The following story was written by Alexandra Evershed of Prospectus Associates. It is the reflections of Dr. LeRoy Nelm who was an important contributor to Canada’s early space program.
Prospectus Associates were approached by the daughter of Dr. LeRoy Nelm in late fall last year to say that her father was willing to share his thoughts with the Don’t Let Go Canada coalition campaign.
Reflections on the Beginning of Canada’s Journey in Space
Dr. LeRoy Nelms, who will celebrate his 89th birthday this year, has had a front-seat view of Canada’s journey into space from the very beginning, with the Alouette-1 satellite, the launch of which made Canada the third country to get into space after the Soviet Union and USA.
We were approached by Dr. LeRoy Nelm’s daughter this fall to let us know that her Dad, nearly ninety and still living in Ottawa, who has had a front row seat on Canada’s space journey since Alouette-1, would be willing to share his recollections and thoughts with us.
The Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment (DRTE) lab in Ottawa was working on understanding the way the ionosphere would behave to allow long-distance communications, he explains. “Long-distance communications are a top priority for a country with Canada’s geography. “We had ground-based stations at Resolute up in the Arctic, in Winnipeg, and in Ottawa that offered us a one-point look. But when the possibility of satellites came along, we thought, ‘From up there, we could cover the ionosphere, from pole to pole.’”
At the time, the idea of sounding the ionosphere from above was completely unheard of. But the team, led by Dr. Eldon Warren, was up for the challenge and began developing the concept. They knew they would need a way to get the satellite into space. So, while the project was still in early stages, Dr. Warren and a colleague headed down to the Pentagon, where as part of the USA’s space race with the Soviet Union efforts were underway to develop a reliable launch vehicle. The Texan US Air Force Colonel who met with them (cowboy-booted feet on his desk, and a large cigar in his mouth), sent them to meet with a new agency, just starting up, called NASA.
NASA felt sure that the technical complexity of the DRTE’s “topside” sounder satellite proposal was beyond the capability to execute that existed at the time, certainly beyond what existed in Canada. “They were more than a bit dismissive,” recalls Dr. Nelms, with a laugh. “We were poor cousins up in the frozen north, what did we know about these things?” Despite their scepticism, since international science collaboration was an objective of the new organization, they agreed to collaborate on the project and launch the satellite.
Alouette-1 was launched on September 29th, 1962, a scientific and engineering breakthrough. NASA later admitted publicly that they had never believed that it would work, or, that if it did it would only work for minutes. “The US made no plans to make use of the data, so little did they believe that it would work. But it did work. It worked exactly as planned, says Dr. Nelms, with evident satisfaction. “For 10 years. Alouette-1 never failed, we just stopped using it.”
Though it is many years since Dr. Nelms retired, he is proud to have played a role in Canada’s journey in space and outspoken about the benefits investing in space delivers to the country. “Canada’s participation in space certified from very early on that we are a major contributor to leading-edge engineering and the development of high quality electronic equipment. If you can create very complicated satellites that work flawlessly, that is a calling card and gives credibility.” Dr. Nelms points out that the success of the Canadian space sector today can be traced back to Alouette-1 and many subsequent accomplishments, that have established the fact, over and over again, that this country can deliver world-leading science and technology.
“And if you are going to stay involved in high tech, in particular in space, then you’d better not stand still,” adds Dr. Nelms. “You can’t rest on your laurels, you have to keep running like mad. Some countries, like the USA, have lots of money to throw at the problem; but ability will always outweigh floods of cash. That said, without investment here at home, our talented people will have no choice but to go where the jobs are.”
At 89, Dr. Nelms, is still engaged and attentive, watching and confident that Canada will choose to continue its journey in space.