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Growing Up With the Space Race
Cultural Artifact and Document Imaging

Mar. 17, 2016
Roger Easton Jr

Back in December, Motherboard published a short post about the 58th anniversary of the 1957 Vanguard TV-3 (Test Vehicle 3) launch, which was the first American attempt to send a satellite into orbit. We were pleasantly surprised when Roger Easton Jr. reached out with his thoughts on the mission. An accomplished scientist in his own right, Dr. Easton is also the son of Roger Lee Easton, who led Project Vanguard during the 1950s, and later went on to become the inventor and designer of the Global Positioning System (GPS) that has become so ingrained in our everyday lives today.

Dr. Easton graciously obliged to share his memories of growing up alongside Project Vanguard in a post for Motherboard. Fittingly, today is the 58th anniversary of the launch of Vanguard 1, which is now the oldest satellite in orbit. Enjoy.

—Becky Ferreira

 

Among the strongest and clearest memories from my early childhood in the 1950s was being taken outside into the yard early one evening in October 1957 by Mom and Dad to see a moving light in the sky—in the southwest, if I recall correctly. It was the burned-out top stage of the Soviet rocket that launched Sputnik 1.

My other memories of that time are far more vague, but my sister reminds me constantly that Dad wasn’t home much that week, because he was working with his team to switch over the Minitrack satellite tracking system at Blossom Point, MD to pick up radio signals from Sputnik at 20.005 MHz (right next to the US WWV time signal) and 40.002 MHz.

Minitrack was designed to “listen in” at 108.0 MHz and 108.3 MHz, just above the FM radio band, which was much lessoccupied in the 1950s than it is now. The frequency conversion was said to be very difficult, but was eventually successful after some days of frantic effort. It apparently required stringing up an untidy nest of RF coaxial cables. As Dad told it, a Navy liaison officer was somewhat offended by the “unshipshape” nature of that building-wide web of cables, so he took on the personal task of “straightening up” the mess—and the system never worked again (which is a metaphor of some sort).

Blossom Point, Maryland, 1956. Image: Naval Research Laboratory

Dad grew up in rural Vermont, where his father was the town doctor at the time of the Spanish Flu and the Depression. Dad was attracted to science, and was assigned to the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) after graduating from Middlebury College in 1943. A decade later, he became involved in the early US space program, including “Project Vanguard.”

This phrase had a very fuzzy meaning for me until my second-grade year. The December 1957 issue of National Geographic magazine had a photo of Dad holding the “grapefruit” test satellite. Within a week, the story became even more interesting, when the Vanguard Test Vehicle 3 (TV-3) exploded in spectacular fashion, damaging America's hope of taking back some of the spotlight from the Soviets after their successful launches of Sputniks 1 and 2.

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