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There is one last daunting task for this miserable year. For Ferrebeekeeper’s annual 2021 obituaries, I promised to write an obituary for my grandfather, Robert Clarence Pierson Jr., who died on October 23rd, 2021…and the task has proved to be entirely daunting! When I was a child, Grandpa was my hero, since his far-flung James-Bond-style life seemed to so thoroughly epic and exotic–and characteristic of the triumphs and excesses of the 20th century. But now, in the squalor and waste of 2021, it seems equally impossible to write about him…for some of the same reasons. It is like writing about the career of some ancient Roman tribune or Chinese sage who accidentally crashed through into this debased era of social media and Kardassians and national disintegration…

Robert Clarence Pierson Jr. was born in 1924, at Blue Knob, a hamlet (if even that) in Clay County West Virginia. He was extremely premature, and his surprise arrival so discomfited all parties that the house ended up burning down! Great Grandma Virgie put the tiny baby in a drawer and he was almost stepped on by an anxious horse!

Thereafter Grandpa attended the one room school at Blue Knob and then the High School at Clay where he graduated as valedictorian in 1941. Since he grew up adjacent to West Virginia’s hunting, mining, drilling, and lumbering trades (with their sundry dangerous tools) his childhood adventures had an exciting frontier quality to them. Frankly, they sounded like a Fleischer cartoon (wherein a rocket powered sledge, cask of black powder, or steamer trunk filled with horseshoes is always on hand at exactly the right moment). Perhaps some of this was also thanks to Great Grandpa Clarence’s indulgence (Great Grandpa ran the local lumber mill and was becoming adept at the Democratic party politics) and also to Great Grandma, who was always willing to drop everything and bake a chocolate pie for him.

Grandpa attended West Virginia University until the war called to him. He began his army career as a paratrooper but, thanks to his foreign language and memorization skills, he quickly moved to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. In the European theater of World War II, Grandpa served in the peninsular campaign in Italy. Because of his facility with languages, communications, and codework, Grandpa flew behind enemy lines and he was in Rome when Rome was liberated by the allies (I asked him about the granular details of this operation and he said his outfit painted their airplane to look like a German airplane and then just landed at the airport…and all of the relevant Italians winked at them and looked the other way). After liberating Rome, Grandpa headed into the Balkans to help the Serbs with their anti-German activities. Then, once victory was achieved in Europe, he switched theaters and went to Burma, where he was impressed by the um, fervor of the Kachin resistance fighters.

After World War II, Grandpa married his university sweetheart, Constance Faye Wellen (better known as Grandma Connie). The OSS was disbanded a month after the war was over, but Grandpa took up a foreign career with its successor agency. He also brushed up on language and social sciences at the University of Chicago and Stanford, before heading abroad again. Language was grandpa’s greatest gift, and, as far as I could tell, he knew English, Latin, French, Javanese, Dutch, Vietnamese, Arabic, and maybe a bit of German.

The way the Cold War ended seems inevitable to us now, however in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, this was anything but true, and those decades were characterized by worldwide proxy conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union which took place everywhere but burned brightest in portions of the world recovering from 19th and early 20th century European colonization.

Thus, while everyone else came back from the war to bobbysoxers, beach boys, and suburban ranches, Grandpa was first in India, and then in Egypt, Somalia (which he doubted could ever be welded together effectively), and Kenya. He was in the Belgian Congo during the independence crisis when it violently transformed into Zaire. Grandpa was a master of the cocktail niceties of the 60s and he told me that he would mix drinks for Patrice Lumumba and Lumumba’s cronies. In his cups, Lumumba would enthuse about glorious plans of pan-African unity and talk about how the movement would kill all Europeans, “but not you, Bob, since you make the drinks!” Grandpa would laugh, but, in reality, his closest Congolese friends were among the Baluba (a rival Congolese ethnicity which Lumumba had antagonized with violent crackdowns and pogroms). Later when the Congo blew apart in full-blown crisis, my grandmother, mother, and uncle all fled as refugees, but Grandpa stayed in the nation to ensure that it did not become a client state of the Soviet Union no matter what the cost.

