A tribute to the Range Rats of Grand Turk
By Bill Hocking
“I salute—from my space helmet—the Range Rats, the unsung heroes of the space race to the future.” Buzz Aldrin, Apollo XI, 1969
On a clear St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1958 at 7:15 AM, the first Vanguard missile was successfully launched into a highly stable orbit. The satellite it carried aloft, only about six inches in diameter and weighing about three pounds, has circled the earth over 300,000 times, travelled more than 8 billion miles, and is expected to orbit for 2,000 years! On the other hand, the Russian satellite Sputnik I lasted only three months before plunging back to earth.
The tiny Vanguard spacecraft is the oldest man-made object in space. Vanguard required a new launch vehicle that could produce a radio signal detectable on the ground. It was the first solar-powered satellite and its tracking data ultimately revealed to surprised geophysicists that the earth is not perfectly round but bulges a bit, like a pear. These developments were all firsts, and they were accomplished in 30 months!
I joined the Vanguard team just months after President Eisenhower announced Project Vanguard. It planned to put the world’s first artificial earth satellite into orbit as part of the US participation in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), July 1957–December 1958, an 18-month “year.” Our mission was to launch a satellite before the end of IGY, track it, prove it reached orbit, and perform at least one scientific experiment. I was involved in building the tracking sites around the world to support this effort.
Of course we weren’t starting from scratch! At the end of World War II the US captured about 100 V2 rockets at the Nazi’s Rocket Research and Development Base at Peenemünde. These rockets were shipped to the Army Ordnance Proving Ground at White Sands, New Mexico, for testing and rocket research. A system known as the “Single-Axis Phase-Comparison Angle-Tracking Unit,” was developed to track them. It eventually evolved into the “Minitrack” system to collect data on the third stage rockets of the early American Vanguard launches. The men who built and manned these stations all over the world, often under difficult conditions, became known as “Range Rats.”
For me, it all began in 1954 when I graduated from college with a degree in physics, received a commission from the US Navy, and got married. In 1955, I had orders to report to the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. as Personnel Officer and Registration Publication Officer.
One of my first duties with Vanguard was to travel to the island of Grand Turk, where we had built a small Minitrack tracking site to support the early launches. The data from Grand Turk determined if we had achieved orbit and what orbit the satellite was in.
When I first arrived, scuba-diving, snorkeling, water skiing and swimming were the fun activities of the day. A routine welcoming gesture for all new arrivals to the island was to be invited to water ski in front of the Conch Club. I had never water skied in my life. Be not afraid! There were those eager to teach me, and so on a beautiful sun-filled day I was taken out to sea. After falling two or three times I managed to stay upright with a degree of stability. When it was clear I was in fact water skiing, the driver of the boat headed for a nearby pier used by incoming ships to bring supplies to the island. When I was about 50 feet or so from the pier, the boat took a sharp left turn at full speed. Of course I went down. No problem. It took a few moments to “rescue” me and away we went. Later that day, several of the old timers took me to the end of the pier. I counted 12 sharks feasting on the ship’s refuse. I had, that day, officially become a “Range Rat.”
Vanguard II was successfully launched on February 17, 1958. Vanguard III, the last to be launched within the IGY time frame, lifted off on September 18, 1959, just three months after the birth of Eilleen, my second daughter. The launch was successful, placing the satellite into an orbit which was estimated to last at least 50 years. I didn’t wait that long. I got the next plane home to be with my son and two daughters, all under the age of four.
My children grew up hearing about my travels to Grand Turk. Fifty-five years later they were still hearing about my island in the Caribbean. In January 2012, I decided to return one last time. I wasn’t sure exactly why, but I needed to return. I think the feeling was that I needed to make a kind of retreat to the place where so much of my youthful energy was invested. My daughters, Karen and Eilleen, decided that they needed to go with me to ensure my safe return. What does a father say or do in a situation like this?
It was mid-day on May 7, 2012, when we landed on the 3,000 foot runway of the JAGS McCartney International Airport on Grand Turk. Fifty-five years ago, the larger Military Air Transport Service aircraft had to connect with the edge of the much smaller airstrip and brake mightily to prevent going into the water on the far side of the island. Looking out the window as you approach Grand Turk you see nothing but rising water. Your prayer is, “May the runway rise up to meet you!” We disembarked, got into our rented car, drove on the wrong side of the road, and began our journey.
