“I grew up in the space program . . . before there was even NASA.”
It was an email out of the blue, forwarded by a reader eager for me to write about the story Tom Shay had to tell.
“I bet there are a few people in Presque Isle who know the intimate connection their town has had with the space program,” wrote Shay, a former Presque Isle resident who now lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Intrigued by the details in his email, I did some research, then gave Shay a call. He was eager to talk about days in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Presque Isle, Maine, was the first and last home for an intercontinental cruise missile called the Snark.
“The pads are still there behind the hangars,” he said. “You can’t get more real than that. I’d encourage you to stand, kneel down and touch a pad. Real history.”
He was referring to a time when what is now the Skyway Industrial Park in Presque Isle was the Presque Isle Air Force Base.
During World War II the base had been the embarkation point for the delivery of lend-lease aircraft to the United Kingdom and for overseas movement of Army Air Forces personnel and equipment. After the war, the Presque Isle base was reactivated by the Air Force to provide air defense for the northeastern United States with the 23d Fighter-Interceptor Wing.
In March of 1957, the Air Force designated Presque Isle as the only site for the first SM-62 Snark intercontinental cruise missile, under the 702nd Strategic Missile Wing of the Strategic Air Command.
“My father was in it from the very beginning,” Shay said, explaining that Thomas Richard Shay, Jr., was an engineer with RCA when the Air Force contracted with RCA to work on the Snark.
Developed as a Cold War deterrent to the Soviet Union, the Snark was a sleek 67-foot, radio-controlled missile capable of carrying a thermonuclear warhead. It was launched from the ground by a jet engine and a pair of rocket boosters that separated from the missile as it cruised toward its target where the nose, carrying the warhead, would be released in a free-fall to earth.
With a name adopted from Lewis Carroll’s nonsense verse “The Hunting of the Snark,” the missile was guided by a celestial navigation system to fly more than 6,000 miles at an altitude of about 50,000 feet.
The Snark was built and tested in Florida, where the younger Shay spent his childhood. His father worked at Cape Canaveral (now the Kennedy Space Center) doing circuit designs, first for the Air Force, then for NASA. The family lived in Merritt Island, Florida, a community of families affiliated with space technology.
“The whole community was involved,” Shay said of gatherings to watch spacecraft launches, which later included Apollo moon launches. “Out on Route A-1A a sign would announce the next moon launch. It was like a pep rally.”
As launch dates neared, Shay’s father would work 16- to 20-hours a day. “There were times we wouldn’t see him for weeks,” he recalled. “They worked round the clock. He might come home to eat and sleep a bit every few days, and then was out again. The stress was incredibly high. It did in fact kill many of them. It was there they began to connect stress to heart disease.”
While the Snark cruise missile was a significant precursor to the intercontinental ballistic missile, tests in Florida revealed problems with the guidance system that caused the weapon to miss its targets.
“They crashed so many Snarks [into the Atlantic] they put a sign out on the beach: ‘Snark-infested waters,'” Shay said. “They’d pull them out of the water, hose them down, try to figure out what went wrong and shoot it off again.”
Finally, in 1959, the Strategic Air Command determined the Snark was ready for service. Shuttled from Florida on C-124 transport planes, a total of four Snark missiles were on strategic alert by mid-1960 within striking distance of Russia in Presque Isle, Maine.
“But the pilotless bomber’s time in service was brief and inglorious,” writes Thomas Newdick in ” America’s First Strategic Cruise Missile was Totally Useless.” A month after the 702nd Strategic Missile Wing was declared operational in February 1961, President John F. Kennedy directed the defense department to phase out the missile, calling the Snark “obsolete and of marginal military value,” compared to the newer ballistic missiles.
On June 25, 1961, SAC inactivated the Strategic Missile Wing at Presque Isle, less than four months after it became operational.
But the Shay family kept stories of the Snark alive. Residents of Presque Isle from 1998 to 2012, they arranged a live interview with the elder Thomas Shay for students at Presque Isle Middle School, where their son Joel was a sixth grader in 2008.
“It was kind of cool listening to my grandfather tell the class about what he did during his time at NASA,” Joel Shay recalled recently.
Conversing via Skype, the kids asked Shay questions and he told them stories about his work on the historic cruise missile and the NASA space program, speaking from his home office in Gainesville, Florida.
“He was in charge of all communications from the ‘Bird’ [spacecraft] to Houston,” said Thomas Shay III, adding his father worked for NASA as a contractor, through companies such as RCA and International Telephone and Telegraph, until the Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986.
“The conservatives of [the 1960s] felt the space program was all BS,” he said of NASA’s early days, ” … till Sputnik flew over and they realized we were [behind].”