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.

The Jamesburg Earth Station was co-owned by the Communications Satellite Corporation (Comsat) and AT&T. Dozens of similar ones were built in other countries around the world to communicate with newly launched satellites. The earth stations were part of the system initiated by John F. Kennedy, which created the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization. Intelsat, as it was known, was co-owned by more than 80 nations, though basically controlled by the United States and its Cold War allies.

Although NASA launched the satellites, Intelsat paid for them, passing the costs on to the national corporations (like Comsat) that controlled the earth stations and finally on to the customers who wanted to use the satellite links.

In the early 1970s, 98 percent of the traffic on the system was telephone conversations; the earth station could handle 5,000 simultaneous conversations and 12 television hookups. The faintness of the signal from the satellite meant that it had be amplified a lot. That, in turn, meant that Jamesburg needed a massive HVAC system to keep the satellite receiver at the ridiculously low temperature of -450 degrees Fahrenheit, just nine degrees away from absolute zero. "If the temperatures were not kept low," Dye explained, "molecular activity would be so great that it would compete with the weak signal."

Satellite communication was a triumph of 20th-century progress. It is the connection point of the glorious space exploration of NASA and the important but less dramatic telecommunications research at places like AT&T's Bell Labs. When Dye was writing, both of those tremendous projects were bundled together into the 90-foot dish in the valley that was the last stand for outlaws. "The system is so complex and so futuristic that it boggles the mind, but nowhere is that more apparent than here in the Cachagua Valley," Dye wrote. And he was only talking about the technology.

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A schematic of how the Apollo broadcasts could reach viewers on Earth. Jamesburg is visible.

* * *

In the early 1970s, 26 people worked in the 20,000-square foot main building at the Jamesburg Earth Station. By the time I visited the place, it was empty except for its owner, Jeffrey Bullis. Though he bought the Jamesburg Earth Station, Bullis did not intend to use it as a communications facility. He already had a business to run, a contract electronics manufacturing firm in San Jose that had made him a considerable amount of money. Before that, he'd worked for the Otis Elevator Company, been a welder, a fleet manager, and a heavy equipment operator. This was his place to relax. "I just bought it for the land really," Bullis said. "It was that kind of thing."

The plan had been to build the Earth Station into a wild house for Bullis and his family, especially his son Adam, who loved to box and play guitar, ride ATVs and shoot guns. He seemed at home in the valley and liked to spend time up there. They went so far as to get an architect to draw up plans to redo the whole thing, busting through some of the walls and dropping a big fireplace right in the middle of the old operations room.

But then Adam was diagnosed with cancer, and succumbed to it in August of 2007. He was 23. Suddenly, Jamesburg was not a happy place for Jeffrey Bullis. Since then, he has been pondering selling it; he finally put it on the market last month. He's asking $3 million for all 160 acres of land and the earth station. A local TV station picked up the story and soon every nerdy corner of the Internet was talking about it. For the first time since the 1970s, Jamesburg was famous! I searched the Internet for more information. But almost everything that you can find on the Internet about Jamesburg was created in the last six weeks in the flurry of attention that the TV news report generated.

I wanted to tell the story of what this place actually was, so I called up Bullis and we met at Jamesburg on a Saturday morning.

There was a small, unassuming sign at the entrance to the property and a gate that looked like it had been left unlocked for us. We drove through it under the eye of a video surveillance camera. Bullis was waiting for us at the small caretaker's house at the bottom of the property. We all shook hands.

You think, "This place was designed for the post-apocalypse." Because it was.

Tall and solidly built, Bullis looked like the cross between Idaho-born kid and electronics millionaire that he is. He's got big hands and wore a fleece with southwestern-patterned epaulettes. When I hopped into his car for the brief ride up the road to the satellite receiver, I instinctively reached for my seat belt. "You're not putting that on," he informed me. No, men do not wear seatbelts on the playground that Bullis purchased from AT&T in 2003.

