When the Space Race — and arms dealing — came to the Northeast Kingdom
Brave Little State tells the story of the secretive Space Research Corporation, and its founder Gerald Bull, whose talent and ambition led him down a perilous path.
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Eric Lucier grew up in Jay, Vermont, a town of about 550 people that sits on the Vermont-Quebec border. It’s most famous for being home to Jay Peak Resort. When Lucier was a teenager, he and his friends would sometimes go hang out in a remote area of town, near neighboring North Troy. Scattered through the area were abandoned, rundown buildings. They’d play paintball or just wander around.
“You could tell other people had been there, you know, spray painting stuff or breaking windows,” Lucier said. “It was pretty dilapidated and rundown.”
It was sort of a classic teenage experience: Finding some forgotten, out of the way area where you can roam free with no rules. These days, that area is a bit different. It’s clearly-marked private property.
“That was before they put up a big gate in front,” Lucier said. “I think things have changed since then.”
It’s this abandoned area in his hometown that led Lucier to pose a question to Brave Little State, VPR’s people-powered journalism project. Our show answers questions about Vermont that have been asked by listeners and selected via a public voting round, because we want our journalism to be more inclusive, transparent and fun.
Lucier wasn’t wondering what happened in this area when he was a teenager, about 25 years ago, but what happened about 20 years before that, when it was home to a company called the Space Research Corporation and its leader, Gerald Bull. Lucier asked:
“What's the history of the Space Research Corporation in North Troy, the impact on the local area, and founder Gerald Bull?”
The answer involves big dreams, enormous guns, the Space Race and the Cold War. It will take us from this remote part of Vermont and Quebec to apartheid South Africa, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and to Brussels, Belgium, where it ends with an assassination.
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Who was Gerald Bull?
I saw firsthand one of the same abandoned buildings Eric Lucier used to explore. I headed up to Jay on a dreary, early May day with a man named Scott Wheeler. With permission from a landowner, we walked down a dirt road, birds chirping through the thick woods around us. Then, after a few minutes, we started to see a white, boxy building through the trees. Wheeler, who’s a local historian and publisher of a magazine called Vermont’s Northland Journal, walked quickly up the road, then up a grassy hill. We reached the top, and there was the building in its full, abandoned glory.
“It looks like an office complex. No windows, gray, white,” Wheeler said. “Somebody has made a graffiti of a falling bomb on the side and it's green.”
This green bomb is painted onto the side of the building, a cartoonish face snarling at its tip. It’s an appropriate image for this place. As Wheeler tells me, “weapons of war were created at Space Research.” And it's those weapons that ultimately led to the abandonment of this complex over 40 years ago. To understand why that happened, we have to tell the story of Gerald Bull.
Bull was born in North Bay, Ontario in 1928, the second youngest of ten children. He was recognized for his intelligence from a young age. When he was 16, he enrolled in the University of Toronto, where he received a Bachelors in aeronautical engineering. By the time he was 23, he had his PhD. In his studies, he became fascinated with supersonics -- traveling faster than the speed of sound. This was in the early 1950’s, when the Space Race was just beginning.
As he was coming up through school, Bull and his research started to gain recognition from the Canadian government. After he graduated, he went to work for the Canadian Armament Research and Development Establishment (CARDE) near Quebec City, where he researched missiles and aerodynamics. Around this time, in 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the United States by launching Sputnik, the first successful satellite. That spurred more investment from the U.S., and Canada to an extent, in Bull’s field, and specifically to CARDE.
It was while he was at CARDE that Bull came up with an idea that would become the obsession of the rest of his life.
“He believed that you could take a large gun, essentially an artillery piece, and by changing the ballistics of the gun itself, improving the propellant and the length of the barrel, you could send a satellite into space,” said James Adams, a former journalist and the author of a 1992 book about Gerald Bull, called Bull’s Eye.
Adams said Bull’s innovation was to essentially make access to space cheaper and more efficient. Rather than using rockets, and their expensive fuel, to propel an object into orbit, Bull envisioned launching satellites using extremely large guns.
