Alouette, gentille alouette, Alouette, je te lancerai; Or, How the Cold War propelled Canada into space via the Alouette satellite, part 2
Welcome aboard our special spatial ship, my reading friend.
Five! Four! Three! Two! One!
Thunderbirds are go!
If you do not recognise the opening sequence of every episode of the British television series Thunderbirds, launched in September 1965, then there are serious gaps in your knowledge of the popular culture of the Cold War period. Period.
And yes, that series was mentioned in September 2018 and March 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee. And yes again, yours truly remembers seeing a number of episodes of the French version of Thunderbirds, Les sentinelles de l’air, during the 1960s or 1970s, but I digress.
It was apparently in early May 1959 that appeared the first newspaper articles mentioning Canada’s federal government’s plan to finance the construction of an artificial satellite to be launched in 1961 by an American rocket. The source, very official and approved that time, I think, was the head of the space instrumentation section of the Defense Research Board (DRB). Keith Brown indicated that 4 to 6 examples of the satellite would be manufactured, one for ground tests, another intended to be launched and 2 to 4 others used in case the first launch, or the second, or the third, ended badly. (Hello, EP!)
And yes, the rockets of the time had the unfortunate and very expensive habit of going badaboom.
The May 1959 announcement actually came a few days after a very significant event in the history of the Canadian space program. At the end of April, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, an organisation quickly renamed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), agreed to cooperate with the Defence Telecommunications Research Establishment (DRTE) of the DRB in order to place its satellite – a satellite funded by the federal government – into orbit. Better yet, it agreed to place said satellite into orbit at the expense of the American government.
This Canada-United States cooperation was actually part of an international cooperation initiative launched by NASA around March 1959, but I digress.
The Canadian satellite was initially identified by the expression Topside Sounder Satellite. Indeed, that expression was mentioned in the press in December 1959 at the latest.
One might wonder whether, from that time on, the objectives pursued by the federal government and the Department of National Defence corresponded to those of the researchers at the DRB and DRTE. While the former wished to advance Canadian space technology for reasons related to industrial progress and defence, the latter were motivated by the desire to advance knowledge and science with a capital S, but I digress. Again.
Incidentally, representatives of the Canadian press saw a life-size model of the first national satellite in February 1960, in Ottawa, Ontario.
Would you believe that a space race was underway at the start of that year? No, no, not the one between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States. The one which could, I repeat could, have pitted Canada against Australia, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. Rumours circulated that all of these countries were thinking of putting some (little?) something into orbit, with a little help from NASA in most cases. The British and Italians, on the other hand, might have used locally-designed rockets. Some suggested (seriously?) that France could have reached space thanks to a Soviet rocket. Yes, yes, Soviet!
In February 1961, DRTE researchers received some bad news. The excellent satellite they were working on was a tad too heavy and complex for the American rocket which was to place it into orbit. The date of its launch was therefore delayed. Some thought that it would be placed into orbit around the beginning of 1962. Others, more cautious perhaps, believed that the satellite would be launched before June 1962.
Four examples of the satellite were then under construction, one for ground tests, another serving as a prototype and 2 available at the time of launch. And yes, the rockets of the time still had the unfortunate and very expensive habit of going badaboom.
The Canadian Armament Research and Development Establishment, in Valcartier, Québec, intended to subject the 4 examples of the satellite to the worst tortures imaginable in order to ensure that, if there was failure, it would have nothing to do with the Canadian satellites placed on top of American rockets.
Indeed, did you know that 20 or so of the 45 or so launches of satellites, probes and space capsules carried out by the USSR between October 1957 and September 1962, that is more than 45 %, and 65 or so of the 155 or so (!) launches of satellites, probes and space capsules carried out by the United States between these same dates, that is more than 40 %, ended in at least partial failures? Ouch!
This being said (typed?), all of the launches which involved one or more cosmonaut / astronaut proved successful. Phew!
