Collins Aerospace Museum


Collins Aerospace
Early History: ···
 by: Arlo Goodyear
 –The Collins Story
 by: Ben Stearns
 –Echo Hill Story
 by: Nancy Zook
 –The Iowan Magazine
 by: Ed Marriner
 –CQ Magazine

Our Founder:
Friends of the Museum:
An unpublished paper by: Ben Stearns

The name Echo Hill comes from Project Echo, a satellite program in early years of United States space exploration, and from a tracking station called Echo Hill which was located near this school.

Echo was a man-made passive satellite (passive meaning it had no electronic equipment on it). It actually was a huge balloon placed in orbit around the earth by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The 100-foot diameter balloon was made of thin silver colored plastic material, launched into a 1,000-mile-high orbit. During its brief lifetime it was visible to people on earth during nighttime hours. It looked like a star moving slowly across the sky.

The main purpose of Project Echo was to have scientists in the U.S. and other countries use it for communications experiments. It created an effect like an echo in that radio signals aimed at the satellite bounced off of it and could be received by stations on earth.

Some of the most noteworthy and successful experiments resulting from Echo were conducted by Collins Radio Company of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Collins Radio later became Rockwell Collins then Collins Aerospace.

In order to conduct its experiments, Collins Radio built the Echo Hill space tracking station a short distance northwest of this school. The road which ran by the tracking station later became Echo Hill Road. That location was selected because it is on the highest area of ground in Linn County. The high ground helped minimize electrical interference from power and telephone wires when sending and receiving radio signals.

The Collins station, on a two-acre plot of ground, consisted of two large dish type space tracking antennas, and a small metal building housing radio transmitting and receiving equipment. The 28-foot diameter antennas were mounted on pedestals and could rotate from side to side and up and down. Electrical and mechanical equipment controlled by radio signals aimed toward the satellite enabled the dishes to follow and track the balloon.

Echo began its trip into space as an uninflated balloon, folded up inside the third stage of a Delta-Thor rocket. It was launched out over the Atlantic Ocean from Cape Canaveral, Florida August 12, 1960 at 3:39 a.m. (Iowa time). After the third stage reached an altitude of 1,050.9 statute miles, traveling at a speed of 15,464 miles per hour, the payload was released. At 4:02 a.m. the balloon inflated in a matter of seconds to become a perfectly round gleaming sphere.

Antennas at Echo Hill facility (28 foot dia.)

At 5:43 a.m., as Echo began its first pass over the United States, Collins Radio engineers picked up the satellite with their tracking antennas. On its second pass, from 7:48 to 8:09 a.m., they had intermittent contact by bouncing radio signals off the satellite as it travelled from west to east horizons. Those first fixes were preparation for major experiments planned by Collins engineers both in Cedar Rapids and another Collins tracking station in the Dallas, Texas suburb of Richardson.

Cedar Rapids Communication & Tracking Station.

Early the next morning, at 3:04 a.m. August 13, Echo rose in the northwest on its eleventh orbital trip (the third one over the U.S.). The tracking antennas were locked on at both Cedar Rapids and Richardson. Al Richmond, a project engineer at Richardson, spoke into a microphone:

“This is KK2XIC in Richardson calling KA2XDV in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Do you read me, Cedar Rapids?” The answer came from Cliff Beamer, Cedar Rapids research engineer. “This is KA2XDV in Cedar Rapids, Iowa calling KK2XIC in Richardson, Texas. We receive you loud and clear.”

They had just accomplished the first two-way radio voice transmission via an artificial satellite as the signals carrying their voices bounced off Echo.

During the following week, on August 19 at 12:58 a.m., the Collins research teams achieved another “first” in space history. Working with photo transmitting equipment supplied by the Associated Press, a picture of President Dwight Eisenhower was transmitted via Echo from Cedar Rapids to Dallas. It was the first photo ever transmitted via artificial satellite. The picture, when received in Dallas, appeared to be slightly distorted. The reason for that was noise (static) which affected the radio signals. Another “first was sending a teletype message. The Cedar Rapids and Dallas stations also exchanged additional voice transmissions while Echo was in orbit.