We drove past some scattered cattle, just a few head that keep the grass down, then curved up a hill. I took stock of what I knew about the Earth Station building. It is 20,000-plus square feet. The dish is ninety feet across and housed in a building several stories tall. There is a massive HVAC system, backup batteries, and room for generators. If the satellite was put back in working order, it could receive communications from all over the place. Fourteen T-1 lines run into the place. The walls are two-feet thick solid concrete. Add in the bucolic setting, the cows and orchard and river and you think, "This place was designed for the post-apocalypse." Because it was.

Security, in these not-quite end times, was mostly incidental. "We shoot our guns off often enough to where people don't want to come up here," Bullis told me.

And suddenly, there it was, gleaming white against the sky and earth. It cast a long shadow, just like it does on Google Earth. Nothing about the shape or nature of the satellite receiver would surprise anyone who has seen a DirecTV dish. But the scale, the size. It's inhuman. I ran around it and up the metal stairs, looking out at the valley, thinking about the people who'd stood there before, and how they thought they were doing their part for the free world and science and progress. In the photos my fiancee took of me at its base, I was almost too small to see.

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Jamesburg Earth Station.

The rest of the Earth Station seemed low-slung in comparison to the massive dish, but it is not. The ceilings must have been 20 feet high. Bullis led us in with the exhortation, "Grab a flashlight." He kept the lights and heat off to avoid astronomical energy bills. The first things I saw were the lockers of the men who once worked there. They were empty, but I ran my flashlight inside them anyway, thinking I'd find some traces of the workers. Nothing.

We walked down a corridor. My flashlight illuminated racks of lead batteries to our left. Then, the lights powered on with a sound I'd only heard in empty gymnasiums -- ka-chunk, and a hum. Fluorescents shone above us, revealing the spareness of the space.

Bullis led us into the old breakroom. On the wall was a huge map that plotted the various satellite-earth station connections with push pins and yarn. Blue yarn for the Pacific Routes, yellow for the Atlantic information trade, green atop the Indian ocean. The rest of the room could have been found in any office park in America. 

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The old map in the breakroom at Jamesburg.

Our next stop was the main operations room, which was as big as a roller-skating rink. When Bullis bought it, the room had been "filled with rack after rack after rack of electronics. Of course it was all obsolete when I bought it."

Now, the room is nearly empty save for a pool table on a dirty patch of carpet, and a podium that looks perfect for giving a military briefing. Cords dangle from the ceiling. Against the wall, a large whiteboard with beautiful mid-century lettering says, "JAMESBURG OPERATIONS STATUS." Nothing is written on the board except for a few inscrutable acronyms and the date, April 2003. Behind the podium, a poster with a waving American flag on it reads, "United We Stand." A chalkboard next to it features a drawing of Beavis from Beavis and Butthead as well as the score of a long forgotten darts game. Our voices echo on my recording.

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The now-empty operations room.

"The kids come in here and roller blade and have all kinds of fun," Bullis said, stooping to pick up a cigarette dropped by a careless pool player. We pass by an exercise room with weights and multiple cardio machines. "Like I said, my son used to work out here all the time."

A few offices were converted into bedrooms, but the rest of the building is one huge, empty room after another. Another housed all the old landline telephone equipment. "We converted it into a shooting range, as you can see," Bullis said, gesturing towards a target in front of some hay bales down at the end of the room. A basketball hoop hung to its left. 

Passing through, we reached the famous system for chilling the satellite receiver, enabling broadcasts from the moon. It powered up with a sound like a spaceship. The chillers still worked, as did an ancient laptop that the last AT&T employee left behind. It was running DOS.

Finally, we reached a room filled with filing cabinets. The historian in me lit up. Here we'd find records of how the place ran. I imagined schedules with employees' names and rosters with amounts of food and fuel consumed. There'd be lists of broadcasts that ran through the station and photographs of important events, diaries even. Coffee rings would show that humans once labored here, proudly. I would find all the little details to transport me back to the time when this place was part of our national project, and maybe in the smell of the carbon paper and the blue ink of the signatures, I could sense what that time was like.

"What's in there?" I asked Bullis, pointing to the cabinets.

"Old stuff," he said, and he was right.

I started pulling open cabinets and digging through files. But the more I looked, the more I realized that I was looking through manuals for long-lost electronics, directories of parts suppliers, and schematics of the building. Much as I wanted them to exist, there were no people in these documents. The stories had been leached out.

