Jim Brown vividly remembers his involvement in a historic moment 51 years ago that truly was out of this world.
Brown was a supervising engineer on Operation SCORE (Signal Communication by Orbiting Relay Equipment), which allowed President Dwight D. Eisenhower's voice, during his December 1958 Christmas message, to be the first message broadcast from an Earth-orbiting satellite.
"I was the guy that had to say the missile is ready to go," said Brown, 95, who moved to Morningside of Evans in May.
Brown was the head missile engineer, overseeing 12 engineers in charge of the systems and operation of the Atlas 10-B missile. The rocket was launched into orbit from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Dec. 18, 1958, with the newly developed satellite communications equipment on board. About 25 engineers were involved in the first successful satellite launch.
The Atlas rocket, originally designed as a U.S. Air Force weapon, was the first intercontinental ballistic missile. The missile was the first to be steered into orbit using a command guidance system.
"We can steer it like a car," Brown said, adding that the launch team remotely controlled the missile from a command center safely away from the launch site.
Brown said he enjoyed his work on the Atlas series of rockets, but knew they were making history when it came to Operation SCORE.
"We were the first -- pioneers, you might say," Brown said. "And we were flying by the seat of our pants. We had no rules, no guides. We just did what we thought was best. We were breaking new ground.
"We blew up a few missiles in the process. You learn by your failures."
The Russians launched Sputnik, the first Earth satellite, more than a year earlier and the first American satellite -- Explorer I -- achieved orbit in January 1958.
Brown said the launch was the president's response to the Sputnik project and proved that the United States was capable of delivering a nuclear payload from space.
"President Eisenhower wanted to show the people that we have plenty of power to put vehicles into orbit," Brown said, adding he realized the importance of his missile project when it came to Operation SCORE. "I knew then that because it was the political answer to Sputnik and involved the president, I knew it was going to be something that would hopefully go down in history. And it did."
Brown, a native of Macon, Ga., grew up in Thomasville, Ga. His interest in electronics grew after he built a radio with a crystal set. He earned an electrical engineering degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1936.
As a new engineer, Brown tested heavy machinery, electrical drive motors on submarines and designed x-ray vacuum tubes. He was called into the U.S. Army, where he rose to the rank of captain, before World War II and spent most of his service designing and producing anti-aircraft artillery.
After an accident on an anti-aircraft gun, Brown retired with disability in 1945 and moved to California to recuperate in the warmer climate. There, he tested pump motors and designed power distribution systems for Douglas Aircraft Co.
But Brown wanted to head back to Florida, where he previously had lived for several years.
"So I found out that Convair was designing the Atlas and they needed engineers ... so I signed up with them and went back to Florida," he said.
Brown arrived at Cape Canaveral in 1956 and started learning about the Atlas missile he'd have to operate.
After the Sputnik launch, the focus of the Atlas missile project was turned from a weapon to a satellite vehicle.
During his time with NASA, Brown said he got to know the Mercury astronauts: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper Jr., John Glenn Jr., Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Walter Schirra Jr., Alan Shepard Jr., and Donald "Deke" Slayton. Shepherd became the first American in space in 1961, and Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962.
"I knew all these original seven astronauts and like a ... fool, I didn't get their autographs," Brown said. "They came out to my complex. They wanted to know what the hell is going on. 'What are you doing? You expect me to ride that thing?'"
For him, Brown said, you couldn't pay him enough money to ride a rocket to space.
He retired from the Aerospace Corp., which provided technical support to the Air Force at Cape Canaveral, in 1969.
Brown said he's proud to have been involved with the history-making Atlas rocket and Operation SCORE.
"That missile, I enjoyed it thoroughly," Brown said. "It was exciting."
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