Growing Up With the Space Race

Roger Easton Jr.

Roger Easton Jr. reflects on the legacy of his father, Roger Lee Easton, who led Project Vanguard, America’s answer to Sputnik.

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.

Dad on the left as the Vanguard-1 "grapefruit" satellite is mounted on the third stage. Image: Naval Research Laboratory

The primary theme of this short sketch is to describe the events and people involved in the space program that affected my early life, and whose influence is still pervasive. Many of the Vanguard scientists were familiar names to us kids—if only because Dad spent so much time at home on the phone with them and because the names were passed around the evening dinner table (only when Dad made it home in time, as he often didn't in those days).

As a document, the first six seconds of a YouTube video I posted show the five kids gathered around a test model of the Vanguard—a model that the family owns.

Five Kids and a Satellite, Winter 1957-1958, Oxon Hill MD (scan from 8mm home movie). The author is hiding in the second row on the left. Video: Roger Easton Jr./YouTube/fourier9

For those of you who don't know, Project Vanguard was the first US scientific program to launch an orbiting artificial satellite (as it was known then—often glorified as a "man-made moon"). The program proposed by the NRL had been selected by the Eisenhower administration in 1955 over the "Project Orbiter" program proposed by Wernher von Braun and his colleagues at the Redstone Arsenal.

The selection was made in part because Vanguard would use a totally new "research" launch vehicle instead of an adapted military rocket, and because Vanguard had a scientific motivation, largely driven by NRL astronomers including Herbert Friedman. Von Braun's vision for Project Orbiter was purely a demonstration—in fact, they had no plans for any tracking system beyond the optical Baker-Nunn camera that could see the orbiting object (though whether it actually would was open to question). As Dad often said, NRL could not believe that Vanguard had been selected over Orbiter, and though von Braun was even more surprised that Project Orbiter had been turned down.

The electronics for the first Vanguard test satellite—the famous "grapefruit"—were designed by Dad and Marty Votaw (who passed away in 2015). This system included a transistorized transmitter that weighed "only" 1.5 pounds, which was quite a feat is those times before integrated circuits. The Votaws and their four kids lived less than a half-mile from our house, so my siblings and I went to school with them. Other familiar names on the design team included people I had often seen then or came to know later in life.

The three siblings of Vanguards 1, 2, and 3 remain the three oldest man-made satellites still in orbit

Richard Tousey, our neighbor across the street and down the block, was quite a Renaissance man: He was the solar astronomer primarily responsible for capturing the first photographs of the solar UV spectrum down to about 210 nanometers in 1946 using a captured V-2 rocket as launch vehicle. He was also a skilled musician, as was his daughter Johanna, who was Jean-Pierre Rampal's first Fulbright scholar.

Milt Schach and family lived down the hill—his daughter Karen was the girlfriend of my "Chinese Twin Brother" Jonathan Yuen. (Jonathan and I were born 20 minutes apart in the same hospital in DC). Jonathan's parents were first-generation immigrants from China and his father Joseph had worked at NRL, so his path often crossed Dad's. The two fathers bumped into each other in the maternity waiting room early that morning, which led to my father's frequently-told joke that "One in three children born in the world is Chinese, and we almost had one."

Jonathan and I were classmates all through junior and senior high school and remain in friendly, though infrequent, contact—he is on the faculty of the University of Uppsala in Sweden.

Another NRL'er who played an important role on the Vanguard thermal design was Louis Drummeter, who was an old hand in the NRL Optical Sciences Division. He had been the associate director of the division when I came on board 15 years later after completing college. I remember meeting Lou's wife Bette at Dad's NRL retirement dinner in 1980 and saying that I didn't think we had met. My Dad was standing right there and corrected me..."Oh yes you have!" As it happens, Bette Drummeter had been the attending nurse at my birth nearly 30 years previously.

