Henry Richter began his JPL work as a research engineer in Bill Sampson’s New Circuit Elements Group in the Electronics Research Section. This began soon after receiving his Ph. D. degree in chemistry, physics, and electrical engineering in 1955 at CalTech. It took several months for his security clearance to be issued, so Henry was excluded from any involvement in the strange classified work being conducted on the roof of his building. Those were early tests of the embryonic Microlock system by Sampson, Eberhardt Rechtin, and their staffs. Based on those tests, Microlock was written into a feasibility study and, from then on, was included in the army’s satellite planning.
One of Henry’s early assignments, even before receipt of his security clearance, was to “start thinking about batteries that might survive a missile launching, and then operate under conditions of high vacuum and widely varying temperature, and which could function over extended periods while weightless.” It didn’t require a genius to guess what was afoot. As soon as Henry did receive his clearance, he was given part of the satellite feasibility study to work on, and he began to understand more fully the full character and significance of the work. He went on to become a major leader and participant in the development and application of the Microlock system and in the design and building of the early Explorer satellites.36
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Work on development of the Microlock system progressed steadily during the summer and fall of 1955. That winter, Henry Richter, with one of his engineers, William (Bill) C. Pilkington, scoured the country looking for transistors that could operate effectively at the 108 MHz frequency envisioned for the satellites. By March 1956, the system development had progressed to the point where field testing could proceed.
The Redstone RTV booster rocket contained several measuring and telemetering systems to provide information about the performance of its control system and motor. None of those, however, provided information about the flight performance of the high-speed stages, most notably, temperatures in the nose cone during its reentry through the atmosphere. Two Microlock transmitters operating at different power levels were placed in the test vehicle for that purpose. They flew on the first all-up RTV flight that September.
Four Microlock ground stations were set up to support that first launch. Although they were justified because of their need for the nose cone-testing program, the selection of ground sites was substantially influenced by the anticipation that the system could later be used for satellites.
A station at the launch site was, of course, essential. It was needed to help with the checkout of the flight equipment before launch and during the rocket ascent. A second station was set up at Huntsville. That location was within the circle of visibility for much of the trajectories of the Jupiter C nose cone test flights. The existing Sergeanttesting station at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico was refitted for the Jupiter C nose cone test flights, as over half of their flight trajectories were visible from that location. Being in an area that had less radio interference and that was at a greater distance from the flight trajectory than Huntsville, it yielded a better measure of system performance applicable to later satellite flights.
A fourth Microlock station served primarily as a site for Microlock developmental field experiments. JPL conducted their first system tests by helicopter overflights in the Pasadena area in early 1956. It soon became necessary to make more sensitive and discriminating tests, for which the entire Los Angeles area had far too much radio interference. After extensive surveys, they settled on a location somewhat north of the midpoint of a line between San Diego and El Centro, California. Near the Anza – Borrego Desert State Park, it is located in a valley known as Earthquake Valley, with mountains to the west, north, and east. That nearly ideal location very effectively cut off radio interference from all heavily settled regions.
The Earthquake Valley test station was established in early 1956, and helicopter overflights were conducted there during March. The engineers at those tests, including Cliff Finnie, Bill Pilkington, Phillip (Phil) Potter, Henry Richter, and Robertson (Bob) C. Stevens, demonstrated that the system would be capable of conveying data from a satellite or space probe from over 20,000 miles away.
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For the Jupiter C ABMA-JPL collaborative effort, including both the RTV testing and their behind-the-scenes satellite work, the many groups at Huntsville and Pasadena worked together very harmoniously. The combined efforts required a highly interactive and iterative process, with every change affecting many other parts of the program. Frequent meetings helped to keep the work closely coordinated. Both laboratories developed great respect for their counterparts. There were, of course, disagreements that required high-level decisions. Most of those were worked out directly between the two project managers: von Braun at Huntsville and Froehlich at Pasadena. Their decisions were accepted and implemented with goodwill.
Another undercover satellite effort The JPL participation in the ABMA-JPL collaboration, including the integration of their Microlock system in the ABMA-designed satellite, was not the whole story. Apparently unknown to their ABMA counterparts, JPL undertook, at the same time, the design of their own version of a satellite for launch on the Jupiter C.
