason for the existence of the weather, is not of imme­diate application to short-term forecasts. Nevertheless, it is crucial to any deep understanding of meteorology, to climate studies, and to the explo­ration of long-term weather fluctuations.

Satellites have provided values of the three radiation fluxes (incoming solar, upwelling reflected, and reradiated energy) that contribute to the earth’s radiation budget, and they have done so for different geographical locations and seasons. The next step in this field will be to disentangle the detail: How much of the reradiated energy comes from the surface as opposed to the atmosphere, for example, and how absorption and reradia­tion vary with altitude and the physical composition of the atmosphere.

In the late 1950s, much controversy still surrounded the basic ques­tion of the earth’s overall radiation budget. That controversy arose because scientists were calculating the radiation budget from too little data. They needed a Tycho Brahe, or several Brahes, who would collect the observa­tions “heaped on observation,” but before satellites, there was no practical way of collecting comprehensive data. Some sounding rockets and ground stations had measured values of, respectively, the incoming solar radiation and terrestrial radiation. And even before the administration announced the satellite program, the meteorology panel of the International Geophys­ical Year had plans to gather more ground-based observations to increase their understanding of the earth’s radiation budget. Then came the satellite program, with its offer of a new perspective on the earth, that made possi­ble Suomi’s proposal.

Suomi and Parent did not join the International Geophysical Year until nearly a year after President Eisenhower’s announcement that the United States would launch a satellite. Then, sometime in the spring of 1956, Suomi attended a lecture given by Joseph Kaplan, the “five cigar” chair of the U. S.’s National Committee—the man who had shepherded the U. S.’s IGY proposals past wary administration officials. Kaplan by now was promoting the IGY and the satellite program to a wider scientific audience and to the public.

As he listened to Kaplan’s lecture, Suomi knew that he wanted to participate in the satellite program. His doctoral thesis—about ten pages of text and thirty of charts—had described the radiation budget of a cornfield. That is, he was interested in what happens to the sun’s energy: what is absorbed, what reemitted, when and how. Such basic information is valuable to agriculture. And today such studies are also important for correlating satellite observations with what is actually happening on the ground.

Never niggardly with the scope of his ideas, Suomi thought he could study the earth’s radiation budget from a satellite, and that the project would be “much more interesting than the radiation budget of a lousy cornfield.”

After the lecture he spoke to Kaplan, who told him to contact Harry Wexler, then chief scientist of the Weather Bureau as well as the chair of the IGY’s meteorology committee and a member of the U. S. National Committee of IGY By now the satellite panel was assigning priority to the various payload proposals, and at this late stage the sponsorship that Wexler quickly provided was essential. “Harry rigged it up,” said Suomi, “so my little proposal snuck in about three days after the door was closed. I got about $75,000, which in those days was an enormous amount of money.”

Wexler and his colleague Sig Fritz worked on some of the theoretical aspects of the scientific consequences of Suomi’s instrument and told the satellite panel that he and Fritz were interested in exploring whether data from Suomi’s instruments would show a correlation between isolines of reflected radiation and large-scale weather. Wexler presented Suomi’s ideas on June 7, 1956. During the next six months he also solicited the support of other influential meteorologists.

Although Suomi and Parent did not submit a formal proposal until the beginning of 1957, their new idea upset the proverbial apple cart. It was not the last time that Suomi would disturb nicely laid plans with a last-minute idea. He was to do the same with his idea for a spin-scan camera.

In the case of the radiation budget experiment, the overturned apple cart belonged to Bill Stroud of the Signal Corps of Engineers. His idea, like Suomi’s, was too ambitious for the existing technology, but both were pushing the boundaries. And both saw conceptually the promise of the bird’s-eye view.

Stroud wanted to photograph clouds from orbit. He had two broad purposes: first, to seek ways to identify cloud types from above, and sec­ond, to estimate the albedo of clouds.

The panel was interested in Stroud’s idea but concerned about the difficulties of extracting any useful information from the photographs. This was the concern that Kellogg and Greenfield had expressed in their report of 1951 and that would surface again during the TIROS program. Nevertheless, by the time Wexler introduced Suomi’s idea, the panelists had decided to back Stroud’s work, though it was classified as one of the “priority B” experiments.

And that is the priority that the experiment retained until the turn of the year, when a flurry of events precipitated a face-off between Suomi and Stroud.

