4 4 Л /e had from our first presentation improved the control system У У quite a lot and we continued to improve it over the years. We got it down to two thrusters; then we started to work on the precession capabilities of one thruster. I had at first thought it would take four, but Don had come back very quickly with a major improvement. We had four for redundancy, but we still could precess it with one jet. NASA was skeptical about the single-pulse thruster.” Thus Rosen thirty years later.
NASA, which had some contact with Hughes in February 1960, was skeptical about considerably more than the single-pulse thruster. Rosen had proposed that the inexpensive Scout rocket, which Richard Kershner also favored for Transit, should launch the twenty-four-hour satellite. In the same month that Hyland authorized an in-house program, NASA’s Langley Research Center completed an analysis of the Scout rocket, and concluded that it could not place a twenty-five-pound satellite (the Rosen-Williams satellite had now grown from twenty pounds and would put on more weight, but not as much as Advent) in a twenty-four-hour orbit. Nor could any other launch vehicle.
But Puckett and Hyland were now supportive. Puckett coordinated the marketing, keeping Hyland informed of his progress. There were approaches to GTE (a common carrier) and CBS, attempting to promote interest in the idea of a communications satellite, and to E. G. Witting, the director of research and development in the Department of the Army.
On April 1, 1960, Puckett briefed Herb York, formerly the head of the Advanced Projects Research Agency, now the director of defense research and engineering, and John Rubel’s boss.
In May, the month that the first attempt to launch Echo failed, Williams was immersed in dynamic analyses of the satellite. Rosen was preparing another proposal, specifying Thor-Delta, which had a greater lift capability than Scout, as the launch vehicle. Hughes sent an unsolicited copy of the revised proposal to NASA on June 15, 1960. NASA, however, was confined to work on passive satellites at the time by its agreement with the Department of Defense.
In July, AT&T disclosed its $170 million plan for a constellation of fifty medium-altitude satellites and argued that the Federal Communications Commission should reserve frequencies for satellite communication. Williams was as usual preoccupied with engineering, this time concentrating on calculations of moments of inertia. Hughes made a presentation soliciting support to the space science panel of the president’s science advisory committee. They received a polite letter of thanks, but no encouragement.
In the meantime, Hughes’ man in Washington had also been busy. He knew one of Vice President Nixon’s bodyguards, and the vice president, said Rosen, owed the bodyguard a favor. He arranged for Hughes to make a presentation to the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who told them that they looked like nice people—surely they didn’t want to get mixed up with politics. They did, however, get a meeting with NASA administrator T. Keith Glennan out of the encounter. “So you can see,” said Rosen, “we were grasping at straws.”
In August, the policy confining NASA to work on passive communications satellites was formally abandoned. Within days, John Pierce and senior AT&T executives briefed NASA on Bell’s experimental active satellite plans. On the same day, Hughes executives, by now contemplating a joint venture, had another meeting with GTE.
A few days later Puckett, in the meeting that resulted from the encounter with Hall of the Republican National Committee, briefed the NASA administrator T. Keith Glennan. Glennan said that Puckett was talking through his hat and recommended that Hughes work on medium – altitude satellites.
Glennan’s comment must be judged in context. NASA’s Langley Research Center concluded that the Hughes proposal was marginal, and the new agreement with the Defense Department, signed only days earlier, would soon preclude NASA from involvement in communications satellites in twenty-four-hour orbits.
Despite Glennan’s negativity, NASA’s head of communication satellites, Leonard Jaffe visited Hughes on September 1. To Samuel Lutz, it looked as though Rosen and the supporters of a twenty-four-hour satellite now thought that they had a NASA contract in the bag. If they did, they either did not know some important things, for example the agreement between NASA and the Defense Department, or there was a high degree of wishful thinking.
Meanwhile, Puckett was hearing negative views from colleagues within the company. Critical memos reached him saying that Hughes was presenting a fragmentary approach to potential military customers and that the best role for Hughes was as a supplier to AT&T. On the other side of the country, at AT&T’s corporate headquarters in New York, the issue of the Hughes repeater surfaced at a meeting of Bell’s engineers on September 1, 1960. A report of the meeting says “Hughes is supposed to have an ingenious twenty-pound repeater (TV bandwidth is claimed).” Those at the meeting agreed that if the repeater was any good, Bell should try to obtain it for trial.
