Satellite Tracking Station in Shoe Cove
Shoe Cove, Northeast Avalon
Many people would be surprised to hear about Newfoundland's involvement in the space program and its contribution to space technology. But from 1960 to 1983, Newfoundland's strategic north eastern location made it a critical location for tracking satellites and spacecraft.
In the fall of 1960, construction began on what was soon to be Canada’s first satellite tracking station. The station was one of twelve being built under an international agreement created by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration more commonly known as NASA. The station was expected to be open by mid-December of that year but due to several small problems it was delayed until early the following year (Daily News 1960-12-23).
Satellite Tracking and Data Acquistion Network
This network of stations were part of the newly formed Satellite Tracking and Data Acquisition Network (STADAN). Based out of Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, STADAN was made up a number of sites that were located in places such as Alaska, Great Britain, Australia and Africa. Each site had the capabilities to track and acquire location data from a number of satellites that were orbiting the earth. The Shoe Cove site was chosen because of its north eastern location in the Atlantic which would allow for the tracking of satellites that passed north of 35 degrees latitude as they orbited the North Pole. Besides this the station would be positioned in such a way it could communicate spacecraft launched from both west and east North American launch sites and would help in the Apollo lunar missions that occurred during the late 1960s.
The site would cost approximately $250,000 dollars to construct (Daily News 1960-10-08). Financing for the construction was covered by NASA under the agreement that the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada would pay annual operating and maintenance fees. The Canadian Government supported the station because it would aid in the study of the ionosphere which would help in engineering better communication systems.
Work began on the Shoe Cove site very quickly. The station would occupy a 25 acre piece of land located on top of a hill near Pouch Cove. The main building was one storey high and be 100 feet long by 25 feet wide (Daily News 1960-10-08). The buildings wooden trusses, aluminium roof and galvanized sides and ends were prefabricated and sent to Newfoundland in 21 packages. Along with this building there was two other smaller ones built on the site, one of which would contain a generator.
The equipment used to receive data was named the Minitrack Optical Tracking System (MOTS) and would consist of 22 antennas placed around the main buildings. To process the data the building was equipped with large amounts of advanced electronic recording and computing equipment. This advanced equipment could locate a satellite 1600 kilometres above the earth to a precision of 0.1 miles.
Operation of the STADAN station was done by a tender and bidding process. The station would receive data on high speed teletype tape where it would be resent to the STADAN headquarters in Maryland for processing. When operation began Dr. R.S. Rettie who was part of the Radio and Electrical Engineering Division at the NRC was placed in charge of operations at Shoe Cove and former Navy communications officer, B.M. Saper, was named manager. During this time they were accompanied by 10 technicians who worked for the International Telephone and Telegraph Electronics Service Company of Canada to run the site.
Photo clipping from Daily News, 1960
In order to take of advantage of the economic potential of the site shortly before operation the Newfoundland Government made a deal that stated at least 75% of the operators working at the site had to be a Newfoundlander, married to a Newfoundlander, or have lived in Newfoundland for a period of time.
By 1967 the Shoe Cove Tracking Station was operating full time to track 27 satellites in orbit. It was now operated by the Canadian firm, E.M. Crosser Electronics based out of Dartmouth, NS who employed 24 men to operate the facility. The Book of Newfoundland and Labrador reported that the facility was worth 1.5 million dollars at this time (Book of NL, Vol. 4).
End of STADAN
STADAN was officially shutdown in 1970 due to the networks equipment becoming obsolete. The location of the site was still valuable however and after the consolidation of the STADAN and Manned Space Flight Network (MSFN) in 1972 a transportable tracking system at Grand Brahama was sent to the Shoe Cove site to provide launch support for NASA’s orbiting space laboratory. The portable system would later provide support for the famous Apollo/Soyuz Test Project in July of 1985 before being relocated to Edwards Air Force Base in California that same year. After this the site was shut down for all NASA operations.
New Tracking Station
Memorial University then acquired the land before the Federal Government’s Mines and Energy branch took up the lease in June 1977. At this time the Canadian Centre for Remote Sensing constructed another satellite tracking station on the site.
The new multimillion dollar facility was installed to provide coverage of the eastern half of Canada. Another site was built several years earlier near Prince Albert in British Columbia. Both site recorded visual data taken by a number of satellites that could provide viable information on things such as forest wealth, mineral exploration, and weather forecasting.
The site recorded data from three satellites; Landsat II, Landsat III, and a National Oceanographic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) monitor satellite. To do this a 30 metre satellite dish was built by Macdonald, Dewittier, and Associate of Vancouver, BC and it was installed on top of a large concrete support located next to the new operations buildings.
Photo Clipping from Decks Awash. Vol. 11. No. 1. February 1982
Photo Credit: An image from www.bfec.us
The station did have its problems however. One major problem was stormy conditions and cloud cover often made receiving data from satellites difficult or impossible. To solve this a new satellite was launched by the United States that could transmit data through thick cloud cover. The multimillion dollar satellite was named the SEASAT Oceanographic Satellite and was launched in June of 1978. Sadly the project was short lived, due to a power systems failure just a couple months after its launch. Another SEASAT satellite was scheduled to launch later in 1982 but the government shut the Shoe Cove site down again before it could be utilized.
In Mid-February, 1983 the Federal Government shutdown both the Prince Albert station and Shoe Cove station in order to save money. A new radar station was built in Churchill, Manitoba however this station did not have nearly the same coverage that the two previous stations had.
After Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s announcement of the closure of the site, many Newfoundlanders protested. The site was used by a number of different government agencies and companies to aid in forecasting of weather and ice conditions and most worryingly to aid in oil exploration on the Grand Banks. Because of this Premier Brian Peckford wrote a letter to the federal government asking that the station be turned over the provincial government for nothing and that the province was willing to pay for operation cost of the facility. He stated that there was no reason Trudeau should not do this and expressed his concern for the effects it will have on what would become Canada’s largest offshore oilfields.
However in the end Trudeau declined the request and so the Shoe Cove facility was dismantled and shutdown for good.
About the Area Today
Very little remains on the site today. Most of the equipment and buildings have been removed and demolished. The area is used by the Lions Club who have a building here.
The foundations to the original minitrack system can be seen in an overgrown area behind the Lions Club building. The building was once used as an administration building for the first tracking station built here. The most notable feature is the base to the 30 metre satellite dish that was built in the late 70's. Some control panels and wiring systems can still be found here today.
Sources & Further Exploring
Bird, J. E. (1960, October 8). Satelite Station to be Built Near Pouch Cove. The Daily News. Retrieved from Centre for Newfoundland Studies.
Decks Awash (1982). Shoe Cove. Decks Awash, Vol. 11, No. 1 (February).
Pounder, E. (1980). Seasat Final Report: Volume III: Ground Systems. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, National Aeronautics and Space Agency.
Tsiao, S. (1963). “Read you loud and clear!”: The Story of NASA’s Spaceflight and Tracking Data Network. NASA History Division, National Aeronautics and Space Agency.
For more information find articles on the site in the The Daily News through the Center for Newfoundland Studies website:
** While researching the Shoe Cove Tracking Station I found many secondary sources with conflicting information (ie. dates, statistics, etc). For this article I made sure to reference primary sources and trusted reports as much as possible.