The wonderful lead balloons of Claude Williams Coffee, Junior, Walter Edward Bressette and William J. O’Sullivan: The Echo satelloons in Québec and elsewhere, Part 1
Have you watched the sky recently, my reading friend, as implored by one of the main characters in a 1951 American feature film, The Thing from Another World – one of the classics of science fiction cinema of the 1950s? Yes? No? No matter.
This week’s topic touches upon 1 of the 2 fields of activity of the wonderful Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, namely space, the final frontier.
The photograph with which we begin our plunge into the interplanetary vacuum is not particularly exciting, I must admit. Using an extended exposure period, an unidentified photographer captured the path of an object circulating around our planet, the artificial satellite Echo 1A.
And here is another equally un-fascinating photograph of that same artificial satellite.
The Echo 1A satelloon whizzing in the sky of Montréal, Québec. Patrick Nagle, “City Sky Show – Satelloon Soars.” The Gazette, 19 August 1960, 3.
One of the 2 major English-language daily newspapers in Montréal, Québec, at the time, The Gazette, obtained said photograph from a member of the Montreal Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Constantine Papacosmas.
Would you believe that an asteroid discovered in 1993 was / is named after this seasoned amateur astronomer? Better yet, would you believe that the person who wrote the nomination proposal was none other than David H. Levy, an amateur astronomer and science writer born in Montréal and known worldwide?
As you know, Levy was / is one of the trio of discoverers of comet D/1993 F2, better known as comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, the very one whose fragments spectacularly collided with the planet Jupiter in July 1994. The 2 other members of this terrific trio, both American, were / are the astronomer Carolyn Jean Spellman Shoemaker and the geologist Eugene Merle “Gene” Shoemaker, but I digress.
Would you like to know more about the artificial satellite Echo 1A, my reading friend? I am delighted.
This space odyssey began in the United States, in January 1956, during a meeting of the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel, an influential but non-decisional research group which proposed research ideas in the upper atmosphere using rockets. The purpose of that meeting was to choose and propose experiments which were to take place during the International Geophysical Year, a period of time of approximately 16 months (July 1957 to December 1958) devoted to research work on Earth carried out on a world level mentioned in a few issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018.
An aeronautical engineer from the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division of the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the ancestor of today’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a world-renowned organisation mentioned many times since July 2018 in our you know what, William J. O’Sullivan, was not impressed by the concepts put forward to carry out an experiment aimed at measuring the density of the Earth’s atmosphere at very high altitudes. Information to that effect might indeed prove crucial for the development of ultra-fast aircraft, intercontinental ballistic missiles and spacecraft, you know.
Back in his hotel room, O’Sullivan conceived an innovative approach concerning said experiment: the putting into orbit of an inflatable and light spherical satellite with an incredibly thin wall which, before being inflated, could easily find place in the nose cone of the relatively small rockets of the time.
Aware that his role within the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel was to evaluate concepts and not to propose them, O’Sullivan nevertheless mentioned his idea to 2 influential members of said research group. Impressed, they recommended that he submit his idea to the United States National Committee / International Geophysical Year. Said committee was impressed. The Technical Panel on the Earth Satellite Projects of this national committee was also impressed by O’Sullivan’s idea.
O’Sullivan then asked his superiors at NACA to finance this project which did not really touch upon the organisation’s mandate. NACA agreed to design O’Sullivan’s inflatable satellite in September / October 1956.
The crash of a Martin Vanguard rocket in April 1959 unfortunately led to the destruction of the inflatable satellite of NACA’s Space Vehicle Group, a small team created in December 1956 and led by O’Sullivan.
This being said (typed?), O’Sullivan and his team had been examining since the fall of 1957 the possibility of placing in orbit an inflatable satellite much larger (3.65 metres vs. 76 centimetres / 12 feet vs. 30 inches) than the one which was in the destroyed rocket – a satellite which would be launched to the Moon.
The launch in October 1957 of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, was a game-changer. Seen by a (small?) number of Americans but feared by millions of them, this Soviet spaceship mentioned in many issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018 caused a massive reaction on the part of the United States government and its various bodies. A satellite that countless residents of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the United States, and elsewhere, could see in the sky had to be put into orbit, as quickly as possible. Overnight, O’Sullivan’s inflatable satellite, christened Beacon in the spring of 1958, became a Cold War propaganda tool.