“What he imagined was he would create something cheaper, faster, repeatable, accessible to large companies, organizations, rich individuals, perhaps, and send satellites into space, very simply, very fast,” Adams said.
Adams sees a parallel between Bull and billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos today: Big personalities with big ideas to make space accessible to more people, with limited patience for bureaucracy and red tape. Bull’s idea at the time, allowing more entities to cheaply launch satellites, could have been revolutionary.
But while he had these grand ideas, he also had a reputation for being somewhat bombastic. Some, especially in the Canadian scientific and government communities, saw him as arrogant. And while he had funding from the government early in his career, there were persistent questions of whether it would keep flowing.
Eventually, Bull left CARDE and found a new home for his research at McGill University in Montreal. That’s where he started a program called the High Altitude Research Project (HARP) to continue studying his big gun idea. HARP had financial support from both Canada and the US military, and it was where Bull’s research really started to take off, so to speak. HARP set up a facility on the island of Barbados. There, they build an enormous gun with a 60-foot long barrel.
In 1963, this mammoth gun called Bertha fired for the first time in Barbados, and it reached 85,000 feet. This was a huge accomplishment for Bull. Though it wasn’t yet reaching orbit, the gun showed promise. A few years later, as his research continued, Bull began to buy property for a second test site, this one closer to home: A stretch of land spanning the border from Highwater, Quebec into Jay, Vermont, near the village of North Troy on the Vermont side. But it was also around this time that the Canadian government started to get wary of Bull’s project, in part because the U.S. military and the CIA were also involved. The CIA saw potential military applications for Bull’s research, but Canada wanted to steer clear of funding the project for military purposes.
Eventually, the HARP program at McGill shut down in the late 1960s. But Bull was still holding on to his dream of space, so he went private, setting up the Space Research Corporation in this border-straddling stretch of Quebec and Vermont.
Most of the operation was on the Quebec side, where large guns were positioned horizontally. Bull and his staff would fire test shots directly into the side of a mountain. On the Vermont side was the administrative portion of the business, including that now-abandoned office building I saw with Scott Wheeler. This unique arrangement had financial advantages for the company, according to author James Adams.
“You could put stuff in in the north and take advantage of Canada's tax situations, or you could put it through from the south and take advantage of the U.S.,” he said. “So you ended up benefiting from both and paying nothing to both.”
“It had a real James Bond quality to it,” Sam Hemingway told me. He was a reporter for the Burlington Free Press at the time, who closely covered Space Research in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. “This is a company that straddled the border… they had free ability to move stuff back and forth over the border. Nobody was really watching.”
‘They paid so well’
This secretive James Bond-esque facility also happened to be an economic engine for a rural, sparsely populated corner of the region. Suddenly, here came an interesting company with money and skilled engineers from McGill and elsewhere, and they needed help.
“You had engineers, and you had ballistics people, but you also had, you know, paper pushers, you had accountants, you had various low-level people,” said Scott Wheeler of the Northland Journal.
One of those workers was a young man named Dennis Ste. Marie. These days, he lives in Colchester and works for GlobalFoundries in Essex Junction. But back in 1977, he’d just graduated from Champlain College with a degree in business administration, and he'd moved back to his hometown of North Troy to work at his family's grocery store. The president of Space Research, Colonel Rogers Gregory, and his wife used to shop in the store, Ste. Marie said. His parents asked Gregory’s wife if there were any job openings.
“And next thing I know, he called me up and said, ‘if you're interested, go up, see this person,’” Ste. Marie said.
Without any training or experience, Ste. Marie was hired as a computer operator. This was the late 1970’s, when computers were quite large.
“They were about the size of a refrigerator,” he said.
According to Ste. Marie, for this whole operation, there were just two computers on the site.
“One was for administrative and HR, accounts payable kind of stuff,” he said. “The other one was for scientific analysis and stuff when they shot the shells.”
Ste. Marie said when he was working there, Space Research had about 300 employees. They were doing something that a lot of people in economic development in Vermont are still trying to do today: Bringing in highly skilled, high-earning professionals into a rural area from out of state, and bringing good-paying jobs to locals as well.
