When astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on Feb. 20, 1962, he did so with the help of technology from the Berkshires.
Launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 9:48 a.m., the Mercury-Atlas 6 spacecraft carried Glenn's Project Mercury capsule, nicknamed Friendship 7, into orbit with help from the Atlas guidance system, first built and tested by the General Electric ordnance department at a facility in Hancock.
The radio-command guidance system, consisting of three black-box beacons attached to the rocket launch vehicle, allowed crews on the ground at Cape Canaveral to not only track the flight by radar, but also to determine its rate of velocity and acceleration. This information was key to making crucial changes to the spacecraft's flight path.
Corrections were sent back to the guidance system as a series of commands — including one that would tell the rocket when to cut its engines — in a fraction of a second, a GE spokesman told the press in late January 1962.
Berkshire County's involvement with the Atlas guidance system began years earlier, in 1956, when it was announced that GE's naval ordnance department would be building a radar development and test facility on Apple Tree Hill in Hancock. The location of the $1.5 million plant, which would be owned by the U.S. Air Force, was selected for its proximity to Brodie Mountain, where a transmitting tower would be located. When completed in 1957, the one-floor facility was built with three air-conditioned testing bays, each with a removable roof and walls. The testing bay walls each weighed about 4,000 pounds, while the roof was reported to weigh 8,000 pounds. Each bay took 48 hours to disassemble and required a 12-man crane crew to do so.
Walter B. Booth, general manager of the ordnance department, told the Eagle the facility would "develop, assemble and test radar antennas for a highly important Air Force development program," but said he could not divulge the name of that program due to security restrictions.
The exact nature of work done at the Apple Tree Hill plant would not be revealed until June 14, 1959, just over a year after a convoy of trucks, said to be "one of the largest convoys in the history of trucking in the United States" in terms of bulk and weight, rolled out of Hancock. The convoy, an article June 9, 1958, speculated, was headed to Cape Canaveral, the military's missile testing site. Indeed, it was.
In June 1959, GE officials would reveal that the Hancock plant had been where the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system was designed, developed and produced. The tracking mounts, weighing in at 11 tons each, were shaped like giant satellites on a base that rotated on a gearless base. The tracker mounts, as they were called, not only reported the exact location of a missile during flight, but they also transmitted guidance signals to its flight controls to set and correct its trajectory.
By 1959, the Atlas ICBMs had tracked and kept in contact with a missile 6,000 miles away and also had successfully launched a satellite in December 1958.
By the time Project Mercury was underway in the 1960s, the Atlas guidance system had been adapted for the space program. Four GE engineers, from the company's Syracuse, N.Y., facility, oversaw the guidance system from a base in Cape Canaveral.
GE would continue to manufacture inertial guidance units for the Atlas and Polaris missile systems — units similar in size and shape to a basketball with a cameralike lens on one side — at its Merrill Road plant. Use of the Hancock facility was discontinued in 1966.
Other space ties
Project Mercury was neither the first nor the last time GE would contribute to the space program. Before Project Mercury, the company's missile and space division was involved with the first payload recovery from space in 1958, the first vehicle recovery, and the first photos from space in 1959. In 1960, it was involved with the first satellite recovery from orbit, and the first transmission during the radio blackout period of re-entry in 1961.
In the 1978 centennial edition of GE Investor magazine, the company noted that for Project Apollo, "37 separate GE operations and 6,000 employees made contributions that range from primary responsibilities to supplying parts."
GE wasn't the only Berkshire-based business to contribute to the space program or to the Apollo missions. When Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon in July 1969, it was with the help of thousands of North Adams residents who worked on key components for the spaceflight at Sprague Electric Co.
From the pulsating light that Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin used to find their way back to the Apollo 11 command module, to a filter used in the backpack life support systems, to the tiny silicon disc full of information left on the moon for possible aliens, all were made at the company's Marshall Street plant.
The small silver disc left behind by the astronauts, a little larger in size than a quarter and locally referred to as the "moon wafer," was designed in Sprague's Worcester plant and fabricated in North Adams.
According to an article in the North Adams Transcript from July 16, 1969, the Sprague work was done in a matter of days.
"On June 23, the NASA Research Center in Cambridge requested the company for help in reproducing the messages (from 74 heads of state) in a permanent form no larger than microfilm but which would not have the disadvantages of microfilm."
Originally, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had planned on putting a permanent recording of messages on microfilm, but decided against the move because space radiation could ruin the data. So, the government agency turned to Sprague, which was "producing ultra-high speed microelectronic circuits for digital computers" at the time.
The first printing of the silicon disc and its mold were donated to the North Adams Museum of History and Science in 2003 by John Sprague.
In addition to the moon wafer, Sprague had more than 53,000 components used by the space program, with pieces being used on the Mercury and Apollo shuttles and on the Skylab space station.
The capacitor used on Skylab was designed by three local men, Dr. John Moresi, John Velyvis and Francis Gamari, all who held a patent on the piece. They were honored by NASA in 1975 for the creation of a wet tantalum capacitor that could withstand reverse currents.