Watching the Space Race: An Orb in Space

by Walt Staples

I must admit to a disgusting family trait—we're morning people. I was actually awake and alert when I saw the balloon floating in space that warm August 1960 morning. I was up at my usual 05:00, had eaten breakfast (found the dinosaur in the cereal box—same one as in the last three), and was waiting for Sunrise Semester to come on TV. The Friday before, a photo of a huge silver balloon in a hanger was shown on NBC's Huntley and Brinkley (I forget which one did the story). Across the front was “N.A.S.A.” in equally huge letters—they didn't lose the periods until years later. According to the report, a radio signal had been bounced off the balloon, Echo 1. Standing in the darkness of our backyard, I watched the horizon over the small pine thicket. After some 15 or 20 minutes, a bright point of light, about the magnitude of Aldebaran (0.87) crawled into sight. I watched until it disappeared over the ridge of Colonel Coon's roof across the street. Then I went back in and watched part whatever of a lecture on the Peloponnesian War—I think—before getting ready for the bus to summer day camp.


Project Echo involved the launching of a self-inflating mylar balloon into LEO (Low Earth Orbit—100 to 1,240 miles/160 to 2000 km). Upon reaching orbit, the balloon would inflate and ground stations would send microwave signals to it, and the signals would be reflected back to another ground station.

What is referred to as Echo 1 was actually Echo 1A. The original Echo 1 was lost on 13 May 1960 when the Air Force Thor-Delta lofting it missed orbit because the attitude control of its upper stage went sour. Not a way for a launch vehicle to impress on its debut flight. At 09:39 GMT, on 12 August 1960, another Thor-Delta got 'er done and put the latest incarnation of Echo 1 into orbit. (That day in August 1960 was a particularly hazardous day for birds. At 13:00 GMT, an Air Force Atlas suborbital test was also launched from Cape Canaveral; followed at 18:28 GMT by a test of the Polaris submarine-launched missile by the Navy from their end of the Cape. Meanwhile, the Air Force was launching a Kiva-Hopi sounding rocket from the Pacific Missile Range on California's Point Arguello*. On the other side of the world, the Soviets were test-firing a R-12 Dvina medium range ballistic missile from what would later be renamed “Baikonur Cosmodrome,” Kapustin Yar.)

Once in orbit, the balloon inflated to its full 100 foot (30.5 meter) diameter. A signal was sent up to it from JPL in Pasadena and bounced down to the Bell Laboratories in Homdel, New Jersey. Echo 1's silver surface was used to bounce TV, radio, and transcontinental and intercontinental telephone signals. Because of its large sail-area and tiny mass—about 90 pounds (180 kilos)--the solar wind had a noticeable effect on it. The larger Echo 2 (135 feet/41.1 meters) was successfully orbited aboard a Thor-Agena on 25 January 1964. Echo 1 reentered on 24 May 1968, while its sibling deorbited on 7 June 1969.

What was not mentioned at the time was another part of the missions. The pair of balloons were used to more accurately fix the location of Moscow to aid in targeting for ICBMs.

I remember standing in line at the East Springfield, Virginia, Post Office that December so that I could buy the commemorative First Class stamp the Post Office had issued on 15 December. First Class postage at the time was a whopping four cents—something my father grumped about quite regularly (the year before, it had skyrocketed from three cents).

* Another thing of interest about Point Arguello is that in 1923, seven U.S. Navy destroyers (part of a 14 ship formation on a speed run from San Francisco to San Diego) piled into the point at flank speed in fog. 23 crewmen were lost in the sinkings.

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