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Fathers of communications satellites receive Draper Prize

STANFORD -- On Wednesday, Sept. 27, John Pierce and his collaborator Harold Rosen will talk by satellite with science fiction writer and aerospace engineer Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka, receive the most prestigious prize for engineering achievement in the United States and split the $400,000 that comes with the honor.

The award is the Charles Stark Draper Prize, established by the National Academy of Engineering in 1988 "to recognize individuals whose outstanding engineering achievements have contributed to the well-being and freedom of humanity."

The ceremony will take place at the National Academy of Sciences auditorium in Washington, D.C., where the two men each will receive a solid gold medal and be honored for their role as the fathers of communications satellite technology. Clarke is credited with conceiving the idea of communications satellites, but Pierce and Rosen played key roles in turning this science fiction idea into science fact.

"The engineering breakthroughs which made communications satellites a reality have truly changed the world," said academy President Harold Liebowitz. "So much of what we take for granted, the ability to call anywhere at anytime, monitor weather and air traffic, hold video conferences, transmit medical data for instant analysis and actually see world-changing events as they happen, are all the results of the innovations of Pierce and Rosen."

Pierce currently is a visiting professor emeritus of music and is working on psychoacoustics at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. Rosen, recently retired from Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles, is now leading a private research company.

During the early 1950s, while Pierce was at Bell Laboratories, he proposed the foundations for unmanned communications satellites. Despite significant resistance to his ideas, he persuaded NASA to build and launch the Echo satellite in 1960. Echo was essentially a large aluminum foil sphere 100 feet in diameter. Scientists used it to bounce radio waves from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory antenna at Goldstone, Calif., to a Bell Labs ground station in New Jersey. The first message was recorded by President Eisenhower, who described the satellite as "one more significant step in the United States' program of space research and exploration."

Echo's success paved the way for TelStar 1, the world's first commercial communications satellite. The satellite, however, could only be used for short periods because it circled the earth faster than the earth turns. Rosen solved this problem by designing and building Syncom, the first geosynchronous satellite, which was launched in 1963. With an orbit about 22,000 miles above the earth, geosynchronous satellites circle the globe once every 24 hours. As a result, they appear to hover continuously over a point on the earth's surface. A network of such satellites can be used for continuous communications.

At Bell Laboratories, Pierce supported the work of computer music pioneer Max Mathews, now a research professor of music at Stanford. This had a lasting influence on his own work. After retiring from Bell Labs in 1971, Pierce went to the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There, in addition to doing research on topics such as satellite systems and synthetic aperture radar, he began studying auditory perception and wrote The Science of Musical Sound, published by Scientific American in 1983.

That same year he retired from Caltech and JPL and moved to the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. At Stanford his research has included musical psychoacoustics and the analysis of the mechanics of vibrating systems.

Pierce has published 17 books and has been granted 89 patents. He has published 250 papers and written 50 sections in technical books. He has received numerous honors, including the National Medal of Science, the Medal of Honor from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Founder's Award from the National Academy of Engineering and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Engineering Academy of Japan and a number of others. He received his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from Caltech.



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