Space communications pioneer to share memories in Topsham

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TOPSHAM — George Krassner was a 28-year-old civil engineer with the U.S. Army Signal Corps in New Jersey, running a radio relay program, when Russia shot Sputnik into orbit.

The year was 1957, and the space race was officially on.

A week later, Krassner’s commanding general approved his request that space communications be established, and the young man created America’s first space electronics organization.

It’s one of many stories Krassner will tell, with memorabilia to show, at the Topsham Public Library at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 3. The 25 Foreside Road event will be held in the library’s Highlands Community Room.

Krassner, who moved to Topsham from North Carolina five years ago, also created designs used in the fuel control system of the Apollo spacecraft’s command module, and worked with rocket engineer Wernher von Braun on a secret moon project.

Work by Krassner and a group of seven mechanical and electrical engineers led to the launch of the first communications satellite in 1958, carrying a tape-recorded message for world peace from President Dwight Eisenhower. The audience will get to hear that recording Aug. 3, thanks to a tape Krassner has kept throughout the decades.

It was truly uncharted territory, with no reference books to guide Krassner and his partners. Rectifying that a few years later, he wrote “Introduction to Space Communication Systems” in 1963.

“We actually sold more copies in Russia than we did in the U.S.,” Krassner recalled with a laugh during a July 26 interview.

In 1969, the world was spellbound as Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” message was transmitted to Earth when he became the first human to set foot on the moon. One giant leap, thanks to the advent of space communication.

“It was amazing then, and today I’m still amazed,” Krassner said, noting that he still stares at a full moon, incredulous that signals could come from such a faraway place.

He’s not disappointed that humanity hasn’t yet set foot on Mars.

“I think that we will,” Krassner said, noting that when he’s asked whether he thinks there is life elsewhere in the universe, he responds that he doesn’t know.

“We are one of billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and there are billions of galaxies, so who the heck knows,” he said.

Space communication was once something penned in the science fiction oeuvre in the early 1940s by Arthur C. Clarke, Krassner said. Nearly 60 years after he played a key part in making that fantasy a reality, he said, “I obviously feel very proud.”

Krassner added that he’s never been that great at predicting the future, since developments he thought would happen in 10 years ended up happening in three.

“Technology has moved so fast,” Krassner said. “Home electronics probably is the only product area where the technology has gotten better and the cost has gone down.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.