Sunday, July 31, 2011

A 1968 Battle Between Poker Flat & Fort Churchill

Sometimes, we just don't see the forest for the trees or the polar bears for the tundra.

For example, the July 30th, 2011 Canadian Press article "Astrophysicist works to line up his rockets to build Canadian launch site in BC" makes a big fuss over a "debate that's been making the rounds in the scientific and business communities for years without any progress being made."
Dr Redouane Fakir. Photo c/o Canadian Press.

But the article doesn't mention that this debate has been fought to a conclusion at least once before.

This was during the period where the broad consensus, as epitomized on page 110 of the 1967 Chapman Report (generally conceded to be “Canada’s Original Blueprint” for space activities) was that "Canada will, within the next decade, need to launch small satellites at a rate that will justify supply from Canadian sources."

And that time, Canada lost.

The current article quotes BC astrophysicist and Space Launch Canada Director Dr. Redouane Fakir on the advantages of building a new Canadian rocket launch facility around the Estevan Point area of the Hesquiat Peninsula, on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

These advantages include safety and range issues, economic and educational benefits relating to high technology facilities being located on Canadian soil, the vertical integration of satellite launches to provide more direct Canadian control and increased "space autonomy" for indigenous projects like the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat, which was originally scheduled for a 2007 launch but is still on the ground waiting for a ride to orbit, according to the July 28th, 2011 Montreal Gazette article "Asteroid-spotting satellite stuck on earth").

But Canada did once have it's own suborbital launch facility (the Fort Churchill rocket launch site in northern Manitoba, which was active from the 1950's to 1985). This point even receives a quick citation in the article, as does an Alaskan equivalent (the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska, which is the first commercial US spaceport not collocated on an existing federal launch range).

However, the article fails to mention a second, larger regional launch facility (the Poker Flat Research Range, just outside of Fairbanks, Alaska) or why the Alaskan facilities are still in existence while the Fort Churchill facility closed down in 1985.

According to "A Brief History of Poker Flat" the answer had something to do with location but more to do with the simple stubbornness of a single academic. The website states:
Poker Flat Research Range site overview.
In the early 1960's, Neil Davis of the Geophysical Institute (a part of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks) decided to create a research rocket facility in Alaska that would have the unique advantages of being located near a permanent staff of university space physics scientists determined to study the aurora, and of being located at a site just to the south of the zone where most auroras occur.

Davis' proposed range competed with a nearly identical $30 million facility built as a joint American-Canadian venture in the 1950's at Fort Churchill, Canada, on the shores of Hudson Bay. However, the Fort Churchill range had the major disadvantage of lying enough inside the auroral zone to limit research to only one kind of aurora.

In 1968, developments elsewhere called for a minimal expeditionary rocket range to be built in Alaska solely to support the launch of six barium-release rockets of the Department of Defense. The Geophysical Institute secured a 25-year lease from the State of Alaska on about 5,000 acres of land on which to build the site, which later became known as Poker Flat Research Range (PFRR). The title to much of the land has since been transferred to the university.

The federal crews wanted to shut down the rocket range shortly after they completed their barium-release experiments, but Davis had other plans. He agreed to provide necessary ground-based observations of the chemical releases from various locations only if he could launch his own NASA-sponsored, auroral zone rocket from PFRR, rather than from Fort Churchill as previously scheduled. The federal crews agreed, and Davis' rocket became the first civilian agency launch from the new range, establishing a precedent for the future.

All seven rockets were successful and PFRR itself was launched into existence. Geophysical Institute scientists kept the range going on a shoestring budget for years until the facility proved both workable and scientifically useful. When 13 sounding rocket launches were scheduled for the winter of 1970, new construction began. The range was staffed and support instrumentation was installed.

The basic facilities at PFRR were completed in 1972. Two years later, a geophysical observatory was constructed to house riometers, magnetometers, and other instruments used in routine experiments, along with all-sky cameras and meridian scanning photometers to support rocket launches. Since then, the range has undergone continual improvement.
The US Army (which funded and helped to run the Churchill facility as part of its network of sounding rocket stations) ended it's involvement at Fort Churchill in June 1970, about the time that new construction began at Poker Flat.

Although originally taken over by the National Research Council (NRC) to support the Canadian upper atmosphere research program, the Fort Churchill launching facility ended up being used only sporadically and was finally closed down in 1985.

In essence, Canadian ambition and the highly developed infrastructure available at Fort Churchill (including the presence in the area of a major military base, a huge airport built during the second world war and substantial railway development for efficient movement of heavy equipment throughout the year) were trumped by the location of Poker Flat (which allowed for a wider range of atmospheric and ionosphere research) plus access to US capital (from the US Army) and the availability of nearby scientific expertise (the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute operates Poker Flat under contract to NASA's Wallops Flight Facility).

Dr Fakir and his colleagues at Space Launch Canada might want to keep these earlier lessons in mind as they move forward with plans to develop a new Canadian space launch facility. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the battle has been fought before and Canada lost.

Let's try not to let that happen again. After all, Canada must also have one or two stubborn academics lurking about somewhere.
The abandoned Fort Churchill Rocket Research Range is now a national historic site which mostly means that no one is going to be launching anything from there any time soon.

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