Big Shot 2: A Shiny Space Balloon

The NASA Science and Engineering Series (255-SE) consists of footage of experiments and events associated with various programs including Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. NARA staff have processed 5,848 film reels so far. Fortuitously, most of the films came to us labeled with excellent metadata including title, date, and location, or even with paper scene lists. On the other hand, in August I came across a can marked “Kinescope,” which is kind of like finding a VHS tape titled “VHS.”

A Kinescope is a film recording of a television screen. It really is that simple: a film camera aimed at a TV. But why? Primarily because early videotape was unreliable, expensive, and low quality. Many early television broadcasts were recorded via Kinescope before videotapes became available. NASA used Kinescope to record live feeds from space off of video monitors. The untitled one NARA received turned out to be a hidden treasure.

Echo II gif
 Full Video on YouTube

NASA launched Big Shot 2 on September 18, 1962. This sub-orbital test, 250 miles in altitude, proved the viability of the balloon design which came to fruition in 1964 in the satellite Echo II. The 41 meters-across balloon had a rigidizable surface, meaning it could spring a leak but still maintain its shape. In the Kinescope, you see a capsule containing the balloon separate from a Thor rocket and subsequently inflate via a chemical reaction. The satellite worked by passively “bouncing” signals and was powered by solar batteries.

Back on Earth, the balloon you see in the video would have looked like this Echo II balloon:

Echo II, a Balloon Satellite

While the balloon design did not end up becoming the norm in communications satellites, the Echo satellites were ground-breaking. We rely upon communications satellites ever more and more. Perhaps you are accessing the blog post via satellite right now. If you happen to have a 16mm film camera at hand, (and who among us doesn’t,) you can aim it at your smartphone or computer screen and convert the GIF to Kinescope again.