By the end of 1956, the panelists had money for only four experi­ments. One of these was to be the Naval Research Laboratory’s satellite designed to measure temperature and pressure in space, another would be Van Allen’s payload, the third was to be a geomagnetic experiment, and the fourth experiment was to be Suomi’s.

Stroud must have objected, because when the panel next met early in 1957, they had decided that he and Suomi should compete for the fourth launch vehicle and that at the end of 1957 the country’s leading meteorol­ogists should decide between them. The two raced to prepare their satel­lites. But then Sputnik I was launched, followed shortly by Sputnik II, and President Eisenhower’s administration brought in the Army. There were now enough launch vehicles, and all the meteorologists had to do was to endorse both project.

Stroud’s payload was launched first, on Vanguard II. His camera worked, but its images were of little use because the satellite was precessing wildly. It was not possible to say where the camera was pointing. Stroud’s problems sprang from the difficulties that arise with spinning bodies. The final stage of Vanguard II was spun so that it would be stable in flight. And the satellite was designed to spin up after separation from Vanguard so that it too would be stable in orbit.

When the IGY’s satellite panel met for the last time to wind up busi­ness, on July 21, 1959, John Townsend, of the Naval Research Laboratory,

Keep it Simple, j| Suomi

Verner Suomi posing with the Vanguard satellite that was launched on June 22, l959.The satellite ended up in the ocean.

gave a report of the Vanguard II launch that gives a flavor of the difficulties and the unknowns of rocketry and satellites in those days. One theory was that there had been a collision between the third stage and the satellite. The idea stemmed from what they had learned about Vanguard I, the launch that generated the data for O’Keefe’s deduction of the pear-shaped earth. In that case, the Vanguard team had asked Fred Whipple’s group of optical trackers at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to locate the third stage for them. Whipple’s group had found the rocket’s final stage to

Keep it Simple, j| Suomi

Robert Parent (left) andVerner Suomi work on the electronics of their radiation balance experiment.

be in a markedly different orbit from that of the satellite. “So,” reported Townsend, “even after what appears to be a shutdown [of the third stage], there is enough propulsion in that unit as it cooks, or burps, to account for several hundred feet per second difference between the bottle [i. e., the third stage] and the satellite itself.” In other words, there was enough dif­ference in velocity to send the two into slightly different orbits, raising the possibility of collision.

The alternative explanation centered around the fact that the spin up and separation might have occurred at the same time. This could have

Keep it Simple, j| Suomi

ExplorerVII which carried Verner Suomi’s and Robert Parent’s radiation balance experiment into space on October І З, 1959.The white hemisphere attached to the mirror is one of the bolometers that gathered data for the experiment.

caused a problem because of the third stage’s unburnt fuel. The bottle, Townsend told the group, was an unbalanced stovepipe with holes in it that was unpredictable mathematically. If the satellite’s spin thrusters fired while still attached, the bottle would precess wildly and impart that precession to the satellite. Whichever explanation was correct, Stroud’s experiment was in trouble because the satellite had no internal damping mechanism.

Six months later, on October 13, 1959, Suomi and Parent’s payload reached space. Suomi had a receiver in his bedroom. He received four sig­nals a day, two within 105 minutes of one another, then a similar set twelve hours later.

“We worked like dogs,” said Suomi of his and Parent’s work on the radiation balance experiment. Leo Skille, a lab technician who worked with Suomi and Parent, recalled that Suomi had an air mattress that leaked, and that after four hours Suomi would find himself awake on the hard floor. The mattress served as Suomi’s alarm clock, and it was not uncom­mon for Skille to come in at eight in the morning and see both Suomi and Parent still working.

Suomi spent most of his time in electrical engineering because the meteorology department did not consider the satellite work an enormous blessing, although it did not hold him back.

Suomi and Parent amused observers as, sporting the bow ties favored by some academics, they strode around campus deep in discussion. When they encountered a grassy quad, Parent would—so the story goes—walk around it, while Suomi strode diagonally across.

“I’m a person,” said Suomi, “who says ‘lets do this.’ It might be a crazy idea, but I don’t let initial problems stop me. Bob was there as an evaluator. He didn’t discourage me. He put a certain amount of reality into some of the wild things I thought about.”

“Suomi would go off at tangents,” said his technicians, “Parent would bring him back to Earth. Suomi would figure you could build an instru­ment as fast as he thought of it. We’d say,‘Watch out for Suomi on Monday mornings.’ He’s come in with a whole bunch of ideas he’d thought of over the weekend.”

