Something New. Under the Sun

When the story of our age comes to be told, we will be remem­bered as the first of all men to set their sign among the stars.

—Arthur C Clarke, The Making of a Moon, 1957

A new age was dawning, in which the organized brain power for military and civilian science and technology was the dearest national asset.

—Walter McDougall,… the Heavens and the Earth: a political history of the space age, 1985.


hen the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation decided to sponsor a series of histories of technology in the 1990s, they asked for proposals about technologies that have had a significant impact on the twentieth century. For some years, I had written news and features about space and had been hooked by the glamour of space exploration. Which aspect of the field would, I wondered, best fit into the Sloan’s proposed series?

It seemed to me that the answer was navigation, weather, and com­munications satellites—that is, so-called application satellites. The National Academy of Engineering has said that of all the technological achieve­ments of the second half of the twentieth century, these satellites are second only to the Apollo moon landing. Application satellites have a stealthy, silent influence on our lives. Most of us would notice them only in their absence. But then we would notice. There would be no early warning of hurricanes, no satellite data for the computer models that predict weather. There would be no instantaneous communication to and from any part of the globe, no satellite TV, and no navigation in bad weather. It would be a more dangerous and expensive world.

So I submitted a proposal. I wrote blithely of a history of every kind of civilian application satellite, from every country, from before the launch of Sputnik up to the 1990s. My book was also to encompass the critical supporting technologies of launch vehicles, electronics, and computers. Somehow, I won the grant.

After a few months of research, I discovered that I had known little about the subject and that it was full of apocryphal tales from imperfect memories. It took about three years to track down participants and locate archives, company records, and small pockets of papers kept by people when they retired. I had to find out what was classified and what wasn’t, what people thought was classified even when it wasn’t, and what, in gen­eral terms, might be in the genuinely classified material.

Not surprisingly, my original proposal was of absolutely no use. Its main fault was that it was about civilian application satellites. But navigation satellites were developed for a purely military purpose. The early history of weather satellites is inextricably intertwined with that of reconnaissance. And the decision that led to Syncom, the precursor of Early Bird, the world’s first commercial communications satellite, owed much to the mili­tary’s urgent need for improved global communication.

So the word civilian was the first thing to be excised from my con­ception of the book. It was followed by a ruthless culling of the 1990s, the 1980s, the 1970s, most of the 1960s, and satellites developed outside the United States. Finally, all but a few of the early American satellites fell by the wayside. Launch vehicles, electronics, and computers survived by the skin of their teeth, and only insofar as they demonstrated the limitations and difficulties surrounding those designing the early satellites.

What is left gives a flavor of yesterday’s technology, which is our own technology in embryo, and a technology that has shaped our world. The book excludes many people, which is a shame but inevitable if it is to be readable.

The title, Something New Under the Sun, is a play on the biblical say­ing that there is no new thing under the sun. It was coined by Bob Dellar, an amateur astronomer who led a group of “Moonwatchers” in Virginia in 1956. The task of the Moonwatchers, who were scattered all over the world, was to track the satellites that the United States and the Soviet Union were planning to launch during the International Geophysical Year of 1957/58. Mr. Dellar is now dead, but Roger Harvey, who was sixteen at the time, was one of Mr. Dellar’s group, and he mentioned the phrase in a parking lot in northern Virginia while we inspected the telescope he had used to search for Sputnik. I asked if I could purloin the phrase as the title of my book, and he said yes.

It is an apt title, because satellites were, literally and figuratively, something new under the sun. The pioneers who designed the first satel­lites admit cheerfully that they hadn’t a clue what they were doing or what they were up against. Their launch vehicles blew up, their electronics were unreliable, guidance and control were primitive, the world was just turning from vacuum tubes to transistors, and those transistors didn’t always work. The list of things they didn’t know and that failed goes on and on and those things are, of course, the reasons why those early participants in the space age were pioneers.

The only non-American participant who is discussed at any length in the book is Sergei Korolev, the mastermind of the Soviet Union’s space program who was responsible for the launch of Sputnik. He was an extra­ordinary man of extraordinary tenacity, who at great personal cost survived Stalin’s paranoid and casual cruelties. Despite his contribution to the Soviet Union’s Cold War armory, some tribute seemed called for, and the so-called chief designer of cosmic-rocket systems has the introductory chapter to himself.

Sputnik, according to the historian Walter McDougall, sparked the biggest furor in the United States since Pearl Harbor. The satellite was Korolev’s baby, and it was launched as part of the International Geophysi­cal Year.

The IGY was the brainchild of Lloyd Berkner, a leading American scientist. While scientists were still in the early stages of planning the IGY, President Eisenhower announced that the U. S. would launch scientific satellites as part of its contribution to the IGY. Within days the Soviet Union made a similar announcement.

