Monday, April 20, 2015

Opinion: Cold War games

Carl LaVO/Calkins Media
20 April 2015

Six years ago, I received an invitation from former space shuttle pilot Kevin Chilton to visit Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska. At the time, the Air Force general headed STRATCOM, the nation’s strategic command of nuclear forces around the world. The purpose of my visit was to lead a discussion of the leadership qualities of Navy Admiral Eugene Fluckey, whom I had written a book about.
While at Offutt, I toured the command’s bomb-proof control center five stories underground. At every turn on ramps leading into the earth were armed guards posted to authorize passage. Entering the nerve center with Army Gen. Abraham Turner, I stood before wall-size video display screens encircling the room and rows of smaller desktop monitors. Three dozen staff technicians known to those above ground as “the mole people” greeted me at stiff attention.

In doing research for this column, I learned of a similar incident involving the world’s first functional weather satellite, which was built in Newtown Township in the late 1950s. It was the midst of the Cold War. The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik and successive space ventures put the U.S. on a crash mission to catch up.
Besides getting someone into orbit, the Pentagon was most interested in the potential of spy and weather satellites. Pentagon dreamers fantasized that weather might be controlled from space — a potent weapon. Under contract, RCA designed TV cameras to gather global weather photos while orbiting 450 miles above the Earth. The satellite to carry them aloft would be built at Newtown Township’s Lavelle Aircraft Corporation.
Thomas Lavelle and his partner, Henry Liese, longtime employees of the Fleetwing aircraft company in Bristol Township, founded Lavelle in 1940. It quickly grew from five employees to more than 400, producing precision parts for advanced aircraft. The company’s signature skill was pioneering new materials and construction methods. RCA turned to Lavelle in 1957 to build TIROS, an acronym for Television and Infra-Red Observation Satellite.
TIROS I rocketed into space from Cape Canaveral on April 1, 1960. The satellite sent back 22,942 clear images of weather systems around the globe. It was a technological triumph. The State Department freely distributed the photographs to Russia as a “goodwill gesture” and to demonstrate American technical ability. Read: Beware of what we can do.
Lavelle followed up TIROS I with five more. Together, they made weather forecasting a science more than a guess. Yet, as local weather forecaster John Bolaris can attest, Mother Nature — not the Pentagon — is still in control. So far.
Lavelle went on to build lunar impact satellite Ranger VII, the antenna head on the craft that put Neil Armstrong on the moon, and lithium hydroxide canisters to purify air in the spacesuits of the Apollo astronauts. It was those canisters that saved the lives of those aboard Apollo 13 in 1970.
In 1976, Lavelle and Liese sold their company, which disbanded in 1999. Today, all that remains is a marker at the intersection of State and Sterling streets in Newtown, recognizing the birth place of TIROS I.
Back to my visit to Offutt. Officials told me China authorized a reciprocal visit by U.S. military commanders to Beijing’s version of STRATCOM. That didn’t happen. The Chinese reneged. Ooops!

No comments: