• Cover image from Canadian Geographic's January 1963 cover story about Alouette, Canada's first satellite. Read the full article here. (Photo: Canadian Geographic Archives)

Scientists hoped Alouette I, Canada’s first satellite, would transmit data for a year, and expected it to stay in orbit for three to five centuries. The device was rocketed into the upper ionosphere, more than a kilometre above the Earth, on Sept. 29, 1962, and though long since deactivated, is still circling the planet.

The tale of Canada’s momentous entry into the space race was Canadian Geographical Journal’s cover feature in January 1963 [Read the full article here]. It was written by A.H. Zimmerman, chairman of the Canadian Defence Research Board (the organization that built the device). Zimmerman focused “The Alouette story” on U.S.-Canada collaboration, the satellite’s dense technological details and launch, and world “firsts” — namely, that Alouette was the first spacecraft “completely designed and built by a nation other than the U.S. or the U.S.S.R.”

Hindsight makes it hard to read “The Alouette story” without pondering the Cold War hostilities that defined the era (of which there’s no mention). Five years had passed since Sputnik, when the Soviets and Americans had started sending up satellites as fast as they could build them, with many failures on both sides. With the exception of one U.S.-made-and-launched British device, Canada followed these superpowers into orbit — proving itself a player in the fledgling space race and, importantly, adding to the space-age achievements of the Western Bloc.

Nevertheless, Alouette was launched in the spirit of the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, during which scientists across the world had coordinated to collect and share geophysical data about the Earth, its oceans and its atmosphere. As Zimmerman wrote, “The scientific information obtained [from Alouette] applies directly to radio communications and will be freely available to scientists of all nations.

Alouette would greatly exceed the expectations of the Canadian government and its U.S. partners. The satellite’s brand new solar-cell technology helped it to remain active for 10 years rather than one, all the while supplying scientists with invaluable data and more than a million images of the ionosphere.

Rocket crossover

The technology used to blast things into space was actually the same technology standing by to send nuclear warheads to distant cities. Even the 30-metre-tall American rocket that took Alouette I into space was part of a three-year-old NASA/Air Force program that deployed CIA reconnaissance satellites.