Originally published in Spaceflight
News magazine in May 1987. Copyright © Robert Christy
(The pictures were taken by Sven Grahn more than 10 years after the events described by Robert Christy, but the school premises did not change much in a decade. Sound effects also added by Sven Grahn.)
"My original reason for
putting it together was to try and put the pupil view on the satellite
tracking activities at the Kettering Grammar School as most other
articles are written from the outside and looking in, from the teachers'
point of view, or are strictly "scientific". I
was trying to convey the excitement and emotion of a tracking session -
dealing with the 'unknown' ".
The cutting is from the UK
newspaper "The Daily Telegraph" on 7 June 1971, and the photo caption reads:
This particular event is a good example of the excitement of what Bob calls "dealing with the unknown"
When people talk about satellite tracking at Kettering, questions are often asked along the lines of "How did you do it?", and after failing to find the expected Jodrell Bank sized dish, "Is that all there is?" The answer to "How" is quite simply "dedication and perseverance", like on that day in the late spring of 1968.....
At 5.30 am, Kettering was pretty deserted as a lone figure, fully attired for school, made his way along Windmill Avenue. A glow on the north-east horizon showed where, in a while, the Sun would haul itself up and announce to the rest of the town that a new day had arrived. As he walked, the boy's mind turned to a place thousands of miles away across the globe, on the hot steppes of Soviet Central Asia. There it was about mid-day and an anonymous group of men awaited the arrival of a precious cargo of military secrets despatched to Earth by a silently orbiting "spy in the sky". The boy was going to be a witness to that event.
In response to three gentle taps on a school ground-floor window, a door opened to let him in. A shadowy figure said "You made it then, lad! We'd almost given you up". "Sorry, 'sir', I had a bit of a job waking up" came the reply. The door closed quietly as they joined the others inside.
In the corner of a laboratory, a greyish metal box hissed away to itself with the sound of a television late at night after the programmes have finished. A quick tune up and down the dial confirmed that some faint signals were coming in but that none were strong enough to interfere with the business in hand. The group checked the radio receiver, tape recorder and clocks. 'Sir' gave some final instructions and then they waited.
Suddenly, there it was, bleeping away faintly as a radio transmitter responded to a "switch-on" command. A flurry of action ensued as a precise note was made of the time, then the group huddled closer round the loudspeaker, determined to miss nothing. The sound grew in strength as the satellite flew somewhere over eastern Africa towards the Arabian Sea. An almost imperceptibly slow, downward drift in pitch showed the time of closest approach - a manifestation of the Doppler Effect. Suddenly, radio-propagation conditions changed and the sound faded rapidly, then disappeared.
'Sir' spoke, "time for coffee" he said, "stay by the receiver" he instructed the youngest person present as he disappeared into the photographic darkroom.
The boy sat down on a laboratory stool, and twiddled a knob or two as he settled in for an indeterminate wait. "Don't play with the tuner, you'll miss the signal if it comes back" barked 'sir' from inside the darkroom as the lab began to take-on its familiar aroma of percolating coffee. "Sorry, I thought I heard something", the boy replied in an attempt to justify himself.
His thoughts drifted. Would the recovery attempt fail, and if so, could fate intervene and make the retro-rocket fire late, landing it on the school sports field? That would be a scoop, and it would put paid to games afternoon!
Three-quarters of an hour passed, "nothing heard" said the entry in the log. Instantly, there it was again, weak and indecipherable, not so much a bleep as a heavy-breathing sound modulating the background hiss. Less experienced ears would have said there was nothing and the sound was imagined, but those present knew better, they had done this before.
A game of audio cat-and-mouse went on for half-an-hour until the signal finally became continuous. It got stronger, and even the unaided ear could detect the familiar changes in the telemetry which said that the recovery was under way. A sudden change in pitch happened, was this due to retro-fire? "Note it in the log" said 'sir'.
The Cosmos satellite headed towards re-entry, its heat-shielded landing module let go of a, now useless, instrument unit with the still-functioning radio transmitter inside. Frictional heating from a headlong plunge into the upper atmosphere proved too much for it, burning off the aerials and upsetting the delicate balance of its electronics. With a tremor, the signal died, leaving only the late-night-tv hiss.
Six minutes passed before, over distant Khazakhstan, a parachute opened, pulling out with it another radio aerial. Back in Kettering, eager ears listened to the airwaves.
Starting halfway through the letter "K", a stream of morse-code came in. "TK..... TK..... TK....." it went. An eight-foot diameter, heat-scarred sphere slowly dropped the last few thousand feet to Earth - "TK..... TK..... TK.....". The signal varied in strength with a period of around thirty seconds as the great ball rotated slowly under its single parachute - "TK..... TK..... TK.....", "Dah, dah-dee-dah, dah, dah-dee-dah, dah.....". The "T" wasn't real morse code, its single dash was twice as long as it should have been, but then it always was, so who cared.
With a thump, the craft hit the ground. Simultaneously, the signal strength dropped as it rolled over and the aerial touched the Earth. Fabric billowed in a warm breeze, occasionally lifting the aerial wire off the ground, allowing the weak dots and dashes to get through.
"Lets see how long they take to find it" said 'sir', but on this occasion it was not to be. Coming of day had brought with it unwanted noises from nearer home. Teleprinter code burbled away on a nearby frequency, getting stronger by the minute, and unintelligible voices flowed together and drowned out the plaintive "come and find me" cry. In Kettering, it was all over.
Now it was 7:30 am, the boy mused to himself that 'sir' was fine - he could have breakfast as he only lived half a mile from the school and had a car. For the boy, a trip home and back would be pointless - at least he could have another coffee! He stayed on, listening to the noise and hoping the beacon sounds would return. Occasionally he tuned to another Russian frequency. After all, they might have launched a Soyuz overnight, then he could be the first to hear it.
He thumbed through the signals log, looking at the entries for the newly-returned satellite. He was proud of this one for he had the privilege of discovering it a couple of orbits after it left Baikonur just over a week earlier.
It had been a good day so far. At least the landing had gone well, and there were signals to prove it. Unfortunately, the headline-grabbing landing on the sports field would have to wait..
There was probably no-one else in the country who cared about the morning's events. 'Sir' would tell the 'Evening Telegraph', but more likely than not the story would be ignored. Still, whatever anyone else thought, there was a certain thrill in being privy to something that was supposed to be a secret outside Moscow!
Soon, other boys appeared in the school grounds, some were his classmates. It was alright for him now, he had different things to do. He went outside - the new school day was beginning.....
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