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).