Table of contents
Part 1: Ancient
history - 1972: How it all began
Part 1: Ancient history - 1972: How it all began
Go to Part 2: The first decade: 1972 - 1982: The sky is no limit
A good biographer does not start with the birth of his protagonist. He reaches for a deeper understanding by investigating the subject’s roots: parents and grandparents, the godmother, the local vicar, the traditions and values of the family, the smells and sounds of the home village... Only then does he turn to the various traumas of childhood which are supposed to be so influential in shaping the character of the adult person: the harsh parents who would not accept failure, the school bully who liked to punch him in the nose, the scorn heaped upon him by his peers...
Why should our ambition be any less in seeking to lay bare the very soul of our subject, the Swedish Space Corporation? Let the reader therefore join us - if she has the courage and stamina to confront the hardships of the journey - on a trip back into ancient history, when "SPACE" was still best known as the name of a typewriter key, and when our legendary pioneers were blissfully unaware of the famous "desert walk" which still lay ahead before an oasis was to be found, and SSC created.
To most people, the space age began on 4 October, 1957. That was the day when the first satellite was launched, and a frantic "space race" started between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Of course, to the future employees of SSC, the launch of Sputnik came as no big surprise! During the preceding years, they had devoured science fiction magazines such as "Häpna!" and joined the Swedish Interplanetary Society in anticipation of great things to come.
In 1961 they saw ridicule turned into vindication when Juri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth.
It must be admitted that the foundation for Sweden’s future in space was laid by cooler heads, however. Sweden had a scientific tradition of auroral and upper atmosphere research. Ionospheric observations were started in Kiruna as early as 1948. The Kiruna Geophysical Observatory (nowadays the Institute for Space Physics) was established on 2 July, 1957, headed by Bengt Hultqvist. At the Institute of Meteorology at the University of Stockholm, Bert Bolin advocated the use of sounding rockets to extend ground-based observations of upper-atmosphere phenomena. The International Geophysical Year 1957-58 provided a focus for discussions of the use of rocket technology for scientific research.
The interest of Swedish scientists, in combination with discussions at the European level, led to the formation of a Swedish committee for space research in 1959 at the initiative of Gösta Funke, secretary of the National Research Council. The Space Committee was chaired by Lamek Hulthén. Ernst-Åke Brunberg served as its secretary. Some limited funds were made available.
On 14 August, 1961 - just a few months after Kennedy’s "Moon speech" – Sweden took its first modest step into space. From a launching tube in a forest clearing in northern Sweden at Nausta, a tiny Arcas rocket was launched by a team gathered together for the campaign from their regular jobs in universities, government agencies or private companies. Many of the team members were university students.
The project was called "Nattpip". Its objective was to create an artificial noctilucent ("night-shining") cloud at about 80 km altitude. The mission was simple: Explode a load of talcum powder. Optical observations from the ground would then be compared to observations of real noctilucent clouds. Hopefully, this would give some insight into the phenomenon.
Unfortunately, after the rocket left its launch tube, it simply disappeared! It carried no transmitter, and there was no artificial cloud.
Undaunted, the team of young scientists and rocketeers started to prepare for a new series of rocket launches planned for the following summer. The Institute of Meteorology had been able to establish a substantial co-operation with NASA and the US Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory. The deal meant that AFRCL provided four Nike-Cajun rockets with payloads for direct sampling of the noctilucent cloud particles. NASA brought a telemetry van for receiving data from the rockets and various launch pad gear.
Sweden’s contribution was the establishment of a temporary launching base. The launch site at Kronogård - a derelict farm near the village of Kåbdalis in the far north of Sweden - had all the necessary facilities on a temporary basis.
The project, called "Kronogård 62", was a major undertaking for the Institute of Meteorology and its technical group, which in the same year was reorganised as the Space Technology Group of the Swedish Committee for Space Research.
Just as the year before, personnel were "borrowed" from various organisations and recruited from technical universities and even high schools. From this cadre of people came several future senior staff at SSC. So, in a sense the company is now really 35 years old! (In the picture on the right a Nike Cajun rocket is prepared for launch by Sven Grahn[left] and Hans Hammargren).
In a whirlwind of media attention, the launches from Kronogård began on 7 August, 1962. The campaign lasted three weeks. The four cloud-sampling rockets and an artificial cloud rocket left over from the previous year were successfully launched. Two of the sampling payloads were recovered by parachute.
During the next two summers, the noctilucent cloud research at Kronogård continued in co-operation with the US. Sound-grenade rockets for measuring temperature profiles were added to the cloud-sampling rockets. One of the launches found its way into the Guinness book of records by measuring the lowest temperature recorded in the atmosphere: - 143 º C at 85 km altitude.
When we look at old photos from the 1964 campaign, we can see some vaguely familiar, still cherubic, faces: Lars Rey, Fredrik Engström, Lennart Lübeck and Klas Änggård. - Space attracted brilliant people in an almost mystical fashion in those days.
