1961: Alouette engineering model with|
(left to right) C.A. Franklin, manager of
electrical systems, R.K. Brown manager of
the spacecraft team and J. Barry.
ALOUETTE 1The Project that Launched the Canadian Space Industry
"... there was this all-pervading confidence in the ability of the lab collectively to solve new problems, to come up with new approaches to old problems and at the same time to compete technologically with some of the best labs in the world"
- Peter Forsyth former DRTE Defence Program Manager
It required real audacity to believe that a small group of scientists with no previous experience in space technology could design and build a successful space satellite. Yet this is exactly what the Defence Research Telecommunication Establishment (DRTE), at Shirleys Bay undertook starting in 1958
We know now that the Alouette project was an enormous success. Launched on September 29 1962, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, aboard a Thor Agena B rocket, it made Canada the third nation in space. It operated flawlessly, collecting and transmitting data for over 10 years, delivering more than a million images of the ionosphere, after which it was turned off. On January 22, 1987, the Engineering Centennial Board Inc. recognized Alouette as one of the ten most outstanding achievements of Canadian engineering undertaken during the previous 100 years.
By 1957, both the United States and the Soviet Union had announced plans to launch earth-orbiting satellites. It came as a shock to the U.S. and its allies, on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 was launched first. The U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, was launched shortly after on January 31, 1958. The Americans, slightly shaken, invited proposals from allied countries to share in joint space programs. Canada was one of the first to respond.
In 1958, John Chapman and Eldon Warren of the DRTE approached the newly formed U.S. organization, NASA, and negotiated an arrangement where, NASA would launch a Canadian satellite intended to study the effects of the ionosphere on radio transmission. The NASA partners were concerned that the DRTE plan was too ambitious since it included the design and construction of the world's first space based radar and included advanced "frequency sweeping" as well. NASA proposed to build and launch a simpler non-frequency swept version first, with the more complex Canadian version to follow as a second-generation satellite. It would unfold that Canada's more advanced second-generation satellite would be completed and launched first, despite skepticism within Canada and elsewhere.
Dr. LeRoy Nelms, former DRTE scientist, recalls the Alouette 1 project: "The Alouette 1 was probably also the most complicated satellite that had been built up to that time. The person who really pushed Alouette 1 was Eldon Warren. Eldon had great confidence in the abilities of our scientists and knew that we could deliver the complex solution we proposed. Colin Franklin led the electrical team and John Marr led the mechanical team.
Colin may have been the biggest single factor in our success. He used our in-house scanning electron microscope to perform QA on our supplier's electronic components and decided that commercial transistors were of too low quality for space applications. We ended up paying the manufacturer to set up a dedicated production line in order to produce transistors, which met Colin's quality standards. This may have been the birth of the space components industry. It was certainly the reason that the Alouette 1 lasted ten years, rather than the industry standard lifetime of several weeks that we had experienced up to then."
Then, as now, Canada's defence laboratories carried out R&D for the purpose of keeping the department abreast of current technology and ensuring that Canadian forces were adequately equipped for their role. Much of the research at the DRTE was directed at improving communications via various radio bands. During this pre-satellite era, High Frequency (HF) or short wave radio was the main mode of communication over long distances.
HF radio signals reflect off of the Earth's upper atmosphere, or ionosphere. During the pre-satellite era, this characteristic made HF radio very attractive as one of the few options available for transmitting radio signals beyond the horizon. It was consequently important for DRTE to understand the physics of how the ionosphere behaved and how it could be used to facilitate reliable long distance military communications. Theoretical and field studies were both carried out. However, both were limited by the availability of ionospheric data.
The Alouette 1 spacecraft fulfilled the goal of achieving extensive topside ionospheric data for DRTE's client department and it fulfilled its goal of establishing Canada's world-class capability in satellite construction, space borne radar and in space borne signal acquisition and processing.
It was the success of the Alouette program that established for Canada the feasibility of launching and maintaining communications satellites. This led directly to the Anik communications satellite program; the establishment of Telesat Canada; the civilian agency known as the Communications Research Centre and eventually to the establishment of the David Florida Lab and the Canadian Space Agency. All of these facilities can trace their roots back to DRTE's dream: the Alouette 1, Canada's first satellite.