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Paul Lowman, Goddard pioneer, remembered

November 17, 2011 2 comments
Paul D. Lowman, pioneering NASA geologist

Paul D. Lowman, pioneering NASA geologist

Last week, friends and colleagues of pioneering NASA geologist Paul D. Lowman, Jr. (1931-2011) gathered at Goddard Space Flight Center to share stories and celebrate their friend’s life and career. Lowman died September 29, just 3 days after his 80th birthday. He had worked at Goddard Space Flight Center since 1959, frequently commuting to the Center from his nearby home in Bowie, Md., on a yellow bicycle.

Lowman was a member of Goddard’s Apollo generation. He was one of the NASA scientists that helped select geological activities to perform on the moon, a body whose nature and origin were poorly understood in those days.

One new thing I learned about Lowman at the remembrance event is that he was the first geologist NASA hired. Also, he helped train Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts to take photographs of geological Earth terrain from space. That had never been done before, and remains Lowman’s major claim to fame.

If you’re curious, read more about Lowman in an informative 2007 feature story by Goddard’s Rob Garner. I asked Rob, currently a member of the Goddard Office of Communications web team, to recall the interview experience:

“I was barely out of college, and I’d been at Goddard less than five months when I was assigned to interview Dr. Lowman, whose NASA tenure surpassed my own by more than 100 times.  I was downright terrified. That all evaporated the minute I sat down in his office.  Paul was affable, jovial, and he had a marvelous sense of humor.  He had me on the edge of my seat the entire time we spoke. Seeing him pedaling around the center on his banana-yellow bicycle from time to time in the years following our chat never failed to make me smile. The NASA constellation shines a bit dimmer with him gone.”

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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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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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Paul Richards took one look at the first Space Shuttle launch and thought, "That's my ride."

NASA Goddard engineer Paul Richards in 2001, spaking to the media about his upcoming flight on the Space Shuttle mission STS-102.

NASA Goddard engineer Paul Richards in 2001, speaking to the media about his upcoming flight on the Space Shuttle mission STS-102.

What did the Space Shuttle program mean to you?

NASA engineer Paul Richards knew from the moment he saw the first one roar off the pad in 1981.

“The first launch was 1981. I was a junior in high school. I wanted to be an astronaut since I was 5 years old. So as soon as I saw that first Shuttle launch, my thoughts were, ‘That’s my ride. I’m going up on that thing.'”

And he did — once — in 2001. It changed his life.

Yesterday, Richards was one of the speakers at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who recalled their experiences and contributions to the U.S. Space Transportation System, a.k.a., the Space Shuttle. Richards, currently Observatory Manager of the GOES-R satellite program at Goddard, flew in space in 2001 on the STS-102 mission to the International Space Station.

The video below, about 15 minutes long, contains the portion of Richards talk where he walks through his changing “perspectives” on the Shuttle, starting with that first launch in 1981: hearing of the Challenger accident while in college; coming to Goddard and using the Shuttle to launch payloads; getting to know the astronauts; becoming an astronaut; watching friends and colleagues die in the 2003 Columbia accident. And finally, yesterday, watching the final Shuttle land.

Richards was candid, honest, and humble in his storytelling. It seems to me that he and others like him are one of the most precious legacies of the Shuttle era — the NASA people who did great things and took great risks to be true to their belief in the redeeming adventure of human spaceflight.

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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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Goddard's First Homegrown Satellite, Explorer 10, Was Launched 50 Years Ago Today: We Talk to the Father of Explorer 10, James Heppner, About the 'Opportunity Years' at the Dawn of NASA


photo of Earl Angulo (at left) and Ron Browning examining an Explorer-10 model attached to a test fixture
This photo from the early 1960s shows Goddard employees Earl Angulo (at left) and Ron Browning examining an Explorer 10 model attached to a test fixture. They were responsible for the mechanical engineering and testing of the satellite.


Fifty years ago today, Goddard’s first homegrown scientific satellite roared off the pad at Cape Canaveral on a Thor-Delta rocket. Although key components came from outside the gates, Explorer 10 was the first satellite to be designed, assembled, tested, and flown from Goddard Space Flight Center.

James Heppner, a young space physicist (barely 30 then) and one of NASA’s early employees, conceived of the mission that came to be called Explorer 10. Heppner functioned as a sort of one-man band — Project Manager, Project Scientist, and Principal Investigator for the magnetometer instruments on the satellite.

Before NASA was founded, Heppner worked for the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. It was there he developed methods to measure Earth’s magnetic field. At NRL he used sounding rockets to study charged particles and magnetic fields high in Earth’s atmosphere. His earlier research in Alaska focused on the aurora and its effects on radio wave propagation, and was the basis for his Caltech PhD thesis.

Heppner calls these times the “opportunity years,” a period when methods and technology for measuring magnetic fields and space plasma — the bread and butter of space physics — were being invented. He was at the right place at precisely the right time.