From the Congo, Grandpa moved on to Indonesia which was also vacillating between the great cold war powers. One of my favorite stories involves how the United States built an elaborate new Washington embassy for the Indonesians which was filled with listening devices. As the only team man who could speak Javan fluently, Grandpa got to translate, but all they learned was Sukarno’s enthusiasm for the distaff charms of American actresses…particularly how much the Indonesian strongman wanted to sleep with Zsa Zsa Gabor. Sigh…

Grandpa left the foreign service for a time to work on local projects back in West Virginia, but he returned to the field to work in Vietnam during the sixties and seventies. Some of my favorite tales from Grandpa involve his stories of drinking out of great earthenware vessels with bronze straws and plotting with Hmong warlords (he was enormously impressed by the Hmong, and the North Vietnamese, but had some reservations about the South Vietnamese leadership)Although he tried as hard as he could to solve everyone’s problems in Vietnam I believe his proudest contribution was as a gardener. He said that in Saigon he was astonished by the markets filled with fruits and vegetables which he didn’t recognize, but that there were also things which were missing, so he took the State Department’s credit card and ordered a giant box of seeds. Thereafter he was always peddling squashes, pumpkins, gourds, maize, melons, and suchlike North American seeds to add to Vietnamese agriculture (and indeed they are now part of the culture and cuisine).

Speaking of culture, one of Grandpa’s early mentors, Arturo, was an intelligence officer in Southeast Asia who lived a flamboyant expat lifestyle and suggested to Grandpa that shrewd intelligence personnel in the foreign service should collect art. Not only did this pursuit require one to learn the culture, language, and perspective of new nations, but it also provided an automatic reason for being overseas, and a pretext for traveling to all sorts of strange locations to meet peculiar characters. Plus, as a sort of bonus, one would wind up with a collection of beautiful and interesting artworks. Grandpa collected Congolese and Indonesian oil paintings and, particularly, Chinese porcelain (so, if you have ever wandered why I am always trying to understand the glorious arts of China in this blog, I guess it is a cultural legacy from Arturo, some 1950s spy whom I never met).

I wanted to properly write about Grandpa’s foreign service career which was extensive and illustrious, but all of this makes him sound like some dark puppetmaster (his Indonesian sobriquet was “Wayang” since he had the same handsome sharp features as the Indonesian version of the hero Arjuna). However Grandpa retired from statecraft and the affairs of nations in 1974, the same year I was born.

He and grandma lived in suburban Maryland by the Chesapeake Bay and their cat Pharaoh (AKA Faro), a magnificent predator of the Chesapeake Bay swamp (who was, hilariously as white as an arctic fox). Grandpa was always trying to feed or heal various strays and mongrels and plant his own paradisiacal garden to rival the beauties of South East Asia (although hurricanes of ever growing frequency would always blow down his beautiful trees). Some of my happiest memories of childhood involve exploring the Bay with Grandpa in his rowboat and catching blue crabs, or having plum battles with the tiny Italian prune plums from his little orchard.

It was fun to look at his art collection (and his collection of exotic weaponry from Africa and Asia) but it was even more fun to spend summer vacation puttering around the Chesapeake or driving around Washington and Baltimore in his preposterous vehicle, an enormous Chevrolet Impala station wagon of the late seventies which was about 45 feet long and which looked like a hearse the color of a raincloud. Sadly, in that era, GM lavished minimal attention on frivolous details like engines, and so his new car’s motor exploded not long after purchase. Undeterred, Grandpa took the hulk over to a chopshop in Glen Burnie and told them to put “something powerful” in it, which is how he had a powder blue bulldozer in the unlikely form of a station wagon.

Grandpa loved religion and was drawn to it, and when I was growing up, he would beguile me by telling me the stories of what was happening in the paintings on his wall–epic tales from the Mahabharata or from ancient China. Yet it was clear he could see through the dogmatic aspects of faith and was most attracted to spirituality as a furtherance of human concerns through sophisticated allegorical confabulation. To be more plain, I think he was astonished that while nation-states were always desperately struggling to coerce people to do things, holy men could come along with a beautiful story which would cause people to eagerly participate in ridiculous ventures which ran contrary to their own self-interest. I would like to write about how he understood animals and people and was always surprising the Amish by speaking to them in their own tongue (it is basically a weird German, he confided), or befriending salty myna birds or rescuing addled baby animals or what-have-you, but I will instead end with his bees. Although he liked honey, it was obvious that he kept bees because they combined all of his true interests–communication, nation-building, animals, farming, warfare, family, and making things. All of this came in a little white box which he said was like having your own miniature city-state of 50,000 flying Spartans in yellow and black striped tunics. Of course sometimes West Virginia bears would come out of the forest and eat your civilization, or varroa mites would cause everyone to sicken and die, or the young queen would murder the old one (or vice versa) but it was all part of an even larger picture and just meant you had to rebuild better.

