Ike's Secret Santa - To All Mankind
January 8, 2014 12:15 PM   Subscribe

Everyone knows the birth of the Space Race: Sputnik and Vostok gave the Soviets a huge start while the US floundered about with the odd tiny satellite making it through a cavalcade of explosive fiasco. Most would say that the first voice from space was that of Yuri Gagarin in 1961. They'd be wrong.

Barely a year after Spunik's 1957 launch, the real first voice from orbit was American and, moreover, that of President Eisenhower. Sent via a tape recorder on SCORE, a nearly-forgotten milestone in space, the message was broadcast vowing peace on Earth “to all mankind”. That SCORE, the first communications satellite, had been put into orbit by ATLAS, the first missile capable of delivering nuclear warheads globally, was not mentioned in the message. It didn't need to be.

SCORE worked for twelve days, proving that spacecraft could be controlled by messages from Earth, as well as retransmitting radio anywhere on the planet. For those who love space history, this is common knowledge. Likewise, that SCORE was prepared in extreme secrecy, with only 88 people in on the project and just 35 knowing that it was actually to be launched. Less well known is how far that secrecy was pushed: one man, Travis Maloy of Convair, made secret modifications at night to the rocket and even rigged the engine fuel cut-off system to test as good when it was in fact disabled.

The final hair-raising moment of that secrecy came just after launch, when the rocket veered from the official trajectory and seemed to be going out of control. The down-range engineers who weren't in on the real story, signalled for immediate self-destruct. The Range Safety Officer, the finger on the switch, knew the truth and did nothing.
posted by Devonian (22 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

From space!
posted by Naberius at 12:29 PM on January 8

His announcement pointedly described that although SCORE was a peaceful mission, the U.S. now had the capability of delivering a nuclear weapon from space

I come in peace. Shoot to kill.
posted by arcticseal at 12:38 PM on January 8

That's kind of a cheating definition of "voice from space," though. Like saying the first signals from the moon were in 1946.

Still, cool story, thanks for posting.
posted by echo target at 12:42 PM on January 8 [2 favorites]

My dad tells a story about listening to the beeping from Sputnik on a radio, even being able to see it at night as it came over the horizon. This was a decade into the Cold War, of course, and I wonder how much of last forty years' global politics was shaped by that moment. It was part of a lot of the boomers' earliest memories, to hear my dad tell it; he says it's hard to explain to people now how frightening it was.
posted by mhoye at 1:17 PM on January 8

I don't think it's cheating - it was the first voice from space, after all. In any case, I think the best bit of the story is the madness of jury-rigging a rocket on the pad and disabling the safety systems. Imagine the fuss today...


(And while the Americans were certainly early to the moon and back by wireless, they weren't the first.)
posted by Devonian at 1:18 PM on January 8

The first transmitted message from space to Earth was:

"This is the President of the United States speaking. Through the marvels of scientific advance, my voice is coming to you from a satellite circling in outer space. My message is a simple one: Through this unique means I convey to you and to all mankind, America's wish for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men everywhere."

So that's why it had to be such a tightly kept secret. Normally the United States government doesn't do that sort of thing.
posted by ckape at 2:11 PM on January 8

I'm having trouble finding a decent picture of the actual satellite. It could be this, but then there's also this replica/backup of what seems to be the main guts of the thing. Anyone have a better source for a visual of the thing?
posted by planetesimal at 2:51 PM on January 8

That's a small enough number of people in the loop that an alternate message could have been covertly substituted at the last minute. The Cold War could have ended with an Ozymandias gambit.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:51 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]

SCORE was built into the Atlas B instead of a separate payload, so the whole rocket (minus the jettisoned booster engines) was the satellite.
posted by ckape at 3:18 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]

Planetesimal - that first picture is Telstar, which a lot of people think was the first comsat. It was the first capable of TV, certainly, and had a much cooler name, but had solar cells which SCORE did not. That second picture looks far more credible: the coil of wire on the right hand side would be right for the HF antenna that it had, something only found on the earliest satellites or a few much later ones. But it probably had some sort of case.