In late 1958, as Heppner and many of his colleagues were being “handed over” to the nation’s new aerospace agency, he had already helped create a magnetometer for the Vanguard program. Vanguard, an NRL project, was created to loft the first civilian scientific payloads into space for the International Geophysical year of 1957-58. Heppner’s proton magnetometer went into space aboard Vanguard 3 on September 18, 1959.

NASA satellite P-14 was renamed Explorer 10

NASA satellite P-14 was renamed Explorer 10

At the time of the transition to NASA, Heppner today recalls, he conceived of a satellite to measure the magnetic field of the moon. The mission, then called P-14, would accomplish its goal by extreme measures:

“I originally proposed Explorer 10 when NASA was formed,” explains Heppner, 83, who spoke with me recently from his home in New Market, Maryland. “And the intent was to try to hit the moon and measure the moon’s magnetic field on the way in.”

The original plan was deferred. The truth is, hitting the moon — even intentionally — was no simple trick in those days. It wasn’t clear the Thor-Delta launch system would accomplish the task, and even tracking a spacecraft to the moon was straining the technical capabilities of the time.

“With time we realized that the odds of hitting the moon would be extremely low, from the vehicle performance and ability to track, things like that,” Heppner explains. “I was told that with the odds of hitting the moon being so low, it would be embarrassing to even try. So I was essentially directed by NASA headquarters to make sure that the trajectory was such that it couldn’t be interpreted as an attempt to hit the moon.”

The new mission goal was to measure magnetism and plasma particles in space from outside of Earth’s protective magnetic bubble, or magnetosphere. This had been attempted previously, but not with great success. To do it required launching P-14/Explorer 10 into a highly elliptical orbit that would take it a great distance from Earth, dozens of time the planet’s radius.

The satellite weighed approximately the same as a space physicist: 79 kilograms, or 178 pounds. “It was very light,” Heppner says. “We were trying to get distance.” An engineering model hangs in the Smithsonian if you care to look at the real thing..

For the records, here is the complete entry in the NASA/National Space Science Data Center mission database:

“Explorer 10 was a cylindrical, battery-powered spacecraft instrumented with two fluxgate magnetometers and one rubidium vapor magnetometer extending from the main spacecraft body, and a Faraday cup plasma probe. The mission objective was to investigate the magnetic fields and plasma as the spacecraft passed through the earth’s magnetosphere and into cislunar space. The satellite was launched into a highly elliptical orbit. It was spin stabilized with a spin period of 0.548 s. The direction of its spin vector was 71 deg right ascension and minus 15 deg declination. Because of the limited lifetime of the spacecraft batteries, the only useful data were transmitted in real time for 52 h on the ascending portion of the first orbit. The distance from the earth when the last bit of useful information was transmitted was 42.3 earth radii, and the local time at this point was 2200 h. All transmission ceased several hours later. “


On March 25, 1961, a rocket similar to this one launched Explorer 10 into space. This historic Delta rocket stands in the Goddard Visitor Center's "rocket garden." (Image: Wikipedia RadioFan)

On March 25, 1961, a rocket similar to this one launched Explorer 10 into space. This historic Delta rocket stands in the Goddard Visitor Center's "rocket garden." (Image: RadioFan)

Rubidium vapor magnetometers could measure extremely weak magnetic fields, and were a totally new technology, Heppner says. They were invented at a company called Varian Associates in Palo Alto, California. The Faraday cup plasma instrument, which measured particles streaming off the sun’s “solar wind,” came courtesy of a team of scientists at MIT led by the pioneering X-ray astronomer and plasma physicist Bruno Rossi.

Finally the big day came on March 25, 1961. The launch managers for the Thor-Delta rocket worked in “the block house” at the Cape, while Heppner and his colleagues were encamped in a machine shop, peering at oscilloscopes to assess the health of their satellite and staying in contact with the blockhouse, and the other scientists and engineers, by telephone.

Explorer 10, as was typical in those days, was powered by a expendable battery. The craft radioed back data for 52 hours as it swooped through and outside of the magnetosphere, travelling for 42.3 Earth radii — about 167,466 miles — before the battery dimmed and the craft shut down. (For comparison, consider that the average distance form Earth to the moon is 238,857 miles.)

After launch, tracking stations record data on tapes and send them to the scientists. Heppner published a number of scientific papers from the data. He headed the Goddard Magnetic Fields Group, and worked on many major missions over the succeeding years.

The next big missions for Heppner after Explorer 10 were the Orbiting Geophysical Observatories, which grew substantially in mass and capability. He retired from the civil service in 1989, but continued to work as a contractor until 1996.

How were those days different from the later, larger, more complex place NASA has become? What was it like in the opportunity years?

“It was a very busy period in the sense that the technology was developing,” Heppner explains. “The early satellites weren’t very sophisticated because everything was new.”

But things moved fast. Heppner summed it up best in a chapter he wrote for a 1997 book, Discovery of the Magnetosphere.

“Opportunities for new endeavors were plentiful and the time between conception and results was unbelievably short when viewed in the light of today’s space programs.”

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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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