North American Aviation, Inc., Columbus, Ohio, makes an imprtant business decision

North American Aviation, Inc.'s Navy airframe business went into decline at the end of the 1950s. The company shifted its resources to compete in the manufacturing of large ground-based antennae. They won two significant contracts early on: the 120-foot-diameter Haystack Antenna, a radio telescoope, awarded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratories, and the huge 600-foot-diameter radio telescope at Sugar Grove, West Virginia.


Contrary to The Blade's article, below, the novel "bicycle wheel" design concept was never used. Although it may well have out-performed (lower weight, greater stiffness) the conventional design that was chosen, it was considered too risky because of the lack of experience with the concept on such a large scale. The main area of concern was the stability of a primary structure whose members were under compression, a very complex analytical problem for which there was limited experimental proof.

The Toledo, Ohio newspaper, "The Blade," announces that North American Aviation, Inc., has won a Navy contract to build part of the 120-foot-diameter telescope at Tyngsboro, Massachusetts.

Sugar Grove

The giant Sugar Grove antenna was another story. Spurred by a sudden inspiration, I developed from scratch overnight at home the 12x12 stiffness matrix to handle stiff-jointed space frames. In an extraordinary display of skill, organization and efficiency, our stress department manually reduced data using Wiliot diagrams to analyze two-dimensional trusses and then working out the constraints to handle the three-dimensional configuration. My method was completely mechanized on the digital computer whereas the stress boys did it all manually. Typically, it took all night for us to make a single computer run with a very large consumption of electrical power. In the days that followed my method was proven to be superior to the traditional use of Wiliot diagrams.

One of our first discoveries was that our calculated gross weight was twice that used by the design engineers in Newark, New Jersey (Joint Venture, Grad, Urbahn & Seelye). Subsequently, I was sent with the computer results to show the New Jersey boys the discrepancy we had found. They admitted that they had neglected to factor in a multiple of two resulting from analyzing only half the structure, a perfectly valid approach since there was complete symmetry abount the vertical plane. They simply had forgotten about the 2-business! I recited this story to a friend of mine working for the Washington Post. He combed the corridors of the Pentagon, seeking information as to how this debacle would be handled. No one would discuss the matter with him. The project continued a bit longer—a political decision—in order to provide jobs in the economically depressed state of West Virginia. Had this project been completed, the structure would have sat unmovable on its circular railroad track.

The following article is from POPULAR SCIENCE magazine, December 1959, pages 85, 86 and 250

Drawing of 600' Sugar Grove Antenna

New Radio Telescope Is Man's Biggest Machine

By Martin Mann

THE biggest machine that men have ever built is now taking shape atop a scraped-off knoll in the West Virginia hills. A giant dish of steel and aluminum, it will tower higher than the Washington Monument, be broad enough to swallow an entire stadium—playing fields, grandstands, and all.

Bigger structures have been erected, but this is a machine. It must hold machinelike tolerances. It will move. The stupendous dish will tilt nearly 180 degrees, horizon to horizon. The entire structure, dish and steel-lace supports totaling 400,000,000 pounds, will rotate on freight-car-size rollers.

The dish is a radio antenna. It is designed to catch the faintest whisperings of signals from unimaginably distant space. It should reach, literally, beyond the end of the universe—if the universe has an end.

Part of the time this $79,000,000 antenna will be a radio telescope, listening for the weird whistles and crackles from natural radio sources—cosmic clouds, stars, or whatever they are—in the sky. Twice the size of the biggest radio telescope now in use (England's Jodrell Bank), it will be able to discover many new celestial broadcasters, pinpoint some that are already known vaguely, and settle some hot arguments among astronomers. (When did the world begin? Is creation still going on? Where does the universe end? Or does it extend forever?)

Secret projects. Part of the time the Navy will use its great antenna to research a space-wide communications network using the moon to bounce messages. But most of the time it will be busy on jobs that the Navy steadfastly refuses to describe. Some possibilities are easy to guess. For keeping tabs on Russian rocketry, this super-sensitive antenna should be better than a blockhouse seat at the launching pad: It ought to pick up the static generated by the hot gases from the engines at blast-off. Conceivably, the Navy might have up its blue sleeves a new, ultra-delicate warning system to protect the United States against missile attack, or to unmask the silent spy satellites that everyone expects will be overhead soon (if they aren't in orbit already).

Everything about this job is the most—from choosing its location through designing and building it to making sure it will work (the West Virginia legislature had to pass a special law to help). The engineers immodestly compare their achievement to that marvel of the 19th century, the Brooklyn Bridge. The boast is justifiable.

The dish, made of aluminum mesh, will reflect radio waves, just as the glass mirror of an optical telescope reflects light waves.

The dish is only a reflector. The antenna proper, held at the focal point of the dish by a tripod of trusses, will catch the concentrated radio waves and feed them over special wires to extremely powerful amplifiers in buildings at the station. There they can be recorded as out-of-this-world sounds on tape or wiggly lines on paper, and delivered to the oracles for analysis.