Explosion of Vanguard TV-3. Image: US Navy

The spectacular explosion of the Vanguard TV-3 rocket on December 6, 1957 is the primary institutional memory of the entire Vanguard project—the subsequent successes have been largely forgotten. That event had to be a disappointment, but was hardly surprising, particularly since this was only the fourth test of the system (the count started at "TV-0"), and the first test of the "all-up'' assembled three-stage rocket with a payload.

Nowadays, failure of such an early implementation would be more understandable, but the prestige of the nation was seemingly at stake. It was years later, after I purchased the DVD archive of The New Yorker, that I was able to read some more of the reactions of the launch team, including Dad, in a story by Daniel Lang in the issue of December 28, 1957. In it, Dad is quoted as saying that "we couldn't make any sense out of all that stuff in the papers about how the NATO conference and the stock market were going to blow up just because our rocket blew up."

His lifelong buddy, Martin Votaw, had even pithier words to say about the news reports. "That was a lot of nonsense about the satellite lying on the ground saying 'Beep! Beep!'" he said. "You can't hear it without a receiver. And anyway, it isn't a series of beeps. It's a continuous sound." Evidence that the press and the science/engineering community did not understand each other, even then.

The morning following the failed launch—Saturday—Dad had returned from "The Cape" and was still in bed after an all-night flight back to Washington in those days of Douglas DC-6's and Lockheed Constellations. I was a seven-year-old at the time and only barely aware of the significance of his work. He told me to look in a cardboard box on the kitchen floor, where I saw the satellite itself, pictured here.

Vanguard TV-3 satellite. Image: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

It was much later that I heard from Marty what had been the real cause of the explosion. I have a video of Marty at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on March 16, 2008, when David DeVorkin and Michael Neufeld (curators of the space history department) cut apart the wired halves of the TV-3 payload for the two of them to examine.

That was the first time that I had heard the story of the reason for the TV-3 explosion as deduced by Milton Rosen. Another family friend, Milt had been the NRL project manager for Viking (the first large US liquid-fueled rocket that evolved from the V-2) and for Vanguard. The Friday morning of the launch was quite cold at Cape Canaveral—Marty described the winter clothes that they had to wear. Like the V-2, the Vanguard rocket engine used excess fuel as coolant. Apparently, ice that had formed in the fuel line due to the cold had restricted fuel access to the engine, which overheated and exploded. The damage created by attempting a launch on a cold morning is too ironic to miss in light of the events leading up to the Challenger disaster.

Von Braun took the opening that the unfortunate failure provided to campaign for a quick effort to launch "Explorer" on a Redstone vehicle—the same basic rocket used to launch Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom in Mercury suborbital flights in 1961. Explorer-1 was put up successfully on 31 January, 1958, to much acclaim and relief.

After one more failure, Vanguard-1 was successfully launched on March 17, 1958. Stenciled in at the base of the nose cone were the words "Have Ball, Will Orbit," an homage to the television Western program Have Gun, Will Travel.

Vanguard-1 launch. Video: Dan Beaumont Space Museum/YouTube

Unlike its Soviet and US Army cousins, which decayed out of orbit quite quickly, Vanguard-1 is still circling earth every 133 minutes. Unless deliberately recovered (as some have suggested) or struck by one of the ever-increasing numbers of space junk, the grapefruit satellite likely will remain in orbit for hundreds of years more.

Vanguard made scientific history too—besides being the first satellite to generate electrical power from the Sun via solar cells, tracking of its orbit led to the discovery of an asymmetry in the shape of the Earth, which was often described as "pear shaped." Though the difference is very small, I still recall a school teacher asking me a question of when globes would be made in that shape. The three siblings of Vanguards 1, 2, and 3 remain the three oldest man-made satellites still in orbit.

Our vacation trip the following summer was to Cape Canaveral for another Vanguard launch. I remember the trip well, particularly a three-day drive down US-301 (before interstate highways) in a station wagon with five kids without air conditioning, and a stay in a motel in Cocoa Beach, also without air conditioning, in mid-June.

