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PBS Show Features History Mystery with an Amateur Radio Twist

09/22/2010

In the PBS show History Detectives, a group of researchers helps people to seek answers to various historical questions they have, usually centering around a family heirloom, an old house or other historic object or structure. So when Chuck Roedel, WA2MXR, of Beverly Hills, Florida, had what he thought may be an artifact from the turning point in the US space race against Soviet Russia, he called on the detectives to help him sort it all out. The show featured Roedel and his history mystery back in June, and his segment was just made available to the public on the History Detectives Web site.

Back in October 1978, Roedel -- an ARRL member -- met Dwight “Doc” Saxmann, W3HNT (now a Silent Key), of Baltimore, Maryland, on the air. In one of their QSOs, Saxmann told Roedel that in the early 1960s, he had worked on Echo 2, an early NASA communications satellite made out of an experimental material. Echo 2 -- a 135 feet diameter metalized PET film balloon -- was a balloon satellite that functioned as a reflector, not a transmitter, so that after it was placed in a low Earth orbit (LEO), a signal would be relayed to it, reflected or bounced off of its surface and then returned to Earth.

Launched on January 25, 1964 on a Thor Agena rocket, Echo 2 was used for passive communications experiments, as well as to investigate the dynamics of large spacecraft and for global geometric geodesy. Echo 2, orbiting in a near-polar orbit, was conspicuously visible to the unaided eye over all of the Earth. Brighter than all stars and sometimes even outshining Jupiter, it was probably seen by more people than any other man-made object in space. Echo 2 reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and burned up on June 7, 1969. NASA abandoned passive communications systems in favor of active satellites following Echo 2.

But as Roedel explained to Sociologist Dr Tukufu Zuberi, one of the researchers on History Detectives, he told Saxmann that he really didn’t understand just what the balloon was made out of, “so he said if I sent him an envelope, he would send me back a piece of the satellite. And he did. I’d like to know if this is a piece of an NASA satellite. And if you could, I’d like to know a little bit more about Doc.” Along with the material, Saxmann included a note and a diagram of the satellite.

So Zuberi got down to business, trying to find out all he could on NASA’s Echo program -- and Saxmann. Zuberi found that when the Echo satellites were launched into space, it inflated and then operated like a giant mirror, bouncing radio waves back to Earth. “So the Echo was a major publicity event for the United States, something which is putting the US in direct competition with the Soviet Union,” he explained. “But this is interesting -- the US shared the Echo technology with other countries. And it seems the Soviets actually participated in experiments with Echo 2, launched in 1964. The Soviets called Echo 2 ‘the friendly Sputnik.’”

Zuberi took the 4 inch square of metallic fabric -- half of it covered in mysterious pink powder -- that Saxmann sent Roedel to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). There, Ron Muller explained to him that Echo 2 had a Mylar structure, but it had actual aluminum on the inside and the outside; this special fabric was glued together in panels for a 100 foot balloon. “And then it gets all folded up very carefully in a ‘Z’ shaped kind of a thing,” Muller explained. And then the whole works gets stuffed into [a small] canister very carefully. Once it was in orbit, it would inflate to full size.”

Next, Zubari sought out Debbie Thomas, also at GSFC; Thomas is the operator of the lab’s scanning electron microscope. Thomas, with Roedel’s permission, took a small cross-section of the material to scan it. Based on what she finds, she will be able to tell if was of the same fabric as Echo 2. “Looks like maybe two metallic layers here,” she said. “Let’s see, I’m going to take a spot on here. Looks like aluminum. And this is Mylar here. So we know that we’ve got an aluminum sandwich, essentially. Your total thickness of your aluminum is about point three mils, thereabouts.”

Armed with this information, Zubari met with Margery Sovinski, a material analyst at GSFC. She explained that “the total thickness for the material is very similar to what the report indicated it should be. So we’ve confirmed that it’s very likely that the sample that you have here could have been used for the Echo 2 projects.” And the strange, pink powder? Sovinski explained that a fluorescent tracer was added to the material so that if there was a leak, the powder was bright enough that Mission Control could see it if the Echo balloon exploded in orbit.

So now Zubari was sure that this piece of material was indeed from the Echo 2 project. But how did Saxmann get a hold of it? In searching for Saxmann, he was able to find his son Milt, who explained to Zubari that his father had passed away in 1983. Doc Saxmann worked for Westinghouse, at the time, a sub-contractor to NASA. He confirmed to Zubari that the note Roedel received with the material was indeed written by his father: “Oh, yeah, that’s his writing. He always printed.” He also said his father was known as “Antenna Doc.”

Milt explained that NASA contracted Westinghouse to conduct a series of tests on the Echo 2 balloons here at the former naval air station at Lakehurst, New Jersey. “One of the final tests was the burst test,” he said. “And it was like a just real loud dull ‘thunk.’” In doing this test, the scientists had filled the test balloon up with so much gas to see how much it could take -- they knew it would explode. And when it exploded, there were lots of little pieces of balloon everywhere. “You know and it split open and everybody just dived in -- you know like kids with leaves? They just dove into this balloon. [Dad] dove in as well, because it was all over the place.”

Zubari took all this information back to Roedel: “So a conversation over 30 years ago led to you having a piece of history in your closet.” Roedel agreed, saying, “I never understood why he would send me this. I was just on the air. Now I have this story. This is really nice. Nice to know.”



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