A Journey Along the Final Frontier

From transonic wind tunnels, to satellites to space telescopes, Michael McDonald '59 has had a backstage pass to outer space history

by Kristi Evans

Satellite Dish


At the age of four, Michael McDonald ’59 BA  became fascinated by the mid-1930’s model radio that sat prominently on a table in his family’s home. He recalls often waking before dawn to slowly rotate the knobs and tune in different stations. Because overnight changes in the ionosphere better reflect and extend the reach of AM signals, he would have been able to listen to broadcasts originating hundreds of miles away. McDonald later started tinkering with vacuum tubes and other components and building his own crystal radio receivers. This early interest in electronics led to an impressive career that included work with the U.S. Navy’s Transonic Wind Tunnel, NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. McDonald even placed the first satellite telephone call to Marquette.

McDonald’s first experience with the Navy was at the Marquette recruiting office. He enlisted right out of high school and was assigned to the Naval Communications Station in Guam. After completing his four-year tour, he enrolled at Northern, majoring in physics/mathematics. McDonald entered his senior year needing a course in heat and thermo dynamics to complete his degree. When it was on the verge of cancelation because of low interest, he convinced the required minimum of fellow students—some from unrelated majors—to sign up. 

-Setting the Stage-

The Transonic Division of the Naval Research and Development Lab was McDonald’s first employer after college. He spent three years conducting aerodynamic testing of scale-model aircraft, missiles and re-entry vehicles in the Transonic Wind Tunnel. American forces captured the tunnel from the Nazis during World War II. Aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun had used it to test German missiles before he surrendered, immigrated to the United States and later worked for NASA. The facility was reassembled in Maryland.

“It had two sets of huge blades that turned in opposite directions and created wind up to and through Mach 1 [the speed of sound in air],” McDonald said. “There are a lot of effects on aircraft and missiles when they pass through the sound barrier. You need to test scale-model designs by subjecting them to high-velocity winds before you invest the money and time in building full-size versions  You want to know if they will fly accurately or fall from the sky. The tunnel was decommissioned because computers became so sophisticated they can simulate the same effects without having to literally blow wind at the models.” 

In his 1961 inauguration address, President John F. Kennedy said he wanted to send U.S. astronauts to the moon by the end of the decade. McDonald said that set the stage for NASA, as the scientific and engineering sectors scrambled to achieve Kennedy’s goal. About a year later, he responded to an employment ad from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. He was hired to support the development, installation and operation of satellite ground control stations of the NASA Relay Communications Satellite Project. The Relay was a Low Earth Orbit satellite that provided telephone, data and television when in view of ground stations around the world.

“Goddard was responsible for a ground station in Nutley, New Jersey,” McDonald said. “I traveled there frequently to make sure everything was installed and operating properly when the satellite launched. That was the station we used to place the first satellite call to Marquette for PR purposes in 1963. I was going to call my grandmother because she raised me from the time I was 5, after my mother died of cancer and I relocated from Columbus, Ohio. She was in her 80s and it turned out she suffered a stroke and was in the hospital unbeknownst to me. So I redirected the call to my wife Charlene’s parents. As I recall, the quality was perfect. It was unique and people in Marquette were pretty excited.”

The call generated plenty of local media coverage. The Mining Journal reported, “A Marquette couple said ’Merry Christmas’ to their daughter and her family this morning via the federal government’s Relay communications satellite.” Michael, Charlene and their 5-year-old son (three more children followed) placed the call from their Maryland apartment.

Young radio operator
Wind tunnel test
MsDonald Portrait

-Hubble Beginnings-

McDonald also worked in the satellite ground control stations in support of NASA’s Syncom, the world’s first geosynchronous communications satellite. Because Syncom’s orbit was stationary and visible overhead at all times, it enabled global satellite calls or TV transmissions 24 hours a day compared with the previous 15-20-minute windows of opportunity with low-orbit satellites. 

Another career shift in 1966 took McDonald to the Physics and Astronomy Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. As an assistant to the astronomical and solar observatories program manager, he helped to oversee the program budgets and observatory schedules at NASA field centers, including Goddard. McDonald was promoted to program manager a decade after being hired. His responsibilities included Solar Maximum, a mission to investigate solar flares and other phenomena. He also engaged in the initial planning and budgeting for the International Solar Polar Mission, a joint NASA and European Space Agency effort aimed at having two satellites orbit the North and South Poles of the Sun. The U.S. canceled its satellite portion because of excessive cost.

After his “retirement” in 1981, McDonald served as an independent technical consultant for Fairchild Industries’ Space and Electronics Division and for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency’s (NOAA) Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite Program Office. From 1983-91, he assisted the ground operations manager at Perkin-Elmer Corp. in developing procedures for the initial activation and in-orbit calibration of the Hubble Telescope.

“That’s an unbelievably complex spacecraft,” McDonald said. “Once it’s up in orbit, all of the physical dimensions change because of the effects of gravity, temperature and other factors that impact everything that goes up in space. The controllers on the ground have to command the telescope motors on board to move the mirrors and solar arrays in such a way that the telescope can be realigned so it’s in clear focus again. That can take a number of months. 

“It was rewarding to watch Hubble go up for the first time after working on it. There was a misalignment caused by someone’s miscalculation on the ground and concern the whole mission would be wasted, but it turned out some very smart scientists figured out how to correct it and the mission was saved. Hubble continues to operate today after more than 25 years. The advent of the space shuttle made it possible to launch a much larger mirror in Hubble than you could with a rocket. The larger the better, so it’s significantly more advanced than early satellites. Another advantage of the shuttle was that, if something broke down, you could send astronauts out to replace the faulty part, as they’ve done several times.”

McDonald keeps pace with space program developments through monthly meetings of a NASA retirees association. He said the space industry is much larger today, as private companies build vehicles to launch commercial payloads and—if some have their way, people—into orbit. 

“It’s hard to see exactly where it’s going, but that was the case when I worked there, too. When I was at Goddard, there was one satellite sending communication transmissions from the U.S. to Europe. Now there are at least 500 synchronous satellites relaying data worldwide every day. It’s amazing how things have changed and continue to change.”He may have accumulated professional experience with far more sophisticated technology and devices, but McDonald’s fascination with that now-antique tabletop radio extended beyond childhood. At Northern, he and a small group of enthusiasts, led by industrial arts instructor George Francis, formed the first amateur radio club on campus. They assembled equipment in Longyear Hall, strung an antenna to the top of the building and communicated with other operators across the Upper Peninsula. Now he shares the hobby with Charlene in retirement. Both have held amateur radio licenses for 60 years.