PAssages – June 5, 1959 – The radar station opens – with an assist from the moon

by Joan Champ

The summer of 1959 was an exciting time for the development of new technologies. The “space race” was underway, and Prince Albert was at the forefront of some important North American defence research, specifically, the detection of intercontinental ballistic missiles. On June 5, 1959, Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker officially opened the radar lab (now the satellite station) located 12 miles west of Prince Albert.

During the Cold War era, fear of a nuclear attack from Russia was high. The United States wanted to develop a missile detection system but was concerned that the Aurora Borealis (or Northern Lights) might block the existence of a Russian missile until it was too late. After Russia launched Sputnik in 1957, the United States Air Force sought advice from scientists from the Physics department of the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, who had considerable expertise in auroral studies.

Following these talks, Canada and the United States negotiated a joint agreement to install a large research radar lab in Saskatchewan. The Americans provided and installed $1.5 million in equipment, including the 84-foot parabolic antenna. Canada provided the one-square-mile site on Crown Land near Prince Albert, constructed the required structures, and operated the facility.
The Prince Albert Daily Herald reported that Prime Minister Diefenbaker headed a long list civilian and military personnel who attended the opening of the Prince Albert Radar Laboratory on June 5, 1959. A stand had been erected near the antenna from which the Prime Minister and Hartley Zimmerman, Chairman of Defence Research Board of Canada, addressed the invited guests.
The American ambassador to Canada, Richard B. Wigglesworth, was in attendance as were about 40 scientists from both countries. Local guests included PA Mayor Allan Barsky, police chief L. M. Poole, fire chief Alfred Turner, and L. F. McIntosh, MLA for Prince Albert.

The highlight of the opening was US President Dwight Eisenhower’s message to Prime Minister Diefenbaker, sent by means of a radio signal bounced off the moon. At that time, sending a message across the border via the moon might have seemed a little absurd.

And today, as our phone and internet signals routinely travel up to satellites and back, Eisenhower’s technological feat might seem a bit ho-hum. It was, however, an effective demonstration.

At the end of his speech, Mr. Diefenbaker pressed a button on the podium which appeared to activate the 84-foot parabolic antenna. (Radar lab staff controlled the movement of the dish from behind the scenes.)

As the device pointed up towards the moon, the voice of the President Eisenhower was heard. “I am delighted to greet you, Mr. Prime Minister, and the Canadian people on the occasion of the opening of the Prince Albert Radar Laboratory,” Eisenhower said in his message. “The completion of this laboratory constitutes another major advance along the road of cooperative ventures between our two countries in defense research and other fields.

The transmission of this message by way of the moon – a distance of almost half a million miles – emphasizes the technical importance of your new laboratory and is a specific illustration of the scientific cooperation between Canada and the United States. The work of this laboratory cannot fail to make a significant contribution, in future years, toward the solving of mutual problems.”
“It is difficult for earth-bound, non-scientific Canadians to grasp the importance and scope of these developments,” the PA Daily Herald observed a few days later.

“Even the ability to transmit a message between Boston and Prince Albert by way of the moon in a matter of two or three seconds is something that is beyond the understanding and appreciation of many people. But there is no question that the work that is to be carried on at the Prince Albert laboratory in the years to come may play a vital role in Canadian and North American defence. For that reason, alone, Prince Albert and district people can feel a sense of pride that an installation of this importance has been situated here.”

Once the official opening was over, the eight members of the radar lab’s engineering and technical staff got down to business. Auroral research, the reason for the existence of facility, began in January 1960, conducted in cooperation with the University of Saskatchewan’s Physics Department. Satellite tracking began in February 1960. Natural Resources Canada has operated the Prince Albert Satellite Station since 1972.

Personal note: As some of you know, there is good blueberry picking in the pines near the radar station. One summer, my mother and I went berry picking out there and Mom lost her car keys. They had fallen out of her pocket as she made her way through the forest, filling her container with berries. If only the radar station could have pointed its rays down into the blueberry patch and located her keys. Then maybe we wouldn’t have had to hitchhike back to town!

Thanks to the Bill Smiley Archives for its assistance in the preparation of this column