The launch of Vanguard Satellite Launch Vehicle 2 (SLV-2) was scheduled for early evening on 26 June, and there was a large crowd on the beach to watch. My most vivid memory of that night was a view of the rocket on the launch pad through the telescope of some amateur astronomer. As was common, problems postponed the launch until after the bedtimes of all the kids, so I missed it—to my everlasting regret. The launch was not successful. The second stage failed after eight seconds due to an "obstruction in the fuel line," according to Project Vanguard: The NASA History, which was apparently a recurring problem.

But despite the largely negative memory of Vanguard due to these launch failures, it was a quite successful program given all the new ground it broke. And compared to other such programs, it actually had a very creditable ratio of successes to failures.

The transfer of Project Vanguard to NASA did not end Dad's work and contributions by any means. He stayed at NRL rather than moving to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, as some of his colleagues did. He was the head of the NRL Space Surveillance System, which was a radar "fence" across the southern US with a transmitter in Texas and receivers in Georgia, Alabama, and California that looked for signals reflected from orbiting vehicles.

Because of that work, he was invited to a six-week workshop at UC Santa Barbara in June and July of 1962 called Project Starlight. Dad told me years later that this was a top-secret early exploration of technologies for strategic missile defense—about two decades before President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars."

To us kids, this was sold as the chance to see Disneyland, but the opportunity to see other parts of the country had far more lasting effects. In fact, Dad loved Disneyland so much that his later travels to the Cape often included a day at the Magic Kingdom in Florida. He often said that it was an even happier experience for adults than for children.

The outbound trip to California included visits to the Painted Desert, Petrified Forest, Wupatki National Monument, Sunset Crater, and the Grand Canyon. It also gave Dad a chance to take us to the Space Surveillance radar transmitter at Lake Kickapoo, TX. This was in a Ford Country Squire station wagon with two adults, five kids, two cartop carriers with clothes and sleeping bags, and a big wooden box on the tailgate for the tent.

During the stay in California, in an apartment dorm for UC Santa Barbara in Isla Vista, Dad brought various bigwigs home for dinner. The only ones I remember were Karel Bossart, chief designer of the Atlas rocket and a REALLY FUN GUY—all of us kids loved "Uncle Charley." There was also John R. Pierce, from Bell Labs, who was very quiet. Dad called Pierce "the smartest guy I have ever seen." Though very accomplished in a variety of areas of electronics, including work on the "Telstar" communications satellite, Pierce is perhaps best known for naming the "transistor."

The return trip to DC from California in August began with news on the car radio that Marilyn Monroe had died the night before. The travels including tent camping at Yosemite, a visit to San Francisco (where I fell in love with the cable cars), camping at Crater Lake (very cold), the Seattle World's Fair, and more camping at Yellowstone (also very cold). I vividly recall the damage northwest of Yellowstone from the huge earthquake three years before. We drove back across the plains to visit my grandmother in Bay View, MI. That was a summer the whole family remembered with gratitude.

Dad loved Disneyland so much that his later travels to the Cape often included a day at the Magic Kingdom in Florida.

The next step in Dad's technological contribution provides evidence that "necessity is the mother of invention." One of the problems with the space surveillance radar system resulted from the many hundreds of miles between the transmitter and the several receivers—it was a so-called "bistatic" radar.

Since the receivers must measure the time delay of the echo from the transmitted signal to calculate the range to the object, they need accurate measurements of the time of transmission. The team tried a few methods, including carrying time standards between the sites as baggage on commercial aircraft, until they came up with the idea of transmitting the time from a spaceborne platform.

From there, it was a short jump to the idea of having a constellation of satellites transmit very accurate time signals to receivers on the ground and comparing the signal phases to estimate the user's location. As part of this work, Dad conferred at length with a number of experts in the field of navigation—and he brought many of them home to visit. One of these who I recall with great affection was Capt. Philip Van Horn Weems, USN (ret.), who was the pioneer in the field of celestial navigation in aircraft. He is perhaps best known as the person who taught these methods to Charles Lindbergh prior to his airline survey flights in the 1930s.