To step back a moment in time, the JPL had actually entered the competition for scientific payload space very early in the IGY satellite program, when they began working out the details of their own cosmic ray experiment proposal. Pickering first wrote about it to Van Allen (the latter as chairman of the Working Group on Internal Instrumentation) on 5 July 1956. His plan was formally submitted to the IGY over Eberhardt Rechtin’s signature on 26 July 1956. The proposal included three parts:
(1) an ion chamber for cosmic ray research by Victor Neher on the CalTech campus,
(2) photoelectric photometry of the sky by William Baum, an astronomer at the Palomar Observatory, and (3) an engineering-related data transmission and reception experiment to study their Microlock system performance by the JPL engineers.
That proposal was given for action to Van Allen’s Working Group on Internal Instrumentation that the U. S. National Committee’s Technical Panel on the Earth Satellite Program had established to deal with Vanguard experiment proposals. The Working Group on Internal Instrumentation identified it as Earth Satellite Proposal 27 (ESP 27) and assigned it a Priority B rating at their 11 October 1956 meeting. Not being included on the highest priority list, the IGY program did not provide funding and approval for further development.
The planning for it remained active at JPL, however, until at least 9 May 1957, when Richter made a trip to NRL to discuss the integration of ESP 27 into the Vanguard satellite.
Early thinking at JPL was that their instruments might be included in a satellite of their own making. That claim is substantiated by the appearance, in a CalTech-issued magazine in the summer of 1957, of an article by Pickering describing “how the lab could ‘completely instrument one of the [Jupiter C] vehicles’ with a cosmic ray
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experiment developed by a CalTech professor and another instrument from a Palomar Observatory astronomer.”37
By April 1957, JPL had shifted from that approach to focusing on our University of Iowa cosmic ray instrument instead of their own instruments. It had the advantage of being a Priority A instrument in the Vanguard instrument lineup and therefore of having the full endorsement and support of the U. S. IGY program. The fact that we had designed it to fit either the Vanguard or the Jupiter C configuration also figured in their thinking. Those factors led to the visit by Eberhardt Rechtin to Iowa City on 23 May 1957, as discussed in more detail in the next section.
By the time of the Sputnik 1 launch in October 1957, the JPL satellite development had progressed to the point that considerable prototype hardware had been built. The low-power transmitter assembly that I saw soon after my arrival at JPL in November was one physical manifestation of that situation. Models of the complete satellite later found their way into various museums, including the Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park, Los Angeles.
At the University of Iowa We at the University of Iowa Physics Department became involved in the various Jupiter C satellite-launching planning efforts through a long chain of events. Ernst Stuhlinger had been generally aware of Van Allen’s research even before the beginning of WWII. The two first met during the immediate post- WWII period, after Stuhlinger had arrived in the United States. Van Allen, by then a young upper atmosphere scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, was flying cosmic ray instruments on some of the V-2 rockets that had been brought to the United States. Stuhlinger was coordinating the interface between the rocket engineers and the researchers.
As mentioned earlier, Stuhlinger suggested to von Braun in 1952 that Van Allen would be a good choice of an experimenter to place a scientific instrument on the satellite that they envisioned. Stuhlinger and Van Allen first discussed that subject when Van Allen was at Princeton University on leave from the University of Iowa in 19 5 3—19 5 4.38 During a visit there with Van Allen in mid-1954, Stuhlinger described the ABMA thinking about a satellite, emphasizing the opportunity to fly Geiger counters. Stuhlinger later related:
When I had finished my sales talk and waited for Dr. Van Allen’s show of interest, he only said, “Thanks for telling me all this. Keep me posted on your progress, will you?”—I was disappointed by this apparent lack of interest, but then I remembered from our meetings at White Sands that Dr. Van Allen was a very cautious scientist, far too careful to jump to any conclusions. So I understood his restrained response, and I kept him posted on our progress. Von Braun informed Dr. Pickering, at that time Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, of our contact with Dr. Van Allen, and received the latter’s full endorsement of our step.39
That discussion had the effect of heightening Van Allen’s excitement about the prospects for extending his cosmic ray research farther into space.40 He immediately
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prepared an outline for a satellite-borne cosmic ray experiment and sent it to Stuhlinger.41
A year later, soon after President Eisenhower’s announcement of the U. S. intent to launch a satellite, Van Allen updated that proposal and submitted it to the U. S. planners of the IGY endeavor.