At the end of March 1961, representatives of the press viewed a prototype of the first national satellite, also known as the S-27 at the latest at that time, during a press conference / open house activity, organised in Ottawa by the DRB. That conference / activity apparently had the partial objective of defusing certain criticisms that the good people of Canada were left in the dark, while information on the S-27, information of a technical nature it had to be admitted, appeared in foreign magazines.
One was entitled to wonder if the information surrounding the development of the first Canadian satellite inspired a group of teenagers from the region of Québec, Québec, associated with the popular weekly television program L’Écran des jeunes broadcasted from October 1961 onward by the Canadian state radio and television broadcaster, the Société Radio-Canada.
Said group indeed wished to launch, in June 1962, a rocket plane of good size (from 2.5 to 3 metres (from 8 to 10 feet) in length and about 4.5 metres (about 15 feet) in wingspan). The winged rocket would carry instruments to an altitude of at least 900 metres (3 000 feet). Yours truly would love to be able to say (type?) that this highly fascinating project concluded with a successful flight. In actual fact, it was seemingly abandoned long before the first Québec rocket plane was completed. Pity.
Before I forget, it was in May 1961 at the latest that the first Canadian satellite was baptised Alouette, in honour of the famous eponymous song, a song whose music and lyrics, in French of course, were apparently first published in 1879, in… A Pocket Song Book for the Use of Students and Graduates of McGill College. I kid you not.
This being said (typed?), it looked as if that avian name should only be used once the satellite was into orbit. The Canadian press seemed to respect that instruction.
In the words of a DRTE researcher who played a crucial role in the history of the Canadian space program, John Herbert Chapman, Alouette was “one of the few typically Canadian names we could think of.”
Ironically, would you believe that, of the 75-odd members of the Alaudidae family, only one, yes, only one, the horned lark or shore lark, appeared to be native to Canada? That bird was / is also found in Europe and Asia, by the way.
Aware of the growing interest in the Canadian satellite, the National Film Board (NFB), a world-renowned federal institution mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018, launched Photostory 288: Canadian Scientists Keep Pace with Space in June 1961. Several Canadian daily newspapers, including La Presse of Montréal, Québec, The Ottawa Journal of... you know where, The Kingston Whig Standard of... Kingston, Ontario, Le Droit of Ottawa and The Calgary Herald of… Calgary, Alberta, published elements of that photo story between June and September.
A brief digression if yours truly may be permitted. The NFB published its first photo story in March 1955. It published the last one, the 496th in fact, in June 1969. All that material may, I repeat may, have been given free of charge to Canadian newspapers and magazines which requested it.
It should be noted that it was only from January 1961 that the photo stories were available in French. As you might imagine, the unilingualism of the NFB, an organisation whose head office was in… Montréal, had irritated certain representatives and spokespersons of Québec tax payers for quite some time.
Incidentally, the teams which wrote the captions for the photographs and the texts from January 1961 onward worked independently, in Ottawa and Montréal. End of digression.
In another vein, it was around July 1961 that the Associate Director of the Pure Physics Division of the National Research Council of Canada, Donald C. Rose, submitted a proposal to create a national space research organisation. That Canadian space agency project went nowhere.
In December, perhaps a few days before Christmas, the members of the team assembling Canada’s first satellite received news which darkened a tad the celebrations of that holiday. Their hope that Canada would become the third country with a satellite into orbit, after the USSR and the United States of course, would apparently not materialise. According to NASA, an American rocket would indeed launch a British satellite before 31 March 1962.
Worse still, NASA announced that the Canadian satellite would not be placed into orbit only a tad after the British thingee and before that March date. Nay. It would be launched between April and June 1962. It was learned no later than mid-March 1962 that the launch of said satellite would take place around mid-September.
It should be noted that NASA was apparently not solely responsible for the delays plaguing Canada’s first satellite. Nay. The sheer complexity of that spacecraft may, I repeat may, have caused some delays, not to mention the late delivery of some critical components.