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The control room for the satellite receiver itself.

Bullis drove us back down to the caretaker's house at the bottom of the property. That's where he stays most of the time now. I asked to use the bathroom in the house, and as I came back out, I saw a photo of his son on a small wooden table by the front door. When I shook his hand to say goodbye, I said, "I'm sorry about your son." He said, "Life goes on."

All told, while Bullis has owned the station, twenty-six dumpsters worth of stuff have been pulled out of the Jamesburg Earth Station and sent to a recycler. A local guy named Eric Lancaster was hired to do the demolition.

* * *

After our trip through the station itself, I realized I wanted to talk to someone who knew the Earth Station when it was up and running. The Internet, I already knew, returned nothing for this search. The only place where I thought I'd find someone who knew something was the General Store. We made the fifteen-second drive from Bullis' place, pulled into the parking lot, and went inside. I found a woman named Liz behind the counter of the small, surprisingly well-stocked store.

Liz is a mountain person. When I asked for her last name she said, "You don't need my last name," but not in an unfriendly way. Probably in her early 50s, she is strong and spry, country like an oak tree. We started talking and I said something about how strange it was that this tiny little place at the end of the world had been a major node in the global telecommunications grid.

She thought about it for a minute and then told me a remarkable story about her relationship with technology during the last 40 years living up the mountain a bit east of where we stood. She did not exactly answer my question, but made a point nonetheless.

"I pretty much stayed on the mountain. There are no phone lines. There is no electricity," she said. "I have my iPhone and I can get 3G and I can get what I want and I have a little solar panel and propane and candles. I've been off the grid forever. Now, I have the small solar panel and I can turn on the light and charge my cell phone. I'm not used to it. My daughter tells me, 'You can plug things in!' And I say, 'I don't have anything to plug in.' Blow out the lights, not turn out the lights, is my thing."

Her boss, the chef Michael Jones, filled in the rest of Liz's story on his blog (punctuation all his). "Liz lives in a trailer on the mountain with no power and no water...two horses, a goat and two dogs. Cats don't count. She carries water in plastic buckets to the critters....and to her own self," he wrote. "She pays child support to a scumbag in Missouri or one of those other M states or square states.....Her daughter that I know is an honor student at Davis.......Because she has no power or water, Liz hangs with us after working her 10 hr shift at The Store. We are her TV."

There are no phone lines. There is no electricity. I have my iPhone and I can get 3G and I can get what I want and I have a little solar panel and propane and candles. I've been off the grid forever.

And for this couple of minutes, I was her TV and she was mine. Did she know anyone who worked at the Jamesburg Earth Station? "I knew a couple of the people who worked there for a long time, and then some of them have passed away," she responded. "Gosh and some of them are retired and moved away. It was a good job to have if you were out here because it was close to home."

How'd she end up living with no power? She and her man were nomads, living out of their cars and taking in the natural beauty of the place. People heard about them and kept asking them to take care of different properties. So they did, and then she did it alone.

I could have talked a long time, but I didn't want to overstay my welcome. She said I should leave a note about my story, seeing as most people who live around there pass through the store and sit out on the porch chatting. She gave me a lined card and a pen and a push pin and we said goodbye. Before I left, I saw that there were coffee mugs with 'Jamesburg Earth Station' written on them. I tried to buy one from her, but instead, she gave it to me.

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The Cachagua General Store on the day I met Liz.

A few days later, I got a message on my voicemail.

"Hi, my name is Eric Lancaster. I found your note down at the General Store in Cachagua. I have some real documentation of Apollo trips, notes, signatures, serious dated stuff. I worked up there and I have some stuff that I kept. I have photos ... Apollo 15, Apollo 16, Apollo 14 trips. Like straight notes from NASA, original stuff. Call me back."

He gave his phone number with the last seven digits, then the area code. He concluded, "I'm serious. I'm not fooling around. It's the real deal stuff dating back all the way to '71 with lots of information. Call me back."

Lancaster sounded so young in his message. I'd been expecting an old man. How could he have worked at Jamesburg with a voice so young? I called him back.

