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James Coolbaugh was one of the first Air Force “Space Cadets” working on satellite projects in the 1950s. (credit: USAF)

The first Space Cadets

After my article about Bill King’s early command of the Advanced Reconnaissance System (ARS) program office in the mid-1950s appeared last week (see “Bill King and the Space Cadets”, The Space Review, July 6, 2009), somebody sadly informed me that James Coolbaugh, who was a junior officer in that office, also recently passed away. This is another excerpt from my unpublished chapter on the early years of satellite reconnaissance and the American spy satellite program.


Various people in the Air Force were aware of RAND’s Feed Back study long before the think tank presented its final report to the service in 1954. As RAND’s work progressed, some of those at Wright Air Development Center who closely followed Feed Back became very excited about it. The Air Force was working on a lot of advanced programs at the time—a ballistic missile, a nuclear-powered bomber, supersonic aircraft—but the satellite was the most exotic. A nuclear bomber was, after all, still a bomber. A satellite was something entirely new, and for some young Air Force officers, the fact that it had more in common with Flash Gordon movie serials than virtually anything else that the Air Force was doing at the time was what made it attractive. Space was cool. And Feed Back made it clear that a satellite was well within reach of the Air Force.

James Coolbaugh was a young captain in the Air Force when he arrived at WADC in September 1952. He went there fresh from the Air Force’s Guided Missile Course at the University of Michigan. He was assigned to the New Developments Projects Office at the center, and for the next sixteen months he studied the inaccuracies of unguided air-to-ground rockets used in the Korean War, the feasibility of a tactical ballistic missile, and the concept of using drones as decoys for bombers. In short, he was assigned to Air Force programs that did not require a pilot at the controls. By the end of 1953 he was conducting several studies of the use of drones for tactical reconnaissance, something that the Beacon Hill study had strongly endorsed.

The Air Force turns down von Braun

Coolbaugh also had another duty, one which virtually every organization has to delegate to somebody—replying to “unsolicited” proposals. Usually this means replying to letters from kooks and crazies. But in spring 1953 Coolbaugh received two letters that were quite serious. A university professor who had helped the Army evaluate German technology after World War II personally delivered a letter from Wernher von Braun and a letter from Hermann H. Koelle to the Air Force. Von Braun was then working on the Army’s ballistic missile program at Huntsville, Alabama. Both men offered their services to the United States Air Force. Von Braun felt that the future of missile work was in the Air Force and he wanted to be part of it. Coolbaugh passed the letters up the chain of command and very quickly the reply came back—a very emphatic “no.” “Most of the senior Air Force officers had flown against the Luftwaffe and were anti-German,” Coolbaugh explained. They wanted nothing to do with the ex-Nazis. Coolbaugh later felt that the rejections were a major loss for the Air Force; both men ended up making significant contributions to NASA.

A Space Cadet in charge

On Christmas Eve Day, December 1953, Coolbaugh’s boss, Major Sidney Greene, sat down at Coolbaugh’s desk and told him that he could have control of the satellite program that the Air Force was developing as RAND’s Feed Back study came to a close. “At first I wasn’t sure what he meant,” Coolbaugh said. Coolbaugh’s friend, Major Quenten Riepe—“Q” to his buddies—was supposed to take over the satellite program. Riepe had served as General Patton’s pilot in Europe and was now the liaison officer between WADC and RAND. As the Feed Back satellite transitioned from a study to an active development program, Riepe was supposed to leave the liaison job and take over the satellite program, which he personally thought was exciting. But now Riepe had turned it down. Greene was offering Coolbaugh the program provided that he kept his work overseeing the tactical drone programs. Coolbaugh agreed and both men decided to discuss a course of action after the holidays.

Von Braun felt that the future of missile work was in the Air Force and he wanted to be part of it. Coolbaugh passed the letters up the chain of command and very quickly the reply came back—a very emphatic “no.”

Coolbaugh already knew quite a bit about RAND’s Feed Back work. Some of the research that RAND was supposed to conduct could not be handled by RAND’s own experts, so WADC managed contracts with industry to evaluate these technologies. Some of the research was also done by WADC’s in-house laboratories. Coolbaugh knew about some of this ongoing work through his colleagues at WADC.

The Air Force considered RAND’s work to simply be a “feasibility study.” “The RAND solution was not considered the solution,” Coolbaugh explained. “Their solution only established feasibility. It was up to the Air Force to define and develop the operational system.” That was what Coolbaugh’s job would be—picking up where RAND left off and starting to develop some of the actual technologies needed to build a satellite.