Captain Weems was another Renaissance man: All-American center for the Navy Midshipmen (Class of 1912), US Olympic wrestling team in 1920, 1925 South Atlantic amateur light-heavyweight wrestling champion (at the age of 36), proficient skin-diver who was a member of the 1959 expedition to explore the sunken Port Royal in Jamaica (see Exploring The Drowned City Of Port Royal, National Geographic Magazine, V. 117, No.2, 1960), and he invented many navigational aids with uses that persist to this day.

Image: Weems Family

Dad's efforts in this area formed the ideas behind the Navy Time Navigation, or "Timation" system. For this work, Dad was assigned US Patent Number 3,789,409, "Navigation System Using Satellites And Passive Ranging Techniques" on January 29, 1974. This is the fundamental patent behind the technology now known as the Global Positioning System (GPS), which has had profound effects on billions of human lives.

It was Dad's work on GPS that led to a not-totally-happy denouement. Clearly, many people contributed to the technology of GPS, so that many deserve credit. Dad received many plaudits, including a share of the Magellanic Premium in 1997. This is the oldest scientific prize in the USA, a gold medal to be awarded by the American Philosophical Society "from time to time under prescribed terms, to the author of the best discovery or most useful invention relating to navigation, astronomy, or natural philosophy."

Dad was inducted two years later into the Society itself, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 for the purpose of "promoting useful knowledge." He received the 2004 National Medal of Technology (awarded, for some reason, at the White House in March 2006; George Lucas received the same award at the same time) and he was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame in 2010, which was his last big trip from home.

The author (left) with his father Roger Lee Easton at the National Medal of Technology induction, 13 February 2006. Image: Roger Easton Jr.

I had rented a van to take the whole family from their house in New Hampshire—it was a week-long trip of reminiscence. Though these were all acknowledgements of great importance to him, the National Academy of Engineering did not include him as a recipient of the Draper Prize in 2003, instead making the award to others who had similar ideas but had not implemented any technology.

Because he was no longer able to travel, I had the honor of substituting for him in Kuwait City in June 2013 to receive His Highness Sheikh Salem Al-Ali Al-Sabah Informatics Award from the Emir of Kuwait. That was one of the most memorable experiences of my life, not least because of the friendships that developed with team members on the award committee. I represented him on the Kuwaiti equivalent of The Tonight Show, which includes a host, a sidekick, a band, and questions in Arabic. I was fortunate to receive many plaudits that were intended for him. It was ironic and fitting that he received this significant recognition from Kuwait, since coalition forces made much use of his technology during the war against Iraq in the 1990s.

Science was not his only interest. Mom and Dad moved to New Hampshire, near his childhood home in Vermont, after retiring from NRL in 1980. He designed wooden covered bridges—long a love of his—and had much to do with the design of the Packard Hill Bridge in Lebanon, NH.

Packard Hill Bridge views. Video: YouTube/Kyle Smith

He ran for and was elected to a seat in the New Hampshire "General Court" (the official name of the House of Representatives) and disagreements with Governor John Sununu led to his running for that office in 1986. I vividly remember his phone call to me when I was finishing up my Ph.D in Tucson in the late spring of that year, asking when I would be done so I could come back and work on his campaign. His statement that "the only thing worse than losing would be winning" indicated his attitude towards the office, but he wanted to bring the state Republican Party back to its roots from the extremism of the time. I am sure that he would feel that even more now. Though a lifelong Republican raised in Vermont, he voted for Barack Obama in his last opportunity in 2012—he felt that the Republican party had changed, not him.

I hope that I have conveyed something of the inspiration that Dad and his colleagues had on my own development and on my scientific career. I often draw strength from his example in my own work, particularly in his devotion to the need and the goal despite the doubts and negative actions of those with less insight. The doubters are present everywhere, and his example gives a good model for convincing them if possible, and for working around them if not.