Commentary on The Telstar Project
By Eugene O'Neill
| July 13, 1991
Dear Mr. Sharpe,
I want to thank you for sending me the copy of Vintage Electrics. It was a real pleasure to read through it, especially as so much of it was dedicated to events in which I was deeply involved and was written by such old friends and acquaintances as Dick Dickieson, John Pierce, and Jim Early. I did not keep a journal or diary while I was involved with the Telstar project and I learned long ago not to trust the memory of old men (including, most emphatically, mine!). Indeed, they have written so well about the research and development leading to the launch and success of the Telstar satellite that, as I mentioned in our phone conversation, I really have very little to add to their accounts. What follows is therefore something of potpourri of recollections stimulated by the articles you have from them.
In the late 1950s I was a department head at Bell Labs working on the development of Time Assignment Speech Interpolation (TASI) terminals. This was a marvelous project. It involved one of the first applications of digital techniques in complex all-solid-state terminals to connect people to expensive submarine cable channels only while they were actually speaking. During their pauses, such as when the other party was talking, the channel was rapidly switched to another momentary active talker. These terminals effectively doubled the capacity of the submarine cables of that day. A.C. "Dick" Dickieson was my boss as a director in the Transmission Development area at Bell Labs. (In those days the typical structure in our part of BTL consisted of "departments" of 25-30 people made up of 3 or 4 supervisory groups. Three or four departments constituted a "laboratory" under the direction of a "director".) As ACD mentions in his article, when the satellite development outgrew the resources of the BTL Research area, he was put in charge of its development. Although I was still extremely busy winding up the TASI job (TASI first went into service in the Spring of 1960) I began to be involved in the satellite work by the summer of 1960.
Sometime early in 1961 I was promoted to Director in another part of the Transmission Division. That was the good news.
The bad news was that my new assignment dealt entirely with old well established technology. After TASI and the preliminary satellite work I found that very dull to put it mildly! But good news was just around the corner. In the Spring of 1961 Dickieson was also promoted, to Executive Director, and I was shifted to be director of the satellite project that evolved into Telstar.
Dick had indeed participated in the satellite decisions at BTL from the first involvement of the development areas. He took part in all the major decisions and as Executive Director continued to be a major manager of the project. He had, however, many other developments besides Telstar in his division and had to spare them at least a little of his time. (I have often felt sorry for the people who had to carry on the other day-by-day work of the Transmission Area in the presence of the Telstar elephant.) In contrast, my sole responsibility was to carry on the Telstar work.
Not to mislead, however, many aspects of the work did not come under my direct supervision. I don't suppose I ever had many more than 100 people reporting directly to me. Several times that number, perhaps as many as 400 or 500 people, or even more, were involved full time on devices, launch control, various aspects of the earth terminal, experiments on the character of the space environment, and the many planning exercises concerning what would follow if we were successful. My task, in addition to specific design of the electronics of the satellite repeater and key transmission components of the earth station, was to coordinate the multiple activities within BTL and with the British, French, German, Italian, and Japanese organizations that were building ground terminals and, of course, especially with NASA who was responsible for the rocket launch.
This sounds impressive but, in fact, much of the time I hardly knew what was going on in large parts of the project. Things moved much too rapidly for that. Coordinating consisted mostly of making sure that the small army of highly competent people involved knew what we were trying to do and then letting them alone to do it. There were very few project tracking meetings or formal reports. The most difficult part was the relationship with NASA, an organization that lives on elaborate formality and documentation. They insisted on diagrams showing what we would do if various hypothetical difficulties arose, but even with NASA, the relationship was basically good.
In all this I was more than ably assisted by Irwin Welber and Hugh Kelly who developed the overall transmission plan and did most of the coordination work to bring the ground stations, both AT&Tís and the foreign ones, into existence. Bob Shennum did an equally competent job supervising the design of the satellite repeater, integrating its many parts, and keeping peace with NASA who felt obliged to "certify that the satellite was spaceworthy", even though AT&T was paying for the entire project including the launch. Even now, looking back over more than 40 years in communications development, I cannot think of any trio who could have done the job better.
The Climate of the Time
It is not so clear in some of the other accounts as it is in my memory that the debate in Washington swirled around the question whether anyone had any business in space besides the government. Our minds were full of images of rockets crumbling in flames a few feet above the launch pad and we were well aware of the Advent fiasco. If we were to have any impact on events we needed a success, not, as Jim Early noted, meetings defending the value of an expensive failure. One consequence was clearly a belt and suspenders approach in many parts of the design.
This approach was especially apparent in the design of the Andover, Maine horn reflector antenna and receiving equipment. It was equipped not only with elaborate means for acquiring and tracking the satellite from programed tracking data but was also capable of auto-tracking it via a microwave "beacon" signal radiated by Telstar and, finally, the antenna could be slaved to an auxiliary tracking antenna that had a much wider range of acquisition. The horn reflector design itself was huge, cumbersome, and expensive compared to the much simpler steerable paraboloids widely used today. Harald Friis, who was as famous for his frugality of means as he was for inspiring an entire generations of BTL radio researchers, visited Andover sometime before the Telstar launch. After looking things over he said to me, "OíNeill, this is not right." I knew immediately what he meant.
