Earth Station: The Afterlife of Technology at the End of the World

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The Jamesburg Earth Station is a massive satellite receiver in a remote valley in California. It played a central role in satellite communications for three decades, but had been forgotten until the current owner put it up for sale, promoting it as a great place to spend the apocalypse. It stands feet from a trailer park and down the road from a Buddhist retreat. This is the story of one of the old, weird ties between Earth and space.

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Let me tell you about Jensen Camp. The 30 homes of the trailer park house about 100 people in a variety of ramshackle arrangements. By most accounts, drugs and alcohol are a problem, but many who live there are simply independent souls without much money. The water at the camp has too much fluoride, so people's teeth fall out and kids' bones break and don't heal. Everyone -- tenants, landlord, county officials -- knew about the problem, but no one did anything about it until a pastor at a Monterey megachurch bought the place in 2008. People bought bottled water when they could, but drank from the tap when they had to. A few miles up the road is the Zen monastery of Tassajara, where a sign has to remind visitors, "Life is transient." Jensen Camp is a few miles from Carmel-by-the-Sea, one of those California coastal towns where the average home price is over $900,000.

Jensen Camp may be "wracked with drug and alcohol problems, domestic abuse and unsafe living conditions," but it is more than its problems. A chef named Mike Jones set up shop next to the Cachagua General Store and has kept a blog about the Camp's characters and his organic catering business since 2005. His stories are full of food and family, guns and drugs, drinking and fighting, helping out and being helped.

The Cachagua Valley is wild and beautiful, lichen hanging off trees and wild turkeys running around doing whatever they do. Even radio signals have a hard time penetrating the valley, which is one reason that, less than a quarter mile from Jensen Camp, the Communications Satellite Corporation and AT&T built the Jamesburg Earth Station. The Earth Station is a massive dish-shaped receiver that was used to communicate with satellites perched over the Pacific Ocean for more than three decades.

It was thanks to Jamesburg that people saw the Apollo 11 moon landing and Richard Nixon's trip to China, Vietnam War reporting and the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, not to mention tens of thousands of more ordinary events. A Chinese delegation sent by the first prime minister of China even visited Jamesburg, a milestone in helping connect the world's most populous country into the global communications grid. 

When we talk about the space program, we think about rockets and command modules and astronauts and blinking satellites in the night sky. But every piece of hardware in orbit required far more infrastructure down on the ground. Satellites, for example, were simple. Their only job was to stay put in space and bounce signals from one place to another; the real magic of satellite communications occurred on the ground in the detection, decoding, and transmission of those electronic signals from space.

Yet while every NASA scrap and tin can is prized by collectors and archived in museums, the history of people like John P. Scroggs, the manager of the Jamesburg Earth Station manager, is almost unknown and on the verge of being lost for good.

In fact, aside from a few references in old newspapers and a stack of photos buried in the archives at Johns Hopkins University, the only person who possessed interesting stuff from Jamesburg's glory days is Eric Lancaster, who I met underneath the canopy of the oak trees outside the Cachagua General Store. He'd told me that he had "some real documentation of Apollo trips. Notes, signatures, serious dated stuff." Lancaster hinted that the documents might be very valuable, and they were certainly the kind of thing I was looking for. He hadn't scanned anything and didn't use the Internet, so we arranged a meeting and my fiancee and I drove to Cachagua.

Lancaster wore a black leather coat and a white shirt unbuttoned to below his chest. He seemed nervous as he rose to shake hands with me. Next to a small backpack, on top of a plastic chair, there was a stack of mildewed manila folders held together by rusting metal clips.

"I was thinking that we might be able to make a few bucks, maybe even sell these to you guys," Lancaster said.

I knew I wasn't going to buy them, but I wanted to see what was inside anyway.

* * *
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Neil Armstrong reflected in Buzz Aldrin's spacesuit helmet.

The first trip to the moon is known as a technological triumph, and rightly so. Traveling 238,000 miles, landing on another celestial body, and returning to the Earth is no small feat. But the Apollo 11 mission might have been the single most successful media event in history. Not only did Neil Armstrong say, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," but people across the globe saw him do so live. In the moments before Armstrong actually stepped on the moon, the chatter between Buzz Aldrin and Earth was not only about the moon, but about lunar media production.

"You've got a good picture, huh?" Aldrin asked as Armstrong began to descend down the ladder. "There's a great deal of contrast in it, and currently, it's upside-down on our monitor, but we can make out a fair amount of detail," Bruce McCandless confirmed from NASA's command post in Houston, before dishing out the correct aperture settings for the camera to help the astronaut out. "Okay," Aldrin replied, and Armstrong got to the foot of the ladder.

It was at this moment that something unexpected happened. Apollo 11's transmission was being captured by multiple tracking stations simultaneously. Goldstone in the Mojave Desert had been expected to capture the broadcast and send it on to Houston and the rest of the world. But the best picture was actually coming from a tracking station in Australia called Honeysuckle Creek via the Moree Earth Station on that continent. So seconds before Armstrong touched the moon's surface, NASA made an on-the-fly switch to the Australian feed, which sent the broadcast up to a satellite and down to the earth station at Jamesburg, across the street from the Cachagua General Store, which at the time was also a saloon. A local character, Grandma DeeDee, told a Monterey County Weekly reporter that in the 60s, locals would "ride horses in the bar and shoot pistols at the bartender's feet." Another local, ne'er-do-well Grant Risdon, echoed the hijinx at the bar, fondly recalling a time "when the cops were afraid to come out here, because their radios didn't work on this side of the mountain. It was the last stand for the outlaws."

When the Christian Science Monitor visited the station the day before the Apollo 11 broadcast, the reporter and his photographer would have passed the store on their right, and then hung a left less than a quarter of a mile down the road into the Earth Station. "It has taken man thousands of years to reach the Moon, but it takes less than 20 seconds for a picture from the Moon to be distributed to millions of television viewers on earth," the story concluded.

Earth Station Jamesburg is the principal earth facility that has permitted a worldwide audience to participate in history in the making

So it was that the most glorious moment of the space program and most momentous television broadcast ever, then, ended up routing through this corner of central California. Countless other satellites broadcasts from Asia would soon, too. Science writer Lee Dye summarized Jamesburg's role in a 1972 feature for the Los Angeles Times. "Earth Station Jamesburg is the principal earth facility that has permitted a worldwide audience to participate in history in the making," Dye wrote.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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