My daughters and I drove around the island on the way to our cottage by the sea. Not surprisingly, after the passage of almost 60 years everything appeared to be new and different. We were staying on the northwest side of the island at Corktree Beach, west of North Creek. We drove through Cockburn Town observing the children in their uniforms going home after school, walking along the roadside along with the wild donkeys and occasional cow. We arrived at the fenced-off beach cottage and noticed that we had to get out of the car to open a gate to drive into the driveway. Of course we left the gate open and by the time we left for dinner, we counted three donkeys, two cows and what appeared to be a Texas steer in the front yard. The biggest one eyed us intensely, so we waited. Dinner was a little late that night. Karen was assigned the duty of gatekeeper for the week.
We drove the entire island looking for some remains of the Minitrack tracking site. I could think of several places where the site was located but I couldn’t be sure. Driving to the north end of the island about a half mile from the Lighthouse on the left side, I noticed what appeared to be the remains of our Minitrack antenna system. We walked several hundred yards to the footings and took pictures but I have yet to verify that this was the spot.
On several occasions my daughters and I went shopping for food, gas and water. (I have a history of limiting my shopping to the fundamentals.) I remember on one occasion shopping at Cee’s Superstore and at the checkout counter we were served by a beautiful young lady who was very kind to us. I remember thinking of the possibility that I had met her grandfather in the 1950s. He would have been in his twenties, and like me, would have been living his life for his family.
I recalled my own grandfather (born in 1857) and wondered about her grandfather and the life he led. My grandfather’s family was getting ready for the Civil War that ravaged our country. Her grandfather no doubt was involved in the collection of the Island’s main product at that time. In the mid-1800s, Grand Turk was a major supplier of salt for the British Empire. My imagination linked the three centuries together—the 19th century culture and way of life interfacing with the 21st century technology. When my granddaughter is my age, 82, the year will be 2079. What wonders will be guiding her life toward the end of our new century?
We visited the Victoria Library, the National Museum, the Grand Turk Lighthouse, ate at the Osprey Beach Hotel and Bohio Resort restaurants and even ordered a take-home pizza from the Mookie Pookie Pizza Palace. We observed the inner workings of Cockburn Town at night on a hot Monday evening. The sounds and scenes of the surrounding community indicated what real living on the island is all about.
As near as I can tell, the Grand Turk Cruise Center is the location of the Conch Club of the former U.S. Air Force Base back in the 1950s. We had our club right on the beach where the large pier exists today. Between launches, we “lived” at that beach and club. We watched sunsets with undiminished awe. It is hard to believe that over 20,000 sunsets have spanned the years.
Eilleen and I attended the 9:00 service on Sunday, May 13, Mother’s Day, at Saint Mary’s Anglican Church (built in 1823). Rector Mark Kendall led us in prayer and song—lots of song. It was glorious to experience the joy of the Islanders. I had the impression that after a long, hot week of island living, this was the place where they could celebrate life together and praise God in their own fashion. I had the sense that the spirit of the Islanders, hundreds of years in formation, came forward and displayed itself in all its glory. The meaning and purpose of life becomes clear and reinforced and nourished during a Sunday morning service like the one we experienced. All attending gave a gift to me and my daughter that will be long remembered.
I am so blessed that my two daughters wanted to travel with me on my last trip to the island of my youth, the island that was so important to me in my 20s, and the island that represented the excitement of being a part of the evolving Space Program. We walked the beaches, we were a part of the sunsets, we laughed, and perhaps wept a bit over times and events past. I rushed home 55 years ago to diapers and all the rest of it. On this trip, I was grateful to have my two fifty-some-year-old daughters close by.
I want to say thank you to all who have walked with me along one of the greatest adventures anyone has ever experienced. I salute those of you still around who were on this island when Project Vanguard was first organized and space exploration was just beginning. You and your island supported the launching of America’s first satellites and the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launches with Down Range Tracking. I am fortunate to have met and to have worked with you. In my 32 year space career, I considered my time on Grand Turk to be the most exciting.
I cannot imagine what my life would have been like had I not been involved in the space effort. It was fun and exciting to bring back to my children stories and pictures of distant lands and especially the beautiful images of Grand Turk. I was always excited to go to MY island when it was time to support a launch and even more excited when it was time to come back home. How proud to be an American, how lucky to have worked with the British, how honored to be a member of the NASA team. Those of you who have walked this journey with me know the looks of awe and the respect received from people all over the world when they discovered that you are a member of the team that put a man on the moon, helped create new technologies around the world, and helped merge the cultures of the 19th and 20th centuries, bringing all of this to our present 21st century. My best wishes to all my good friends from Grand Turk and thank you for being a part of the dream.
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Cover photographer Christine Morden works for Paradise Photography www.myparadisephoto.com , a full service boutique company based in the TCI. She especially enjoyed the Rejouvenance photo shoot to learn about the benefits of coconuts and to smell the amazing scents of their hand-crafted products.