Remember when: Scottsdale had ties to the space race

Remember when: Scottsdale had ties to the space race

By Joan Fudala

Many cite 1957 as the official start of the space race, when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite to orbit the earth, Sputnik.

From that moment, the U.S. and Soviets raced to conquer space, to be the first on the moon, a race the U.S. would win with “one small step for man” on the lunar surface in July 1969.

Fifty years after the Sputnik wakeup call, it’s fun to look back at Scottsdale’s historic connections to NASA, astronauts and the quest to explore realms beyond Earth.

Ancient indigenous people living in central Arizona were fascinated by the solar system and stars, and incorporated celestial patterns into their daily lives and sacred rituals.

Fast forward to 1957. Scottsdale was six years old as an incorporated town and a new, major employer built a high-tech facility on McDowell Road. Motorola brought engineers and technicians to this transitioning farming/ranching town, and created demand for homes, schools, a hospital and variety of services for its employees and their families.

Within a few years, Motorola’s Government Electronics Division became a major contractor to the then-new National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Motorola, now part of General Dynamics, provided a variety of equipment to NASA, used for tracking, guidance, communications and electronics, and conducted research.

A front-page headline in the Dec.14, 1962, Scottsdale Progress proclaimed: “Venus to Earth Via Scottsdale.” According to the article, “Information being transmitted to earth today from 356 million miles in space by Mariner II off the planet Venus is coming from a radio communications system built in Scottsdale. It was the longest man-made radio transmission in history.”

The local newspaper continued to enthrall Scottsdale residents with updates on Motorola’s many space milestones, from providing communications for the moon landings, to deep-space communications and space-shuttle equipment.

The year that Motorola built its plant on McDowell, 1957, the Spielberg family moved to the Arcadia area. Steven Spielberg was fascinated with outer space and aliens, as well as making movies.

While a student at Arcadia High, he produced his first commercial film, “Firelight,” which premiered in a local theater in 1964 and starred his entire family. The plot centered around scientists investigating mysterious lights in the night sky. Although Spielberg went on to produce award-winning films of many genres, two of his biggest concerned aliens and space: “E.T – the Extra Terrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

The late Robert McCall is considered the premier space artist of our time, documenting 35 years of NASA milestones. He lived in Paradise Valley, where his widow, Louise, also an artist, continues to live and paint. He created numerous epic murals and paintings for the Smithsonian, NASA and Hollywood sets.

During the 1990s, McCall was a member of a Scottsdale group that proposed opening a Scottsdale Space Science Center. Among his numerous honors is the 1988 Yuri Gagarin Medal, presented to him by the Soviet Union.

A veteran of three NASA space flights, astronaut John Phillips is a 1966 graduate of Scottsdale High. After a career in the U.S. Navy, Phillips became an astronaut in 1996, held various jobs in the Astronaut Office, served as a robotics specialist and logged more than 203 days in space as a flight engineer on shuttle, Soyuz and International Space Station missions. He retired from NASA in 2011.

Apollo 17 astronaut Ron Evans left NASA in 1977, came to Scottsdale, where he was an executive with Western American Energy Corporation, was a member of the Scottsdale Rotary Club and died here in 1990. The 1972 Apollo 17 mission was the last to the moon. Evans was the command module pilot.

In April 1985, Scottsdale Memorial Health Systems Inc. awarded NASA astronaut and emergency-medicine physician Anna Fisher with its first Piper Clinic Award for Medical Excellence. Fisher had flown on the space shuttle Discovery in November 1984.

Astronaut Charles Lacy Veach was grand marshal of the 1992 Parada del Sol, the theme of which was “Arizona’s Heroes and Friends.” Veach was a mission specialist on the crew of STS-39, the 40th space shuttle flight. He also gave a talk, “Space – The New Frontier,” at the Scottsdale Jaycees’ clubhouse. Veach had trained as a fighter pilot at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale.

In 1994, Scottsdale, Arizona State University and NASA collaborated through a NASA grant on an aerial-mapping program that provided data about vegetation, terrain, water and topographical features of the McDowell Mountains.

According to a report in the October 1994 Scottsdale Airpark News, “specialists in the space flight program will process the data into a format that can be used by the City’s Geographical Information System (GIS). The result will be a portable system that can share information, such as the number and health of saguaro cacti, types of rocks and the amounts of wildlife in the McDowell Mountains, with those working to preserve the mountains, with schools and with citizen groups.”

Several Scottsdale-area schools have linked with space missions so that students could talk “live” to astronauts. In 2001, Arcadia High spoke with those aboard the International Space Station. In 2004, Sonoran Sky became the first elementary school in Arizona to use a ham radio to talk with an astronaut on the space station.

Original Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom’s 1967 red Corvette convertible sold at the Russo and Steele Collector Automobile Auction in Scottsdale in January 2007 for $275,000. Grissom also flew a Gemini mission, then was killed in a fire during a pre-launch test of Apollo 1 in January 1967.

Arizona State University has been involved in space exploration for many years. It is particularly known for its successful Mars Exploration Rover landings, named “Spirit” and “Opportunity.” The Mars Space Flight Facility at the ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration partners with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to continuously explore Mars. ASU students, scientists and the general public have ongoing learning opportunities at the facility, in the Moeur Building on ASU’s Tempe campus.

For the past 25 years, the International UFO (unidentified flying object) Congress has convened in the Scottsdale area. It is known as the world’s largest UFO convention, and features speakers, films and interactive displays, as well as a reunion for UFOlogists. Among the perennial topics of discussion is the March 13, 1997 phenomenon known as the “Phoenix Lights,” in which thousands of Phoenix area residents observed unexplained lights in the night sky.

Could an alien landing be the area’s next link with outer space?