[edit due ckape/preview: Aha, yes, it was bolted to the Atlas. Hence the appearance of a piece of rack-mounted experimental technology)

A lot of the radio technology on it came from an earlier cancelled spy satellite project, but there I don't even know the name.
posted by Devonian at 3:20 PM on January 8

With the Outer Space Treaty not in force until 1967, what missing technology between '59 and now would have prevented the deployment of orbital second-strike capability? Initially, it seems like weapons in orbit would be good second-strike systems because of the difficulty of destroying them.

I guess the lifetime of artificial satellites was measured in weeks or days rather than the years or decades you'd want your second-strike capability to last. Deploying and targeting would have a whole raft of problems. And even cold-war superpowers must have realized that it was not a bad idea to send up a bunch of nukes that would eventually de-orbit and scatter radioactive debris over unpredictable areas, or else parachute down safely but more than likely in territory you didn't control.
posted by jepler at 3:23 PM on January 8

Eisenhower's message from space was late by many years. As I felt it, the first on-topic message from space came in 1951, was much more plain-spoken, and ended like this:

I came here to give you the facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet -- but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned- out cinder.
Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace. Or pursue your present course -- and face obliteration. We will be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.

60+ years later, it's still in operation.
posted by Twang at 4:03 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]

jepler, I suspect one limitation was computing power.

In the late stages of Project Orion there was a proposal for a manned satellite armed with nuclear missiles. It would have been gigantic; plans were in the 4000 ton range. It's the sort of thing that becomes possible if you're willing to use nuclear pulse propulsion inside Earth's atmosphere, with all the fallout that would entail. There was no real technical barrier, just an outbreak of sanity.

second-strike capability

Or first-strike. Death from above with only a few minutes warning. Orbital weapons were banned in large part because they would have been incredibly destabilizing. The odds of accidental nuclear war over a false alarm would have gone through the roof.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:13 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]

> 60+ years later, it's still in operation.

I'm worried about Gort.
posted by languagehat at 5:19 PM on January 8

I misread the title as "Ikea's Secret Santa" and was thoroughly confused.
posted by destrius at 5:24 PM on January 8

justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow: "
Or first-strike. Death from above with only a few minutes warning. Orbital weapons were banned in large part because they would have been incredibly destabilizing. The odds of accidental nuclear war over a false alarm would have gone through the roof.

You don't even need missiles.

All you have to do is have ten or fifteen warheads on a space platform and have the computer tell you when/where to drop them.

Man, I remember playing Nuclear War in the hallway outside 4th hour Advanced Algebra when Sunny turned the corner and told us that Columbia blew up.
posted by Sphinx at 6:38 PM on January 8

If you 'drop' them from orbit, they will just follow you around as you keep orbiting. You need some way to at least kill some lateral velocity so that they fall into earth. Rockets are good at doing this quickly.
posted by Doroteo Arango II at 7:19 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]

I suspect one limitation was computing power

Heavy lifting capability would be another. Though I have no idea how much the average missile/warhead weighs.
posted by ShutterBun at 8:00 PM on January 8

Not to mention solid state electronics. Early SF was full of huge orbiting relay satellites with resident repairmen popping in new tubes and soldering antenna coils.

I was SO disappointed when I found out that this was no longer a career option.

Still am.
posted by Devonian at 3:08 AM on January 9

the U.S. now had the capability of delivering a nuclear weapon from space

It's the only way to be sure.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:01 AM on January 9

Devonian: "Early SF was full of huge orbiting relay satellites with resident repairmen popping in new tubes and soldering antenna coils. "

Asimov's "Reason" being of that genre.
posted by Chrysostom at 5:48 AM on January 9

Heavy lifting capability would be another

Not really. A Saturn V (Apollo program) could put a ~80 ton mass into stable orbit and a nuclear warhead only weighs about 700 pounds (W-47 Polaris missile warhead, 1960).

Orbital weapons were feasible with early 1970s technology, though computing limitations might have have made it necessary to send a small crew, like a Skylab of doom. All that was required was the WILL to do so.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:01 AM on January 9

« Older Apparantly I'm now a world champion   |   Yank of the Yalu Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments