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DARPA’s 60-Year Space Adventure

In July 1958, ARPA assumed control of a project being pursued by the Army’s Signal Research and Development Laboratory (SRDL) at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, to develop the world’s first communications satellite, SCORE (Signal Communications by Orbital Relay Equipment). And less than five months from project go-ahead, on Dec. 18, 1958, an Atlas rocket boosted SCORE into orbit and along with it the tape-recorded voice of Eisenhower conveying his holiday-time message – “America’s wish for peace on Earth and good will toward men everywhere” – to ground stations around the globe. This success helped provide a model for ARPA’s management of space projects, as Owen Brown, Fred Kennedy, and Wade Pulliam wrote in their 50th anniversary recounting of the agency’s space efforts, DARPA’s Space History:

“As with the other projects it began, ARPA took an agile management role in the SCORE system development, with the Air Force being handed the responsibility for the Atlas, built by General Dynamics, and SRDL for the payload, built by RCA. This approach of maintaining low overhead was, and still is, a vital part of the success of the agency, especially during the early years when so many space systems were being developed and demonstrated. In what would become standard procedure, the agency concentrated on developing and fostering innovative concepts, as well as making key project funding decisions, while leaving the burden of facility and workforce maintenance, system development and production, and operations to industry, research labs, and the military services. At first this decision was made mostly for the bureaucratic reason of limiting the objections of the services at having their space programs transferred to ARPA. In the long run, however, it has served the agency well in keeping it nimble, capable of changing directions quickly and able to manage many efforts rather than just a few.”2


In the days before clean rooms, technicians work on the nation’s first weather satellite, the Television Infrared Observation Satellite (TIROS). NASA image

More successes were to come quickly. For example, ARPA was involved in the funding of CORONA, the world’s first photo-reconnaissance satellite, managed by the CIA and Air Force. Though riddled by a series of early failures, the ultimately successful sequence of spy flights helped America’s leadership understand that Soviet intercontinental missile capabilities were less extensive than feared. Because the CORONA satellites had a very narrow time window in which their high-resolution cameras would take images of strategic targets inside the Soviet Union – images that were recovered in the upper atmosphere by high-flying aircraft capturing parachuting payloads containing film canisters – planners needed to know in advance if cloud conditions would allow for each reconnaissance mission to go forward. Hence, ARPA, in July 1958, tasked RCA with developing the first weather satellite, TIROS (Television Infrared Observation Satellite). Launched by NASA in April 1960, TIROS quickly demonstrated the capability of satellites to assist in weather forecasting and provide advanced warnings of severe storms in coastal areas. As Brown, Kennedy, and Pulliam wrote, “Beside the development of the internet (and maybe satellite communications), few other ARPA programs have had such a profound impact on the entire world.” 3

The concept of using signals from satellites to improve the geo-localization accuracy (within 0.1 nautical mile) of Polaris missile-armed submarines prompted ARPA’s work on the world’s first navigation satellite, Transit, with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). This satellite launched in April 1960, just 18 months after ARPA’s project approval, based on the idea of APL researchers William Guier and George Weiffenbach, that a location on Earth could be calculated with knowledge of the precise orbital trajectory of a satellite. The Transit system significantly enhanced the confidence of war planners that the U.S. Navy’s ballistic missile submarines, one of three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad, would hit their assigned targets. The Transit system remained in operation until 1996, when the current Global Positioning System (GPS) took over, providing position data to military and civilian ships, enabling the land surveying work of the Defense Mapping Agency, and ultimately transforming how much of the world’s population gets itself from Point A to Point B.

Vela Hotel DARPA web

Engineers prepare one of the Vela Hotel series of satellites, whose development was supervised by DARPA, for on-orbit nuclear test detection. DOE photo

The next major ARPA space project, Vela Hotel, had profound consequences for reducing the risk of nuclear war and for protecting millions of people from the radiation fallout from atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons. Eisenhower was motivated to pursue a nuclear test ban agreement with the Soviet Union by the negative international publicity from a 1954 thermonuclear test that exposed Marshall Island natives to high levels of radiation as well as his hopes for a reduction in tensions with the country’s Cold War nemesis. Toward that end, the president directed ARPA in 1959 to develop the technologies needed to detect nuclear tests. ARPA’s project Vela (“Watchman” in Spanish) consisted of space (Vela Hotel), ground (Vela Sierra), and seismic (Vela Uniform) assets that would detect and monitor nuclear tests conducted in space, the atmosphere, or underground.