The supporters of the twenty-four-hour satellite within Hughes continued to try to involve GTE, and GTE’s technical staff spent four days at Hughes in early September. They made no commitments, but Rosen sensed that GTE would join Hughes. At Hyland’s request, Hughes briefed the RAND Corporation. Puckett warned his people to say nothing about the discussions with GTE. And later that September, John Rubel, who had worked at Hughes before moving to the Office of the Director of Research and Engineering in May 1959, visited his old workplace. Puckett had already briefed Herb York about the Hughes twenty-four-hour satellite in April, and presumably, Rubel now learned more.
On October 2, in a meeting that must have been full of tension, Rosen, Williams, and Hudspeth briefed the engineers at Bell. Among those present were John Pierce and Leroy Tillotson. As Pierce listened he became convinced that Rosen was a wild-eyed dreamer, willing to say anything to sell his satellite.
Shortly afterwards, Witting, the Army’s R&D director, wrote to Hughes. He was unapologetically dismissive of the Hughes proposal and fluent in his condemnation of the weaknesses of many of the satellite’s systems. Rosen was infuriated. He called Witting and wrote a deeply sarcastic letter, pointing out the errors in Witting’s evaluation. Just under a year later, Witting’s successor would respond to this letter, reaffirming everything that Witting had said. It was written on the day that NASA, supported by the Department of Defense, placed a sole-source contract with Hughes for a twenty-four-hour satellite.
In November 1960, Puckett, Rosen, and Williams briefed ITT, General Bernard Schriever, the British military, and Stanford Research Laboratory. At the Cosmos Club in Washington D. C., Puckett talked enthusiastically of the proposal to Lee DuBridge, the president of Caltech. But, despite the flurry of technical and marketing activities; the optimism and confidence of Rosen, Williams, and Hudspeth; and the support of Hyland and Puckett, the Hughes Aircraft Company was by the end of the year no further forward. No one wanted their satellite. GTE had made no more moves towards a joint venture. By the next spring, GTE would be in partnership with RCA and Lockheed, and that group would be proposing its own ideas for satellites in a twenty-four-hour orbit. Hughes had no contract, nor any likelihood of a contract, with NASA, which was bound by its agreement with the Defense Department not to develop twenty-four-hour satellites. The Army had rejected them, and in such a comprehensively dismissive way that there could be no hope remaining from that quarter. The Air Force said that the proposal was marginal and overoptimistic with regard to payload capability. These two branches of the military were engaged in one of their frequent skirmishes, with control of the development of communications satellites the disputed territory. Rosen’s proposal would not have been welcome.
Rather desperately, or so it seemed to some within the company, Hughes announced late in 1960 that it had an off-the-shelf satellite for sale. During the three months at the beginning of 1960 when Hyland had had the project on ice, Rosen, Williams, and Hudspeth had continued their work. Hudspeth had worked on breadboards for the electronics, while Rosen and Williams refined the mechanical structure and ideas about the satellite’s control mechanism. As soon as Hyland had given the go-ahead, they’d put together a little project lab and started making things. In May, Hughes had begun construction, and by the fall, they’d demonstrated the control mechanism in the lab and had tested the satellite’s ability to transmit television signals. Thus, with their ideas embodied in hardware, they sought a wider audience. They demonstrated the satellite in December at a meeting of the American Rocket Society.
During the winter of 1960 — 61, very few people were working on the satellite. Bob Roney wrote to Puckett seeking assurances that there would be money in the coming year for further development. Puckett, however, was under pressure to switch the Hughes effort to medium-altitude satellites and to bid in the forthcoming NASA competition for Project Relay. NASA put out its request for proposals in January, and with the same reluctance that characterized AT&T’s response, Hughes prepared to compete. Rosen and Williams remained aloof.
