Alouette, gentille alouette, Alouette, je te lancerai; Or, How the Cold War propelled Canada into space via the Alouette satellite, part 3
Hello again, my reading friend. Let us begin at the beginning. Do you know what yours truly is going to discuss with you? About the first Canadian satellite, you say? Right answer. Let us continue.
The launch of said satellite, Alouette, of course, late in the evening of 28 September 1962 (local time), or early in the morning of 29 September (Ottawa, Ontario, time), from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, obviously did not go unnoticed. The leaders of the 4 political parties represented in the House of Commons, in Ottawa, recognised the titanic work accomplished by the team of Canadian engineers.
Let us also mention the headline on the front page of the 29 September edition of the prominent English-language daily The Gazette, published in Montréal, Québec: “Canadian Space Probe Lofted Into Polar Orbit – U.S. Boosters Make Canada Third In Space.” That article was devoid of illustration, however.
As usual, Montréal’s other large English-language daily, The Montreal Star, showed even more exuberance and enthusiasm: “‘Alouette’ Working Perfectly – First Canadian Satellite in Orbit – Space Craft Sending Signals To Earth From Giant Antenna – Vehicle Weighs [145 kilogrammes] 320 Pounds” and “Cheers and Tears Meet Space Shot.” These articles even included a cutaway drawing of Alouette and a photograph of the rocket which had put that satellite into orbit.
And yes, an editorial entitled “A Canadian Voice in Space” appeared in the 1 October issue of The Gazette. Another, entitled “Gentille Alouette,” in French, mind you, appeared in the 2 October edition of The Montreal Star.
Incidentally, the first stage of the Thor-Agena rocket which put Alouette into orbit was derived from the Douglas SM-75 Thor intermediate-range ballistic missile. And yes, at that time (and still today?), in space, the military and the civilian were practically inseparable.
Operated in the United Kingdom by the United States Air Force (USAF) and the Royal Air Force between 1958 and 1963, the Thor could place its thermonuclear warhead at a distance of approximately 2 400 kilometres (1 500 miles).
A brief digression if I may. The development of intermediate-range ballistic missiles such as the Thor and the Chrysler, yes, yes, Chrysler, SM-78 Jupiter ultimately turned out to be a bad idea. Of all the European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, only Italy and Turkey agreed to receive such weapons of mass destruction on their territory. The introduction into service of the first American intercontinental ballistic missiles, in 1959 and 1961, rendered those same weapons unnecessary.
Worse still, it was partly in response to the setting up of Jupiter launch sites in Italy and Turkey in 1961 that the USSR decided in 1962 to install ballistic missile launch sites for Yangel R-14 intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was of course 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 the nice Alouette.
The coverage offered by two major French-language Québec dailies, undoubtedly the most important, published respectively in Montréal and Québec, on 29 September 1962, differed somewhat from that of The Gazette and The Montreal Star:
La Presse Montréal about 5.5 % of the front page
Le Soleil Québec about 2 % of the front page
The very small articles of these dailies, not illustrated please note, shared the same title: “The Alouette in orbit.” Exuberance and enthusiasm literally exploded in dithyrambic cascades. Sorry, sorry.
Please note that I took the liberty of translating the titles of French-language articles and editorials.
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So, what was more important than the launch of the first Canadian satellite on 29 September, you ask, my slightly perplexed reading friend? To paraphrase Hellboy, the grumpy hero who loved nachos and cats, but not together, from the hugely popular eponymous 2004 film, let me go ask.
The headline from La Presse read: “Opposition engages in game of hide and seek.” According to the daily, the 3 opposition parties which sat in the House of Commons were no longer crying out for a new general election, as they had done a few weeks earlier. Nay. In fact, they seemed to fear the holding of such an election. Remember, the government which then held the reins of power was a minority government elected in June 1962.