Turned out that Lancaster had spent his whole life around Cachagua. As a kid, he had heard the dish moving to keep fixed on its satellite. "We used to climb up on it," he said. "We used to feel it move." Some people at Jensen Camp thought that the satellite was nefarious. "One guy thought it caused him not to be able to sleep in his house, so he put metal siding on," he said. "But it's the water out here [that] affects the people, not the satellite."

What I wondered was why -- out of all the stuff that had gone in those dumpsters -- he'd decided to keep these few pieces of paper.

It felt like some illicit deal, this meeting out in the middle of nowhere, as if we were being handed some documents we were going to pass off to the Russians before fleeing to Czechoslovakia.

"They are neat. I thought, 'I better keep those.' There are communications between here and NASA," Lancaster told me. "I have photos of when the Republic of China came over here to visit in 1971. It talked about them staying at the Holiday Inn." Lancaster thought they might be important. "There might be stuff in there that's not supposed to get out to the public," he said.

And so it came to pass that we were standing under the huge oak trees staring at four mildewed folders sitting on a plastic chair right before that eventide moment where the golden yellow light retreats and everything goes gray. I had my camera with me and was hoping to photograph whatever was in the folders, so I was anxiously watching the color bleed from the world.

There Lancaster and his girlfriend were, facing my fiancee and me, and they had just asked us to buy the documents and suddenly it felt like some illicit deal, this meeting out in the middle of nowhere, as if we were being handed some documents we were going to pass off to the Russians before fleeing to Czechoslovakia.

My fiancee, also a journalist, quickly explained that the standard ethics of our profession prevented us from buying anything, but perhaps the story we wrote would end up sparking interest in the documents from potential buyers. I explained that I knew a space memorabilia collector who might be able to help them find a purchaser, too. Interest in Jamesburg might be high on account of all the stories about the place floating around the Internet, I said. They stared at me blankly, perhaps because they were disappointed but also because they did not know that millions of people had read about the very bizarre home for sale not five hundred yards from where we were standing.

Seizing the moment, I said I better take some photos quickly before the light got bad and opened up the first file folder.

* * *

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A photograph from Eric Lancaster's collection of images taken at the Jamesburg Earth Station.

Lancaster was right. The files did contain several references to the Holiday Inn down in Monterey. That's where the Chinese Satellite Communications Study Group stayed when they came to visit Jamesburg in July of 1973. They rode around the backcountry in a limousine, followed by John P. Scroggs in a station wagon.

During the day, the Americans showed the Chinese delegation how the earth station operated and at night, everyone had dinner together. They ate fruit salad with honey dressing as well as salmon and abalone. One afternoon, they had a BBQ. They drank Monterey riesling and Coors. The visit, along with the rest of the Chinese delegation's trip, was a key event in the opening up of the Chinese communication system. George Sampson, a former general and VP at COMSAT who coordinated the trip, detailed how it all happened in a 1985 oral history.

It all began with Nixon visiting China in 1972, which is widely considered a landmark in global international relations. The visit was broadcast all over the world and to do so, a Nixon assistant sent Sampson over to set up the technical infrastructure. While he was there, he built a relationship with Chinese technologists and talked up joining Intelsat, the global satellite network. He described how earth stations worked and how they could set up their own to communicate throughout their large country and with the rest of the world. Satellite communication was of sufficient interest to the Chinese that Chou En Lai, the first prime minister of the country, met with Sampson in Washington, DC.

Eventually, the Chinese sent a team over to the US to check things out for themselves, and it was this group, led by the government's top long-distance communications official, Liu Yuan, who arrived in Jamesburg on July 18 and stayed at the Holiday Inn.

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The recording of the recording of the Chinese communication specialists' trip to Jamesburg.

The visit, recorded in old eight-by-ten photographs and letters, is sitting in one of the folders on the plastic chair. Included is a letter Sampson sent Scroggs, reminding him, among other things, not to "make any reference to the opposite sex" because "such remarks which might be humorous to us are quite offensive to the Chinese."

The decaying, overexposed photos are beautiful. I have two favorites. In one, a young Chinese man talks into a telephone, presumably with someone in China awaiting his call. The grin on his face looks so genuine: We are seeing someone make a transoceanic call for the first time. Two Americans in picture-perfect period costumes look on with smiling faces.

