Tucked away in the rolling foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, Sugar Grove, West Virginia is a picture-perfect small American town. Stroll down the tree-lined main street and you’ll find a daycare center and a bowling alley.
A few blocks away there’s a gymnasium lined with pennants and a hobby shop for woodworking. The houses have freshly painted clapboards and white picket fences. The town is textbook Americana—and for the last four years it’s been entirely deserted.
Sugar Grove didn’t always seem like it was plucked from a Twilight Zone episode. If you visited the town 50 years ago, you’d have found it to be a hive of activity. You see, Sugar Grove was always a military facility. It was built in the 1950s to house the families of soldiers working on a top secret project just up the road. Here, in a secluded clearing of dense national forest, Navy personnel were toiling away on what would have become the largest radio telescope ever built. At the time, the project was conceived as an unprecedented piece of intelligence infrastructure that would enlist the moon itself as an ally in the struggle against Soviet communism.
Today, there is little evidence the Sugar Grove telescope ever existed. Most documents pertaining to its plans remain classified by the National Reconnaissance Office. As for the telescope itself, the only clues that construction ever began are a few steel struts rising from an anonymous concrete pad.
The story of the Sugar Grove radio telescope is the story of the largest telescope never built. It’s a story of massive policy failures and military hubris, of scientific complicity and engineering marvels. Ultimately, it’s the story of how the quest to control outer space nearly derailed our ability to understand it.
It was a fine May day in 1940 and the 34-year-old Jack Dewitt was thinking about the moon. For the last eight years, Dewitt had served as the chief engineer at Nashville’s oldest radio station, WSM, where he wielded his uncanny knack for electrical engineering to help bring the twang of country music to a national audience. When Dewitt wasn’t tinkering with antennas and oscillators at the station, he could often be found indulging his other passion—astronomy. And on this particular day he hit upon a way to bring the two together.
“It has occurred to me that it might be possible to reflect ultra-short waves from the moon,” Dewitt wrote in his notebook. “So far as I know no one has ever sent waves off the earth and measured their return through the entire atmosphere. If this could be done it would open up wide possibilities for the study of the upper atmosphere. In addition, this may open up a new method of world communication.”
Dewitt sketched out a rough outline of what such a system might look like and some of the parameters that might make it possible. It was a revolutionary idea, but also, perhaps, a crazy one. He kept it to himself.
A year and a half later, the United States entered World War II and Dewitt enlisted in the Army. He quickly rose through its ranks and by 1943 took a position as the Director of the US Army’s Evans Signal Laboratory in Belmar, New Jersey. For the remainder of the war, Dewitt and his lab focused their energy on developing radar, a brand new method for identifying objects by observing the way they reflect radio waves. But the moon never left Dewitt’s mind.
Following the Japanese surrender in 1945 and the freeing up of military resources, Dewitt finally had the opportunity he was waiting for. Together with four other engineers from the signal lab, he plotted how they might apply the principles of radar on a cosmic scale to bounce a radio signal off the moon. And so Project Diana was born, its name selected by Dewitt in homage to the Roman goddess of the moon.
It can be difficult to appreciate just how wild this idea must have sounded when Dewitt pitched it to the Army. Today, moon bounces are well within the capabilities of radio amateurs and national space agencies regularly communicate with robots on the surface of Mars and beyond. But Dewitt and the boys at the Evans Signal Lab were the first ones to show this was possible.
By the end of 1945, Dewitt had crunched the numbers and built a radar system quite unlike any other. The lunar radar stood atop a 100-foot tower overlooking the Atlantic Ocean just down the way from the Shark River inlet near Neptune City, New Jersey. It was cobbled together from parts scavenged from other radars to create a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of electrical engineering. The important thing was that it worked, and according to Dewitt’s calculations, would be capable of generating and receiving a signal that could transverse the Earth’s ionosphere.
The math checked out, but bringing the project to fruition proved more challenging than expected. Dewitt and his team spent weeks poking the moon with radio waves as soon as it would appear on the horizon, but they hadn’t heard so much as a peep in return. The equipment was finicky and their efforts may have been hampered by an as yet unknown phenomenon—the Faraday effect—which distorts radio signals as they pass through the ionosphere.
Then, on January 10, 1946, they made their breakthrough. It was a few minutes before noon and the moon had just appeared on the horizon. A few members from the Diana team, huddled together in a radio shack near the tower, pushed out their signal. Two-and-a-half seconds later, just as predicted, the cathode-ray screen in the control room lit up with a pulse and a speaker produced a corresponding beep.
The Project Diana team had just become the first to send a signal into space and receive an answer back. It was a historic moment, but in a testament to DeWitt’s estimation of the likelihood of success, he wasn’t even there to witness it. “I was over in Belmar having lunch and picking up some items like cigarettes at the drugstore,” he later recalled. Still he immediately grasped the implications of what he and his team had accomplished. Dewitt saw that the ability to retrieve radio signals from space opened up the solar system for human exploration—but the military had other ideas.