Alouette, gentille alouette, Alouette, je te lancerai; Or, How the Cold War propelled Canada into space via the Alouette satellite, part 1

Two of the engineers who made the Alouette satellite a success: Colin A. Franklin (left) and John N. Barry, Ottawa, Ontario. Anon., “Many ‘Firsts’ for Canadian Satellite – Alouette Sports New Space Advances.” The Montreal Star, 22 September 1962, 43.

Did you know that the Canadian space program was a creature of the Cold War? Yes, yes, a creature of the Cold War between the United States, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and their allies / satellites, Canada and Poland for example.

That Cold War had already chilled our ginormous blue marble for a good ten years when the USSR launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in October 1957 – a small metal marble mentioned in moult issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since February 2018. A second satellite, Sputnik 2, much bigger and heavier, was placed into orbit in November, and… No, my sometimes irritating reading friend, not in 2018, in 1957. Just for that, I will add that this second satellite was mentioned several times in our you know what since July 2018.

A brief digression whether you allow me or not. Even before the end of 1957, the young Québec actor and director Jeannine “Janou” Saint-Denis, baptised Marie Jeannine Renée Hébert, founded the Compagnie des Satellites, in Montréal, Québec, in order to present poetic theatre plays by great Quebecers like Claude Gauvreau and Félix Leclerc, not to mention those of French authors and poets, including Jean Tardieu. That company seemingly disappeared as early as 1962. End of digression.

The first American attempt to launch an artificial satellite, in December 1957, was a resounding failure: the Vanguard rocket designed under the auspices of the United States Navy exploded on the launch pad. The Vanguard 1A satellite it carried was blasted some distance away and suffered terminal injuries.

That televised national embarrassment was amusingly / insultingly ridiculed (stayputnik, stallnik, sputternik, splatnik, puffnik, psshik, phutnik, pfftnik, oopsnik, kaputnik, goofnik, flopnik, failnik, dudnik, etc.) by many American and foreign newspapers. What was described as, among other things, the deplorable and childish gloating and snickering heaped upon said embarrassment by a number of important British newspapers really, really rubbed a number of Americans the wrong way.

An agency of the United States Army, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), saved the nation’s honour, however. by launching the first American artificial satellite, Explorer 1, in January 1958.

And yes, ABMA was mentioned several times in our you know what since February 2019.

Would you believe that, in February 1958, a Regina, Saskatchewan daily newspaper, The Leader Post, (seriously?) proposed, in an editorial, that the federal government, a minority government which spent as if dollars grew on trees it was suggested, was considering the possibility of financing and supervising the manufacture of a Canadian satellite.

The following 51 words are, in my opinion, worth quoting:

If the prime minister is looking for a really spectacular way of adding still more to the looming budgetary deficit, how about a Canadian satellite project? Think of the prestige Mr. Diefenbaker – and Canada – could gain abroad with a Canadian-made moon keeping company with the Soviet Sputnik and the American Explorer!

The Leader Post (seriously???) proposed that the satellite be christened Diefnik. I kid you not. Alright, alright, the daily gently made fun of Prime Minister John George Diefenbaker, a gentleman mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2020.

In April 1958, some researchers from the Canadian Armament Research and Development Establishment (CARDE) of the Defence Research Board (DRB) in Valcartier, Québec, including a certain Gerald Vincent Bull, suggested that Canada could place into orbit a satellite weighing about 1 kilogramme (2 pounds) before the end of 1958. At least 2 photos appeared in at least 1 daily newspaper.

By comparison, Explorer 1, Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 weighed respectively and approximately 14 kilogrammes (31 pounds), 84 kilogrammes (184 pounds) and 508 kilogrammes (1 121 pounds), but back to CARDE’s featherweight spacecraft.

Said satellite would be launched using a cannon. Yes, yes, a cannon. Have you not ever heard of the High Altitude Research Project, a high altitude research project jointly funded by the American and Canadian governments between 1961 and 1968? A fascinating project mentioned, just like Bull, in a January 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, but back to our story.