Now that Grandpa is dead, the world which he and his contemporaries made is swiftly coming apart. Beekeeping, arm-twisting, and politics have never much interested me, but if we want any honey (or simply not to be a sad addled province in Putin’s new Russia or a client state to Xi’s imperial China), perhaps we need to think about some of the lessons of his life of service to the Republic.

Hello! I am back. I courteously request that you kindly forgive my two week absence from writing posts about dark gods, bottom-dwelling fish, the cold darkness of outer space, weird art, and, um, pretty flowers in the garden. The fact of the matter is that, after a long and vivid life, my grandfather passed away. Not only did the funeral take me out of town (back to the tiny mountain hamlet in Appalachia where my family comes from, and to a cemetery where I am related to pretty much everyone), but his death also spelled the definitive end of an era and left me with some pretty serious questions. (also I loved Grandpa and was mourning him, but we will leave such personal matters aside)

I will write up an appropriate obituary here at the end of the year, but to quickly summarize: Grandpa spent his working life overseas operating on behalf of the United States government, fighting and winning the nation’s great twentieth century battles. He was in German-occupied Italy when it fell to the allies. He was in Burma when the Imperial Japanese army was defeated. He was in Egypt during the Suez Canal Crisis, and then in Somalia, then in the Belgian Congo when it became Zaire. He was in Indonesia when the pro-communist Sukarno abdicated power for Suharto. And he finished up his foreign career in Vietnam working to best assist American allies there.

Even during the chilliest parts of the cold war, Grandpa’s work of defeating Soviet puppets (or subalterning them to become useful to the United States) was not highly visible or well-understood by Americans at home. These days that lack of diplomatic (or realpolitik) perspective is hurting us. The United States seems to benefit from having a comprehensible international competitor. After the events of the late eighties and the breakup of the Soviet Block, the perspective concerning the Cold War has gone two very opposite ways.

There is a narrative on the right that we won the Cold War outright and can now turn our back on the world and focus all of our attention on making American billionaires much richer and perfecting fundamentalist Christian theocracy. Thinkers from the left seem inclined to regard the outcome of the Cold War as foreordained and spend their energy lambasting the methods which America employed to counter Russia’s dirty tricks as some sort of capitalist imperialism or neocolonialism. Like all good-hearted people, I regard the first point of view as naive garbage which is pulling us towards fascism. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned liberal line of thinking is likewise dangerous garbage which is enabling the current international crisis of democracy. Please read this chilling article from the Atlantic about what happens when there are too few people like Grandpa (hint: we still have terrible foreign enemies and they are working hard to prolong our political stalemate and deepen our internal tensions…or just end our democracy outright and put their own puppet in charge here).

Anyway, this is a short post to explain my fortnight-long absence not to contextualize the affairs of the whole world (again, that Atlantic article does that). Also, as you can probably tell, being in West Virginia disturbed me. It is one thing to see America’s political divisions on some colorful map. It is quite another to come face to face with the number of earnest Americans who honestly believe our future lies in “far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society and of the economy” (to borrow a sentence straight from Wikipedia).

So Grandpa is gone and his hard work is coming undone. I will get back to writing about the garden and the oceans, but I will try to spend more time writing about the affairs of the world. The political crisis of the 21st century is well underway and America and our embattled democratic allies are quickly losing ground abroad and at home. We are all going to have to spend more time explaining why authoritarianism is bad and why we need to spend money and time influencing what happens overseas. Likewise we are going to have to keep defending fundamental liberal and democratic values here, as well. We will have to patiently do the best we can to minimize the coming disasters of 2022 and 2024. Otherwise the red spots on the map will keep spreading and there will be no United States–just another Russian puppet of the sort that Grandpa spent his life fighting.