“They were good for the economy, they brought in a lot of money, you know, because they were living there, and they had to have their cars repaired and buy groceries and all that stuff,” Ste. Marie said.
Karleen Denton of North Troy owned a grocery store in town at the time and saw the economic impact firsthand.
“They'd stop in after work and get their newspaper and other things,” Denton said. “It was good for our business. A lot of nice people, too.”
Former employees of Space Research, like Dennis Ste. Marie, still feel that despite some of the questionable actions Gerald Bull eventually took, his company was a net positive for the community, and brought a level of economic activity to the town that it hasn’t seen since.
“North Troy's a nice community but it's down on its luck and is trying to pick itself up,” said Scott Wheeler, the local historian. “It will never probably see the heyday from the Space Research days.”
The operation in North Troy did cause some stir with locals, however, when the company would test its big guns, firing into the side of a Quebec mountain. You could hear it and feel it for miles around.
“You could not live here without knowing it was here,” Wheeler said. “When they fired off the big guns, it could knock knickknacks off your stands.”
“Well, you wondered if your shelf of cups and saucers fall off the wall or not,” said Karleen Denton. “They never did, but yeah, you noticed it.”
(If you’re a current Chittenden County resident, you might see some parallels here to the effects of a certain military aircraft based at the Burlington Airport.)
Besides the occasional rumblings throughout the town, the company seemed to get along well with the local community. And those who worked there say they liked the management.
“He was colorful. He was demanding, understanding. He had more good qualities than bad ones,” said Fernande Tomuschat, Bull’s former secretary, who remains fiercely loyal to Bull. “I would be hard pressed to find someone who would not say he was a very, very nice man.”
Finding funding abroad
Bull was still holding on to this dream of using his large guns to launch satellites. But by the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it was clear that there was not going to be a market for that.
“I think along with Vietnam and other things, the United States kind of lost interest,” said former Burlington Free Press reporter Sam Hemingway. “And so the grants dried up. Space Research had all these brilliant people, but … the gun was not going to make them any money.”
So, around this time, Bull starts to turn to more traditional applications for gun technology: weaponry. There had always been some military interest in his research; the Army and CIA had helped fund him. Artillery technology was where the money was — for Bull, that meant making smaller guns (relative to the football field-sized supergun) shoot farther. He began to market that technology, and he found buyers.
Author James Adams said that as Bull got into this world of weaponry, he was out of his depth.
“It was never clear to me that he really understood the world in which he had kind of accidentally entered,” Adams said. “Someone … kind of comes with a bag full of money and says, ‘Hey, Jerry, we love you. You've got some stuff, got some technology. Would you like some cash?’”
Bull’s first buyer was the Israeli government, which bought artillery shells that were later used in the Arab-Israeli war in 1973. And while he still had a grand vision for space technology, by the mid 1970s Bull was solidly in the weapons manufacturing and dealing field. Then, another customer got interested in his work.
“Along came South Africa, they were willing to pay a premium for what was really a black market product,” Hemingway said.
For context here, we need to remember what South Africa was like at this time: In the late 1970s, South Africa was in the full throes of apartheid, which was the systematic segregation of everyone in South Africa who was not white by the minority, white ruling class. And that meant non-white South Africans were made to live in areas separate from whites, they were shut out of political representation; they lost their South African citizenship. It was a brutal regime.
Much of the international community, including the U.S., opposed apartheid. In 1963, many Western countries endorsed a U.N. arms embargo against South Africa, meaning that they could not sell weapons to the South African government. But South Africa in the late ‘70s was also fighting a war in Angola against Marxist rebels. Again, this is during the Cold War, and the Soviet Union was supporting the Marxists. And the U.S., meanwhile, was doing two things at once.
“While we were endorsees of the embargo, there was a lot of funny business going on underneath,” Sam Hemingway said.