Coolbaugh met with Riepe over the holidays to find out what was going on with Feed Back. Riepe told him the status of the study and suggested that he visit RAND at the earliest opportunity. Riepe admitted to him that the reason he had turned down the project was that it was unlikely to have any funding, either in the immediate future or in fiscal year 1955, which began in July. This was a bit of a shock to Coolbaugh—what was the point of running a program when you couldn’t actually do anything?

Before Coolbaugh could go to RAND, he received a call from Colonel Victor Genez of the Directorate of Intelligence at Air Research and Development Command, which oversaw WADC. Genez was one of the first people at ARDC to endorse the satellite when he had been briefed by RAND the previous summer. Genez informed him that the satellite now had a “project number”—1115, and an unclassified title, the “Advanced Reconnaissance System.” It also had an engineering project number, MX-2226. ARDC formally established Project 409-40, a “Satellite Component Study” and named the overall satellite project Weapon System 117L. All of these designations made it clear that the satellite was now an Air Force project, not simply a RAND study. But Genez agreed with Major Riepe that the satellite was unlikely to get any money. Nobody with clout in the Air Force cared all that much about it.

In mid-January 1954, Coolbaugh visited RAND in Santa Monica to learn about the status of the Feed Back report. “Everyone I talked to was very enthusiastic about the satellite reconnaissance system they were proposing for development,” he remembered. After he was briefed on the progress of the RAND study, Coolbaugh went to visit one of the contractors that had been working on a horizon scanner for RAND’s work.

In orbit, where an object is technically weightless, gravity cannot easily be used to indicate up and down. Another method is needed to establish direction. That is where the horizon sensor came in. It worked on the principle that up, toward space, is cold and down, toward Earth, is warm. It located the point where up and down met, at the horizon. A sensor would search the sky until it found a point where half of what it saw was warm and half of what it saw was cold, declare that this was the horizon, and orient the satellite in the desired attitude.

The horizon sensor was vital for virtually any satellite, for it allowed it to point its cameras either out into space, to observe the stars, or down at a target on the Earth. Coolbaugh went to visit North American Aviation and met with Bob Roberson, who was North American’s engineer working on the horizon scanner. Roberson told him that the contract for the scanner was supervised by Wright Field’s Communication and Navigation Laboratory, called C&N for short. Their work was winding down and Roberson wanted to continue with it and begin development of an actual horizon sensor, rather than paper studies. Coolbaugh told him he would try to arrange a follow-on contract.

When he got back to Dayton, Coolbaugh met up with Sid Greene and briefed him on his findings. Both men agreed that they did not need to do anything about the rocket to launch a satellite into orbit. That would take care of itself. Everyone who knew about the RAND satellite proposal believed that what everyone was then calling the Atlas “IBMS” (for “Intercontinental Ballistic Missile System”) would be used for the space launch mission. A few Atlas missiles could easily be diverted to have “satellite heads, instead of warheads,” in the words of one Air Force officer. Coolbaugh and Greene also agreed that the ground processing system could wait. It was still premature to consider processing the data, since they had little idea of even how to get an object into orbit and operate it there in the first place.

Building the components of a satellite

They needed to work on the satellite itself. There were two things they could do. The first was to begin working on a procedure for selecting a prime contractor to build the satellite. The second was to get the laboratories working on the technologies of the system that required more development. There were seven of these: an attitude stabilization and control system, including the horizon sensors; a rocket engine for the satellite; on-board electrical power for the satellite; a video recorder for the reconnaissance information; electronic component reliability; a better definition of the Earth’s atmosphere and shape to assist in planning the satellite orbit; and a definition of the microwave links and the ground control station requirements.

There was only one problem: They had no money.

Scrounging together funds and people

“Fortunately,” Coolbaugh explained, “in the spring of 1953, Pete Murray had showed me how to get work done by the laboratories at WADC when one didn’t have funds for the work.” Murray was a civilian and he had been around Wright Field for years. He knew how the place worked and what tricks to use. What Murray told him was that every year, in mid-April, the laboratories reviewed their funds to see if they would all be committed by the end of the fiscal year, June 30. The last thing that the laboratories wanted was to discover that they had saved the taxpayers money and would have funds left over. If they did, the budgeters would assume that the laboratory did not need the money and would cut it out of next year’s budget. So they needed to find a way to spend that money and do it fast. Another of Coolbaugh’s friends, Captain Buford “Boo” Biggs, had established a process whereby Coolbaugh could commit funds to a project in less than an hour, rather than the days it normally took. Coolbaugh therefore became a guardian angel for the labs—he could swoop in and save them from the horror of having money left over on their books, and he could do it faster than anybody else on the base.