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Condolences to the people of Thailand. Today (October 13, 2016) we bid farewell to world’s longest reigning king, Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, also known as Rama IX.  Born in 1927 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bhumibol became king in June of 1946 and has continuously reigned since then.

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Ferrebeekeeper blogged about the king of Thailand before.  He was the richest and most powerful monarch in the world (with the possible exceptions of the king of Saudi Arabia or Vladimir Putin).  His subjects treated him as a living bodhisattva or god and he lived in vast palaces and rode on huge golden dragon barges. To a citizen of a Republic, it seems obscene for one man to personally control so much of a kingdom’s wealth (although frankly America has been falling short on our own austere Republican virtues these days).  It is strange to think that all of this power and wealth was going to go to Bhumibol’s brother, King Ananda Mahidol —before Ananda was murdered by being shot in the forehead. Fortunately a privy court hanged some random low-status servants after a shabby show trial—thus laying any questions about the exceedingly mysterious events to rest forever.

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King Bhumibol was a very loyal friend to America for 7 decades.  It startles me how swiftly the Cold War is passing from everyone’s memories, but Bhumibol helped the Western Democracies to win it.  His intelligence, forbearance, and natural political savvy helped Thailand stabilize South East Asia and prevent communism from spreading there (it also made Thailand the preeminent regional power). Bhumibol, a constitutional monarch eschewed direct levers of power. He was tremendously beloved by his subjects, which has always been difficult for a leader and is even more difficult in today’s wired world..  People who met him praised him as warm and sincere.

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Rereading this obituary I realize it sounds like a backhanded compliment.  It isn’t meant to be.  The papers today are full of claptrap which obscure Bhomibal’s political skill, his adroit ability to run Thailand from the shadows while ministers and generals came and went, and–above all–his iron will. He will truly be missed.  It will be majestic to see the Great Crown of Victory come out of its vault so that the playboy Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn can set it upon his own brow (for nobody else has sufficient status to grant the throne of Thailand to him) and become the new king. However it is sad to bid farewell to such a stalwart ally, gifted political player, and interesting man.  It also raises worries about the stability of Thailand once a period of national mourning has passed.

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It has been a while since Ferrebeekeeper has written about politics.  This is partly because everything everywhere this year has been about politics, and I wanted a break from the relentless annoying noise (at least in my own little patch of the internet).  Also, in general it seems like the vastly increased media/internet attention has not led to better outcomes:  instead the “anything for clicks” mentality has made a volatile situation worse.  Also I did not want to fan the flames by writing about Donald Trump.  Like the screaming kid grabbing people’s hair and kicking desks in 5th grade, he draws his strength from demanding all of our attention.  If we could just ignore him, he would lose his dark power to enthrall.

But, now that Donald Trump is officially the candidate of the Republican Party, my strategy of pointedly ignoring him has failed.  It is time to actually pay attention to a clickbait election so shrill and mean-spirited that it makes one long for the days of Andrew Jackson, Polk, Goldwater, or even Nixon….

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Except of course we don’t really long for such things.  Those days are gone and good riddance. Saying otherwise is hyperbole; and hyperbole is our enemy right now.  The Republican Convention makes it sound like we are all going to die. “Enemies are at the gate!  Our cities are coming apart because of violence and dissembling immigrants!  Economic depression and stagnation will doom us all to servitude and starvation!”  This is a dishonest and dangerous strategy.  It will fail in unexpected and dangerous ways.

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I grew up at the end of the Cold War, and I was an anxious child.  I read things and knew about the state of world affairs back then.  It seemed pretty improbable that we would survive an era when twitchy old men with endless arrays of poorly computerized nuclear weapons stared unblinking across the world at each other.  Looking back at those times with nostalgia is madness! The fact that we didn’t all perish in nuclear hellfire sometime between the fifties and the nineties is a miracle.  This world is all gravy—an improbable bonus round (and, let’s face it, the fact that we have this impossibly ephemeral bubble of consciousness between two infinities of oblivion is already pretty miraculous).