With regard to Le Soleil, the main concern was a statement by the Ministre de la Jeunesse du Québec for whom “Nothing should slow down the rate of school attendance.” Paul Gérin-Lajoie castigated those who criticised the provincial government and the school boards for going too fast. Remember, the education system in Québec inherited from the previous government and dominated by the roman catholic church was archaic, antediluvian and anachronistic. There was not even a ministry of education in Québec at that time. A Ministère de l’Instruction publique only existed between 1868 and 1875. It was abolished following pressure exerted by the Catholic clergy. It was not until 1964 that the Ministère de l’Éducation du Québec was created. The mind boggles, but I digress.
Would you believe that neither La Presse nor Le Soleil published the least editorial on Alouette? You do not believe me? Would you like to read (see?) a list of the titles of the editorials churned out by the editorial writers of these newspapers? There it is.
For La Presse
“A party and its painful beginning…”
“This hatred in the south…”
And for Le Soleil
“Basic School Subjects”
“The Yemen Coup d’état”
“The Arabs and Federalism”
“Mississippi Takes the Limelight against Racial Integration”
"Mao’s China Celebrates"
Alright, alright, both La Presse and Le Soleil published significantly larger, if still non illustrated, articles on 1 October, which happened to be a Monday – a non negligible detail given that neither La Presse nor Le Soleil appeared on Sundays. As well, Le Soleil put out an editorial entitled “The Canadian Alouette” on 3 October, as well as another one, on Québec politics, entitled “Two undemocratic decisions.”
Only one other French-language daily published in Montréal or Québec, Montréal-Matin of… Montréal, published an editorial on the launch of the first Canadian satellite. That text written by the chief editorialist, Lucien Langlois, was entitled “Alouette, gentille Alouette !” It appeared on 1 October.
Yours truly must admit to being a bit surprised by the lack of interest shown by the major daily newspapers of Montréal and Québec when Alouette was launched, all the more so since both La Presse and Le Soleil offered their readership articles with photographs on the third American orbital flight, made on 3 October by Walter Marty Schirra, Junior, a gentleman mentioned several times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018. Anyway, let us move on.
Aware of the interest of a certain segment of the Canadian public in everything related to space exploration, the Defense Research Board (DRB) prepared a position paper advocating the creation of a Canadian civilian space agency and the establishment of a Canadian space policy. That document was submitted to the federal government in December 1962.
Why on earth did the DRB want such an organisation created when it was for all intents and purposes the Canadian space agency at the time, you ask, my perplexed reader? You see, the DRB was aware that its military nature could complicate its future relations with the civilian space agencies of other countries, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Worse still perhaps, such civil space activities diverted it from its main mandate which was after all military.
Mind you, some space enthusiasts at the DRB and the Defence Telecommunications Research Establishment (DRTE) of the DRB very possibly wished to withdraw from that military mandate in order to devote themselves to research activities of an exclusively civilian nature, likely to attract substantial political and financial support within a Canadian space agency.
They were not unaware that the secret nature of many of their research projects made it impossible to publish articles in scholarly journals, or even to simply mention said work at conferences or informal meetings. In some cases, some researchers may no longer have really wanted to be involved in military projects which could open the door to a third (and last?) world war. Who could blame them?
These people were also aware that some senior officers of the RCAF were beginning to take an interest in space issues. If a Canadian civilian space agency did not see the light of day before long, the RCAF might launch its own space defence program. Let us not forget that the aforementioned USAF had announced the creation of a Department of Astronautics in December 1957, an initiative literally blocked within hours by the United States Department of Defense.
Incidentally, the United States Space Force (USSF) burst out, fully grown and fully armed, from the brow of the United States Air Force, in December 2019, thus curing a very serious headache. The parallel between this birth and that of the Greek goddess Athēnâ / Athḗnē from the brow of Zeús is purely coincidental. Or not.
A number of people have been poking fun at the USSF since day one. The unveiling of an official song, the cringe inducing Semper Supra, in September 2022, did not help, but back to our story.