At that point, I had just returned from the summer 1955 rockoon expedition to northern Greenland and was completing the work for my bachelor’s degree. I would soon need a graduate research project. Van Allen and I began discussing specific details of the satellite instrument, with the general understanding that its development and flight might serve that purpose.
The discussions between Van Allen and Stuhlinger figured importantly in arriving at the physical configuration of the Iowa cosmic ray instrument package, even while it was being designed for the Vanguard launch vehicle. The NRL initially specified that their 20-plus inch diameter spherical satellite would contain an internal instrument cylinder 3.5 inches in diameter.
Van Allen stated his preference that the overall form of the satellite should be a right circular cylinder approximately 6 inches in diameter and 18 inches in length. He believed that that configuration would provide the most efficient packaging for the scientific instruments. Since that had been the diameter of the instrument payloads that we had built for the Deacon-based rockoons, our laboratory had extensive experience with that particular envelope.
Van Allen formally expressed that preference in a letter to the Technical Panel on the Earth Satellite Program in late January 1956.42 Specifically, he proposed that half of the IGY payloads be built in the original 20-plus inch diameter spherical form, identified as Mark I, and that the other half be of a new Mark II configuration, in the cylindrical form that he preferred.
The Vanguard program staff responded with a compromise—by changing their specifications to permit either a 3.5 or 6 inch instrument package to be housed within the outer 20.5 inch diameter spherical shell. Although not going as far as Van Allen wished, that change did allow us to use the six inch form factor in developing our cosmic ray instrument.
Beyond any doubt, Van Allen’s preference for the six inch package was strongly influenced by his knowledge that the Redstone-based vehicle could accept that package with little change, if problems should develop with the Vanguard launch vehicle.43
Stuhlinger told Van Allen about the first fully successful test flight of the RTV during a telephone conversation on 16 November 1956, about two months after its occurrence. During that discussion, he expressed his continuing grave doubts about the realism of the Vanguard launch schedule and encouraged Van Allen to suggest a specific
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cosmic ray instrument that could be used in the Jupiter C payload. Van Allen did that informally during the discussion and followed it on 13 February 1957 with a letter proposing a specific instrument package. Part of his letter read:
Dear Ernest [sic]:
1. We are delighted to know that there is a possibility of flying some scientific apparatus on one or more of your orbiters. . . .
It is my understanding that a total payload of 15 pounds is now regarded as feasible. In consideration of what types of scientific apparatus may be appropriate I have taken two pounds as a reasonable weight. And, of course, I have depended rather heavily on the considerations in which our I. G. Y. Working Group on Internal Instrumentation has been engaged for over a year.
I have assumed no data storage of the type which requires command readout and have also assumed that the I. G. Y. 108 mc/sec telemetering stations will be available, or that a substantial Microlock array will be available.44
The letter continued by listing all of the experiments being considered for the Vanguard program. Those, in addition to Van Allen’s cosmic ray experiment, were experiments dealing with solar ultraviolet and X-ray fluctuations, meteoric erosion, air density, the Earth’s radiation balance, cloud coverage, and ionospheric measurements. The letter closed:
4. Needless to say, our group here at the State University of Iowa is very eager to participate in your program. We now have all the appropriate elements of a suitable cosmic ray apparatus well developed, as well as the foundations for interpretation of the observed data. We can make several sets of flight gear (See enclosure) within about a month after receipt of definite packaging details. The only other significant factors which are not presently known to us are the impedance, voltage and pulse width of our signal for modulating the transmitter.
The enclosure to Van Allen’s letter included my initial block diagram, drawings of some of the mechanical details, and data pertaining to the weights of components, permissible operational temperature range, and sensitivity to vibration.