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Yet Cold War shadows linger: the conflict was a decades-long existential crisis which caused us to come together and work in tandem.  It demanded good leadership and lockstep order at home, and the gravity of the fight allowed us certain freedoms abroad.  Now that the long grim conflict is over, we have great opportunities: opportunities of being closer to other nations and helping people. We can undo some of the great power meddling which was necessary to win that conflict (while making goods and services cheaper for everyone). We can learn astonishing new things. All of humankind can move forward to a brighter world where everyone has opportunities. However to get to such a place will require creative thinking, nimble pursuit of rapidly-changing opportunities, and the ability to adapt quickly to surprising circumstances.

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The Republicans make it sound like they want to go back to the past.  But, for goodness’ sake, we don’t want to go back to a time when everyone could die because of a rogue bear! And if they want to go back to the time just after the Cold War, when America was the only great power, well it wasn’t a Trump who was in the White House then. In fact we know exactly what Trump was up to during that time because New Yorkers lived through it.

I have lived in Brooklyn a long time, and New Yorkers know Trump.  He has refined his act here. There have been times when Trump’s hair-pulling hissy fits and histrionics (and spouse abuse and mistresses and bankruptcies) have sucked up all the oxygen in the local tabloids.  It has given us a measure of immunity to his damnable act…and a valuable insight about his nature.  Like liars who talk about truth all of the time, or broke people who talk about money with every breath, Trump talks incessantly about winning.  It is not because he is a winner.

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So here is what is going to happen in this election: This is the biggest act of Trump’s mendacious life and he is going to lose spectacularly to a woman. He will drag his ticket down with him, but not so much that we can escape the deadlock which is hurting our nation by preventing us from researching and creating.

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You definitely need to vote, and you need to pay attention, but also remember that, in the bigger picture, things are ok.  Don’t be afraid! What people say about the end of America isn’t true.  Race relations are improving. People are being drawn out of poverty.  The pie is getting bigger here and abroad (although the pie hogs are getting stronger and more shameless too).  Heck, even if Trump gets elected through some nightmare circumstance, America has survived presidents who were ninnies, racists, incompetents, or even in a coma.

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Or all of the above

We need to put on our grown-up clothes and calm our anxieties and deal with a world of great change and great opportunity. Now excuse me while I go back to ignoring politics and send out some applications and proposals.

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Have you ever wondered about how deep humankind is capable of digging into the planet? During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to answer this question with vast drilling projects. These two drilling operations were opposite but strangely complimentary. The United States tried to drill through the oceanic crust to reach the Earth’s mantle through an oceanic tectonic plate (which are much thinner than continental plates, but made of dense basalt). The Soviets attempted to drill through a continental plate–which are massively thick but not nearly as dense as oceanic plates (and not underneath thousands of feet of water!). Each operation failed due to the nature of geophysical reality and to the particular weaknesses of the respective nations. In the United States, the project was abandoned because of a lack of funding caused by congressional intransigence and general scientific apathy. The Soviet project was set aside because society collapsed and the Soviet Union broke apart.

 

The Main Drilling Ship used for the Mohole Project

The Main Drilling Ship used for the Mohole Project

The American project was an outright attempt to drill into the Mohorovičić discontinuity, the line which separates the Earth’s crust from its mantle. The discontinuity is named after a Croatian geophysicist—and the project took its name from him as well when it came to be known as “the Mohole”. Various boreholes were sunk into the oceanic crust off the coast of Guadalupe Island, Mexico. The deepest drill hole reached 183 m (600 feet) below the sea floor—which was already beneath 3,600 meters (11,700 feet) of seawater. Yet the oceanic crust is ten kilometers (6.2 miles) thick, so the project was still far from achieving its goal. The Mohole project was plagued by mismanagement, underfunding, and incongruities between the government, scientific, and private institutions which were working together. Yet it was the first time dynamic positioning technology was used for deep sea drilling—today this technology is critical to offshore oil projects. Additionally scientist learned more about the composition of oceanic plates. Unfortunately the project was canceled in 1967.