During the period Echo I was in orbit in 1960, newspapers, radio and TV stations gave a schedule of when the satellite could be seen over Iowa. On nights without clouds thousands of people watched Echo slowly move across the sky. It was visible because it was high above the earth where the sun shone on its shiny silver surface. Echo remained visible for about three weeks.

That first Echo satellite eventually disintegrated, the victim of micrometeorites and solar rays. But during its useful life it provided significant data to help scientists learn more about space communications.

Echo I was an important project in early years of the space age, which began with the launch of the Soviet Union Sputnik satellite in October, 1957, followed by the American launch of the Explorer I satellite in January, 1958.

In January, 1962 a second Echo type experiment was planned by NASA, and Collins engineers were ready to participate using the Echo Hill tracking station. The project, named “Big Shot,” was based on launching a 135-foot diameter balloon to a height of 950 miles above the earth and tracking it during a down range flight.

It was launched from Cape Canaveral early in the morning of January 15, and soon inflated to its full size. However, it expanded too rapidly which made it rip open and burst into shreds. The Collins engineers had their antenna locked onto the satellite, and still were able to track the balloon fragments, which was an amazing achievement.

In years to follow, the Echo Hill tracking station was used for a variety of other Collins Radio research projects and experiments.

Echo satellite test inflation —NASA photo

The Echo I achievements were not the first time Collins Radio Company made a historic contribution to space communications. In 1951, before any man-made satellites were in orbit, Collins scientists transmitted a signal containing a coded message toward the moon. It was reflected by the moon and received at a tracking station near Sterling, Virginia. That was the first time a legible message traveled through space using the moon as a reflector. Equipment used in that experiment was located at Collins' hangar at the Cedar Rapids Airport. It included a huge stationary antenna constructed of chicken wire, and a giant radio tube called the Resnatron which generated 20,000 watts of transmitting power.

Collins Radio Company went on to play major roles in United States manned space flight programs in the 1960s and '70s. The first program was Project Mercury, a small capsule-shaped satellite which carried a single astronaut on downrange and orbital flights. For Mercury, Collins provided the on-board radios for astronauts to talk to Mission Control on earth, also equipment supplying data on spacecraft systems performance and the health of the astronaut, and radio equipment to recover the spacecraft after it splashed down in the ocean.

The next program was Gemini, a two-man spacecraft. The Gemini capsules were equipped with Collins voice radios and a control unit for astronauts to operate the radios.

Then came the Apollo missions to land men on the moon and return them safely to earth. Collins Radio supplied the main communications systems for Apollo missions. Apollo consisted of a Command Module which contained three astronauts, a Service Module and a Lunar Excursion Module, called LEM. The Apollo spacecraft were mounted atop a huge Saturn V rocket which launched them into earth orbit. Booster rockets then propelled them toward the moon.

The first moon landing occurred Sunday, July 20, 1969. As the Apollo spacecraft circled the moon, two astronauts entered the LEM which separated from the Command Module and landed on the moon surface. After exploring the surface, the two astronauts ignited a booster rocket under the LEM, returned to lunar orbit, and docked with the Command Module. After transferring rocks and other specimens from the moon, the two LEM astronauts returned to the Command Module, the LEM was separated and rockets were fired to send the Command Module and all three astronauts back to earth for a landing in the Pacific Ocean.

Equipment supplied by Collins Radio of Cedar Rapids for the Command Module provided voice communication for astronauts with Mission Control and data on astronaut conditions and spacecraft systems. It also enabled ground stations around the earth to track the spacecraft in orbit and enroute to the moon. Collins also had equipment on the LEM for communication with the Command Module. The television pictures and voices of men on the moon came back to earth through the Collins equipment.

Collins Radio Company also provided equipment for many of the ground tracking stations used for both manned and unmanned space projects. That work began even before the U.S. launched its first Explorer I satellite.

Additional reading can be found in the Volume 8-4 Issue of Signal Magazine - page 8