60 years later, Ligonier Township man's signature is still orbiting the earth
Somewhere up in space, a 60-year-old satellite is orbiting the earth with Alex Simkovich's name on it.
“I hope to be around when it comes down,” Simkovich said with a twinkle in his eye.
The 84-year-old Ligonier Township man is spending Saturday celebrating the 60th anniversary of the launch of Vanguard 1 — the oldest man-made object in space.
Simkovich had a pivotal role in the satellite's development as a young Navy ensign at a time when the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was just heating up.
The “grapefruit-sized” satellite was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on St. Patrick's Day 1958.
“Everything went perfectly,” Simkovich recalled about that day.
Although not the first man-made object put into space, it was the first solar-powered satellite. It followed the Army's launch of Explorer 1 earlier that year and, more importantly, the launches of Sputnik 1 and 2 by the Soviet Union in late 1957.
Three days after the launch of Sputnik 1, Simkovich returned to his alma mater, Penn State, to give a talk to the university's chapter of the American Society for Metals.
The college students eagerly listened as the recent graduate — he earned his master's in metallurgy in 1956 — explained the makeup, design and purpose of the Navy satellite. He brought with him a scale model of the satellite and the rocket that would eventually launch it into orbit.
“It embarrassed the United States” to be beat by the Russians into space, Simkovich said.
Americans were already familiar with the Vanguard Project from coverage it had received in Life magazine in June 1957.
“The man-made moon takes shape for first step in space conquest,” said the magazine's headline. On the cover was a picture of Simkovich's colleagues Jim McFarland and Graham Moore reflected in the satellite's mirrorlike surface.
Inside, a striking full-page photo showed Simkovich shining a flashlight on the spinning orb as he tested its balance from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington.
“Even now,” the article read, “nobody can guarantee Vanguard will succeed. But if the rocket does launch its moon in space, it will mark man's first step in breaking the bonds that chain him to his native planet.”
It was heady stuff for a 23-year-old man from rural Westmoreland County.
Simkovich grew up in Jacobs Creek near Smithton, the son of a Czechoslovakian immigrant and the youngest of five children. He took physics and chemistry at South Huntingdon High School, where he graduated in 1951.
But it wasn't until college that his scientific mettle was truly tested, as a Navy ROTC scholarship recipient at Penn State. After graduate school, with several summer Navy tours under his belt, he interviewed with Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, the “father” of the nuclear submarine.
Simkovich recalled the brief interview as a terrifying experience, but something good came out of it — a bidding war that landed him a job as an engineer with the Project Vanguard Satellite Structures Group.
During Simkovich's three years with the project, his team oversaw the selection of various metals used on the satellite, including zinc, copper, silver and gold. They conducted extensive tests related to the performance of the satellite, which was only 6 inches in diameter and contained six solar cells and six antennae.
“This was in the days of the dinosaurs ... the embryonic beginning of the space program,” Simkovich said. “It was a totally new effort.”
Vanguard's main purpose was to test the stresses of space on man-made objects and to test the reliability of ground-based radio tracking systems, he explained.
“There was enough data developed after that to establish the life of various items in space. ... This helped to lay the groundwork for that,” he said.
Simkovich attributes the satellite's longevity to its small size, which creates less drag as it hurtles through space. For posterity's sake, Simkovich made sure he engraved his name onto one of the interior pieces of metal before the satellite was loaded in the three-stage rocket.
Long after the Sputnik satellites burned up, Vanguard 1 continues to provide data as it orbits the earth. Although radio contact was lost in 1964, its projected lifespan is 240 years, according to Wikipedia.
Simkovich went on to get a doctorate at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and to work in the steel industry, including 15 years at Latrobe Steel.
But he looks back on his days in the nascent U.S. space program with nostalgia and pride — and a bit of whimsy.
“It does give you a very good feeling,” he said, noting that if the satellite ever falls back to earth, officials might wonder why someone with a Russian-sounding name was working on an American satellite.