The Kronogård years were undoubtedly decisive in forming the "corporate culture" of SSC. They created strong personal bonds between the participants. They taught us the importance of reaching definite goals defined by our customers or clients, as opposed to just striving for technical excellence. They instilled a strong sense of self-confidence and a "can do" attitude. They took away some of the awe associated with space. While we were not going to send people to the moon, we became confident in our ability to develop and launch sounding rocket payloads, and later satellites.
Some of us developed a taste for a working environment with impossible deadlines, constant stress, no room for errors, and recurring setbacks. We became masters at managing "organised chaos". In the process, we lost some of the unquestioning acceptance of the views of large organisations, without losing our respect for their experience and expertise. This has served us well on many occasions. - The price we had to pay, perhaps, was a certain reputation for arrogance in some circles...
Anyone who doubts the devotion and enthusiasm of the young Kronogård engineers need only watch Sven Grahn’s "home movies" from those days. His camera caresses the rockets and various pieces of equipment with such passion that one is tempted to look away and blush...
European scientists started discussions in 1958 concerning the possibility and desirability of establishing a European space research agency. These discussions contributed to the setting up of the Swedish Space Research Committee the following year. They finally led to the creation of the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) in 1962. The ESRO convention was ratified in 1964.
As part of the preparations, a European sounding rocket programme was defined. It was agreed that ESRO needed its own sounding rocket range - Esrange. After brief consideration of Salto di Quirra in Sardinia, Narssarssuaq on Greenland and Andöya in Norway, the choice fell on a spot in the wilderness outside Kiruna. The establishment of Esrange became part of the deal when Sweden joined ESRO.
Esrange was set up under ESRO management and was formally inaugurated in 1966. The first sounding rocket was launched later that year. During the following years, a large number of sounding rockets were fired from Esrange, usually with good scientific results.
Some of the rockets strayed outside the designated safety zone. Some even fell in Finland and Norway. This caused a great deal of worry among Swedish authorities - a concern that was not always shared by their European colleagues. - One is reminded of the time when a Skylark rocket was launched in an inhabited area of South America, and the responsible general reassured a visitor from Esrange: "No important people live there." - In time, impact dispersion at Esrange was much reduced through the introduction of improved guidance and tracking systems.
Paradoxically, the participation in ESRO led to some very lean years for national rocket activities. Sweden’s space scientists were reasonably successful in obtaining flight opportunities on ESRO-sponsored rockets. In the government’s view, the relatively high cost of ESRO membership justified a steep reduction in the national space budget. As a result, no projects under national responsibility were carried out 1965-67.
The Space Technology Group had survived the Kronogård years as a separate entity. It was transferred from the Space Research Committee to the TUAB consulting company in 1965 (which became Teleplan in 1971).
The "Desert Walk" may perhaps be considered to be SSC’s equivalent to the famous "Long March" of the Chinese communists. With no obvious short-term mission in sight, the very existence of the Space Technology Group was constantly being questioned. Its independence within its corporate home was threatened. Spontaneous disintegration was a distinct possibility.
What kept STG from collapse in those years? Probably the unstinting support - within their means - of the Space Research Committee and the Swedish ESRO Committee, which realised the need for a national space programme, and for a technical group that could plan and implement it. Perhaps the general feeling that national space activities were as inevitable as the rising of the sun. After all, these were exhilarating times, with preparations for manned lunar flights well underway, and planetary missions creating a lot of public interest. Certainly the enthusiasm of the leaders of the Group, Lars Rey and Lennart Lübeck. In addition, some challenging technical work was going on in developing and perfecting a radio tracking system for sounding rockets.
The lack of a clear mission provided an unwelcome opportunity to hone our administrative skills to a fine art. By the end of the "Desert Walk", our project plans were a model of clarity and precision, our archiving system was "state-of-the-art", our budgeting and accounting procedures were impeccable.
After encountering a number of mirages in the desert, STG was an organisation aching to apply its tools and know-how to real projects.
STG’s fortunes finally improved and national launch campaigns resumed in 1968. In 1969-70 STG developed the payloads for the so-called "Twilight Probe". Five Skua rockets were launched within three hours from Esrange.
Money was also found in 1969-70 to enable SAAB to develop an ambitious auroral sounding rocket payload under contract to STG, and to study a national scientific satellite (see the picture of a model of the satellite below right). The satellite project was finally realised 16 years later, when Viking was launched with a basically similar mission.
By 1970 both Lars Rey and Lennart Lübeck had left STG to work for the newly created Ministry of Industry, and the position as head of STG had become vacant. The Space Research Committee and the Swedish ESRO Committee summoned Fredrik Engström, who had been working on a satellite project at Culham in England, to take over. The situation was once again critical. The survival of STG was in doubt. Anti-space sentiment was strong in Sweden, as well as anti-high-tech sentiment in general. Space was associated with lunar landings and outrageous cost. A national space programme was not even up for discussion.