The other is more meta. It is nominally a photo of the combined group of American and Chinese engineers posing in front of the earth station. But a Chinese photographer stepped into the shot, so it actually records the recording of the event, and the satellite pointing west towards China.

As I frantically took photos of the old pictures, Lancaster's girlfriend read aloud from the Apollo documents that formed the rest of their collection. Most of it consists of testing procedures and operations for the various Apollo missions. These are work documents without much flavor. But among the technical bits, we found a letter that Scroggs sent his staff. It was a letter meant to be saved.

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The letter John P. Scroggs sent his workers.

If I had to guess, I'd say Lancaster has the last copy of that "souvenier" left on earth. I would also say that it is pretty much the only human trace of what it was like to work at Jamesburg before it was demoted from our national dreams and the site and the people who worked there became subject to the logic of a market that immune to its sublime project. Before the earth station was mothballed, sold, and gutted, the people who worked there did important things. Scroggs, I later found out, died in 1985 and is buried at the El Carmelo Cemetery in ritzy Pacific Grove.

I finished taking photographs. There wasn't much else to say. Lancaster seemed a bit out of sorts, but also excited that I'd be writing about him. I promised to mail him a printout of the story. I think saving the documents he did and holding on to them for years was a kind of heroism, a tribute to his country. He knew that these documents should not be thrown away, for one reason or another. And if he can convert his act of preservation into a few bucks, more power to him.

Lancaster and his girlfriend packed the files into the backpack and walked back across the road over the creek, the one that often floods this whole area. In years past, when the water got too high, the Jamesburg Earth Station was Jensen's emergency shelter.

* * *

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A space colony painting that Gerard O'Neill was particularly fond of.

A few years after the Chinese Satellite Communications Study Group left Jamesburg, counterculture icon Stewart Brand published a piece in CoEvolution Quarterly by physicist and space promoter Gerard O'Neill, which proposed the idea of a self-sustaining space colony.

As O'Neill described it, the space colony would have had been a utopia with nice homes and beautiful flora and fauna. The colonies could be modeled on the most "desirable" places on Earth. "A section of the California coast like Carmel could be easily fit within one of the 'valleys' of a Model III Colony," O'Neill explained. Paintings were even made of what that might look like.

Many of Brand's friends and colleagues derided the idea as an abandonment of the values of the counterculture. But one critique, by solar inventor Steve Baer, was more subtle and more damning. It got at the way O'Neill tried to leave behind the inevitable grit of human life.

The project is spoken of as if it were as direct as... flinging people into space. But I know that instead it consists of order-forms, typewriters, carpets, offices, and bookkeepers; a frontier for PhD's, technicians and other obedient personnel.

Once on board, in my mind's eye I don't see the landscape of Carmel-by-the-Sea as Gerard O'Neill suggests... Instead, I see acres of air-conditioned Greyhound bus interior, glinting slightly greasy railings, old rivet heads needing paint - I don't hear the surf at Carmel and smell the ocean - I hear piped music and smell chewing gum. I anticipate a continuous vague low-key "airplane fear."

Space travel would not be like Carmel-by-the-Sea, but Cachagua. It would take a lot of Jensen Camps and Jamesburg Earth Stations to make anything as grand as a space colony work. The area above the Earth might be known as the heavens, but there would be no escaping being human. No matter how glorious the triumph, humans have to grind through all of it, scheduling meetings and making coffee, documenting and processing, trimming and forgetting. No technology stands outside society, and no society exists without the people who build it.

In our technological narratives, progress advances like the tide, lifting up everyone and everything. But we rarely look closely to see the unevenness of the diffusion of our inventions. In a poor valley somewhere a few miles from Carmel, a satellite receiver took in pictures from the moon during a time when locals still rode horses to the camp saloon. Technology may move onward and upward, but everything retains its links to the old and weird and human.

Jamesburg Earth Station is now known on the Internet as a "great place for Armageddon" and also appears on my favorite coffee mug. The building and the last remaining documents that testify to its importance are now both for sale. This is what 20th-century dreams look like in the 21st century.

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My Jamesburg Earth Station mug.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls 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 Web site 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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