The engineers would wonder sometimes what he was getting at, and they wondered whether it was just they that didn’t understand his idea or whether he was coming out of left field. He always wanted to know why something wouldn’t work. “He could be stubborn,” they said, “and there were big rows, but he never held a grudge.”

Suomi and Parent’s first satellite experiment comprised four ping- pong-sized balls on the end of Vanguard’s antennas—hence its irreverent nickname. One was white and thus reflected visible radiation but absorbed the longer-wavelength radiation reflected from the earth. One was black and absorbed all wavelengths, and the other two were shaded in such a way as to discriminate between incoming and upwelling terrestrial radiation. Each contained a resistor that enabled a determination of the balls’ tem­perature (the relationship between resistance and temperature for different types of material is well known). These numbers did not provide absolute values for the three different types of radiation, but they did show how the radiation balance varied.

Suomi and Parent did most of the early construction themselves. “We were probably as capable as any of the engineers,” said Suomi. The two of them built four models: one for mechanical and vibration tests, one for electrical tests, one flight model, and one backup.

The bane of their lives were the transistors, which they knew com­paratively little about because transistors were a new technology. Suomi would order them in batches of fifty, paying $35 for an npn type transistor and $65 for a pnp. (A $35 watch today, said Suomi, contains about five thousand transistors.) The transistors were supposed to work within cer­tain temperature ranges, but most of them clustered at the extremes of the stated range rather than at the center, as became usual when the technol­ogy matured. They tested each component by cooking it in Paula Suomi’s electric frying pan and then putting it in the freezer. Then they hooked each component up to an oscilloscope and checked its characteristics by observing the plots of voltage against time for various inputs. If it worked, it could be soldered onto a circuit board; if not, it went into the bin.

At each stage of the construction, there were laborious tests. “I can honestly say,” recalled Suomi, “that we never took any short cuts. If we made any changes, we made the tests. We almost worshipped that rule.

“I remember distinctly that as we worked on something, we would work it to death, and if the improvement was not satisfactory, we didn’t say we don’t have to worry about that anymore. We’d go and find a blackboard and try to understand the problem at a deeper level than just something we were soldering. For example, we needed a power amplifier to work over a wide range of temperatures, and so we needed transistors that would work over a wide range of temperatures. We tried to use silicon, but the only thing then that could handle enough power was germanium, but germa­nium is temperature sensitive; therefore we put in resistors to modify the power input. The resistors had to be reliable at a range of temperatures, so we put in thermistors to compensate for different temperatures.”

In the end, they had underestimated by a factor of a thousand the time needed for testing, but to Suomi’s irritation, the flight model was not put through the severest tests. It was felt that testing wore out the payload.

Their task grew more complicated when the Army became involved. All of those assigned launches were asked whether their payload could be modified for Explorer. Suomi and Parent were among those who built payloads for both types of satellite and launch vehicle. Werner von Braun told Suomi that if he could not have his experiment ready by the launch date, the rocket would carry a plaque reading “this space was reserved for the University ofWisconsin.”

Suomi and Parent’s first launch attempt was atop Vanguard on June 22,1959. That payload went into the ocean. When I asked whether he and Parent went for a drink after the launch failure, Suomi looked into the dis­tance for a moment and said, “Yes, we went for a drink.” He paused and added, “maybe more than one. We weren’t thinking yet about Explorer. It hurt too much to lose the experiment on Vanguard. I could tell you a lot of things we did and said then, but they’re unprintable.”

But they had to think about Explorer very soon, perhaps even before their hangovers cleared, because the launch was scheduled for July 16. Suomi and Parent observed this second launch from the blockhouse at Cape Canaveral. Photographers and journalists only a quarter of a mile away watched the liftoff and saw with horror that the rocket appeared to head straight toward them. The photographers continued shooting as those around them dived under cars and trucks.

The rocket was, in fact, veering toward a populated part of Florida, and the range safety officer deliberately exploded it. The blazing rocket fell within 150 feet of the blockhouse. Suomi and Parent were trapped for more than an hour. When they were allowed out, they went to the smol­dering rocket and hacksawed out their instrument package.

For the next launch, in October 1959, Suomi, who now saw himself as a jinx, stayed in Wisconsin. That rocket reached space, and the payload collected its data successfully.