The first thing that Coolbaugh did was go to the C&N laboratory. “I went after a hardware development follow-on contract to the North American studies,” he said. “Fortunately, there were several German Paper Clip scientists working at this Lab who were very interested in having a horizon scanner for a satellite.” The head of the lab agreed with them and Coolbaugh got his contract.

Next he went to the Armament Laboratory. At the time, the lab was heavily involved in developing inertial guidance systems at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory, outside Boston. This work competed with the C&N lab’s work and Coolbaugh used that to his advantage. He knew that the labs at WADC were always competing with each other over turf. Coolbaugh approached the head of the lab, Lieutenant Colonel Perry Bryant and his assistant, Major Bob Duffy. He told them about the C&N contract with North American and asked if they would be willing to have MIT work on a horizon sensor as well. They eagerly agreed.

Coolbaugh therefore became a guardian angel for the labs—he could swoop in and save them from the horror of having money left over on their books, and he could do it faster than anybody else on the base.

Next Coolbaugh went to the Powerplant Laboratory, which developed new engines for Air Force aircraft. He talked to Lieutenant Colonel Ed Hall, who was an expert in liquid and solid rocket engines. He told him about what he needed. Hall suggested that they use a rocket engine that Bell Aircraft was developing. It was to fit on the rear of a belly pod carried by the B-58 Hustler supersonic bomber. The plan was that the rocket engine would boost the speed of the airplane and would fire the aircraft’s large bomb toward its target. “This pod was a source of amusement to us in the Bombardment Missile Division because the B-58 program office would not use the term ‘missile’ for fear of losing responsibility for the belly pod,” Coolbaugh explained. “They called it a ‘Pilotless, Parasitic Pod!’” he remembered with humor. Colonel Hall suggested that they use the Bell rocket for the satellite. Coolbaugh thought it was a great idea because all of the development costs would be borne by another program. The rocket engine would eventually go on to power the Agena upper stage which successfully launched several hundred satellites into orbit.

Hall then took Coolbaugh to see the nuclear engineers in his lab who were working on a nuclear powered turbojet engine for the proposed nuclear bomber. They agreed to review RAND’s work on the satellite’s nuclear reactor and suggest how he approach the Atomic Energy Commission in the future for money.

Coolbaugh then went to the Electronics Components Laboratory to talk to them about two subjects, electronics reliability and video recording technology. Jim Huckaby was the project manager for RCA’s contract to develop a video recorder. RCA’s system used 3/4-inch studio-quality audio tape. In order to record a much thicker video signal, the recorder ran this tape past the recording/read-out heads at 360 inches per second. There were two 17-inch wheels and this provided only four minutes of video recording time. “I told Jim there were some real problems with this system.” Coolbaugh explained. “There was too little recording time, the system was too big and heavy and, finally, there was the inertia of the large, high speed reels.” Those reels would twist the satellite around in space unless they were counteracted. He told Huckaby that a better solution was needed. Huckaby replied that Coolbaugh should visit RCA’s laboratory in Camden, New Jersey and see the system at work. Then he could talk to the engineers about how to improve it.

Coolbaugh also talked to the Electronic Components Laboratory chief about electronic component reliability. At the time there was a debate raging in electronic circles about how to make electronics more reliable. One argument was to increase their redundancy and the other was to improve design concepts. The colonel thought that both approaches should be used and suggested that Coolbaugh visit RCA’s David Sarnoff Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey. He also suggested that he talk to a vice president at Bell Telephone Laboratory.

At the same time that Coolbaugh was making his rounds of Wright Field’s laboratories, rescuing them from their money problems, he was also working on a development plan for the satellite. “This plan had to have a flexible time schedule because there were no funds in sight for the program,” he said. “Pursuing the technical tasks was the only concrete thing that could be done at this time.”

Soon thereafter, Coolbaugh got a call from Bob Duffy at the Armaments Lab. MIT was interested in working on the horizon scanner for the satellite. But the lab wanted to know what funding was available. Coolbaugh explained that there wasn’t any, but that if MIT did not do the work, the job would fall to North American and the C&N lab instead. Duffy called back later to say that they would start the work, but wanted Coolbaugh to come up with some funding for fiscal year 1955. Coolbaugh agreed to try.

Video recorders and electronics for space

Coolbaugh then flew to New Jersey to visit RCA’s Camden lab and witness a demonstration of their video recorder. It was a disaster as tape spilled off the high speed reels. He asked the lab engineers how they could come up with a better approach. Their answers were vague, but they assured him that the system could be shrunk in size.