Yet the tide of their fortunes was changing, had probably been changing all through that dismal Christmas in a way that is discernable only with hindsight. Between October 1960 and March 1961, three Centaurs blew up, which set back the Centaur development schedule and thus the schedule for Advent, the Army’s twenty-four-hour satellite. There were several downward revisions of the amount of payload that Centaur could lift, yet Advent was getting heavier. John Rubel, of DDR&D, was unhappy about these things and knew that the Department of Defense needed improved communications. Rubel had also visited Hughes in September 1960, and must have learned more about the twenty-four-hour satellite, and he respected Harold Rosen’s work. Together these events and Rubel’s attitude must have influenced circumstances in favor of the Hughes satellite.
An early indication of the changing tide came when Rosen was asked to brief the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) on January 11, 1961, about the Hughes twenty-four-hour satellite. The IDA was evaluating communications satellites for the Office of the Director of Research Engineering. Rosen’s report of the meeting, written the next day, records that the IDA made generally favorable remarks about his presentation and was critical of Advent. He wrote that one panel member had said that program managers apparently placed more faith in the development of the Centaur rocket than of a traveling wave tube, and that the panel member did not consider the attitude justified.
This comment alluded to the reservations some felt about John Mendel’s prospects of successfully developing his lightweight traveling wave tube. In February, Rosen, in response to questions for Rubel, sent a telegram saying that the traveling wave tube had been chosen because of its superior performance. He cited publications by Bell and comments from John Pierce to bolster his case. If there were to be problems with the tube, Rosen wrote, it could be replaced with a triode even though the satellite would then operate at reduced power and bandwidth.
In California, Williams was preoccupied by the recently discovered tri-axiality of the Earth and its influence on the motion of satellites in geosynchronous orbit. During that same February, Hughes executives were discussing what the company should do if it did not win the Project Relay competition. And Samuel Lutz, at Puckett’s request, was again reviewing the twenty-four-hour satellite. This time Lutz was much more negative. The satellite, Lutz wrote, had not shown “the high degree of engineering conservatism which would give it sales appeal to the common carrier.” Competitors, he pointed out, offered satellites with a longer life for very little extra delay in development. Lutz recommended that no effort be spared to win the NASA competition for Relay. If successful, the company would save face and recover some of its half-million investment. Lutz’s report clearly shows that he was intimidated by AT&T’s monopoly position, by its financial resources, and by the technical resources of Bell. “Do we,” he asked, “want a future in this field badly enough to make the effort it will require?”
Even as the words clattered out of his typewriter, the moves were being made that would set the Hughes Aircraft Company on its path to Syncom, Early Bird and a preeminent position among satellite manufacturers. The hard work of balancing out on a limb had, though they did not know it, been done.
At the end of March 1961, Hughes made a presentation to Rubel in Washington. For the next few months Puckett and other Hughes executives would hang on Rubel’s every word. If they talked with him over dinner or at a meeting, a memo was circulated, reporting either what was said or what they read between the lines.
Puckett had learned from Rubel that the administration was concerned that the country was not moving quickly enough toward a communications satellite capable of either military or commercial operation. The current plans, Rubel had told Puckett, were for a system that was “a long way downstream” as well as “very expensive,” and it would be appropriate to seek an interim system. Puckett had asked what Hughes could do, and Rubel had replied that the Department of Defense had received proposals in varying degrees of formality, but had no reasonable means of choosing among them. Hughes, he said, could perhaps produce a white paper providing a historical and technical context for a decision.
On May 8, Puckett sent Rubel a letter, making no reference to their previous discussion. In it Puckett wrote that Hughes had prepared a special research study dealing with various aspects of the military communication problem. The study’s purpose, he wrote, was to examine the possible value of a lightweight spacecraft as an interim communications satellite. Puckett offered to submit a full proposal “if you believe this deserves continued consideration.” Hughes was at this stage close to having completed the proposal mentioned, and Puckett already knew from C. Gordon Murphy what would be an acceptable date for submission of the proposal to DDR&D.
It seems that the contents of these discussions did not filter down to Williams, who on May 11 wrote a long, critical memo to Hyland. It began, “You are aware of my bullish outlook regarding commercial communication satellites and my confidence in the Hughes stationary satellite concept. For the past several months, I have been concerned that Hughes is letting its technical advantage slip away for political reasons…He wrote persuasively and at length, but his views were at odds with company policy because he still hoped that Hughes would undertake the project without government involvement.
