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Project Mercury, Zanzibar
About 15km east of Stone Town, near the village of Tunguu, lie the rusting remains of an American Space-Satellite Tracking Station. This Station operated in Zanzibar in the early 1960’s. It was able to track and communicate with all the Project Mercury space missions. It functioned first during the early sub-orbital launches, when American astronauts were just shot into space in a parabolic arc from Florida. But it’s real function started with the later orbital-missions; because Zanzibar lies along the "Earth Track" of those satellites, and thus Zanzibar became a vital link in the world-wide tracking and telemetry network that communicated and controlled these space craft.Today the site is hard to find but if one turns south, off the road from Stone Town to the East Coast, just before it reaches Tunguu, one will suddenly come upon an unusually straight road that leads to what older locals still call "the Americani Buildings". Best preserved of these is the Butler-Aluminum "Maintenance Building", that once contained the large diesel generator used to power the Station. Also, nearby is the "Dormitory Building". The technicians used that building only when an actual mission was in progress. The rest of the time the Americans lived in or near Stone Town with their families and blended in as just one more minority in cosmopolitan Zanzibar.The high-tech equipment, and the ‘reach for the stars’ attitude’ intrigued many young Zanzibaris. I recall students in my school learning the schedules of the satellite launches and I remember young people would lay on the beach at night, on schedule, looking up, waiting for the spacecraft to pass overhead. One friend who had just heard about this phenomenon joined the beach-watchers.... only to be somewhat disappointed by the small slow-moving star-like object that he witnessed. He expected a close fly-by of a ‘flying saucer’ perhaps. Another person who was moved by the future-looking nature of the tracking station was the soon to be famous Farrokh Bulsara. After the revolution he moved from Zanzibar to Britain and became the rock star Freddy Mercury. Who knows if Mr. Bulsara was inspired to become Mr. Mercury due to this connection?
The Zanzibar tracking station was part of the first real-time global communication system ever built. Prior to 1960 such long-distance communication was done via a network of land based and undersea telegraph cables. That system did not offer the reliability or real-time capacity that was needed to track fast moving orbital spacecraft. When the United States decided to launch manned spaces flights it soon became apparent that a massive project was needed to survey, equip, and build a network of tracking stations around the world. Despite the need to obtain approval from seven different countries to build these sites, all the tracking stations were all constructed in only two years.Concerns regarding the safety of the astronauts and the possible need to control the spacecraft from the ground, if the Astronauts became incapacitated, established the number of sites needed. It was decided that there should never be more than ten minutes ‘flying time’ between the control capacity of one ground tracking station to the next. That decision meant that a total of 16 tracking stations were needed. Two were to be on ships at sea, 14 were on land, half of them in foreign countries.These sites were:1.Cape Canaveral2.Bermuda3.Gran Canaria (one of the Canary Islands)4.An Atlantic ship5.Kano (Nigeria)6.Zanzibar 7.An Indian Ocean ship8.Muchea (in Western Australia)9.Woomera (in Southern Australia)10.Kanton (an island in Polynesia)11.Hawaii 12.California13.Guayamas (Mexico)14.White Sands (New Mexico)15.Corpus Christi (Texas)16.Eglin AFB (Florida)
In Zanzibar, the Sultan was one of the first world leaders to declare his support for Project Mercury and he dedicated land for the site near the center of the main island near the village named Tunguu.There were actually two Project Mercury sites on Zanzibar. The manned site at Tunguu was the ‘Receiver’ station and an unmanned site near the east coast town of Chwaka, was the ‘Transmitter’ station. These tracking stations were operated and maintained year-round by technicians working for the Bendix Radio corporation, an American company that had a contract with the US government. Bendix operated other similar sites around the world with their employees rotating between these sites occasionally. NASA employees and sometimes an astronaut in training would visit these sites, usually when there was a mission in progress.For the American technicians, Zanzibar was a favored assignment, it was one of the few foreign sites where families could accompany the workers. It was considered a safe environment and there had an American diplomatic Counsel on Zanzibar for over one hundred years. The resident Americans and their family members numbered between 50 and 60 individuals at any one time. They lived in or close to Zanzibar City and commuted from there to the Tunguu site on what were then excellent roads. Some of the workers were radio aficionados, they made shortwave broadcasts from Zanzibar and even donated and installed radio equipment in the wards of the main hospital so that recuperating patients could listen to local news and music.
In general, the Americans maintained good relations with the people on Zanzibar. However, in the political campaigning that led-up to the 1961 Zanzibar elections the tracking station became a political issue. The ASP party, whose symbol was the Rooster, argued that the station made tiny Zanzibar a target in any nuclear war between the western and eastern blocs. Graffiti appeared on buildings showing a Zanzibar rooster pushing an American cowboy off the island. Wild claims were made that the Telemetry Towers could be used to direct missiles towards Zanzibar.. [History has documented the peaceful non-military nature of Project Mercury but at the height of the ‘Cold War’ even unfounded fears could lead to real anxiety and stress on Zanzibar. The situation was not helped by the fact that the American military did have a totally unrelated operation named Project Condor, part of which involved installing ‘Space Targets’ on the ground in southwestern United States. These targets were used for calibrating cameras carried in military satellites. No such targets were ever built on Zanzibar.]There were some deadly riots and British troops were brought in to keep order. Overt violence then ceased but political tensions simmered until the revolution occurred in early 1964.When the Zanzibar revolution erupted there was fighting throughout the Island. Some witnessed horrible sights but no American was harmed on the day of the rebellion. However, there was great uncertainty about what would happen next. It was decided that there might be safety in numbers, the Americans therefore organized a secret convoy of vehicles to pick up all the technicians from their scattered homes and bring them to a central location, that location was the Africa House Hotel, near the city harbor. On the day after the revolution the revolutionaries agreed to allow the American warship, that had just arrived in the harbor, the Destroyer USS Manley (DD-940), to send a small boat ashore to evacuate the American citizens and some others who also worked at Project Mercury. A total of 91 people were swiftly and safely evacuated, 54 were Americans and 37 were “allied nationals”. (Some say a Zanzibari woman, who perhaps had dual citizenship, was among this last group. She was said to be the mistress of a senior American. A very awkward moment occurred when she was put into the same evacuation lifeboat as that man and his wife.)
Not all Americans left on the USS Manley. Two American diplomats remained, and they helped organize a local crew to seal the Project Mercury buildings. Over the next weeks relations between the new revolutionary government and the USA continued to deteriorate. Public demonstrations against the Mercury Station were allowed in the streets of Stone Town.The new Zanzibar Revolutionary government, under President Karume, then announced that the site must be permanently closed by end of April 1964. The Americans were allowed to dismantle the high-tech towers and remove most of the electronic equipment.The Tunguu site now stands abandoned, the rusted diesel generator engines hauled away, the main buildings slowly dismembered for their aluminum skin. Today only parts of two concrete pillars, that held a large elevated fuel tank, remain to mark this location, where tiny Zanzibar once joined in the exploration of limitless confines of outer-space.