And yes, yours truly must here debunk the myth that Canada was the third country to have operated a satellite, after the USSR and the United States. That honour actually belonged to the United Kingdom. It was on a certain day in April 1962, a birthday for someone close to me, namely me, that Ariel began to circumnavigate the Earth, and…
Ease up, ease up, my reading friend. Before dragging me before a hypothetical parliamentary committee on un-Canadian activities, let me add that Ariel was the result of a joint ionospheric research project of the British National Committee for Space Research and NASA. If the experiments it took into space were of British origin, the satellite as such came out of the workshops of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Canada’s space pumpkin, on the other hand, was both designed and manufactured on Canadian soil. Canada was therefore the third country to have designed and manufactured its own satellite.
This being said (typed?), it went / goes without saying that Ariel and Alouette were placed into orbit by American rockets, and…
You seem quite cross all of a sudden, my reading friend. The expression Canada’s space pumpkin sounds disrespectful, you say? It was / is, however, the title of an article by a well-known journalist named Jane Becker which appeared in a June 1962 edition of a daily newspaper of the national capital, Ottawa, The Ottawa Journal.
Said article suggested that, while it was true that researchers of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), DRB and DRTE did not say so clearly, virtually none of them believed that Canada would only have one satellite. There would be other ionospheric research satellites. One of the vice-presidents of the NRC, Bristow Guy Ballard, also said he was convinced that satellites would regularly transmit television programmes between Canada and Europe well before the end of the 1960s.
He was not wrong. The first commercial telecommunications satellite, Intelsat, also / better known as Early Bird, an American satellite, was launched in June 1965.
A brief digression if I may be permitted. Purchased by Thomson Newspapers Limited of Toronto, Ontario, in April 1980, The Ottawa Journal publishes its last issue in August. That closure made another newspaper, The Citizen, owned by Southam Newspapers Limited of Toronto, the only major English-language daily in Ottawa.
Would you believe that, just one day after the closure of the Thomson Newspapers daily, The Winnipeg Tribune, a daily owned by Southam Newspapers, published its last issue? That closure made another newspaper, Winnipeg Free Press, owned by Thomson Newspapers, the only major daily in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Absolutely furious wicked tongues claimed that Southam Newspapers and Thomson Newspapers had colluded to reduce competition in Ottawa and Winnipeg – an action which may well have been illegal. Conspiracy charges brought in April 1981 were, however, dismissed in December 1983 by the Ontario Supreme Court. End of digression.
Would you believe that the first television signals between North America and Europe and vice versa were relayed via the American telecommunications satellite Telstar as early as July 1962? More than 100 million people in nearly 20 countries on these two continents, including Canada, watched these varied live images in quick succession from the comfort of their homes: a professional baseball game in Chicago, Illinois; a press conference by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy; a rehearsal of the play The Tragedie of Macbeth by William Shakespeare at the Festival Theater of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada in Stratford, Ontario, etc., etc., etc.
And yes, Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer, a great Canadian actor mentioned in June 2019 and April 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, starred as Macbeth, the brave Scottish general who became a tyrannical king. The Macduff to Plummer’s Macbeth was none other than the Canadian actor Bruno Gerussi, one of the main characters in the well-known, to anglophone Canadians, television series The Beachcombers (1972-90) of the Canadian state radio and television broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Need I remind you that Kennedy was mentioned in September 2019, February 2021 and April 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee? That is what I thought. Thank you very much for your assiduity, my reading friend, but back to our thrilling subject.
The first country to place a national satellite into orbit using a nationally designed rocket, after the USSR and the United States of course, was… France. The experimental satellite Astérix, yes, yes, Astérix, began orbiting our big blue marble in November 1965. And no, France’s Centre national d’études spatiales did not give any of its other satellites names such as Panoramix, Obélix, Idéfix, etc. – in other words Getafix, Obelix, Dogmatix, etc. How sad, by Toutatis and Bélénos.
This being said (typed?), yours truly would be remiss if I did not mention here that Toutatis was / is the name of an asteroid whose number is 4179. It looks a tad like a 4 to 5 kilometre (2.5 to 3 miles) long longnecked beer bottle. In December 1992, the somewhat chaotic orbit of Toutatis brought that mountain of rock and / or metal approximately 3 000 000 kilometres (1 850 000 miles) from Earth. It should once gain pass very close to our planet in November 2069.
