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Before NASA: When Jack Townsend met Dave Schaefer: Building the Vanguard telemetry system

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment
John Townsend in 2008.

John Townsend in 2008.

John (Jack) Townsend, one of the founders of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, passed away on Saturday, October 29. Among many other things, Townsend helped to develop the Vanguard satellite program, before NASA even existed. That was a long time ago, but many people are still around who worked with Townsend in those days.

Dave Schaefer is such a man. About a year ago, it was my pleasure to make the short drive to Dave’s home in the leafy outskirts of Silver Spring, Maryland. I was accompanied by NASA computer scientist James Fischer, who, like Dave, spent decades developing Goddard’s high-performance computing capabilities.

Dave Schaefer stands by the rug in his home office woven with the image of Explorer 12, a spacecrft he helped to design.

Dave Schaefer stands by the rug in his home office woven with the image of Explorer 12, a spacecraft he helped to design.

Dave was a member of the team that developed an important component of the Vanguard satellite: the telemetry system, which captured data from the satellite’s sensors, stored it temporarily, and relayed it to Earth.

Vanguard began as a program at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington and transferred over to NASA (along with many of its personnel) after the agency was founded by the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958.

Vanguard was the first civilian satellite program, established for the International Geophysical year of 1957.  “Vanguard was supposed to orbit the very first artificial satellite,” Schaefer says. “It had its troubles.” Sputnik took over the honor, in October 1957, of becoming the first artificial Earth satellite.

But years before Sputnik was even a gleam in the eye of the Soviet politburo, Dave Schaefer and fellow staff scientist Robert Rochelle went to work at the Naval Research Laboratory, helping to lay the foundations for the U.S. civilian space program. That was in 1949.

Dave and Jack first met later, in 1955. It was all because of a radio broadcast heard in a car bound for Kansas. Schaefer told us the story this way:

“I was out in Kansas coming back from having taken two cousins of mine out there, on this auto trip. It was 1955, and here we had the radio on, and here there was a broadcast and it said mankind was going to do the greatest, most wonderful thing that had ever been done!” he says, raising his voice to preacher tone for dramatic emphasis.

“We were going to orbit an artificial moon. My God! And this was going to be done at a place called the Naval Research Lab. Well, I was already working at NRL on magnetic amplifiers. I had been there since March in 1949.

“Well I went to Whitney Matthews, who was my boss’s boss, whose name should show up in the annals of Vanguard, and I said to Whitney, “Why are we working on stupid magnetic amplifiers when the greatest thing that mankind has ever done is being done two buildings down?” And I slammed the door. I could have been out of a job, but I wasn’t.

“So two days later Whitney came to me, he said, “I have invited someone from the satellite project over to talk to us. His name is John Townsend. Jack is going to come over and talk to us tomorrow afternoon.”

“So he arrived and he said, ‘We need a telemetry system.’ He said if we go out commercially to get it, it will weigh 20 lbs. We need one that weighs — I think he said four pounds or something. And he didn’t say a lot more. He said to us, “You all think you can do it?”

“And of course we said yes, yes, yes! We made sure he went down to the elevator. We made sure he was on his way back to his office two buildings down. Then you know what we did? We ran to the nearest dictionary to figure out what in heaven’s name a telemetry system, was!

“He’d said I’ll be back in a week to see how you’re doing.  He was back in a week, because of our knowledge of magnetics, our group had a telemetry system operating for him.  And it only weighed 8 ounces, including the batteries. It met the specs, and in fact it used so little power we didn’t need to turn it off at all.” Schaefer says Bob Rochelle was the main person responsible for this achievement.

Dave Schaefer points to the portion of the Vanguard electronics core he helped to build in the late 1950s. This was an actual working model of the electronics package built for the Vanguard satellites.

Dave Schaefer points to the portion of the Vanguard electronics core he helped to build in the late 1950s. This was an actual working model of the electronics package built for the Vanguard satellites.

The United States — with the help of Dave Schaefer, Bob Rochelle, Jack Townsend, and many other people — attempted 11 Vanguard launches from 1958-59. They achieved orbit three times.

The grapefruit-sized Vanguard 1, the world’s first solar-powered satellite, launched St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) 1958 weighed just 3.35 pounds. It remains the oldest artificial objects orbiting Earth to this day.  The Rochelle telemetry system flew on Vanguard 3, launched on September 18, 1959.  This satellite is slated to remain in orbit for 300 years.

That same year, 1959, Jack Townsend jumped ship to the new civilian aerospace program, NASA, and helped establish Goddard Space Flight Center, assuming the role of Assistant Director for Space Science and Satellite Applications.

The rest is history — our history at Goddard Space Flight Center, and the origins of the nation’s aerospace agency. As Schaefer wryly points out, “The Vanguard telemetry system, the results of a ‘dare’ of Jack Townsend’s, will be in space, remembering him, for 300 years.”

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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