In Washington events moved apace. The policy debate provoked by monopoly considerations and by Berkner’s assertion that communication satellites would be a billion dollar business was well underway, and a decision had been taken that Advent would continue. But Hughes’s star was still rising.
On June 6, 1961, events had reached a stage allowing Jaffe to recommend that NASA negotiate with Hughes to develop a twenty-four-hour satellite. Jaffe thought there was no doubt as to the ultimate desirability of twenty-four-hour satellites even though he remained convinced they would not be operational for years.
Given the division of labor that NASA and the Defense Department had agreed to, this recommendation was possible only because Rubel, along with Robert Seamans, NASA’s associate administrator, was plotting the agreement’s abolition. Seamans viewed the idea of an operational communications system based on tens of medium-altitude satellites as imprac – tical. Where, he had asked Bell, do you propose to get all your computers from? Rubel, of course, knew that the Defense Department needed an interim satellite to provide some cover during the solar minimum, but he judged that the time was not right for canceling Advent. If, however, the agreement between NASA and Defense could be set aside, NASA could place a contract with Hughes to explore the alternative technology of a lightweight twenty-four-hour satellite.
On June 17, Rubel was holding discussions with NASA. Another senior Hughes executive, A. S.Jerrems, happened to be in Washington that weekend, and he met Rubel in the evening. Jerrems wrote to Puckett, “He was inscrutable about the detailed content of the meeting, but he made a statement to the effect that, in his opinion, HAC’s [Hughes Aircraft Company] proposal for getting a geosynchronous satellite funded are better now than they have ever been.”
On June 21 the odds in favor of Hughes improved again. The Institute for Defense Analysis met to discuss the merits of an experiment with a lightweight satellite. The IDA concluded that if the country decided to have only one program in active satellites in addition to Advent, then that program
Thomas Hudspeth (left) and Dr. Harold A. Rosen stand atop the Eiffel Tower during the Paris Air Show of 1962. Between them is the prototype Syncom satellite which they and Dr. Donald D. Williams fought so hard for.
should be for medium-altitude satellites. Further, they said that an experiment with lightweight satellites should not interfere with Advent (the Army) or Project Westford (ne Needles—the Air Force), nor should it affect the determination to pursue medium-altitude satellites. Having saved everyone’s face, the panel said that the experiment with a lightweight active repeater was
Harold A. Rosen (right foreground) and Thomas Hudspeth hold the prototype of Syncom, the world’s first synchronous orbit satellite. Behind them is IntelsatVI, a later generation of communication satellite. The tiny Syncom would fit in one of the fuel tanks which Dr. Rosen is pointing toward.
unique and should be undertaken. Two days later, the deputy secretary of defense, Roswell Gilpatrick, wrote to James Webb effectively releasing NASA from its tacit agreement not to work on active satellites in geostationary orbit.
There was still much for the administrators to do, but the Hughes twenty-four-hour satellite was now secure. On July 27, Abe Silverstein,
NASA’s director of spaceflight programs, told Goddard to put together a preliminary project plan for Hughes that was to be prepared with the Army’s Advent Management Agency. On August 11, NASA announced that the Hughes Aircraft Company had been chosen on a sole-source basis to build a twenty-four-hour satellite. Goddard decided that the satellite should be called Syncom (for synchronous communication). The first launch attempt failed. Somehow, it seems almost obligatory that it should have done so. It was a black day for Harold Rosen—elation followed by despair. The second attempt, on July 26, 1963, succeeded. It was launched into a “quasi-geostationary” orbit, which was easier to reach than a true geostationary orbit: it was at geosynchronous altitude but was not coplanar with the equator. Still, Syncom proved that communication was possible via a radio relay at geosynchronous altitude. It had just one voice channel. But together with Syncoms II and III, it demonstrated the technology and led to the selection of one of Harold’s spinners as Early Bird, which opened the still unfolding era of global telecommunications.
But all of you have lived through the last four years and have seen the significance of space and the adventure of space, and no one can predict with certainty what the ultimate meaning will be—
—John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961