He then went to the Sarnoff Laboratory to discuss their work in electronic system reliability. An engineer, Art Vance, told him that the key to reliability was to use the most reliable components, such as the 6SN7 vacuum tube. The very best tubes could be culled from the production line. Coolbaugh went from there to Bell Labs, where he met with Bell vice president James West, who asked him what RCA had told him. West agreed that selecting the best components was important, but he also discussed another approach. “At Bell Labs, reliable system design began with the selection of the engineers who would design the system,” West told him. There were two kinds of engineers, West explained—those who were interested in pushing the state of the art and those who were interested in improving the reliability of existing components. One of Bell’s most important challenges was improving the reliability of amplifiers for trans-Atlantic cables and Bell had a team of engineers dedicated entirely to this task. He then showed Coolbaugh around the lab, which deeply impressed him. Clearly Bell was at the cutting edge of technology.

In early May, 1954, RAND formally presented its Feed Back Report to the Air Force and it began to circulate within ARDC and the Air Staff at the Pentagon. A few weeks later, Coolbaugh visited the Headquarters of Air Research and Development Command in Baltimore, Maryland. He briefed the head of the Directorate of Intelligence, Colonel John Kay, about what he and Sid Greene had done concerning the satellite. While Kay felt that their chances of getting funding in 1955 were slim, he said that they would likely be able to get money for 1956. “I was urged to keep after the labs to use their funds,” Coolbaugh said.

Soon thereafter, Coolbaugh visited MIT to discuss the development of the horizon scanner. The people working on the scanner at MIT’s Instrumentation Lab were sure that they could build the required sensor. All they needed was money.

Finding the right contractor

The more Coolbaugh worked on the satellite program, the more he realized that it was so unusual and ambitious that it could not be developed in a traditional manner. There were just too many new technologies that needed to be developed. “I realized that no single contractor possessed the technical know-how required to do this program,” he said. “A ‘lead’ contractor, supported by first-rate subcontractors, would be required.”

“At Bell Labs, reliable system design began with the selection of the engineers who would design the system,” West told him. There were two kinds of engineers, West explained—those who were interested in pushing the state of the art and those who were interested in improving the reliability of existing components.

Coolbaugh went to see his friend “Boo” Biggs, the officer who had helped him slice through the Air Force paperwork when it came to funding. As it turned out, Biggs had also been thinking about the contractor problem. Biggs suggested that when it came time to evaluate different industry proposals, the Air Force should state that the proposals should clearly indicate what team of companies would work on the satellite. The team’s expertise should be a heavily-weighted item and the contractors should be told this from the beginning. “Boo had another idea,” Coolbaugh added, “to pick two or three proposals out of the ones received and give them a six- or nine-month study contract.” Each of the study contracts would be more definitive ways of developing the system. At the end of the study period, the Air Force would select a prime contractor. The Air Force would also have access to all the good ideas in the losing proposals. This approach had not been used before and Coolbaugh worried that it might get them in trouble with Headquarters. Biggs agreed to find out. Less than a week later he was told that Headquarters liked the idea. Coolbaugh’s bosses also liked it and told him to formally propose it at the next program review at Headquarters.

Coolbaugh also made two more calls. He contacted the Air Force Cambridge Research Center in Massachusetts and asked them if they would conduct studies on atmospheric effects on the satellite and how the Earth’s shape might affect its orbit. AFCRC, as it was known, was already conducting high-level balloon flights as part of Operation GOPHER. They agreed to look into the satellite issues. He also called the Rome Air Development Center (RADC) in New York and asked if they would investigate the problems of satellite communications. They agreed to help as well.

While Coolbaugh was doing all of this, his friend Q Riepe had been watching and was starting to rethink his decision to forgo managing the satellite system development program. Riepe discussed it with Headquarters and was soon reassigned as Chief of the Advanced Reconnaissance System. Coolbaugh was named the Technical Director. “This arrangement worked well,” Coolbaugh explained, “because Q concentrated on the funding and political aspects of the program while I worked on the technical projects.” By August, the Air Force had approved proceeding with development of Project 1115. “But no funds were allocated for the work!” Coolbaugh exclaimed.

During a meeting in September 1954 at Headquarters ARDC, Riepe and Coolbaugh briefed a group that included several General officers. One man in particular stood out. He was Major General Donald Putt, who was then the new Deputy Chief of Staff for Development on the Air Staff and the former vice commander of ARDC. Putt liked the satellite idea and offered to try to get the men help with funding.

That fall Coolbaugh started attending meetings on the upper atmosphere at RAND, the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa, where Dr. James van Allen told him about his work and how the upper atmosphere’s density varied with altitude. He also attended meetings on geodesy at RAND and Ohio State University.

