Baker-Nunn Satellite Tracking Camera

By “Jungle” Jim Schwilling

I nearly got really carried away with a long and boring history of the Baker-Nunn camera. I decided to spare you that here! I worked in this system for about half my lifetime, mostly in the operation of it in the capacity that the USAF used it for satellite cataloging of manmade satellites. There is a TON of information on the web about how the Smithsonian Institute used Baker-Nunns as well as foreign military and governments. I even found a website about a group that has modified one in the last 4 years, to search for comets and other potentially hazardous objects (spent rocket bodies, etc) in the upper atmosphere. When I worked in the system I was always told that the very first Baker-Nunn tracked the Russian Sputnik I satellite. With the info I found on the web, that wasn’t exactly true. However, here’s an account of that time during Project Vanguard back in the early days of the US space race! I’m including web references. In the late 80s, the U.S. Baker-Nunns were operated by a company started by Joseph Nunn’s widow, Ione Nunn from Pasadena, California. We all worked for and loved her very much!

Ripped from this website:

Although the first of the 12 Baker-Nunn cameras projected for the Project Vanguard optical-tracking stations had been completed some weeks before the Soviet launch, tests at the factory of its makers, Boller and Chivens in South Pasadena, California, had revealed defects, and the large and complex instrument was dismembered for repairs. On Sputnik night, consequently, the only Baker-Nunn in existence was “literally scattered all over the plant,”15 and some of its gears and other parts had been returned to contractors for refinishing or remachining. Even so, work on the camera was so far advanced that when on the night of 4 October news of the Soviet launch reached the people at Boller and Chivens, they hopefully started to assemble the camera for observation on the following night, only to desist after Fred Whipple informed them that at that time the Russian satellite could not be sighted from Pasadena.

By the evening of 17 October the camera was in good operating condition and the orbit of the Russian satellite was within range of the California city. When the orbiting carrier-rocket of Sputnik I appeared, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s report of the event,16 ”it looked like a large airplane light.” So low was it orbiting that “one probably could have photographed it with a Brownie camera.” The satellite carrier went from horizon to horizon in approximately a minute and a half. During this period, the Baker-Nunn picked up “four or five” pictures of it, and would have had more if the operators of the camera had been more experienced in the handling of their intricate instrument.

During the next few days the press carried the first pictures ever made of an artificial moon in orbit around the earth. On the Thanksgiving day following, scientists associated with a Harvard-sponsored meteor project picked up pictures of Sputnik I itself, the actual payload, with two super-Schmidt cameras in New Mexico. Their achievement prompted Whipple and Hynek to institute an interim program at some of their optical-tracking stations and elsewhere, utilizing super-Schmidt cameras and cinetheodolites, along with two small missile tele cameras, borrowed from Army Ordnance. Started during the lifetime of Sputnik I, this backup phototrack program would remain in effect until mid-1958, by which time the full Baker-Nunn network was in operation.17

This is another part of that same website that has some interesting info if you are a former Baker-Nunner….

As far as the operation on Johnston Island, the Baker-Nunn there was operated by the USAF 18th Surveillance Squadron till 1975. From 1973 to 1975, I was stationed at Edwards AFB at the then Baker-Nunn HQ. I was assigned to maintenance quality control and myself and my NCOIC (Coy D. Pollock) performed semi-annual inspections of the Baker-Nunns at our 4 detachment locations. At that time, the locations were: Edwards AFB, Ca; Johnston Island, Pacific; Mt John, New Zealand; and San Vito, Italy. In about 1977, the camera at J.I. was moved to Busan, Korea.

In 1975, the USAF decided that the Baker-Nunns could be more efficiently operated by a civilian contractor and awarded that contract to Bendix Field Engineering Corporation. (Joe “Big Willie” Williams was instrumental in orchestrating that conversion and is a dear friend of mine!) After a short overlap period, Bendix took over operation of the 4 cameras in August 1975. That’s when I got out of the Air Force and became a civilian employee and went to Johnston Island! I turned 25 years old that year! Having already been there numerous times TDY, I knew what I was in for. All the reference to the great food, scuba diving and great weather you’ve read about on this website were part of the attraction, but the main one for me was the tax-free salary!

Our work schedule on J.I. was one night on-one night off. That lent for a very strange schedule. Me and my co-workers Keith Williams and Dave Hagood, basically had to sleep during the day to keep our biological clocks operating correctly. We would work from 7PM to 7AM every-other night. We were the nocturnal population of Johnston Island. On our night off, we’d haunt the island “nightlife”. After the movie, the live Jungle Jim show and recording the Jungle Jim show for the next night, we’d go for a jog around the island. Then a quick midnight swim in the pool and sauna afterward. With all the weight we’d just lost, we’d stop by the dining hall where the baker Louie Castro was fixing the bread and desserts for the next day! There is nothing better than a fresh glazed donut right out of the deep fryer and Louie’s Portuguese Bread was to die for! By that time, it was about 3 AM and we’d retire to our respective rooms for some quiet time and sleep. We’d get up the next day and start all over again.

These 13 months remain a fond place in my memory!