“Remember, the general charter of ARPA was … to prevent technological surprise,” noted Tether. “We were trying to negotiate the atmospheric test ban treaty and we realized we had no way to verify whether someone was violating it.” On May 1, 1960, the ante upped dramatically when the Soviet Union shot down a U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers. “Only because of Vela Hotel did we sign up for the atmospheric test ban treaty in April 1963,” Tether said. “That was a big deal that gave life back to ARPA.” The six pairs of Vela satellites placed in orbit from 1963 to 1970 not only helped verify the treaty, but their gamma-ray sensors used to detect a nuclear test in space helped start the field of gamma-ray astronomy, which is critical for the identification of supernovae and measurements of the early universe just after the Big Bang.

Saturn I SA-4 test flight DARPA web

The Saturn I SA-4 flight launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in 1963. SA-4 was an uncrewed test flight of the Saturn I booster. The Saturn IB served as a test-bed rocket for the larger and more powerful Saturn V that would eventually carry the first humans to the moon. NASA photo

In its infancy, ARPA also had an important role for the direction of the U.S. civil space program. For a short while in 1958, ARPA had control of the U.S. launch vehicle program. “At this point of time, the biggest obvious lack of United States capability was a large booster,” said Neufeld. Despite concerns regarding why the Army had a large space effort underway in Huntsville, Alabama, ARPA played an earlier role in booster development there by supporting, in the summer of 1958, the development of what became known as the Saturn 1. Still led by von Braun, the Army engineering team used the funding to develop the concept of grouping some boosters based on those used in Redstone and Jupiter rockets into a competent booster with eight engines, Neufeld said. This action helped to accelerate development for the Saturn V booster and, thereby, opened the way for the Apollo program. ARPA also funded support of ground testing and the study of launch facilities until booster development was transferred to NASA in 1959.


Navigation Satellites and Cigarette Packs

On the heels of ARPA’s successful navigation satellite program, Transit, the Navy’s development of the Timation satellites, which proved the feasibility of placing accurate clocks in space, among other parallel developments, gave the impetus to a joint service agreement in 1973 to create a Defense Navigation Satellite System, based on a constellation of Navstar-GPS (Navigation System using Timing and Ranging-Global Positioning System) satellites. The original case for the Navstar-GPS was based on providing greater location accuracy to the nation’s strategic bombers and ground- and sea-launched missiles, but it was not a huge leap to imagine expanding the system to provide precision navigation support to U.S. forces on the ground. ARPA had a critical role in developing the receiver sets that allowed our troops to make full use of this game-changing technology.

“I used to go to a lot of military exercises where they would have war games when I was running the Strategic Technology Office back from 1982 to 1986,” recalled Tether. “I came back from one, and I told the guys what I saw. And I said, ‘I found out one thing. The issue is not where the enemy is. We have all kinds of sensors that know where the enemy is. The real problem is we don’t know where our own guys are.’ At that time, we were just starting to have a few GPS satellites up, and the Army had made a GPS utilization capability, but it was a big backpack, it took 20 minutes to get a location, and only the person with the backpack knew wherever the heck he was. At a 20-minute rate, it wasn’t very tactically helpful. So, I told my guys, ‘Hey, this is a problem. What we really want to do is get a GPS capability that every soldier can carry with him in his pocket.”

GPS manpack DARPA web

Two soldiers test early models of GPS manpack receivers in 1978. U.S. Air Force photo

This is where advances in the minuscule technology of microelectronics comes into the big-tech story of GPS, Tether explained. Sherman Karp, who was a program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, had an interest in the semiconductor material gallium arsenide (GaAs), which had advantages over silicon for applications that might require powerful, compact radio sources. To promote this exotic material, Karp knew he had to find an application for it. Tether recalls a meeting in which Karp said, “’Look, Tony, I can make that [GPS receiver] backpack be really small.’… And I said, ‘Well, how small can you make it?’ And he said, ‘How small do you want it to be?’” Tether pulled out a pack of Marlboro cigarettes he had in his pocket and challenged Karp to make the receiver small enough to fit into the pack.

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Edward Goldstein has more than 20 years' experience in the U.S. space community. From...