Wilfred P. Deac

Mr. Deac was an information services officer with the Naval Research Laboratory during the GRAB and Sugar Grove projects, serving as a bridge between the scientists and engineers who conducted the projects and the media. He has held various other government, as well as private-sector, positions in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

A Home for Navy Research

Located on the Potomac River's east bank in southwest Washington, D.C., the Naval Research Laboratory arose from the observation of inventor Thomas Edison that the Navy needed a research organization to improve the United States' defense capabilities. Edison, however, was piqued that Washington was selected as the site of the Naval Experimental and Research Laboratory instead of a location near his workplace at Menlo Park, New Jersey, and said the lab would become a "home for incompetent naval officers" who would snatch the work out of the hands of scientists. (He later retracted those words when he recognized its many accomplishments.)

The laboratory was established in July 1923 "to conduct scientific research and development in the physical sciences and related fields." Many things now taken for granted owe their origin to its scientists and engineers: shortwave radio, radar (the British coincidentally developed radar at the same time), sonar, regularly scheduled radio broadcasts, and everyday items such as specialized paints and rain repellents. The facility, whose name was shortened to Naval Research Laboratory, was the first government institution to undertake nuclear-energy research, and it performed pioneering work with rockets, earth satellites (including the Global Positioning System and spacecraft communications), radio astronomy, and drone aircraft.

In the early 1960s, the NRL occupied 92 buildings on 59 acres in Washington and had other special-purpose sites in neighboring Maryland and in the Panama Canal Zone as well as a floating laboratory, the USS Rockville (EPCER-851). Approximately 1,500 men and women were assigned to the laboratory's 13 research divisions. Its original site now enlarged, the NRL continues to provide the research and development necessary for the U.S. Navy to maintain its global supremacy.

-Wilfred P. Deac

 

 

 

The NRL's Ill-Fated Monster Dish
Many of the Naval Research Laboratory's post–World War II activities were inevitably directed against the Soviet Union. One of the laboratory's most ambitious projects, contemporaneous with the GRAB program, involved the moon and construction of the world's largest moveable structure—a radio telescope. Again, the primary objective was electronic-intelligence gathering.

During the summer of 1958, contractors shaved the top off a knoll in a secluded West Virginia valley near the town of Sugar Grove, 170 road miles west of Washington. A 20-ton, 74-foot-long beam, the first metal for the structure, was lifted into place in July 1960. A January 1960 Scientific American article described the projected concave reflector as being "as big as a stadium" with "a diameter of 600 feet, a circumference of nearly a third of a mile and a reflecting surface of more than seven acres" rising "to the height of a 66-story building." The article highlighted the telescope's "power to gather radio waves and resolve celestial radio sources" and its promise of "important advances in the knowledge of the universe." This, of course, was the story for outside consumption to cover a spy project designed to capture Soviet electronic emissions radiating into space and bouncing off the moon back to earth. It was appropriately codenamed Project Moonbounce.

The cover, however, was less than perfect. As early as 1957, the 19 August issue of Newsweek revealed plans for a "king-sized radio antenna" to "assure jam-proof global communications by bouncing signals off the moon." Then, in mid-1958, a Navy official confirmed to a congressional committee that the United States had the capability "to use the moon as a reconnaissance satellite." Finally, a congressman boasted that the NRL telescope would "enable the United States to monitor the entire area behind the Iron Curtain."

Sugar Grove's high-tech spy project, located in an area where local women still handwashed clothes in a mountain stream, eventually faced two insurmountable obstacles—the availability of cheaper and more advanced satellite technology, and critical engineering problems—and was cancelled in 1962.

-Wilfred P. Deac

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