The first solar cells

At the time, Coolbaugh and others working on the program still expected that a nuclear reactor was the most likely power source for a satellite. It was the only way of reliably delivering electricity in orbit. But Coolbaugh heard about other developments that might be promising, and he decided to look into them as well.

In space, of course, there was already an obvious power source—the sun. It would constantly be assaulting the spacecraft with light and heat. Various theorists had long proposed that such an obvious energy source could be tapped to power a satellite. By 1954 there were two ways to tap the sun’s power in space. One was to use a mirror to focus sunlight on a tank containing a fluid. This would heat up and could be used to drive a turbine. The problem was that the mirror would have to constantly track the sun and this mechanism would be complicated. Another possibility was what were then called “solar batteries,” materials which converted sunlight directly into electricity.

AT&T’s Bell Labs had begun work on photovoltaic silicon crystals some time before. Such crystals converted light energy to electricity, albeit at a very inefficient rate. The Lab had installed a panel of such crystals on a telephone pole in Georgia to power a telephone signal amplifier. They predicted that they could achieve 7% solar conversion efficiency in the near future. Coolbaugh talked to Don Reynolds, the Lab’s crystal expert, about the satellite’s power requirements. “He quickly realized we were the justification he needed to start work on growing and using cadmium sulfide crystals,” Coolbaugh explained. Reynolds felt that such crystals would have a higher conversion factor than the silicon crystals. He decided to get a chemical company to start growing the new crystals.

In November, Coolbaugh went with Jim Huckaby, of the Electronics Lab, to see a second demonstration of RCA’s video recorder. “It was a replay of the first demonstration,” Coolbaugh remembered, “with even more tape spilling out on the floor!” Later, while traveling back to Ohio, Huckaby admitted that there were two other companies working on video tape recorders. They were Bing Crosby Enterprises in Los Angeles and Ampex in Mountain View, California. Coolbaugh decided to visit both of them the next time he went to California to see RAND, and he asked Huckaby to accompany him.

Early in 1955, still lacking any real funding for the satellite, Coolbaugh began spending more time on developing the criteria for the satellite contract.

In early December, Coolbaugh met with Bell Labs’ crystal expert, Dan Reynolds, who showed him the first batch of cadmium sulfide crystals. “They looked like a bunch of needles!” Coolbaugh exclaimed, disappointed. Reynolds told him not to worry, that this was what the first batch of crystals always looked like. Later that month Coolbaugh visited the Harshaw Chemical company that was manufacturing the crystals and viewed the latest batch. He was impressed. Instead of a needle, “it was the size of my thumb!” Coolbaugh exclaimed.

Coolbaugh occasionally met with Louie Ridenour, who was now working at Lockheed. Ridenour was in touch with virtually everyone in the scientific community and he occasionally showed Coolbaugh new technologies that were being developed in various industry labs that might be of use to the satellite program.

Coolbaugh also stayed in contact with the nuclear power experts working on the nuclear powered aircraft at WADC. They were convinced that a one- to five-kilowatt reactor could be developed for the satellite. They suggested that he visit Atomic International, a division of North American Aviation. He did during one of his Los Angeles trips and they showed him a small reactor they were designing to power an individual home. They figured that this reactor would be installed in a small shed behind the house, something that Coolbaugh found hard to believe.

There was another way to power a satellite that RAND had not looked at in its Feed Back report and that was batteries. Batteries would not be a primary source of power, but were still important. The reactor would not be turned on until the satellite was actually in orbit. Until that time, it had to run on battery power. But batteries in 1954 were awful. They could not store more than 10 watt-hours per pound of weight. Coolbaugh reviewed the Air Force’s development work and learned that the service was not conducting any research in better batteries. So he talked to the Equipment Laboratory at WADC. Someone from the Equipment Laboratory contacted several battery manufacturers and asked about what they were doing to improve the power of their products. The manufacturers had several ideas. Batteries were, after all, in great demand for a whole range of uses, from flashlights to automobiles to submarines. And the lighter they could be made the better. “In less than two years,” Coolbaugh explained, “we were seeing batteries at WADC which could store 100 watt-hours per pound.”

Early in 1955, still lacking any real funding for the satellite, Coolbaugh began spending more time on developing the criteria for the satellite contract. “I believed we could invite the top airframe and electronic equipment manufacturers to the first Request for Proposal (RFP) meeting, show them the technical background for the satellite program and indicate to them that the strength of the contractor’s team would be a major factor in evaluating the proposals.” He figured that they could submit the first proposals in late spring and select three finalists in the fall, when they finally had some real money. The final proposals would be completed and evaluated by the beginning of July 1956 and a prime contractor selected.

page 2: Ampex’s clever idea >>