And yes, there is also an asteroid called Belenus whose number is 11284. Wandering as it does between Mars and Jupiter, it is not likely to fall on our heads, by Bélénos. So, back to our nice Alouette. Well almost.
The United Kingdom joined the club of satellite launchers in October 1971, as the sixth member, after the USSR, the United States, France, Japan and China. Canada was still not a member of said club in 2022 and no meaningful effort is planned yet, but I digress.
This being said (typed?), the fact was that, thanks to Alouette, Canada outdid countries, the United Kingdom and France for example, whose economy, population and scientific tradition were far bigger and more ancient than its own.
An interesting detail, at least for me. In March 1962, a sextet of European countries (Belgium, France, Italy, Netherlands, United Kingdom and West Germany), without forgetting Australia, an associate member, signed a convention which gave birth to the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO). In turn, in June, no less than 10 European countries (Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland. United Kingdom and West Germany), signed a convention which gave birth to the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO). ELDO and ESRO merged in December 1972. The European Space Agency was then born.
Canada, for its part, preferred to keep its distance and cooperate with NASA, but back to Alouette.
Would you believe that a life-size model of that satellite was in the Canadian pavilion of the Century 21 Exposition held in Seattle, Washington, between April and October 1962? Said pavilion, one of the largest in the International Commerce and Industry section and said to be one of the most popular, had for its main theme Canadian Science and Industry Serving Mankind. And yes, it was apparently by the term Topside Sounder that the Canadian space vehicle was identified.
One of the main objectives of the Century 21 Exposition, a Cold War world fair, let us not forget, was to show American taxpayers that the science and technology of their country had nothing to envy to science and technology of the USSR. These taxpayers had to take the spiel of the American exhibitors on faith, however. The Soviet government had politely refused to participate in the exhibition.
A brief digression if I may. Invited to participate in the closing ceremony of the Century 21 Exposition, Kennedy had to recuse himself at the last minute, claiming a bad cold. Exhibition organisers were quick to realise that the American president was actually managing the Cuban Missile Crisis, the moment in the Cold War when our big blue marble came closest to full-scale nuclear war, in other words, to the end of the world, but back to our thrilling subject.
Initially designed to observe the ionosphere from above, the first Canadian satellite eventually received instruments allowing it to perform 3 other experiments: measuring cosmic noise, listening to cosmic radio noise and measuring particles of the primary cosmic radiation. For the time, such versatility was quite impressive. It was all the more so since Canadian researchers were at their first attempt.
This being said (typed?), the development of the Canadian satellite was not easy. DRTE staff sweated blood for months. Indeed, the satellite project drained both the human resources and the financial resources of that organisation. The aforementioned DRB also had to constantly inject money into it. As you might imagine, some DRTE and DRB researchers working on other projects were a tad irritated.
Speaking (typing?) of irritation, one wonders what the researchers who developed Canada’s first satellite thought of the High Altitude Research Project (HARP). Several North American daily newspapers indeed published moult articles on that high-altitude research project from May 1962 on.
You will of course remember having read in the first part of this article that said project had for final objective the placing small satellites into orbit. Indeed, one of the two gigantic HARP cannons fired the first of a long series of finned Martlet projectiles in February 1963. In November 1966, one of these reached an unprecedented altitude of 179 or so kilometres (111 or so miles). No Martlet was ultimately placed into orbit.
This being said (typed?), a Martlet which was never launched is part of the collection of the group of national museums which includes the incomparable Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, but back to the first Canadian satellite and its impact on the DRTE.
Various people actually believed / believe that the sheer scale of that project, not to mention subsequent research satellite projects, played a significant role in the transfer of DRTE and its staff to the newly formed Department of Communications in 1969. Mentioned in January 2018 and January 2020 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, the Communications Research Centre came into existence in Ottawa.
And the time has come to say (type?) goodbye, until next week and the conclusion of our brief, yes, yes, brief overview of the history of Alouette.