Wednesday, August 10, 2011

NASA's Echo 1 satellite

At 5:39 a.m. on August 12, 1960, Thor-Delta No. 2 blasted into the sky from launchpad 17 at Cape Canaveral, taking its balloon into orbit. A few minutes later, the balloon inflated perfectly. At 7:41 a.m., still on its first orbit, Echo 1 relayed its first message, reflecting a radio signal shot aloft from California to Bell Labs in New Jersey. "This is President Eisenhower speaking," the voice from space said. "This is one more significant step in the United States' program of space research and exploration being carried forward for peaceful purposes. The satellite balloon, which has reflected these words, may be used freely by any nation for similar experiments in its own interest." After the presidential message, NASA used the balloon to transmit two way telephone conversations between the east and west coasts. Then a signal was transmitted from the United States to France and another was sent in the opposite direction. During the first two weeks, the strength of the signal bounced off Echo I remained within one decibel of Langley's theoretical calculations.

The newspapers sounded the trumpets of success: "U.S. Takes Big Jump in Space Race"; "U.S. Orbits World's First Communications Satellite: Could Lead to New Marvels of Radio and TV Projection"; "Bright Satellite Shines Tonight." So eager was the American public to get a glimpse of the balloon that NASA released daily schedules telling when and where the sphere could be seen overhead.

For the engineers from Langley who were lucky enough to be at Cape Canaveral for the launch, this was a heady time. Norm Crabill remembers hearing the report that "Australia's got the beacon," meaning that the tracking station on that far-off continent had picked up the satellite's beacon signal. To this day, Crabill "gets goose bumps just thinking about that moment." He remembers thinking, "Anything's possible!" After all, the space age had arrived, and in a sense, anything was.

NASA's Echo 1 satellite

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