by Mark Ollig
An historical event began from a launch pad in Florida 55 years ago this week.
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) had just become operational in October of 1958.
It was working on Project SCORE (Signal Communication by Orbiting Relay Equipment), America’s first earth-orbiting communications satellite.
The “orbiting relay equipment” was housed inside a satellite onboard a US Airforce Atlas booster rocket.
The satellite communications payload weighed roughly 150 pounds.
Project SCORE, according to NASA, was to “. . . demonstrate the feasibility of, and explore problems associated with, [the] operation of a satellite communication system.”
This was the first working test of an earth-orbiting communications satellite relay system, and was nicknamed the “talking atlas.”
This event also marked the first time an Atlas booster rocket had ever been used as a space launch vehicle.
There was extreme secrecy about the operation and the specific course planned for the Atlas 10B mission – in fact, only 35 people in the entire country knew the details of it.
I discovered the person who pushed the firing button for the Atlas rocket to lift-off, did not even know the exact course which had been established for it.
We need to remember; at the time of the Atlas launch, it had only been 14 months since the Soviet Union placed its now-famous Sputnik 1 satellite in orbit around the world with its continuous radio signals of “beep-beep-beep-beep” being transmitted towards the Earth.
At that time, many folks here in the US were frightened the Soviets might arm their future earth-orbiting space satellites with nuclear warheads.
You can listen to one minute of the recorded radio signal beeps as transmitted from the Sputnik 1 satellite at: http://tinyurl.com/bytes-sputnik1.
Project SCORE was established, in part, to put the United States on an even playing field with the Soviet Union; in light of their success with Sputnik.
I also believe Americans wanted reassurance in knowing the US would have its own satellite in space as soon as possible.
On the evening of Thursday, Dec. 18, 1958, the Atlas rocket carrying the secret US satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral, FL.
Four-and-a-half minutes after lift-off, the rocket reached a speed of 17,000 mph. It maneuvered into Earth orbit via its internal guidance system – which was a technical first.
A total of 8,750 pounds was placed into earth-orbit via the Atlas rocket – the heaviest ever to have been sent into orbit at that time.
This satellite was successfully used for relaying real-time voice and teletype communication messages received from a location on earth through the upper atmosphere. After receiving the messages, the satellite would transmit them back down to a specific ground station.
The satellite also had two special devices onboard.
They were a pair of tape recorders, each with a four-minute recording capacity. Both provided safeguard-redundancy: One recorder acted as the primary unit, and the other as a backup unit.
These recorders in the satellite were able to receive radio messages from Earth, record the messages and transmit them back again.
There was one very special voice message, the recorders carried.
It turns out it was a good thing NASA had installed a redundant recorder onboard.
The primary recorder had failed; therefore, the backup was used to transmit a special Christmas greeting to the world.
The following surprise message from President Dwight D. Eisenhower was radioed to Earth December 19, 1958, from the first US earth-orbiting communications satellite:
“This is the President of the United States speaking. Through the marvels of scientific advance, my voice is coming to you via a satellite circling in outer space. My message is a simple one: Through this unique means I convey to you and all mankind, America’s wish for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men everywhere.”
The batteries onboard the satellite lasted for 12 days, and then, on Jan. 21, 1959, the Atlas satellite’s orbit began to decay. It entered the upper Earth’s atmosphere, where it burned up.
An important technological milestone had been achieved – one which paved the way for the next generation of communication satellites.
A video of the Atlas 10B rocket satellite launch, along with the voice recording of President Eisenhower’s Christmas message to the world, is stored in the Internet Archive at http://tinyurl.com/bytes-score.