The value of Suomi’s experiment is not that! it provided a global map of the radiation budget, because it did not. Rather it is in the existence of the idea and in the thought that went into exploiting this new place from which to make observations and in the painful lessons learned during the primitive days of the space age.

The first factor operating against Suomi was the low inclination of the orbit selected for Vanguard and later for Explorer. From the low inclina­tion the satellite could “see” only a limited area of the surface and missed the poles completely Secondly, the primitive state of computing and data processing imposed limitations. In June 1961, Suomi wrote to a science journalist that they had been drowned in data from Explorer VII. The satel­lite was supposed to have been turned off on October 13, 1960, but the timer failed, so it was still operating eighteen months later. Suomi wrote, “Records are now being corrected on a minimum scale—it’s reassuring to compare records a year apart… the condition of the black sensor is nearly the same as originally, but the white sensor has discontinued due to expo­sure to the sun’s radiation.”

Though the results fell far short of the ambitious plan, the first attempt had been made to gather comprehensive data about the most fun­damental process driving the earth’s atmosphere and oceans. And Verner Suomi was hooked by the new field of satellite meteorology. He went on to fly radiation budget experiments on two of the TIROS series of space­craft and on classified satellites. He later referred to results from all of these when he was arguing that the spin-scan camera, for which he is most well known, should fly on one of NASA’s experimental spacecraft—the appli­cation technology satellite, or ATS-1.

My description of William Pickering is from my own observations (page 22)

Information about Vanguard came mainly from my interview with Mil­ton Rosen and was bolstered by articles and papers he gave me, including one by John Pierce describing how satellites might be used for telecom­munications, one that Rosen sent on 3 March 1955 describing the utility of the Viking rocket for a satellite launch vehicle, and a memo on the same date from John Mengel and Roger Eastman outlining Minitrack.

A considerable amount of useful information about Vanguard can also be found in Green’s and Lomask’s book and in the NASA History Office (see notes for the prologue). Green and Lomask give details of the costs and of the rival merits of the Projects Orbiter and Vanguard pro­posals, including details of the miniaturization to be found in Vanguard (page 26).

Milton Rosen told me that von Braun asked for a chance to make a sec­ond presentation of Project Orbiter to the Stewart committee, and of the anxiety with which he (Rosen) watched the presentation and the disbe­lief and elation felt by the NRL team when they learned that the com­mittee had backed Project Vanguard (page 26).

My interview with William Pickering and his oral history, given to Mary Terral for the archives of the California Institute of Technology, provide details of Project Orbiter and how it evolved from von Braun’s original proposal.

Information about the long playing rocket (the euphemism by which a rocket capable of reaching orbit was known), its costs, and the costs of the satellite program, as well as their acceptance by the USNC—IGY is found in the following minutes, located at the National Academy of Sciences: third meeting of the USNC executive committee (January 7, 1955), dur­ing which the technical panel on rocketry was asked to report on the technical feasibility of satellites; first meeting of the technical panel on rocketry (January 22, 1955) during which a subcommittee comprising William Pickering, Milton Rosen, and John Townsend was formed; first meeting of the subcommittee evaluating the feasibility of a satellite launch (February 3 and 4, 1955, in Pasadena). No minutes, though William Pick­ering remembers the first meeting. Fourth meeting of the executive com­mittee of the USNC, during which members were told that the technical evaluation of a satellite was ongoing; On March 5, 1955, there was a meeting between Joseph Kaplan and Hugh Odishaw, the administrative secretary of the USNC, to discuss security procedures surrounding the work of the subcommittee of the technical panel on rocketry. They con­cluded that the report would be classified but that the committee would prepare an unclassified report for the executive committee; On March 9, 1955, the technical panel on rocketry accepted a classified report on the feasibility of launching a satellite and prepared an unclassified version for the USNC’s executive committee; On March 8 — 10, the fifth meeting of the USNC executive committee discussed the rocketry panel’s report and debated whether to back the inclusion of satellites in the IGY. Unusually, the notes from this meeting are handwritten and hard to decipher. The most vocal discussants were Merle Tuve and Athelstan Spilhaus. Tuve expressed doubt about the inclusion of a satellite in the IGY; Spilhaus was strongly in favor. What caused Tuve concern was the classified nature of the project. In the end, the meeting agreed that if the long playing rocket were still classified by January 1956, then it should be dropped from the program. The seventh meeting of the USNC took place on May 5, 1955. An agenda item on the LPR refers to an attachment that is not included in the archives. This meeting was in the period following Quarles’ approach to the IGY and prior to Eisenhower’s public announcement that there would be a satellite program. Hugh Odishaw was writing and phoning the NSF at this stage, pushing for a decision on the satellite bud­get and seemingly unaware of the higher policy decisions in which the satellite program was caught.