O’Sullivan’s inflatable satellite underwent another transformation in the late winter of 1957-58. Discussions between NACA, Bell Telephone Laboratories and the President’s Science Advisory Committee gave rise to the idea of placing an inflatable telecommunication satellite more than 30 metres (100 feet) in diameter into orbit. This colossus would in fact transmit no radio signal; its metallised surface would reflect signals from transmitting stations on the ground to distant receiving stations also on the ground.
Would you believe that it was one of the most influential science fiction writers of the 20th century, Arthur Charles Clarke, a British gentleman mentioned in November 2018, January 2019 and February 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, who proposed for the first time the placing into orbit of a network of telecommunications satellites, in an article published in October 1945?
The manufacture of the giant inflatable satellite began in March 1958. NACA, which officially approved the project in May, then considered using it as a telecommunications satellite or as a lunar probe. O’Sullivan may have come up with the name under which this huge space beach ball became known, Echo, during the year. The Echo Project was soon to become a program of paramount importance for NACA. O’Sullivan led a large staff team.
A brief digression if I may be permitted. The American military soon became interested in Echo. A network of inflatable satellites would greatly facilitate the transmission of orders and information all around the globe, without the possibility of interference.
A prototype of the inflatable satellite, manufactured by General Mills Incorporated, having failed during an inflation test, this American food giant hired a small firm, G.T. Schjeldahl Company, which took over with flying colours.
If you are wondering how a firm known for its breakfast cereals became involved in the American space program, let me remind you of the creation of an Aeronautical Research Division in 1946. Said division was involved in the production of high altitude sounding balloons ordered by the United States Navy and the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF).
By the way, anxious to know if the USSR was testing nuclear weapons, the USAAF launched Mogul Project in 1946. This very secret operation saw the launch of numerous balloons equipped with sensitive microphones. One of these balloons crashed in July 1947. To use a worn cliché, the rest was / is / will be hisotry, sorry, history. (Hello, JS!) Indeed, the balloon crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, a place well known to ufologists and science fiction writers who have been concocting ever since stories involving the crash of a spaceship from another world, but I digress.
Two rockets launched in October 1958 and August 1959 crashed before placing 2 examples of the aforementioned Beacon inflatable satellite into orbit. Somewhat dejected by the August 1959 failure, which came on the heel of the equally aforementioned crash of a Vanguard rocket in April, O’Sullivan abandoned his creation. Two members of his team, Claude Williams Coffee, Junior, and Walter Edward “Breezy” Bressette, took over with flying colours.
Worse still, in October 1959, the new organisation which oversaw the American civil space program, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, the name of NASA when it was founded in October 1958, decreed that the management of the Echo Project would henceforth depend on its space research laboratory, the Goddard Space Flight Center, whose premises were then under construction. Coffee, Bressette and their colleagues were stunned – and probably furious. They were also quick to realise that many people at the Goddard Space Flight Center judged the very concept of the passive inflatable telecommunication satellite, or satelloon, far inferior to that of the active satellite with reception and transmission antennae. This was where these people wanted to invest their resources.
Re-worse still, still in October 1959, while the launch of a rocket which should have allowed the inflation of a satelloon to be tested in space as part of a suborbital flight was a complete success, the Echo exploded during inflation. Many people on the east coast of the United States contacted their police or fire department to report lights of an unknown nature in the sky. A second launch attempt failed in January 1960 following a problem linked to the rocket. A third attempt, in February, was a partial success; the satelloon inflated as expected but tore up. A first successful inflation took place in April, on 1 April to be more precise and I’m not kidding.
Coffee, Bressette and their colleagues then began to prepare the launch and placing in orbit of Echo 1, in May 1960. The second stage of the rocket having refused to function, said launch was a failure. The successful suborbital flight of an Echo, also in May, slightly uplifted the team.
The launch and placing into orbit of Echo 1A on 12 August 1960 crowned the work of these engineers. Their bosses were delighted and the American media were elated.
It should be noted, however, that O’Sullivan tried to take over much of the success of the team which he had virtually abandoned since the summer of 1959. Coffee, Bressette and many of their colleagues were probably not amused.
Echo 1A, if you must know, circled the Earth a dozen times a day. The average distance from the surface of our planet barely exceeded 1 600 kilometres (just under 1 000 miles).
The very day of the launch of Echo 1A, it reflected, between California and New Jersey, a short pre-recorded message from the American president, Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower, a gentleman mentioned in March 2018, February 2019 and September 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee. NASA soon supervised 2 telephone conversations which involved researchers in 4 American states (Iowa-Texas and California-New Jersey). A radio signal was transmitted between the United States and the Centre national d’études des télécommunications (CNET) in France shortly after mid-August – a world first. The CNET may, I repeat may, have transmitted a radio signal to the United States a little later. Also in August, a photograph of Eisenhower, transformed into radio signals in Iowa, was captured in Texas moments later – another world first. A few days later, again and again in August, still a world premiere, a pre-recorded voice message and a recording of the American patriotic anthem America the Beautiful crossed the ether and were picked up by one or more instruments from the Jodrell Bank Observatory, in the United Kingdom.