That marked the beginning, in early 1957, of our direct participation in the collaborative ABMA-JPL satellite effort. During April and May, in a continuing series of exchanges with ABMA personnel, we worked out further details of the satellite instrument. Stuhlinger, Joseph Boehm, Charles Lundquist, and Arthur Thompson visited Van Allen, Frank McDonald, and me at Iowa City on 19 April 1957, where they provided a full description of their then-current thinking about the satellite design. The information developed at that meeting made it possible for me to send an even more detailed description of our thinking to Josef Boehm at ABMA on 3 May. My letter read, in part:
The block diagram of the cosmic ray experiment would remain as in Dr. Van Allen’s letter of February 13, and is enclosed as figure 1.
The equipment would be in the form of three units, not counting the transmitter or any power supplies.
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1. G. M. tube. Anton type 316 counter tube.
2. Module #1. G. M. tube driver and scale of 32.
3. Module #2. H. V power supply and modulator.
… The form of the modulator is not yet known, but will have to be worked out with JPL. We propose to telemeter the collector voltage of the final scaler.45
These exchanges peaked when I went to Huntsville on 10 and 11 July 1957 with portions of my then-existing Vanguard hardware and plans for an extended working session. We developed remaining details of the ABMA-JPL-State University of Iowa (SUI) collaborative satellite design, and I left that meeting with three drawings that showed the satellite’s overall physical layout and several design details. The key drawing from that session was shown earlier as Figure 7.1.
During exchanges with the ABMA people at Huntsville, there were a few tentative discussions about including our more complete instrument, including its onboard data storage as developed for Vanguard, in a second version of the satellite. That went as far as Stuhlinger’s agreement during a telephone conversation, to check into the possible use of the NRL command receiver. The idea soon died, however—there is no further mention of it in my notes.
As mentioned before, Eberhardt Rechtin from JPL visited us in Iowa City on 23 May 1957, at the same time that I was working diligently on instrument design details with the Huntsville people. He and I discussed the simple version of our satellite instrument that had evolved by that time, and details of their Microlock design.46
To this day, it has not been possible to determine whether that solo visit by Eberhardt was primarily in response to the paragraph in my letter of 1 May quoted above or whether I was being unknowingly drawn into the separate JPL effort to build their own version of a satellite in competition with ABMA. Since JPL had been a direct participant in the collaborative ABMA effort, I assumed that he was following up on my 1 May suggestion that we work out further details of our instrument’s interface with the Microlock system. I am convinced that Van Allen also believed that the Rechtin visit was part of the ABMA-JPL-SUI collaborative effort. It is entirely possible, however, that one of Eberhardt’s major objectives was to gather information about our instrument that they could use in their own satellite design. Perhaps he had both objectives. Certainly we at Iowa were unaware of the separate JPL satellite development effort, and there is no evidence that von Braun and his staff at Huntsville knew about it until November.
My next direct exchange with the JPL engineers did not occur until 22 October, when I received a call from Rechtin to set up a meeting. Discussion of that and following events is resumed in the next chapter.
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Even in Hollywood Three years after the Explorer I launch, a story appeared in the press that indicated that Hollywood nearly got into the act. A Metro-Goldwin-Meyer producer, Andrew Stone, related the story in June 1960, and it was authenticated by Lieutenant General James M. Gavin (army R&D chief at the time) and William Pickering, the JPL director. The story went like this:
Andrew Stone was commissioned by his employer in 1957 to make a movie on guided missiles. After talking to people at a number of missile research installations, he had a lengthy conversation with Pickering, and Pickering told him of the U. S. competition with the Soviets to be the first in space and that the United States could beat them by putting a satellite into space within 90 days with the army’s Jupiter C vehicle.
That energized Stone, who told him that he not only would produce the million dollars needed for the satellite but that his organization would provide four million more to buy the rocket. Pickering, recognizing that his hands were tied by the interservice rivalry, suggested that Stone take his offer to the Pentagon brass in Washington.
Stone did so, with great frustration. He could find no one in the Pentagon who seemed to be aware of the possibility. One Defense Department official told him that the job would require at least $18 million, justifying his claim by explaining that the navy had already spent that much on it.
After finally getting a firm rejection, the offer died. This occurred in May, about six months before the Soviets launched Sputnik 1.47