Odishaw’s letters and Joseph Kaplans correspondence with Alan Water­man, the director of the National Science Foundation, and Detlev Bronk, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, are in the correspon­dence files of the IGY archives at the NAS.

Details of the curtailment of the satellite program (page 30) in the year following President Eisenhower’s announcement that it would go ahead are also to be found in the archives of the NAS. The USNC discussed the Earth satellite program at its tenth meeting on 13 July 1956. The minutes, classified as administratively confidential, say, “For reasons of economy, the Earth satellite program has been curtailed from 12 attempted launching to six.” Hugh Odishaw drew the committee’s attention to the need for con­fidentiality, “lest knowledge of the curtailment of the program should lead to an international loss of prestige by the U. S.”

The interaction between the IGY and national security policy comes pri­marily from R. Cargill Hall, “The Eisenhower Administration and the Cold War, Framing American Astronautics to Serve National Security,” in Prologue, Quarterly of the National Archives, spring 1996. It seems likely that the criteria that the Stewart Committee were given in order to decide between Projects Orbiter and Vanguard were chosen to ensure that the IGY could indeed be a “stalking horse” for the launch of a reconnaissance satellite.

Information about the Stewart Committee (page 25) can be found in the oral history by Homer Joe Stewart in the archives of the California Insti­tute of Technology and in Vanguard—A History (NASA History Series SP4202), by Constance Green and Milton Lomask. Milton Rosen also gave me information about the way the Stewart Committee voted and the reasoning behind their decision.

Homer Joe Stewart was interviewed by John L. Greenberg on October 13 and 19 and November 2 and 9, 1982, for an oral history, which is in the archives of the California Institute of Technology.

Details of how the scientists learned of the launch of Sputnik come from conversations with Walter Sullivan, William Pickering, and John Townsend (page 30).

Books consulted for chapter 2, as well as for the prologue and chapter 11 are Beyond the Atmosphere, Early Years of Space Science, by Homer E. Newell (SP4211—NASA History Series); Science with a Vengeance, How the Military Created the US Space Sciences after World War If by David DeVorkin (Springer-Verlag, 1992); The Viking Rocket Story; by Milton W. Rosen (Faber, 1955).

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.


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.

Storm Patrol

People have told me I’m a wonderful salesman, but it took all of my salesmanship while I was in Washington [to persuade NASA to fly the spin-scan camera].

—Verner Suomi to author, May 27, 1992

The spin-scan camera was a giant step. It gave you a view you didn’t have before.

—Robert White, former president of the National Academy of Engineering, to author, 1992.


n his long, narrow office at the University of Wisconsin, with awards hung on the walls (others are stuffed in drawers in the basement), Verner Suomi recalled the first spin-scan camera that he and Bob Parent proposed to NASA in the fall of 1964. “It was disgustingly simple. The stuff on the ground that you need to put the pictures together, that was not so simple.” The camera’s job was to continually monitor the weather over one portion of the earth’s surface.

The space-based elements of the idea were, indeed, conceptually straightforward: a spinning spacecraft in geostationary orbit,[12] a telescope, a camera, and a data link with the earth. The practicality was a little more difficult. “But,” said Suomi, “one of the advantages was that we didn’t know what the problems were, so they didn’t hold us up.”

Suomi and Parent’s first proposal for a spin-scan camera, dated Sep­tember 28,1964, was a hastily thrown together three and a half pages of text and two pages of very simple diagrams. Parent was the electronics expert. Their proposal was called “Initial Technical Proposal for a ‘Storm Patrol’

Meteorological Experiment on an ATS Spacecraft.” Like other meteorolo­gists at the time, Suomi wanted to take advantage of the 22,300-mile-high geostationary orbit, in which a satellite stays in the same position, more or less, with respect to the earth and thus “sees” the weather moving under­neath. Polar-orbiting satellites, by contrast, see successive snapshots of the weather in different places as they move through their orbit.

