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WWII Vet Helped Launch 1st Civilian Satellite

Sunday, February 18, 2007
Hunstville Times Staff Writer 

Dick Esneault part of team behind OSCAR in 1961

Richard "Dick" Esneault never had a day of basic training, never fired a shot in a war and never finished college.

But the electronics whiz of the 1940s was a highly-sought-after noncombat soldier during World War II. He also became a successful Huntsville business owner during the height of the 1960s boom. 

Esneault was 81 when he died Feb. 4 at Tut Fann Veterans Home after a long struggle with Alzheimer's. He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Marie, four sons - Rick, Jim, Bob and John - and eight grandchildren.

"I think the fact he didn't have a college degree is really what drove him to succeed," said Rick, the oldest son.

The family moved to Huntsville in 1963, and Esneault bought the old Redstone Motel in south Huntsville. After it burned down, he started BJR Manufacturing Reps and later Esneault Construction.

Outside his family, Esneault's biggest accomplishment was his role in helping develop and launch the first civilian satellite, OSCAR (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio), made by a group of ham-radio operators.

The 10-pound, three-watt radio transmitter was launched Dec. 12, 1961, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, riding on the back of an Atlas-Agena booster carrying a military reconnaissance satellite. Its Morse code message, "Hi," was received by more than 570 radio amateur tracking stations in 28 countries.

The homemade satellite, built primarily from donated parts at an out-of-pocket cost of $63, beat the multimillion-dollar satellite Telstar to space by seven months. It captured the attention of broadcast legend Edward R. Murrow, who told then-President John Kennedy about it.

Esneault's widow said Kennedy said of OSCAR: "This is exactly what we're looking for ... a peaceful use of space." 

In a Dec. 12, 1986, article in The Times, Esneault said Kennedy was responsible for giving OSCAR the go-ahead to ride aboard a military mission.

Esneault's interest in radio, and later electronics, started when he was a boy in New Orleans. While riding a street car, he saw another boy listening to a home-made crystal radio inside an oatmeal box. It fascinated Esneault, who peppered the boy with questions until he told him how he made it. Esneault quickly built his own radio and "got the bug," son Rick said.

Esneault became an avid ham-radio operator and received his license at age 13. While in high school, he took night lessons to learn Morse code so he could be certified by the Federal Communications Commission. His instructor was so impressed with his aptitude, he offered the teenager a job with Pan American World Airways. 

He finished high school a year early to join Pan Am as a subcontractor for the U.S. government with the Naval Air Corps. After about three months, Esneault was told to sign up with the Navy in case he was shot down. If shot down and captured and not registered in the military, he could be considered a spy and be shot on sight.

Esneault, considered one of the best radio operators in the military, even had one colonel demanding that he be assigned to his base.

While assigned to Miami, Esneault met Marie, a New York native, on the beach. She didn't like her blind date and was smitten by the young man from New Orleans.

While she was devoted to her husband and worked in the family business, Marie acknowledged that Esneault could be "difficult to live with" at times.

Rick agreed, calling his father a "strict disciplinarian" who made all four sons work a bubble-gum machine route to pay their way to college.

Bob, who works in the family business, said he got the basics of running a business at college but said when it came to a working knowledge, "all you had to do was watch my dad to learn."

The family moved from Miami to Spokane, Wash., then to California, where Esneault worked for Philco, then one of the leading manufacturers of electronics. That's when he worked on the OSCAR project. Later the family moved to Massachusetts, then Georgia and finally Huntsville.

Even though he played a vital role in the war efforts, Esneault wasn't considered a veteran until 1995, when he finally received a letter acknowledging his time of service and a box of medals.

"He was very proud of them," Rick said.