Date: June 15, 2010

Title: The “Little Lark” That Propelled Canada Into the Space Age


Podcaster: Elizabeth Howell

Organization: Pars3c —

Description: The pioneers that helped put the Alouette satellite into space some 50 years ago gathered in Ottawa this May to remember the event and to unveil a commemorative plaque marking the milestone.

Bio: Elizabeth Howell is a Canadian space/science journalist with bylines in the Globe and Mail, CTV, Air & Space Smithsonian, The Space Review and other publications. She blogs daily about space at

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the American Association of Variable Star Observers, the world’s leader in variable star data and information, bringing professional and amateur astronomers together to observe and analyze variable stars, and promoting research and education using variable star data. Visit the AAVSO on the web at

Additional sponsorship for this episode of 365 Days of Astronomy is provided by Chuck McCorvey.



Beeps and whistles emanating from the depths of space. These sounds came from the first Canadian satellite, Alouette 1. It sounds like static to us. But for the people who worked on it, the strange noises almost seemed like music.

“Alouette 1, Canada’s little lark. And what a sweet song she sang.”

Leroy Nelms is one of a team of Canadians who helped put this satellite into orbit. It was the late 1950s, a time when it was hard to get the stove working properly. So imagine a group of engineers with no space experience — wanting to find out more about a mysterious region of space they couldn’t touch from the ground.

“She sang the song of the ionosphere, that region of our own upper atmosphere that extends from about 90 kilometres to about a 4,000 km orbit.”

It’s easy to forget the effort canadians put into this small science platform, and as decades passed many did forget. A small group of government employees felt that should change. They told canada’s historic sites board about the program and suggested the board create a plaque in ottawa to mark the spot where Alouette was created. The government accepted.

Robert Walker, the assistant deputy minister of science and technology, read a plaque mounted at the Alouette construction site near Ottawa, Canada.

“Conceived by a team of engineers and scientists at the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment, Alouette 1 was a scientific success and an engineering feat that enabled the space program to prosper, and contributed to the emergence of the Canadian space industry.”

Added provincial government representative John Jennings, it was high time to honour the pioneers who built the thing.

“In creating the Historic Sites Board, the federal government recognized the importance of instilling in Canadians a sense of national pride in the many extraordinary things that Canadians have achieved, and we have wished to play a central role in raising the awareness of Canadians about their collective past. As the saying goes, a country without a sense of its past is like a tree without roots.”

The Alouette scientists came back, many with children and grandchildren in tow. Doris Jelly was one of the few women working on the project, and says the chief thing the Canadians learned was how to believe in themselves.

“I’d say confidence in being able to do things that were entirely new and different, and the confidence to try more, because as Colin Franklin said, and he was the chief engineer, many people expected Alouette to fail. I think there was even a bet on it. They said the objected plan was for one year, but even if it had lasted for even a few days and transmitted one ionograph, it would have been a success.”

A success when it came to operations, but a failure in trying to map the ionosphere over Canada’s north. The science plan called for a comprehensive look at how thick the ionosphere was, and how stable it would be for radio signals. Remember — this was the 1950s. Only a handful of satellites had made it into space, and there was a desperate need for telecommunications in remote areas. Alas, Alouette discovered the ionosphere is too unstable at northern latitudes.

Even as radio scientists were disappointed, other fields were excited by the technology developments Alouette represented. A special kind of antenna — called STEM — folded up like a telescope inside Alouette’s rocket during launch.

Once the satellite safely made it to orbit, it stretched out the STEM to better receive radio signals from earth. This same technology was used a decade later for the moon landings. The legs on every lunar lander were also STEM technology.

Alouette had much to teach us. Even today, the pioneers wish they could have listened for longer.

“After 10 years of operation in space, Alouette’s offspring, Alouette 2 and the ISIS satellites, came along and we stopped listening to Alouette 1. She didn’t fail. We just had other satellites that told us other stories. We just didn’t turn her on any more. What fickle beings these mortals be.

“So Alouette 1, that fabulous little bird that NASA said was one of the most complex satellites ever built at the time that it was launched, and that served us so faithfully, and sang for 10 years the song of the ionosphere, sang no more. What a pity.”

For 365 Days of Astronomy, I’m Elizabeth Howell.

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365 Days of Astronomy
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