A geostationary orbit, however, is a long way away from the earth, so Suomi and Parent described a telescopic camera that would enlarge the distant image. Since only a small part of the earth would fall within the field of view, some method was needed of scanning in the east-west and north-south directions to build up an image of the earth’s surface. The satellite on which they hoped to mount the spin-scan camera would be spinning at a steady 100 rpm, and thus automatically would scan a line from east to west. After each revolution, the camera would shift its field of view slightly to build the full picture of the earth’s disc. Over the years, several electronic and mechanical methods of achieving movement in the north-south direction were explored.

Suomi and Parent thought that the image could be built over ten minutes from one thousand scan lines, giving a resolution at the subsatel­lite point of six nautical miles. In their second, ten-page proposal to NASA a year later, the camera, which was designed cooperatively with the Santa Barbara Research Facility of the Hughes Aircraft Company, had an image built from two thousand lines and thus an improved spatial resolution.

Today’s technological descendants of the first spin-scan camera scan sixteen thousand lines in thirty minutes. During severe storms they can build more frequent pictures of smaller regions. They observe in the infrared. Each radiometric reading is assigned a color, and a false-color image is created. From these images, meteorologists, infer wind speeds, which are particularly important for modeling atmospheric conditions in the tropics (within thirty degrees of latitude north and south of the equa­tor), where the temperature differences are too small for satellite sounders to make distinctions.

Despite the greater spatial resolution of today’s satellites, Suomi, talk­ing in 1992, was not happy about the thirty-minute time interval between photographs. In his opinion, the ideal interval is the ten minutes that he and Parent first proposed in 1964 because in that time very little change in the weather and very little detail of an evolving weather pattern is lost.

In that first proposal, Suomi wrote, “The object of the experiment is to continuously monitor the weather motions over a large fraction of the earths surface.” He and Parent envisaged a camera that would observe the earth between fifty degrees of latitude north and south, which would, of course, encompass the meteorologically all-important region of the tropics.

Suomi quoted results from his radiation balance experiments on Explorer VII and several of the TIROS satellites to make his case, writing that the amount of radiation reflected from the tropics was lower than expected, even though the total outgoing radiation from the earth was close to earlier estimates. Thus, more heat than previously thought was being transferred from tropical to polar regions.

The questions meteorologists needed to answer were, How was that heat transfer achieved, and how did it affect global circulation of the atmosphere? They had few observations with which to work because the tropics—the “boiler,” as Suomi wrote, of the giant atmospheric heat engine—which cover about half of the earth’s surface, are eighty percent ocean. The polar orbiting TIROS satellites did not help much. Those satellites spent only about fifteen minutes traversing the region as they headed north (similarly for the southward journey) in their orbit. There was a gap of twelve hours before the spacecraft was next above the same subsatellite point. In the tropics, where weather patterns develop and dissi­pate in far less than twelve hours, the result was that the TIROS satellites did not provide observations of the complete life cycle of a typical tropical storm. Instead, meteorologists inferred the progress of a “model” storm from observations of different storms in different places at different stages of their development.

Yet these storms, including hurricanes, are one of the mechanisms by which the “boiler” of the “atmospheric heat engine” redistributes heat around the earth. The rationale of the spin-scan camera was to provide data that would allow meteorologists to explore these mechanisms.

It took more than a decade for meteorologists to find effective ways of exploiting the spin-scan camera, but eventually inferences of wind speeds in the tropics improved atmospheric models.

Bob Ohckers, an electronics technician who joined Suomi’s group in 1967 from RCA, said that Suomi initially wanted to measure the winds from the displacement of clouds between successive images. “We’d get one image (an 8 by 8 transparency) in a frame and superimpose a second image taken twenty minutes later. First, we’d line up the geographical points in the two transparencies, completely ignoring the clouds. Next we’d shake the images in a frame until the clouds from the two images were superim­posed on one another and the geographical features were displaced. You could tell when the clouds coincided because the light shining through from below was at it dimmest in those places. Then you would measure the x and у displacement of the clouds.” The method worked, but it was impractical, and the department’s software group came up with a better way of doing the same thing. When Suomi saw the results of the software, he dropped the mechanical approach without a backward glance.[13]

Although meteorologists in the early 1960s were keen to observe the earth from geostationary orbit and plans existed on paper for a geostation­ary meteorology satellite, there was a problem. “No one had any idea,” recalled Suomi, “about how to get the blooming thing up there.”

