Project Echo

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Project Echo
Echo 1

Center: Langley Research Center
Location: Hampton, Virginia
Year Built: 1960
Historic Eligibility:
Important Tests:


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Contents

[top] History

NASA Langley was responsible for developing the world’s first communication satellite which was a 100-foot inflatable balloon called Echo. Weighing only 132 pounds, it consisted of a large sphere with a surface of Mylar plastic covered with vapor-deposited aluminum. This “satelloon” was folded in a canister, launched in the nose cone of a Thor-Delta rocket, and inflated when it reached orbit 1,000 miles above the earth (see West Area Model Shop). Echo acted as a passive reflector that relayed signals around the curvature of the earth, and provided instantaneous worldwide communications for the first time in August 1960.

The idea for Echo began as an experiment for the International Geophysical Year (IGY). In 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions established the period spanning July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958 as the IGY as it would be a period of high solar activity. This international event fostered a number of proposals for scientific experiments, including Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. Langley engineer William J. O’Sullivan conceived of the inflatable balloon in January 1956 as a way to measure air density in the upper atmosphere. The satellite’s light weight and thin skin were required for it to be aerodynamically sensitive in the vacuum of the upper atmosphere. The purpose of the experiment was to provide aerodynamic information crucial to the design of new aircraft, missiles, satellites and other spacecraft. In October of 1952, the NACA approved development of the balloon at Langley as a contribution to the IGY.

O’Sullivan’s original experimental balloon was only 30 inches in diameter. Before it could be successfully launched, however, the Soviets had placed Sputnik in orbit and started the space race. A number of government agencies, including the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), were eager to orbit an American satellite that would be visible over Russia as well as the United States. What had begun as a “simple air-density experiment” was now becoming “an instrument of propaganda in the cold war.” Government officials were interested in the balloon’s second generation, a 12-foot sphere that would orbit the earth at 300 to 400 miles and appear as bright as the North Star to the naked eye. Before the 12-foot model could be successfully launched, it had been transformed into a 100-foot communications satellite. The new project was formally approved by the NACA in May 1958 and came to be known as Project Echo.

In October 1959, primary management of Project Echo was assigned to Goddard Space Flight Center in suburban Maryland, NASA’s new center for space projects. Even though Echo’s overall management became Goddard’s responsibility at that time, Echo was essentially a Langley project. The Echo concept originated there, and Langley did virtually all of the preliminary design work, completed extensive ground tests, and assisted in all launches and test flights.

Echo 1 was launched successfully from Cape Canaveral on August 12, 1960 and orbited the earth until May 1968. Not only was it a “significant propaganda weapon” for the United States, but it also served as a “popular symbol of the peaceful and practical uses of space research.” In many ways, the Echo project changed prevailing conceptions of the potential for satellite communication systems, and encouraged subsequent private sector initiatives that have since transformed the field of communications.

[top] Photos

1960 Echo Skin Stress Test1961 Static Inflation Test of 135 Ft Satellite in Weeksville, NCProject Echo.jpeg1962 Echo 11962 Shotput 1 for Echo 1

[top] Videos

First and Second Development Tests of ECHO

[top] Additional Information

The above information was obtained from NASA SP-4308 "Spaceflight Revolution" by James Hansen. For additional information on Project Echo, see:

Chapter 6 - The Odyssey of Project Echo

NASA TN D-1366, The Orbital Behavior of the Echo 1 Satellite and its Rocket Casing During the First 500 Days 1962. Gertrude C. Westrick, Katherine G. Johnson.

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