The Chief Superintendent of CARDE, Brigadier Donald A.G. Waldock of the Canadian Army, categorically denied that a Canadian satellite could be placed into orbit in 1958. The DRB’s Chief Scientist, George S. Field, also denied that piece of news. Approached by reporters, Diefenbaker and his Minister of National Defence, George Randolph Pearkes, said they had never heard of any satellite project. Indeed, the DRB was quick to announce that one of its researchers, Bull if you want to know, had imagined a new way of placing satellites into orbit, and nothing more.

Regardless, Pearkes had every intention of finding out how such information of a confidential / secret nature came to the attention of the press. Bull and his colleagues probably got a good telling-off, but I digress. Seriously.

This being said (typed?), the fact was that the federal government paid little attention to space issues. It then had other concerns. Said government actually took an interest in space only when it became a topic of controversy, as it did in April 1958. That lack of political priority meant that space enthusiasts from the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), the DRB and the DRB’s Defence Telecommunications Research Establishment (DRTE) in Ottawa, Ontario, could for all intents and purposes set their own priorities, as long as these did not cost too much. Indeed, an Associate Committee on Space Research was created within the NRC in April 1959.

It was in that atmosphere, dare I say (type) in that… space, that the first Canadian satellite was born. Sorry.

Before going any further, allow me to quote the first lines of an editorial published in October 1962 by an important English-language Montréal daily, The Montreal Star, which unfortunately disappeared in September 1979.

Some may find a touch of irony in the fact that Canada’s first satellite, intended, it is said, for the peaceful study of the ionosphere from above, was built by the Defence Research Board. But let that pass – in space the military and the civilian are virtually inseparable.

If yours truly may paraphrase, out of context, James Paul McCartney and Michael Joseph Jackson, say, say, say what you want but Alouette was a creature of the Cold War. Let us look into this. And yes, McCartney was mentioned in a June 2022 of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Strange as it may seem to us, connected citizens of the 21st century, in the late 1950s, communications over long distances still relied on radio equipment or submarine cables. The former might have had their transmissions scrambled. The latter, as robust as they were, were not invulnerable. Indeed, the USSR might have been tempted to do to the United States what the United Kingdom had done to the German Empire in 1914: cut its submarine cables, thus forcing Berlin to communicate with its embassies by radio.

So what, you say, my reading friend? So what?! Radio was / is a very effective means of communication, of course, but do you not know that a radio message can be intercepted by anyone? So what, all you had / have to do was / is encode or encrypt such a message to keep its content secret. You are right again, my reading friend, unless said message was / is decoded / deciphered. (Hello, MMcC!) So what, what damage could a decoded / deciphered message cause? So what?! Sigh… Such a message could change the course of history. Yes, yes, my skeptical reading friend. It could change the course of history.

In January 1917, the German secretary of state for foreign affairs sent a message to the German ambassador posted to the United States. Arthur Zimmermann asked Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff to contact the German resident stationed in Mexico. Heinrich von Eckardt, he asked, had to contact the government led by José Venustiano Carranza de la Garza in order to make it a mouth-watering offer.

If the United States decided to declare war on the German Empire, which was quite possible given the upcoming resumption, in early February, of unrestricted submarine warfare and the dangers that this would pose to American citizens and ships, said empire pledged to help Mexico regain some of the territories lost during the disastrous Mexican-American War of 1846-48, namely Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, if it declared war on the United States. Nothing less.

Carranza was certainly intrigued, but he doubted that the German Empire would be able to effectively help Mexico, a poor country then in the throes of a revolution / civil war. The German offer was politely ignored.

Pobre México, tan lejos de Dios, tan cerca de Estados Unidos.

Things would have ended there had code breakers from the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty War Staff not deciphered the German message, transmitted by various means, including by radio let us not forget, including by at least one way controlled by… the American government.

The British government hand delivered the deciphered version of the Zimmermann telegram to its American counterpart around mid-February 1917. Real skepticism quickly gave way to an equally real rage. You see, the American government was already quite outraged by the aforementioned resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, a decision which had led it to sever diplomatic relations with the German Empire just 2 days after that resumption.