Then Harold Rosen, Donald Williams, and Tom Hudspeth, of the Hughes Aircraft Company, came up with the engineering concepts that made attaining geostationary orbit both economically and technically feasible at an earlier date than anyone had thought possible. It was an advance that was to be a key factor in opening up the multi-billion-dollar business of civilian communication satellites in the mid 1960s, but a description of a NASA satellite based on the Hughes design also fired Suomi’s imagination. It was called, prosaically enough, the Application Technology Satellite-I. ATS-I was to carry an experimental communica­tions payload with sufficient bandwidth to transmit a TV channel.

Suomi’s attention was caught by the simplified block diagram that accompanied the article describing ATS-i. It looked to him as though the satellite should be able to carry a small camera and that there would be sufficient bandwidth to carry its images back to Earth.

During July and August 1964, Suomi elaborated his ideas, and he and Parent hastily put them into their September proposal to NASA.2

Storm Patrol

Earlier in the year, Suomi had completed a brief stint as chief scientist of the Weather Bureau, working for Robert White (who later became presi­dent of the National Academy of Engineering, retiring in 1995). “Wouldn’t it be nice,” Suomi now asked White, “to beat the Russians into space with a camera viewing the weather from a geostationary satellite?” Seven years into the space age, many space scientists and engineers still felt they needed to regain the technological initiative from the Soviets. White’s practical response was to grease the bureaucratic wheels for Suomi, who, as with the International Geophysical Year, was making a belated entry into a satellite program.

NASA at first told Suomi that the spacecraft would not be stable enough for his camera. Suomi called Rosen at Hughes, who, incensed by the comment, made his own phone calls to NASA.

In the meantime, Suomi presented his and Parent’s ideas to govern­ment officials and industry representatives, including TRW and the Santa Barbara Research Center of the Hughes Aircraft Company. Both compa­nies invested their own resources to investigate the concept. Several data processing issues had to be solved. For example, the camera was being designed to have a precise geometry, and the geometry of the resulting image had to be preserved after processing. Second, from geostationary orbit, the Earth occupied only about 16 degrees of the camera’s 360 degree field of view (because it was rotating). So the camera would be recording images of the earth for only about a twentieth of each revolu­tion, and the signal would take up twenty times more bandwidth than was needed to relay the image data. There were questions, too, about the impact of camera distortion and about nutations of the spin axis (preces­sion).

NASA backed the proposal in time for the camera to fly on the ATS-1 spacecraft. Suomi kept the technical authority for the project at the University ofWisconsin but subcontracted the physical construction and final engineering to the Santa Barbara Research Facility.

Some years later, Hughes filed a patent on the spin-scan camera, but Suomi opposed them, supporting NASA’s claim to the patent because it was the agency that had funded his work and because Suomi believed that the validity of the Hughes patent claim rested on his ideas. NASA, which would be less fortunate during a later patent dispute with Hughes about crucial elements of the Williams, Rosen, Hudspeth satellite design, won the dispute. Nevertheless, as Suomi said some years later, Hughes engineers made important contributions to the development of the camera, and, he added, . Hughes built the camera, so in a manner of speaking, they reduced the idea to practice.”

Suomi almost missed the launch of ATS-1. He had forgotten to do the paperwork for his security clearance, but a colleague interceded for him. Suomi said his most exciting professional moment came when the first image of Earth’s disk ever taken from space appeared on an oscillo­scope. The aim of the spin-scan camera had been to have weather imagery available to meteorologists in real time. That did not happen immediately. The first printed images from the spin-scan camera on ATS – і were ready four or five days after the launch. Suomi was scheduled to give a lecture at the American Meteorological Society. He said, “I had a whole bunch of negatives, and I tried to line these up with one another. I put a pin through, and I made a “movie.” I gave my talk and ran the movie. They thought it was wonderful to see the clouds moving.”

They had, in fact, seen the first ever animated picture of the earth’s weather—the primitive precursor to the pictures that appear today on television weather forecasts. There was still a long way to go before the technology would be regarded as mature, but one of the two most signifi­cant classes of instrument (the other was the sounder) that would facilitate that process was aloft. And it was mounted on a satellite that was the tech­nological kin of Early Bird, the world’s first commercial communication satellite

Chapter three: Follow That Moon

William Pickering’s state of mind and actions following Lloyd Berkner’s toast to the Soviets come from my interview with him. He described also the error in calculation they had made and the phone calls that poured into the headquarters of the IGY (pages 30 — 34).

