by Brian Webb
2010 November 28
In a matter of weeks, high school students will be enjoying Christmas Break. I recently recalled an interesting road trip that my friends and I took in December 1974 during my senior year.
Very early one morning my friend and model rocket enthusiast Peter swung by at some inhumanely early hour (4 a.m. perhaps) and picked me up. We then proceeded to pick up my best friend Tom and headed out to the desert to launch model rockets.
Some three or more hours later we arrived at Lucerne Dry Lake, a large, perfectly flat patch of dry mud and sediment more or less in the middle of nowhere. I can't recall, but I believe it was already daylight when we arrived. One thing I do remember is that it was cold.
For the next few hours we watched Peter launch his many model rockets and helped retrieve them after flight. Later, we entertained ourselves by having Tom back away about 40 or 50 yards and yell while we observed his face through binoculars. He was far enough away that the movement of his mouth was really out of synch with the sound, which arrived noticeably later.
The activity at the dry lake apparently grew old fairly quickly because we packed our things and left by 8:30 or 9:00 a.m.
We were soon headed unannounced to the Goldstone tracking station north of Barstow to see if we could look around (such things were possible back then). We had apparently planned to visit Goldstone in advance.
We stopped at a convenience store for provisions. My breakfast that day consisted of a Nestle Crunch bar.
We passed through Barstow and headed north through the desert. We entered Fort Irwin, an active military training area. For me it was somewhat spooky because I knew large weapons were fired there (seven years earlier, my father and I were looking for fossils in nearby Rainbow Basin and I was startled by the loud report of a canon from the fort).
Eventually, we came upon a guard shack at the entrance of the facility. We spoke to the guard and told him we would like to look around. The guard made a phone call to someone inside the complex. While we waited, we watched a pack of coyotes pass by the guard shack. One of use commented on the animals and the guard said they were a regular fixture there.
I believe we were given permission to enter and told to proceed to an administrative building where we met a public affairs officer or manager posted at Goldstone.
From there we were allowed to drive on our own to a large antenna referred to as the Apollo antenna. It was probably built to support U.S. manned missions to the Moon.
We entered a building near the base of the antenna and stepped into a brightly lit control room with numerous control panels and displays. A friendly middle aged technician from Vickers hydraulics spoke with us and told us about the antenna and what he did there.
Out of the window we could see the nearby Echo antenna. It was built for Project Echo which assessed the feasibility of using aluminized balloons in orbit to reflect radio signals for long range communications.
While we were inside the Apollo station, we learned that the Skylab space station would soon be making a pass over Goldstone. A few minutes later, Skylab, with three U.S. astronauts on board came "over the hill" (rose above our western horizon).
For the next few minutes, the huge antenna tracked Skylab as it simultaneously received and uplinked signals from the spacecraft. If memory serves me correctly, there was a speaker in a control panel near us and we could hear the astronauts talking to mission control. Being there for that pass was the highlight of the trip.
We left the Apollo station and headed toward the largest antenna at Goldstone. Outside it was gray and gloomy due to a layer of dense high clouds.
As we approached the 210-foot antenna, it got larger and larger. I really didn't realize how big it was until we parked the truck 50 yards or so from the base and got out. The antenna was truly enormous.
We spent a few minutes marveling at the giant structure before getting back into the truck and heading for home.
That's how I spent Christmas vacation 1973-74.
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