President, The Caribbean Institute of Astronomy (CARINA)
The Tracking Station “dish” today
Every year, usually in March or April, CARINA hosts a stargazing event at the site of the old US Tracking Station in Chaguaramas. For those of you who don’t know, the site is at the back of Tucker Valley, close to Macqueripe. The road, which is a favourite for joggers and walking enthusiasts, passes through the spectacular Bamboo Cathedral and runs to the top of the hill where, instead of the expected ridge line, one encounters a flat grassy field and that imposing “dish” surrounded by old, decaying buildings.
It’s a wonderful place for stargazing and our events are usually focused on the beauty of the night sky. But guests are always asking about the history of the “dish”. So in preparation for this year’s event and after several hours of online surfing, I managed to get a much fuller appreciation of the significance of this site. It’s a fascinating history and one which The Westerly’s editor has invited me to share.
After the war, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Cold War was raging; the Soviet Union was spreading its influence over much of the East by force and even into the Western Hemisphere, in Cuba. Inter-continental Ballistic Missiles, ICBMs, were being deployed by both the United States and the Soviets. The U.S. defense plan during this period, and much of the 30 years following, was that of "Mutually Assured Destruction," whereby the defense of the United States relied upon the theory that it would be suicidal for the Soviet Union to launch a missile attack upon the United States. In order to allow the United States to know of an impending attack, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, BMEWS, was born. At the time, this was the most massive technological undertaking in history.
To test the technology, a BMEWS prototype was needed. The Chaguaramas peninsula in Trinidad had been leased to the Americans by the British in 1941 and provided an excellent location for the prototype since it could be used to gather data on test missiles being launched into the southern Atlantic from Air Force bases on the west coast of Florida.
Overhead view of the Tracking Station site showing the original location of the 400’ Fence Antenna – the concrete foundations are still visible
BMEWS required two types of radars, fence antennae for initial detection, each 165 feet tall and 400 feet wide, and a fully steerable tracking dish, 85 feet in diameter. This is the dish structure you see today in Chaguaramas…the fence antenna is gone, although the concerete foundations are still visible.
The Trinidad Radar site began providing surveillance and tracking of ballistic missiles by 1958, and went operational on February 4, 1959, Although hampered by azimuth and elevation restrictions, the Trinidad tracker could follow one-meter-square targets at 2,000 miles, and the site proved especially important in detecting and tracking Soviet satellites in low-inclination orbits.
With the success of the prototype in Chaguaramas, the full BMEWS radar network became operational in the early 1960s with installations in Alaska, Greenland and England monitoring the so-called DEW (Distant Early Warning) line that divided Russia from North America across the North Pole.
On 12 August 1960, in another historical first, US Air Force scientists transmitted radio signals from the Chaguaramas site to Floyd, New York, via the Echo I satellite. This was the first intercontinental voice message in history relayed via Earth satellite.
Finally in February 1962 the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) assumed responsibility for the operation of the Trinidad Radar until its closure in 1971. During this period, the site continued to an important component of the Atlantic Missile Range, tracking objects launched downrange from the Canaveral and Kennedy bases in Florida.
The Chaguaramas site during construction. The Fence antenna is almost complete, but the dish antenna has not yet been constructed. This view is looking west.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the history of the Tracking Station at Chaguaramas is the effect its construction had on Trinbagonians and our history. Already a sore point with Dr. Eric Williams and his administration and considered an affront to national sovereignty, the Chaguaramas “issue” was considerably aggravated by the construction of the Radar without the knowledge of local authorities or any discussion of possible health dangers due to radiation levels. Things reached a turning point with the April 22, 1960, “March in the Rain.” Thousands assembled in the University of Woodford Square where, through a steady drizzle, the “Seven Deadly Sins of Colonialism,” including the 1941 bases agreement, were ceremoniously burnt. The refusal of the Eric Williams administration to back down on the issue would ultimately lead to the return of the peninsula to Trinidad, despite the American’s intention to hold on to it at all costs.
Dr. Eric Williams summarised his sense of betrayal thus::
“It is the British control of external relations which has us put in the difficulties of the tracking station, the Tucker Valley tracking station, which was developed at a time when the American Government (and) the British Government had accepted the Trinidad Government’s proposal, made through me, for the appointment of a Joint Commission to consider the future of Chaguaramas. Whilst the matter was being considered, the Commission was sitting here in Trinidad, with my Permanent Secretary, Permanent Secretary to the Chief Minister, as Secretary to that Commission, and whilst it was sitting here they were developing the installations in Chaguaramas, taking unilateral action on a matter that was sub-judice. That is the position we find ourselves in.”
In a nutshell, this is the history of that old “dish” down in Chaguaramas. The next time you’re fortunate enough to be there, consider the important position it has held in both world and Trinidad history. I’m sure you’ll agree that it would be shameful to lose it to a hotel or some other development as is currently being planned, but should be restored as a National Heritage site.
And, of course, a place for viewing the wonders of the night sky