Information about Project Moonwatch comes from my interviews with Roger Harvey, Henry Fliegel, and Florence Hazeltine.

Information on the radio tracking program comes from interviews by Green and Lomask with Daniel Mazur and Joseph Siry in the NASA His­tory Office, as well as from the following papers: John T. Mengel, “Track­ing the Earth Satellite, and Data Transmission by Radio,” Proceedings of the IRE (44), 6,June 1956;John T. Mengel and Paul Hergert, “Tracking Satellites by Radio,” Scientific American (198), 1, January 1958.

Information about the goals of the IGY satellite program and details of the optical and radio tracking systems and the technical and budgetary difficulties faced comes from minutes of the IGY committees, subcom­mittees, panels, and working groups:

Minutes of the first meeting of the Technical Panel on the Earth Satellite program (TPESP), October 20, 1955. At this meeting the panel defined the program’s goals (page 32).

10 November 1955: An ad hoc meeting of the technical panel on Earth satellites (TPESP) convened to discuss the budget for the program, which had to be ready for a presentation to Congress and the Bureau of the Budget (predecessor to the current Office of Management and Budget) by March 1956. Homer Newell said that important things to be budgeted for were radio and optical tracking and scientific instrumentation. The NRL, who were the experts at radio tracking, wanted stations distributed between latitudes of 35 degrees north and south of the equator. The TPESP wanted to add two more tracking stations to extend coverage to 45 degrees. These tracking stations eventually became known as mini­track.

The optical tracking program was discussed in greater detail at the second meeting of the TPESP, on November 21, 1955. Fred Whipple, director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, presented a report prepared by himself and Layman Spitzer. The TPESP recommended that up to $50,000 be awarded to the SAO immediately to set up a series of observ­ing stations. At the time, Whipple’s proposal was for twelve observing sta­tions and an administrative and computer analysis center. He also called for collaboration with amateur observers.

During the third meeting of the TPESP, on January 28, 1956, the difficul­ties of tracking began to emerge. A letter from Homer Newell on the problems of visual and photographic tracking of Earth satellites was read. It was not known whether radio tracking would work (see page 36). The expectation at the time was that there was only a fifty percent likelihood of minitrack succeeding; hence the need for optical tracking.

27 June 1957: The twelfth meeting of the USNC pointed out that there were still problems with the tracking system.

At the seventh meeting of the TPESP on September 5, 1956, John Hagan and Fred Whipple respectively updated the panel on radio and optical tracking. By now, Whipple had made contact with amateurs in an attempt to improve the chances of acquiring the satellite optically. The army, for example, had four hundred binocular elbow telescopes that volunteers, like Florence Hazeltine, could use at military bases.

The twelfth meeting of the TPESP, on October 3, 1957, the eve of the launch of Sputnik, opened with a discussion about how to track a Russian satellite. Fred Whipple explained delays in development of the cameras for optical tracking. It was during this meeting that the delays in delivery of the cameras prompted Richard Porter to say, “I have a number of times threatened to go up to Stanford and beat on tables. … Fred [Whipple] has so far frankly discouraged my doing so.”

At the thirteenth meeting of the TPESP, on October 22, 1957, it was reported that delivery of optics from Perkin Elmer had been increased and brought forward.

The fifteenth meeting of the TPESP, on January 7, 1958, demonstrates the poverty of information about the Sputnik s’ orbits. Whipple said, “We’ve not had a scrap of radio information.” Richard Porter, who headed the panel, said, “We may have underestimated again the difficulty of tracking and photography.” Pickering said, “The Soviet thing caught everyone off base” (page 34).

That the Soviets were also conducting the same basic science experiments and were interested in ionospheric refraction, tracking, and propagation effects comes from Selected Translations from Soviet-Bloc International Geo­physical Year Literature. Artificial Earth Satellite Observations (New York, U. S. Joint Publication Research Services, 1959) and Selected Reports Presented by the USSR at the Fifth Meeting of the Special Committee for the International Geophysical Year (New York, U. S. Joint Publication Research Services, 1958).

Details of the optical tracking program can be found in the annual reports of the SAO for 1961 and 1963.

Green and Lomask (Vanguard—A History, NASA History series SP4202) describe John Mengel’s actions when Sputnik was launched (page 35).

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.

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.”