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In other words, during this Cold War era, the U.S. was publicly opposing South Africa, but covertly allowing arms shipments to continue to flow to the country, to aid them in their efforts in Angola, where the Soviet Union also had an interest.
Around this time, Sam Hemingway said he was reporting in Vermont, and he saw a CBC documentary about some questionable arms shipments that were made from Space Research to South Africa. He started looking into the story, and enlisted another reporter named Scott Malone to work on it with him. They started developing sources, they looked into documents and they started to track shipments of artillery shells from places like Antigua and New Brunswick.
“The last one, I think, went out of Montreal, on this little steamer that had no business crossing the Atlantic,” Hemingway recalled. “But it was a way to avoid detection. They had all this false paperwork to say it was going here when it was actually going there. And so one by one we were able to find out about these shipments.”
It’s one of those stories that went “drip, drip, drip,” and Sam Hemingway was reporting on it frequently.
“Each story begat the next one, and we found out that South African generals had visited the compound up at North Troy,” he said. “That was interesting.”
And, they found out that Space Research officials visited a military base in South Africa, and figured out who went on the trip.
“I mean, I'm saying ‘we figured this out’ – we figured this out because we'd developed some really good and deep sources both within the company and within the government and within the Customs Service.”
So, Sam Hemingway is reporting these stories in the newspaper about these questionable arms shipments, and at the same time, Gerald Bull gets interviewed by a British reporter about some shipments that were supposed to have gone to Spain. When the reporter asks Bull how they ended up in South Africa, Bull appears visibly uncomfortable. “We’ll certainly check it out,” he offers.
An arms embargo plea deal
Meanwhile, a customs agent in Vermont named Larry Curtis, with whom Sam Hemingway and his co-reporter were in touch, was also investigating these questionable shipments that Space Research was making. By many accounts, Curtis was dogged in his job, and eventually his investigation led to a federal grand jury being seated in Rutland.
Reporter Sam Hemingway would stake out at the proceedings. He’d sit in a courthouse hallway as the grand jury was meeting so he could watch witnesses come in and out every day.
“I'd have no idea what's being said in the room. But all I know is, I can see the grand jurors go in the room, the door closes, and then I can see an assistant or head U.S. Attorney for the state escort somebody into the room and close the door. And then at some point later on, they come back out,” Hemingway said. “I would time how long they were in there. And I'd have a story to say, this or that person … testified today before the federal grand jury about the Space Research arms scheme.”
Eventually, Gerald Bull and Rogers Gregory were indicted for violating the U.N. arms embargo. But Larry Curtis, the customs agent who had been investigating this case, had found evidence that it was not just Space Research that was in on these deals.
“We were talking about indicting 15 individuals, I believe three countries, and five corporations,” he told FRONTLINE in 1991.
Curtis was surprised and disgusted to find out that only Gerald Bull and Rogers Gregory were going to be indicted in this whole operation.
“I was told that the reason we never went any further was because there had been a phone call from the White House. I took that to mean there had been a phone call from the White House to [the Justice Department] stating ‘Don't go any further with the investigation.’”
Gerald Bull and Rogers Gregory worked out a plea agreement. And according to FRONTLINE, what this essentially meant was that they did not go to trial — a trial, in this case, could have led to allegations of the CIA's involvement coming out in an open court. And that didn't happen.
But author James Adams said there's pretty good evidence that the CIA was supportive of arms shipments to South Africa: “There isn't a piece of paper that says go forth, Mr. Bull, and multiply. But the fact of the support of the intelligence community and part of the defense community for South Africa was very well known.”
Ultimately, Gerald Bull and Rogers Gregory reached a plea agreement with the government, and no indictments were leveled against anyone else. Bull and Gregory pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to just a few months in prison. Gerald Bull felt like he had been betrayed by the government, and he was livid. Sam Hemingway, the reporter, was in the courtroom when he was sentenced.
“Bull at sentencing was … getting kind of angry and [started] coming toward me,” Hemingway said. “And some of his people with him kind of calmed him down because he was pretty worked up. He’s just been told he's going to jail, you know? It's pretty intense.”