It seemed at the time that the White House had bowed to pressure from industry, scientists, and the military. But recent scholarship suggests that President Eisenhower hijacked the IGY and made it, in the words of U. S. Air Force historian R. Carghill Hall, the stalking horse for the admin­istration’s plans for reconnaissance satellites.

As is so often the case, there were many people to whom it didn’t matter at all why what happened, happened. The space age had opened, and the pioneers of navigation, weather, and communications satellites were ready.

At the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of the Johns Hopkins Uni­versity, in Maryland, Bill Guier and George Weiffenbach listened to Sput­nik’s signal. Within the week, they were developing an approach to orbital determination that broke with a centuries-old tradition. Before Guier and Weiffenbach’s work, the technique was to measure the angles to heavenly bodies and to determine orbits from those values. The scientists of the IGY had an elaborate optical and radio observational system in place for mea­suring the angles to satellites. Guier and Weiffenbach measured changes in

frequency and developed computational and statistical techniques that at the time seemed to be coming from “left field.”

Their boss, Frank McClure, adapted their techniques to form the basis for the Transit navigation satellites. In turn, Transit severed links with millennia of esoteric navigational rituals by providing mariners with com­puter readouts of latitude and longitude. Transit was developed because the Special Projects Office of the Navy needed some way to locate its Polaris nuclear submarines with greater accuracy than possible with existing methods. But the system went on to serve surface fleets, merchant vessels, the oil industry, fishing fleets, and international mapping agencies.

In the Midwest, Verner Suomi, of the University ofWisconsin, heard a lecture about the IGY and proposed flying an experiment to measure the radiation balance of the earth, a value of fundamental importance to meteorologists. The experiment set him on the path to earning the hon­orary title of father of weather satellites. These satellites took twenty years to find widespread acceptance among meteorologists. Because they rely on similar technology to that of reconnaissance satellites, they have a murkier history than that of satellite navigation.

In New Jersey, John Pierce (known in science fiction circles at the time as J. J. Coupling), of Bell Telephone Laboratories, played the pivotal role in the early days of the development of commercial communications satellites. He was swiftly challenged by Harold Rosen, of the Hughes Air­craft Company On the title page of his book How the World Was One, Arthur C. Clarke calls Pierce and Rosen the “fathers of communication satellites.”

Guier, Weiffenbach, McClure, Suomi, Pierce, and Rosen—these were the Edisons and Marconis of satellites for navigation, meteorology, and communication. Pierce and Rosen were rivals; Weiffenbach heard Pierce lecture and learned some things about satellite design; Suomi sought Rosen’s help when he was trying to persuade NASA to fly another of his experiments; Weiffenbach met Suomi in India. They were not all close friends, but the American space community of the late 1950s was small and intimately connected. The same mysteries faced them all: the unimag­ined complexity of the earth’s gravitational field, the unknown space envi­ronment and the radiation belts. All but Rosen benefited directly from the IGY. All were involved in projects that ultimately became the work of hundreds.

Something New Under the Sun is about the ideas of these men and the global, national, and local influences that shaped them.

In the case of Transit, most of the primary source material comes from APL and some of that material could be extracted for me only by people with the necessary security clearances, so there may well be things I am missing that I do not know about. The story is told through the eyes of APL, even though I have tried to set it in context. I’m sure someone view­ing the story from outside APL would have a different tale to tell, but as written, I hope it gives a sense of what it was like to develop a satellite sys­tem in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Meteorology satellites were more difficult to write about because the story is intricately linked with the change from art to science that meteo­rology was undergoing in the 1950s and because much of the primary source material was still classified when I was writing. But key participants helped to steer me through a sea of partial information. Verner Suomi is one of several who played a critical role in the early days, and perhaps more should be said about the others. If anyone writes the story at greater length, perhaps more will be said.

The early days of communications satellites are described mainly from the point of view of the Bell Telephone Laboratories and the Hughes Aircraft Company. Much of the text is based on material I collected from the archives and company records of AT&T and Hughes, supplemented by interviews and by other documents that participants passed on to me.

Echo and Telstar are names that still bring a flash of recognition to some faces. They are part of this book because John Pierce, whose ideas were important in many ways, was involved either directly or obliquely with them and because they highlighted AT&T’s plans for global satellite communication, which raised antitrust concerns that shaped American policy in this strategically important new field. For these reasons, I have concentrated on Echo and Telstar rather than the NASA-sponsored Project Relay.

The most famous satellites that were based on Rosen’s initial ideas were the Syncom satellites and Early Bird. These opened the era of com­mercial communications satellites.

Navigation, meteorology, and communication—ancients arts that have become sophisticated science and technology. The application satel­lites that ring the earth did much to help in that transition. Our social institutions and expectations are changing rapidly. Via satellite, we can remotely diagnose illness, watch from our living rooms while “smart” weapons shatter their targets, or track the development of major hurri­canes for weeks before they threaten our coasts. The impact of satellites on our lives has scarcely begun.