The Kola Superdeep Borehole in 2007

The Kola Superdeep Borehole in 2007

The Soviet team began drilling began on 24 May, 1970. They chose to drill on the Kola Peninsula, which juts into the Arctic Circle between the Barents Sea and the White Sea (and is a sort of sinister eastern mirror to the great Scandinavian nations). The Soviet scientists and technicians were trying to drill through the Baltic continental crust which is estimated to be 35 kilometers (22 miles) in thickness. For decades, they worked on this project, sinking new holes as extant drillings became broken, collapsed, or unviable. The deepest they managed to drill was 12,262 metres (40,230 ft)—about a third of the distance through the continental plate. This remains the deepest drill hole in human history–although today there are a few boreholes which are longer than this (however they are not deeper–such super-long drillings are generally horizontal or diagonal for the specialized purposes of oil drilling). The Kola borehole project also produced useful and unexpected results. At the maximum depths which the drill bore reached, temperatures were much higher than expected and there was a great deal more water in the continental rock. The core samples from the drilling reached all the way through Earth’s geological history back to rocks of Archaean age (greater than 2.5 billion years old) although these were distorted by heat and pressure. Additionally the mud which came from the hole was described as boiling with hydrogen. As we dig into the underworld things get stranger and stranger! Sadly, the project was abandoned and the works are now a deserted ruin in the grim chaos of Putin’s Russia.

 

The Kola Superdeep Bore hole mission center in 2012

The Kola Superdeep Bore hole mission center in 2012

A perspicacious reader will note that we never actually got anywhere close to the Earth’s mantle with either of these projects. Geologists, geophysicists, and drilling engineers learned much from the attempts, but the fundamental questions about the Earth’s crust and mantle which lead to the two missions remain unanswered. All we know about the Earth’s mantle comes from the reading of various sorts of waves which pass through the Earth—not from direct observation. The only rocks we have seen from the mantle are strange xenoliths which became caught up in esoteric igneous events and traveled as tiny crystals from the mantle to the surface through volcanoes or basaltic flows. Fortunately the world’s scientists are putting together a new mission–the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) to try again to reach the Earth’s mantle by penetrating the oceanic crust. This mission is being organized and funded mostly by the Japanese and the NSF (although there are a number of other contributing members and associate members). The Japanese in particular regard it as their premier scientific mission. Hopefully they can use today’s greatly advanced drilling technology to improve on the abortive attempts of the Americans and Soviets to pierce the crust of the planet.

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Living during the communications revolution, it sometimes seems impossible to imagine how quickly the world has changed.  Today is the 50th anniversary of an important step towards the instantly connected world of today:  on July 10, 1962, a Thor-Delta rocket (launched from Cape Canaveral) carried the communication satellite Telstar 1 into orbit.  The satellite was built by collaboration between AT&T, Bell Labs, NASA, the British General Post Office, and the French National Post, Telegraph, and Telecom Office. It was the first satellite ever to relay television, telephone and high-speed data communications.  It was the first time that humans could beam such complicated information across an entire ocean via electromagnetic transmission.

It sort of looks like 2 of R2D2’s heads or a primitive disco ball.

Telstar was tiny and crude by today’s standards.  The entire spacecraft weighed only 77 kg (170 lbs). The power generated by its solar panels was a mighty 14 watts (which is about what is necessary to operate a dim fluorescent nightlight). Since Telstar 1 was in non-geosynchronous orbit, its ability to transmit transatlantic signals was limited to a 20 minutes window during each 2.5 hour world orbit (and because satellite broadcasting stations only existed in England, France, and on the East Coast, the rest of the world didn’t matter) .  Most contemporary telecommunications satellites are in geosynchronous orbit (and stay in place despite the solar wind thanks to thruster burns), but Telstar came in an era before all of that.  The satellite’s first broadcast (on July 23rd) consisted of President John F. Kennedy talking about the dollar’s rapidly appreciating value. The initial broadcast also showed a baseball game, the American flag, Mount Rushmore, and, of course French singer Yves Montand.

Yves Montand (apparently)

Telstar 1 had a brief and memorable life broadcasting one grainy channel of black and white television and relaying perhaps a few hundred phone lines, but it has not been broadcasting since 1963.  High altitude nuclear tests carried out during 1962 supercharged the Van Allen belt and overwhelmed the fragile electronics on the craft.   As of May 2012 Telstar was still in orbit around Earth—presumably it is still up there, circling our planet, simultaneously a communications milestone and a cold war victim.

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