The author, who had just been recruited to STG from SAAB, vividly recalls his first impression of Engström: a rather aggressive figure speaking in a falsetto and dressed in blue pyjamas. Not knowing that in Stockholm Engström’s attire was formally known as a "jeans suit", the author realised with a sinking feeling that he had linked his fortunes to this unpromising character. Even worse: he was still ignorant of the fact that Engström had decided to expand the staff of STG from nine persons to twelve in order to make it more difficult to disband the group, and that he was an unwitting element of the plan.
Engström moved quickly to enhance STG’s standing with the Space Research Committee, with TUAB, and with industry. Even during negotiations behind closed doors, Engström’s agitated voice could be heard reverberating through the offices, while nervous employees tried to interpret the signals.
A review meeting of the satellite project turned into a bloodbath, as STG took Saab to task for some careless work. – "Exactly what in this specification prevents you from building the satellite out of cardboard?" was a typical comment.
A small step leading to our later remote sensing activities was taken when Engström won the trust of the chairman of the Remote Sensing Committee of STU (the Swedish Board for Technical Development, nowadays NUTEK), Prof. Gunnar Hoppe, and managed to win the secretariat of the Committee for STG.
Some setbacks inevitably occurred. The ambitious auroral rocket payload built by Saab was lost in 1971, when the launch went spectacularly wrong, and the rocket headed in the general direction of Kiruna. An American scientist, who was monitoring auroral conditions from the observation dome on top of a building at Esrange, excitedly called out: "Don’t worry about the trajectory - we are going right into the aurora!" - The post-launch investigation identified the probable cause: a supporting plastic foam block on the launcher had induced banana-shaped oscillations in the rocket during the first critical seconds.
Another kind of loss occurred in 1971, when STG’s pretty, blond secretary fell in love with another American scientist (or could it have been the same one?) and left STG - at that time an all-male bastion - for the States. For the send-off party, she had ordered a cake from a bakery. It was decorated with a marzipan rocket - or so she claimed - and the text "Thank you guys"...
In 1971, ESRO was well on its way to becoming ESA. As part of the transformation, it was agreed that sounding rocket activities should no longer be an ESRO responsibility. This automatically created a headache for the Swedish government: if Esrange was no longer needed by ESRO, who should be responsible for it? Was there any alternative to closing it?
In tackling this issue, a two-man team came to play a decisive role: Engström and Jan Stiernstedt, Under-Secretary of the research Ministry, into whose lap the problem had fallen.
As part of the search for a solution, the author was given the task to look into alternative uses for Esrange, but with the secret instruction from Engström not to make them look too attractive... Some possibilities were briefly looked into: to turn Esrange into a tourist centre, a prison, a clinic for alcoholics, etc. Predictably, none of them seemed very persuasive. It seemed that the only realistic use of Esrange was what it had been designed for. "Use it or lose it..."
Pressure on the government increased when dissatisfaction with funding levels in Swedish space research led to the resignation of the space committee ("Rymdnämnden") in 1971.
Stiernstedt got a mandate from the government to negotiate the take-over of Esrange from ESRO. The actual negotiations were conducted by Stiernstedt with the support of Engström and Klas Änggård. According to rumour, an initial offer to "buy" Esrange for 1000 accounting units (about 5000 SEK) was improved upon by Engström to 5000 accounting units, something which took Stiernstedt by surprise. - Later, when the deal was ratified by ESRO, the Italian delegate pointed out that there was a printing error - surely the figure was supposed to be 5 million accounting units!? – "No, it is 5000 accounting units", the ESRO secretariat confirmed. - Of course, it was all part of a package deal, where ESRO agreed to continue to act as an umbrella for a joint Esrange/Andöya special project, with certain guarantees from several ESRO countries for the continued use of Esrange.
The ESRO deal created a completely new situation for Sweden’s space activities. In the spring of 1972, following much discussion and a round of formal consultations, an unusual solution was decided upon: A new government agency, the Swedish Board for Space Activities, would be created. STG would be transformed into a new state-owned company, Swedish Space Corporation, and would provide technical support to SBSA and execute its programme. Esrange would be assimilated into the new company. Engström was appointed Managing Director of SSC, while Stiernstedt became the Chairman of SBSA. To promote a close working relationship, Hans Håkansson was given a dual role as the Executive Member of SBSA and the Chairman of SSC. He was the only employee of SBSA. Even his secretary was an SSC employee.
What was the reason for creating a state-owned company? Undoubtedly, it was thought that it would be relatively easy to dismantle the company if the need should arise. The long-term future of sounding-rocket activities was questionable, and so were the future prospects of Esrange. In the same spirit, the term "Board" ("Delegation" in Swedish) indicated that the government agency was seen as an interim solution.
During the spring of 1972, Engström and Änggård worked day and night to create all the administrative and accounting procedures and financial plans for the two new entities. To their credit, what many thought impossible was achieved - a smooth transition to the new structure on 1 July, 1972.
End of Part 1
to Part 2: The first decade: 1972 - 1982: The sky is no limit