Six-football-field size dishDesigners' dilemma. The outlandish size of the reflecting dish is what rattled the designers. It has to be big to give it sensitivity, so that it can gather in the weakest signals from fantastic distances (estimated range: 38 billion light years, which comes to an utterly incomprehensible number of miles—200 million million billion).

Size also pays off in focusing of unprecedented sharpness. The Navy dish should be able to tell one celestial radio source from another when their directions differ by less than one minute of arc. It's as though you spotted your house from an airliner 10,000 feet up—and could then recognize which of two boys wrestling in the back yard was your son and which the neighbor kid.

But size alone is not enough. The surface of the dish has to be precisely shaped to receive the very short waves that the scientists want. The wave length is about one inch (television waves, generally considered very short, run to many feet in wave length).

And worse. This Goliath, slowly moving 55 stories above the ground, must maintain its precision despite wind and sun. A big bridge can expand and contract as it heats up during the day and cools off at night. The Empire State Building sways several inches in a stiff breeze.

Not this thing. The wind may push at one edge, the sun may heat half its more than seven acres while clouds shade the rest. The shape will stay the same, accurate to a fraction of an inch. How? An intricate system of detectors and motors will constantly push and pull on sections of the dish to balance out stresses caused by wind and heat.

Who's who. One indication of the project's complexity is the number of organizations involved: The design is the work of Grad Urbahn and Seelye, a New York engineering combine. Three companies—Tidewater Construction Corp. of Norfolk, Peter Kiewit Sons of Omaha, and Patterson-Emerson-Comstock Inc. of Pittsburgh—have the prime contract for construction, which is being supervised by the Navy's Bureau of Yards and Docks. The Naval Research Laboratory will run the station when it is finished.

This imaginative engineering would go for nought in a hurricane, of course. So years before construction started, Navy crews combed the country for a location that was secure against severe storms and earthquakes; and even more unusual, free from man-made radio interference (even an electric razor could mess up the radio telescope).

The perfect setting. Sugar Grove, W. Va. (pop. 21), near the town of Brandywine, filled the bill. As far back as the records go, no hurricanes have ever hit the valley in which it lies. Nor tornadoes. Nor earthquakes. Rainfall, snowfall, and winds are all moderate. The worst is a rousing thunderstorm.

More valuable yet. Sugar Grove is also placid electronically, remarkably free of the radio noise that comes from engines, transmitters, receivers, and power lines. It has no airline route overhead and no high-voltage lines. It is off the line of radar stations and microwave communication networks. Radio and TV stations are either far away or screened by mountains. The nearest busy highway is Route 11, on the other side of the mountain.

Zone of quiet. The Navy made sure that Sugar Grove's ether remains unsullied. The Federal Communications Commission established a zone of "radio quiet" for 1,000 square miles around (only 30 miles away will be another, smaller radio telescope for scientific research, and it needs similar protection). The Federal Aviation Agency is rerouting airplanes to bypass the area.

As a clincher, the West Virginia state legislature obligingly passed a law that strictly controls interference from every kind of electrical device—TV sets and ham radio transmitters to neon signs and furnace thermostats. The law is so tough that the area for two miles around the research station is practically off limits for new business establishments—the cost of shielding motors and other equipment would be prohibitive. People who are already there have to comply with the noise regulations, loo, but they'll get help from the Government.

The Navy will install elaborate shielding for its own machinery, bury its phone and power lines, and locate housing and shops four miles away.

What is the universe? To scientists, this elaborately expensive installation promises hints about simple questions that little boys ask and erudite philosophers can't answer with certainty: What is the universe made of? How did it get that way?

The front-running theory is the work of the University of Colorado's George Gamow (rhymes with ham off), a humor-loving physicist who slips puns into the Physical Review and writes amusing books. Gamow says that creation occurred about six billion years ago. All the parts of the universe were then concentrated into one super-super atom. This exploded in a split fraction of a second, sending the parts flying out every which way. Some of the parts formed into stars and whatnot, but are still flying apart.

An opposing theory is championed by another scientific maverick, Cambridge University's Fred Hoyle ( he writes novels ). According to Hoyle, creation was no instantaneous affair, but a continuing process that is still going on. He thinks that the simplest atoms, hydrogen, are always being formed throughout the universe. They can condense into stars.

If Gamow is right, the universe stops about six billion light years away—that's as far as the fragments of the original explosion could have traveled by now. The new radio telescope will "see" much farther than that. If it turns up a lot of nothing beyond the six-billion-light-year distance, Gamow wins a point. Hoyle's theory, on the other hand, implies that the telescope will detect something as far as it can reach and that something will be a cosmic fog of hydrogen.

The Navy, while willing to lend its mammoth instrument to astronomers for an occasional glimpse at the edge of the universe, would dearly have loved to keep the project secret. But how can you hide the biggest machine in the world?

Now the Navy is beguiling the residents of Sugar Grove with visions of a profitable tourist attraction. Officials point to good lookout locations, off Government property but near enough to give visitors a breathtaking view of the newest wonder of the world.