Zimmermann himself having admitted publicly (?!), on at least 2 occasions (?!?!), in March 1917, that the secret document given to the American government was authentic, the United States declared war on the German Empire in April. As I said (typed?), a decoded / deciphered message can change the course of history, but back to our topic of the day.

As yours truly said (typed?) above, the USSR might have been tempted to cut American submarine cables, thus forcing the United States government to communicate with its allies, embassies, armed forces overseas, etc., by radio.

The problem was that the layer of the upper atmosphere which allowed most radio transmissions over long distances, in other words the ionosphere, was regularly disturbed by the mood swings of the Sun. In the northern parts of North America, a highly strategic region if ever there was one, being the gateway for Soviet bombers whose mission was to incinerate military and civilian targets in Canada and the United States, for example, the northern lights / aurora borealis posed a real problem. The reliability of radio transmissions could not therefore be guaranteed at all times.

What to do, what to do? We have to go and see what is going on up there, said researchers.

At the beginning of 1958, in the United States, the National Academy of Sciences was given the mandate to coordinate American and Western research work on the ionosphere. Around July, the Space Science Board of the academy invited the Western scientific community to send in ideas for experiments which would make it possible to better understand the upper layers of that region, using a satellite.

Several / many organisations responded to that call. One of them was the DRTE. Indeed, researchers there, including John Herbert Chapman, had been dreaming, err, no, not of a white Christmas. Sigh. They had been dreaming of a Canadian science satellite for some time.

The Canadian proposal for a high-performance satellite, and not just an experiment, greatly impressed the Space Science Board’s international working group during meetings held in September and October 1958. The National Academy of Sciences, however, withdrew from the project a little later, for some reason or other.

Although disappointed, the DRTE team refused to give up on its idea. An officer (of the United States Air Force?) met during a visit to the United States Department of Defense, in Washington, District of Columbia, recommended to his visitors that they contact a recently created agency which counted international space research projects among his responsibilities. It was as a result of that recommendation that the DRTE contacted the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, an organisation quickly renamed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) – a world-famous organisation mentioned moult times in our blog / bulletin / thingee, and this since March 2018.

While it was true that the Canadian proposal impressed NASA engineers, some of them believed that certain elements of the satellite, its long antennas for example, were unfeasible given the technology of the time. Because of that, they wondered if the Canadian proposal should not be politely rejected.

Before I forget, one had to admit that the long antennas planned for the Canadian satellite were of advanced technology.

The STEM (Storable Tubular Extendible Member) antenna, used for the first time aboard Alouette, was a Canadian invention which played an important role in the history of the Canadian space program. It was developed by NRC engineer George Johann Klein to solve a thorny problem: how to install the very long antennas that a research satellite like Alouette needed while keeping the size of that satellite small enough to fit inside the rocket which was to launch it.

A STEM antenna was / is made up of a prestressed metal strip, steel or copper for example, rolled up flat on a drum. It returns to its original circular shape and remains rigid when deployed / unrolled in space by a small motor or as a result of a satellite’s rotation.

Two STEM antennas were on board an American rocket launched in mid-June 1961. The purpose of that non orbital flight was to verify the operation of the Canadian antennas in space. The NASA engineers which had been skeptical graciously admitted that said skepticism was unfounded. The experimental flight was indeed a great success.

Alouette would ultimately have 4 STEM antennas, two about 11.5 metres (about 37.5 feet) long and two about 23 metres (!) (about 75 feet) long. Without them, Alouette simply could not have been designed.

Alouette’s antennas were produced by the Special Products Division of the well-known aircraft manufacturer de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited (DHC), of Downsview, Ontario, a subsidiary of a well-known British aircraft manufacturer, de Havilland Aircraft Company Limited. DHC and its parent company were obviously mentioned moult times in our blog / bulletin / thingee, since February 2018.

Would you believe that the McDonnell Mercury space capsule of the first American astronaut who went around the Earth, in February 1962, John Herschel Glenn, Junior, had a STEM antenna? More than one American satellite or probe launched around that time also had at least one STEM antenna, but back to our story.

And then no. I have stuffed you with enough knowledge for today. Allow me therefore to take my leave. I feel a bit peckish. Bon appétit everyone!

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Rénald Fortier