WITH THE ACTIVATION of the new 6594th Instrumentation Squadron at Grenier Air Force Base in Manchester in October 1959, a new era began.
That year Grenier AFB was home to U.S. Air Force Reserve operations and the New Hampshire National Guard. The last regular Air Force unit stationed at the base had been the 1610th Air Transport Group, which had been inactivated in 1955.
A component of the U.S. Air Force, the 6594th was a highly specialized technical unit under the operational control of the 6594th Test Wing (Satellite) headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif., part of the Air Force Ballistic Missiles Division of the Air Research and Development Command.
The squadron’s mission was to operate a satellite tracking station on the New Boston Bombing Range, Grenier AFB’s obsolete training ground. This would be the first Air Force station built specifically to track the orbits of satellites, receive telemetry information from them (via radio waves), process this data through complex computers, and send commands and data to the spacecraft.
There was great urgency to this business, as the Soviet Union had beaten the United States into space with the successful launch of its tiny, radio-signal emitting, Sputnik 1 satellite on Oct. 4, 1957. This development led to the Space Race, part of the ongoing Cold War crisis between the Soviets and the Americans.
The first successful U.S. satellite was Explorer 1, which was launched on Jan. 31, 1958. It was equipped with a cosmic ray detector to measure radiation while in orbit.
On April 1, 1960, the New Boston Satellite Tracking Station began operating with van-mounted mobile equipment. Construction of the 10 or so buildings on the site was largely completed, and radar units and other electronic equipment would be installed over the summer.
The military staff for the satellite base was housed in barracks at Grenier AFB, except for married men with families who rented civilian housing in the area. Of the staff of around 300 people, an estimated 75% were military personnel, while the remainder were civilian employees primarily from the Lockheed Corporation and the Philco company.
The station was part of a network of tracking facilities working on the Discoverer satellite program. These satellites were launched into space at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The New Boston station served as the USAF Satellite Test Center, facilitating communications among all the Discoverer Satellite operations nationwide.
As Lt. Nicholas Polio, the station’s operations officer, explained in August 1960, “Being able to contact a satellite as it travels around the earth at around 18,000 miles per hour is an important feature of the New Boston Station … We can talk to the satellite as it passed overhead and tell it what to do and the satellite can talk back to us and tell us how it is doing.”
On Dec. 21, 1960 the Tampa (Florida) Times newspaper reported that the latest in the series of Discoverer satellites, Discoverer XIX (19), had just been launched the day before at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and was now in orbit. It was reported that, unlike some other satellites in the series, this one was not carrying a recoverable capsule.
Looking back on this today, we know that it was not one of the top-secret “Project Corona” satellites containing photo surveillance equipment for spying on the Soviet Union or China. The CIA used the Discoverer program to conceal this top-secret operation. Instead, Discovery XIX’s purpose was to study infrared light in the upper atmosphere to help future Midas satellites detect hostile missile firings by reporting flashes of heat above the normal level.
The planned Midas satellites, which could “see” infrared light through special sensors, would be part of the country’s early-warning missile defense system.
At the end of December 1960, the New Boston Satellite Tracking Station briefly made national news.
A United Press International item, published in many newspapers, announced the expected fate of the spacecraft: “Satellite is silent – New Boston, N.H. – The Air Force said today the Discovered XIX satellite has lost its transmitting power ... the New Boston Radar Satellite Tracking Station said its last contact with the satellite was at 11:34 p.m. Christmas Day…[during] the satellite’s 75th pass around the world.”
Next week: The New Boston Satellite Tracking Station through time.