2007-02-18 11:17:14 UTC
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
"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-
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
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
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
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
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.