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

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.


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.

* * *

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.

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