In the late 1950s, the primary means of international communication was by undersea cable or by bouncing radio waves off the ionosphere. The US was concerned that in the event of a major conflict, the cables could be cut. This would force all communications through the less reliable radio connection through the ionosphere. The solution, in the days before communication satellites? Create a man-made ionosphere using 480 million tiny copper dipole antennas.
In 1961 the Air Force launched the first needle dispenser. The experiment was called Project West Ford, and it was hoped that this demonstration would prove the concept so that 2 more permanent communication rings could be deployed. The needles in the first launch failed to properly disperse, but a second launch in May of 1963 was successful.
The 20 kg of copper needles were packed inside the spacecraft in blocks of napthalene gel that would evaporate when released into space. After that the needles would gradually disperse over a period of two months. The resulting cloud, in the shape of a donut, was 5 km wide, 30 km thick and encircled the globe at an altitude of 3700 km.
These tiny antenna were designed to operate on a half-wavelength of military X-band (8 GHz) communication. When the radio wave struck the copper needles, each would reflect the signal in all directions.
Communication was first attempted 4 days after the launch, so the needles were more densely spaced than final dispersal. Voice transmission was described as ‘intelligible’, and data speeds of 20,000 bits per second were obtained. However, by July only 400 bits er second could be transmitted after further dispersal.
Despite the success of the test, no further West Ford missions were ever developed. One reason was the backlash from the scientific community, who feared that a giant cloud of tiny antenna would block astronomic research. Even the Soviets joined in the protest, claiming in Pravda U.S.A. Dirties Space. Additionally, satellite technology was developing at a sufficient pace that the low tech solution of bouncing radio waves off copper antenna seemed outdated already.
The Kennedy White house issued a statement on Project West Ford, as shown below, and Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson had to defend the project to the U.N.
No further launches of orbiting dipoles will be planned until after the results of the West Ford experiment have been analyzed and evaluated. The findings and conclusions of foreign and domestic scientists (including the liaison committee of astronomers established by the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences) should be carefully considered in such analysis and evaluation.Any decision to place additional quantities of dipoles in orbit, subsequent to the West Ford experiment, will be contingent upon the results of the analysis and evaluation and the development of necessary safeguards against harmful interference with space activities or with any branch of science.Optical and radio astronomers throughout the world should be invited to cooperate in the West Ford experiment to ascertain the effects of the experimental belt in both the optical and the radio parts of the spectrum. To assist in such cooperation, they should be given appropriate information on a timely basis. Scientific data derived from the experiment should be made available to the public as promptly as feasible after the launching.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Project West Ford was its contribution to international space law, as it established a US policy that the international scientific community would be consulted before the launch of such experiments. This was later codified into the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space (the Principles Treaty).