The end of Space Research in Vermont
Bull was sentenced in June of 1980. And back in the Northeast Kingdom, Space Research employees like Dennis Ste. Marie were just getting word that they might be out of a job for a while.
“They came around and said, you know, ‘We're running into some issues with the government and we got to work it out … We're going to temporarily close and we'll let you know when we reopen,’” Ste. Marie recalled. “They kind of gave you a hope that you'd be back maybe in a couple weeks or something like that.”
But a few weeks turned into the whole summer.
“I went back to work at my parents’ store,” Ste. Marie said. “And then, in the late fall, I decided I wanted something different.”
Ste. Marie got a job at IBM in Essex Junction. And while some other Space Research employees attempted to create offshoots of the company in other Vermont locations, the compound in North Troy and Highwater ultimately closed around this time. And that left it to slowly decay into what it is today: these abandoned spots in the woods.
In the early 1980s, Bull served his four-month prison sentence at a relatively up-scale prison in Pennsylvania. But despite his plea deal, Bull maintained he was innocent and had been made to be a scapegoat by the U.S. government. When he got out of prison, he was bitter, and he didn’t want to work with the U.S. or Canada anymore. So he headed to Brussels, Belgium, where he'd spend the next 10 years of his life. And Brussels was considered the arms dealing capital of the world, said author James Adams.
“So here's this ballistics guy who is known to be angry, alienated, nowhere to turn — but has got a lot of knowledge,” Adams said. “So he's attractive.”
And who Bull is attractive to are more countries who want his technology and his expertise in artillery. That includes countries like China, Adams said, and also the government of Iraq, which was under dictator Saddam Hussein at the time. And so it was around this time in the ‘80s, when Bull had become a full-on arms dealer living in Brussels, that he made a deal with Saddam Hussein. Hussein agreed to bankroll Bull’s pet project, the supergun.
“[Bull’s] sell was, you, Saddam, will be able to lead the Arab nations in putting satellites into space,” Adams said. “So you'll lead the Space Race, it'll be glory to the people of Iraq, kind of a thing.”
ButSaddam Hussein was also working on other things during the 1980s. Namely, he was trying to start a nuclear weapons program.
“How much Bull knew about that is uncertain,” Adams said. “He's not a nuclear guy. Would he have known the extent of Iraq's nuclear program? Absolutely not.”
Still, Bull was desperate for money and wanted to see his supergun vision come to life. So he worked with Hussein toward building a super gun. And Adams said around this time, intelligence agencies, including in Britain, the U.S. and Israel, started to get wind of this project.
“For the Israelis, the concern was, here's this guy, he's building this huge gun, it brings all of Israel within firing range from Iraq, and we, Israel, are very concerned about their nuclear program,” Adams said. “So we [Israel] take this extremely seriously, and we therefore need to think about how we address the problem.”
On the evening of March 22, 1990, Gerald Bull takes the elevator up to his sixth floor apartment in Brussels. He walks to his door and begins fumbling for his key. Then, a person walks up behind him and fires three shots from an automatic pistol with a silencer into his back. Bull falls and hits the door. The killer fires two more shots into the back of his head. And Gerald Bull is dead.
“They found his briefcase with $20,000 in it,” reporter Sam Hemingway said. “And the key was still in the door. It wasn't like this was a break-in. This was an assassination.”
By now, it’s been 10 years since Hemingway covered Bull’s arms deals and sentencing. He gets back on the story along with his co-reporter, Scott Malone, and they also enlist an Israeli journalist who had sources within the Mossad, which is Israel's intelligence community.
“We did do a piece that said, you know, the Mossad was the leading candidate for the assassination of Gerald bull,” Hemingway said. “And that's about as best as we could do.”
There still isn’t a clear answer as to who killed Gerald Bull. But like Sam Hemingway said, there's a lot of suspicion that it was the Israeli Mossad, because they had reasons to want Bull dead. They did not want him and Saddam Hussein to complete the supergun project, which threatened Israel. There are other theories, too.
