If you’re familiar with those small shiny, metallic Mylar plastic party balloons, you can imagine balloons of a far more massive size made out of much the same material.
Aerospace and atmospheric scientists originally thought up the idea of using large, reflective satellites for upper atmospheric data collection. Shortly thereafter, communications experts believed such objects could prove the viability of space-based electronic communication.
In 1958, Langley Research Center engineer, William O’Sullivan thought up the project. His original concept called for a 20 -inch diameter “sub-satellite”. Quickly, the scope of the project increased to a twelve-foot diameter object that the scientists nicknamed “satelloon”.
It was one of these twelve-footers that was inflated inside the U.S. Capitol Building for a Congressional hearing. This was in the wake of concern about the Soviet’s Sputnik satellites. The American politicians were assured that ten-stories high satelloons would give the United States a leg up in global communications. It wasn’t much of a stretch to convince Congress that the very large satellite would be a visible reminder to the world about American superiority.
The project suffered a few technical problems, at first. A seams test was conducted in a dirigible hangar in North Carolina. The first, full size prototype split. After integrity problems were solved, folding up the satelloon for rocket launch provided a major challenge.
A Langley technician, Ed Kilgore, came up with a solution, in a round about way. Kilgore watched his wife unfold one of the small, purse-sized plastic rain scarves. It occurred to him that a similar technique might be the solution. In the lab, Kilgore gave the scarf to technicians. The workers practice hundreds of hours to discover the correct sequences of folds to neatly pack the satelloons into the launching spheres.
The launch rocket system was named “Shotput”. The first trial flight took place in late October of 1959. Launch and initial deployment were successful. However, the satelloon burst because of extra air. The evening sunset provided the backdrop for a ten minute light show of reflections from the thousands of Mylar fragments.
On April 13, 1959, the failure of the Delta rocket carrying the Echo 1 satelloon was launched but failed. Another attempt was made on August 12, 1960. Echo 1A was successfully deployed into orbit. During its first orbit, the first reflected message was transmitted from California to the large horn antenna in Holmdel, New Jersey. President Dwight Eisenhower delivered a short statement during the transmission.
The satelloon remained in orbit until May 24, 1968. The shiny sphere had been punctured by many small meteors but remained viable until it eventually collapsed.
On January 26, 1964, Echo 2 was sent into near polar orbit on a Thor Agena rocket. The satelloon was a 41.1 metre (135 foot) diameter object. In addition to its reflective qualities, Echo 2 contained two solar powered beacons plus tracking and monitoring instruments to keep track of the satelloon’s physical conditions.
A side benefit, that may have been planned for, was that the Echo satelloons provided astronomical reference points to help pinpoint Moscow for the military.
A complete surprise discovery was made in 1965, because of a nagging signal being picked up by the large horn antenna at Holmdel, New Jersey. Two radio-astronomers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, determined that the noise is the microwave background radiation that is present throughout the universe. It is the leftover radiation from the Big Bang. The discovery and theory netted Penzias and Wilson the 1978 Nobel Prize for Physics.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that Echo 2 has been called the largest minimalist sculpture ever to orbit the Earth.