As interesting and well done as the position paper of the DRB was, the federal government, in a minority position since the general election of June 1962, had to take into account far more important questions than the creation of a space agency. Its own disintegration for example. Said document was quickly put on a shelf, either before of after the fall of the government as a result of a non confidence vote held in early February 1963. The position paper did not resurface after the federal election of April 1963, and…
You have a question, do you not, my reading friend? How was Alouette, all alone, up there in space?
While it was true that some NASA researchers thought that the Canadian satellite would only work for a few days or even hours, they had to admit it was still holding up as its 3-month mission came to an end.
The data that Alouette tirelessly transmitted were recorded on magnetic tapes by the staff of a dozen or so ground stations spread around the world (Australia, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, Falkland Islands / Islas Malvinas, Malaysia, United Kingdom and United States,). They were then swallowed by DRTE computers for study.
Would you believe that the Alouette project, from its initial conception to its launch, may, I repeat may, have cost approximately 15 million dollars, including 3 paid for by Canadian taxpayers? When converted to 2022 currency, that $ 3 000 000 becomes approximately $30 000 000. The contribution of American taxpayers, in 2002 currency, on the other hand, was equivalent to approximately Can $ 155 000 000.
The DRB, DRTE and NASA were very impressed to see that, one year after its launch, Alouette continued to transmit data which, it must be admitted, were very useful for improving military communications. They were flabbergasted to see that Alouette continued to do so 5 years (!) after its launch, even though the satellite was no longer stabilised as before. According to NASA, Alouette transmitted more data on the ionosphere than all the satellites launched in the early 1960s. Qapla’, Alouette!
And yes, yours truly took the liberty of inserting a word of tlhIngan Hol well known to the general public in this peroration. (NuqneH, EG je EP!)
Before I forget, Alouette, the Energizer bunny of the satellite community of its day, may, I repeat may, have owed its longevity to the excellent batteries developed by the DRB’s Defence Chemical, Biological and Radiation Laboratories, in Ottawa. In space the military and the civilian were indeed virtually inseparable.
Alouette 1, a designation adopted at an indefinite date, before the launch of Alouette 2, in November 1965, was deactivated on 30 September 1972, after 10 years (!) in space. And yes, it was still transmitting data when an unidentified person, somewhat moved no doubt, pressed the proverbial button.
The British satellite Ariel was not so lucky. Its solar panels were indeed damaged by the explosion in space of an American thermonuclear warhead, a deliberate explosion, yes, deliberate, in July 1962. Ariel no longer provided data from September onward. An unidentified person pressed the proverbial deactivation button in November 1964.
Would you believe that the American explosion of July 1962, combined with several atmospheric explosions of American and Soviet thermonuclear warheads, knocked out the American telecommunications satellite Telstar in October? Put back into operation in February 1963, poor Telstar gave up the ghost in March.
And yes, the July 1962 explosion in space of the American thermonuclear warhead partly explained why NASA researchers believed that Alouette would not work for very long. Their opinion of the top brass in the USAF who had the brilliant idea of approving that nuclear test probably cannot be repeated in a text like ours.
Indeed, would you believe that 2 500 or so nuclear and thermonuclear weapons have exploded around the world since July 1945? 2 500 or so… The mind boggles, but I digress. Indeed, again, the time has undoubtedly come to conclude this pontification before it goes down deep and dark tunnels.
An engineering model of Alouette 1, fabricated by DRTE at the same time as the real satellite, is on display at the staggering and colossal Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa. (Hello again, EP and EG!)
Hmmm, yours truly wonders if the engineering model in question and the full-scale model on display in the Canadian pavilion of the Century 21 Exposition held in Seattle, Washington, were one and the same. I wonder. Anyway, let us move on. And do not tell me you did not know that this exposition was mentioned in the second part of this article.
Enjoy the beginning of autumn / fall, my reading friend. Sōnar māzis, sōnar māzis. In other words, High Valyrian words of course, winter is coming.