In the end, what it meant on a geopolitical level was that Saddam Hussein's weapons system, the supergun, was no longer. Though in the first Gulf War in Iraq, the U.S. and other allies were up against forces using weaponry that was stronger, and could shoot farther, and in some ways was better than what the U.S. was using, in part because of the technology that Bull had sold to Iraq.
This final chapter in Bull’s life makes it difficult to place him in the historical record. Was he a starry-eyed scientist with grand aims for advancing space technology? Or was he someone who was willing to put ethics aside to make money?
Author James Adams said he sees Gerald Bull as a man who was naive and out of his depth — someone who saw arms dealing as a means to an end to create that system that he thought would revolutionize access to space.
“He just seemed [like] this big bear of a man stumbling around in a world which he never fully understood,” Adams said. “And that world of guns and bullets and spooks is not for the faint of heart.You've got to be pretty wise to the world. And he never struck me like that.
“It's a cautionary tale,” Adams continued. “Sup with a long spoon if you're dealing with people who live in the darkness. And I think [it’s] a cautionary tale too in the [psychological] sense of how people who can be brilliant in one part of the world can be hopelessly naive in another part.”
Gerald Bull’s legacy in Vermont — and beyond
So what did it mean that Gerald Bull’s story landed, for a time, in Vermont?
Scott Wheeler, the local historian, acknowledges the contrast of Gerald Bull and his role in the Northeast Kingdom.
“His weapons of war — let's be real. His weaponry, his munitions, they kill people. There's no sugarcoating that,” Wheeler says. “From a local level, [Bull] was a very good employer, but from a world level, you know, he played in a tough business, and it cost him his life.”
Dennis Ste. Marie and others who worked at Space Research still think that Bull was wronged, and was made to be a scapegoat by the U.S. government.
“The government kind of screwed him over,” Ste. Marie says. “But him playing with Hussein wasn't really nice, either … I don't give him much credit for that, you know, and that kind of was his demise.”
At the same time, Ste. Marie is grateful for the opportunity that he got at the Space Research Corporation 40 years ago,
“It really helped grow my career, to really focus on IT and computers, which I didn't do [in college] at Champlain or, working at my parents grocery store.”
Ste. Marie eventually went on to work at IBM, which became GlobalFoundries. He's still there 40 years later.
“It all started there,” he says.
I also asked reporter Sam Hemingway how he views the whole story now. One thing he said was that he wishes he’d focused a bit more in his reporting on why this story mattered in the first place — which was apartheid in South Africa, and the fact that this company in northern Vermont was breaking a U.N. arms embargo to send weapons to this government that was discriminating against and oppressing the majority of its people.
“I kind of wish I had examined that part of the story in more detail,” he said. “So the people could get the context of why this is so darn important. Why are we paying all this attention to Space Research? Because they were doing something, basically, to fortify the advocates of apartheid. I don't think I hit that nail hard enough.”
Finally, unfortunately we’re hearing a lot about artillery and weapons technology in the news these days, particularly in Ukraine. Is a successor of Gerald Bull’s technology being used in Ukraine and beyond right now? James Adams, who not only wrote a book on Bull but has also done a lot of reporting and research around the military and weapon systems, said that Bull’s legacy really does not live on in that technology. Ironically, if Bull had actually been able to carry out his dream of launching things into space, his legacy might have been very different.
“You can't say today, ‘That’s a Bull piece,’ or, ‘That was Jerry, he did that.’ No, it all just got lost in the general mix of things. And so for a guy who started off with so much promise and vision, it's a kind of sad headstone on his grave to say that, well, how much did any of that matter? Not much, really. I mean, life goes on.”
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Thanks to Eric Lucier for the great question.
Henry Epp reported this episode. It was lead produced and mixed by Angela Evancie, with scoring and additional engineering by Josh Crane. Additional editing and production by the Brave Little State team: Myra Flynn, Josh Crane & Angela Evancie. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to Anna Ste. Marie, Kevin Trevellyan, Mark Davis, Michael Rogers, and Kate Phillips and Paul Carnahan of the Vermont Historical Society.
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