In fact, Eisenhower apparently invited all countries of the world, including the USSR, to use Echo 1A as part of their own telecommunications experiments.
And yes, the world famous Jodrell Bank Observatory was mentioned in September 2019 issues of our you know what.
The very shape of Echo 1A, however, tended to disperse the signals hitting its surface. As a result, the few Earthlings who participated in the experiments made possible by this satelloon did not necessarily receive high quality signals.
This being said (typed?), Echo 1A clearly demonstrated the potential importance of a network of telecommunications satellites. Several American firms contacted NASA and other American firms to initiate the development of active telecommunications satellites with reception and transmission antennae.
Launched in July 1962, the American satellite Telstar 1 of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company was / is the ancestor of the telecommunications satellites that pirouette above our heads today, including Anik, a Canadian satellite mentioned in a November 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.
A brief musical interlude if I may…
Recorded in July 1962, only 12 days after the launch of the satellite Telstar 1, the musical piece Telstar of the British band The Tornados was one of the great musical successes of the time.
The sound that you heard at the beginning of the recording, which was supposed to sound like a rocket launch, was apparently a recording of a… toilet flush played backwards. I kid you not, but back to our story.
The United States Post Office Department launched a stamp commemorating the success of Echo 1A, Communications for Peace – Echo 1, in December 1960. It was the first stamp dedicated to an American satellite.
The American public, which did not care about the signals reflected by Echo 1A, was nonetheless so fascinated by its new silvery toy that NASA provided the media with detailed information on the hours during which it could be observed by the residents of various municipalities and states.
Aware of the interest aroused by Echo 1A, a NASA laboratory, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, oversaw the production of a documentary film in colour of approximately 27 minutes, Project Echo, which was released in 1960. An abridged version (approximately 14 minutes) of this short film, Echo in Space, was released in 1961. Yours truly must admit that I did not find them online.
This was / is all the more curious given that the United States Information Agency (USIA), an independent American information / propaganda agency, sent copies of Echo in Space in 30 languages to its 200 offices around the world. USIA also supervised the presentation of this documentary film in the faraway regions of several countries. USIA even oversaw the broadcasting by the Voice of America information / propaganda network of messages, reflected by Echo 1A, by diplomats from some 15 foreign countries.
Would you believe that during the 7th edition of Maarad damashak al-douli, in other words the international fair of Damascus, in Damascus, United Arab Republic, today in Syria, which was held in August and September, guides briefly ended their presentations to give their groups a chance to see Echo 1A whizzing in the sky? Yours truly does not know, however, whether this craze affected all guides or only / especially those of the American pavilion, whose training had been provided by the American government.
In any event, NASA placed Echo 2, an improved satelloon of larger diameter (about 41 metres / 135 feet), in orbit in January 1964. Its polar orbit made it visible, at night, virtually everywhere on Earth.
Echo 1A and Echo 2 burned up in the atmosphere in May 1968 and June 1969.
The success of the first active telecommunications satellites like the Telstars, Relays and Syncoms swept aside the efforts made by the supporters of the satelloon, which put forward various concepts at least until around 1966.
This being said (typed?), in June 1966, NASA placed PAGEOS 1 (PAssive Geodetic Earth-Orbiting Satellite) in orbit. Researchers used it to determine the position of various points on the Earth’s surface with unprecedented precision. If these people used the data obtained to assess the size and shape of our planet, the American military used this same data to examine the accuracy of their intercontinental ballistic missiles with (thermo)nuclear warheads. Fragments of PAGEOS 1 have been burning up in the atmosphere since the 1980s.
Echo 1A, Echo 2 and PAGEOS 1 were / are undoubtedly the most elegant objects ever launched into space from Earth.
Would you like to see a short documentary film produced by or for Bell Telephone Laboratories, on the Echo Project? Wunderbar. Here it is, there it is…
You may remember, my fickle minded reading friend, that the title of this article included the following words: The Echo satelloons in Québec and elsewhere. Yours truly does not particularly wish to pontificate on the elsewhere, but I would like to present a few lines on what was said in Québec in August and September 1960. However, I will do so next week.
See ya later.