His Radio Research Labs at Holmdel New Jersey were constructed with plywood partitions and much of the test equipment was assembled from Heathkits where that would serve the purpose. He believed that such parsimony made his staff spend the available money on the really essential problems and in this he was fabulously successful. We, however, were playing a different game. The horn reflector had the lowest noise figure available and decibels of margin were scarce. (Much of this advantage was lost when the radome covering the antenna got wet in the rain but the antenna was much easier to build if it did not have to withstand the weather, the radome was essential if we were to complete construction during a New England winter, and the noise performance was marvelous in reasonably dry weather.) The horn could also be trained close to the horizon without picking up much noise from the warm earth, much less than with a parabolic dish. This was essential to extend the duration of the all-too-short satellite passes. Finally, the horn proved to be remarkably versatile, eventually being used to radiate or receive signals at seven different frequencies ranging from 123 to 7360 MHz. It was even tested at 11 GHz, where its gain was found to be only 3 dB below the theoretical level. One of the sadder pictures in my collection, sent to me by Sid Metzger who spent many years with COMSAT which inherited the Andover station, is one of the Andover horn being dismantled a few years ago after decades of use.
(By the way, there surely is an error in the reprint of the BTL Record article on page 67 of vol. 2 Vintage Electrics. I don't remember the actual power received at Andover but it was certainly not 1000 times greater than that received at Holmdel. "--one-trillionth of a watt signal received at Holmdel, and a one-billionth of a watt signal at Andover." While on the subject of misprints or other errors, there must also be one in Pierceís account on page 72. He could not have discussed Telstar launch vehicles with NASA on November 4, 1958. At that date the discussion of Echo was just getting under way and no discussion of launching an active satellite had been held. Perhaps John in consulting his records inadvertently picked up an Echo discussion date.)
As Dickieson notes, the French opted to duplicate the Andover ground station and contracted to buy much of the hardware from AT&T. They started much later than Andover and did a fantastic job building the station and getting it into operation. There was a considerable crew from Bell Labs helping out on the site at Pleumeur Bodou in Brittany. For their part in pulling this off, Hugh Kelly and Walt Klute of Bell Labs received decorations from the French administration. On one occasion the construction crew entertained Charles De Gaulle at the site. The road to success in Brittany, however, was not smooth. To quote from my Transmission History on the subject (p.394), "Partway through the construction, their temporary radome blew away in a gale". It was replaced by a loan of the AT&T radome. "The French had other woes. Only a few days before the launch, as the antenna was being maneuvered for the first time, a panel fell from the parabolic reflector. And, even closer to the moment of truth, only minutes before the first transmission, a test meter poised on a cabinet toppled into an open equipment drawer, smashing the vacuum tubes of the antenna position control circuit. It is widely believed that the French broke the worldís record for electronic repair in the moments that followed. All in all, however, the Telstar team had reason to feel that the goddess of fortune smiled on their efforts."
The British, as also noted by Dickieson, were determined that their station would be an all-British product and they succeeded in a really admirable fashion. If my memory serves, AT&T furnished only one minor component. Was it a low power klystron for their receiver? I think so. The British misfortune lay in a different interpretation of what we meant by right hand and left hand circular polarization. (Circular polarization of the signals to and from Telstar was necessary since the satellite could be addressed from any aspect in the course of a pass.) We ourselves were not very happy with the clarity of our understanding with the foreigners on this topic. It was no problem at Andover as we had a dummy satellite to transmit to and receive from on a nearby mountain .But even the French, with identical hardware, found the verbal descriptions of right-handed and left-handed traveling helical waves confusing. In their case we finally asked them to unbolt the horn feed and look into the feed cone. The plastic polarization slab should extend from the upper right to the lower left, is that the way it is? Mais Non!! Well, reverse it! And they did.
The British were not so fortunate. They were quite confident that they knew the difference but, alas, they found themselves with a left-handed thread for our right-handed screw on the occasion of our first transmission. They quickly righted this, but it took a day and they received very little of the first signals. I don't believe they should be criticized for this mishap. The definitions of the two senses of circular polarization were certainly ambiguous and easily confused. Some time after the launch and first transmissions Adolf Giger at Bell Labs worked very hard to define the senses better and to get the IEEE to accept the improved definitions. After reading his proposed new definitions and argument supporting them I concluded that one could still misconstrue the sense of circular polarization.
It became obvious very early, of course, that a satellite capable of transmitting live television across the ocean would be a PR bonanza and the public relations people were prominent in our lives from an early date in the project. As the launch date approached their intrusions became more and more insistent until we were led to protest to one of the AT&T Executive VPs that they were beginning to be a handicap. He listened to us very patiently: he had been highly supportive to the project on several earlier occasions and we were sure he would see things our way. This occurred at a time when the debate in Washington on the future of space communications was well under way and things were not looking very good for AT&Tís prospects in the field. To our dismay, he said that there did not seem to be much more that we were likely to get for our efforts and expense than the favorable public relations and we should do whatever they asked. After that they were completely incorrigible.
We would have liked, and more or less assumed I suppose, that we would have the first few passes to check that the satellite was functioning properly in all respects before unveiling it to the public. To my horror they vetoed this and arranged that the very first transmissions would be covered on nationwide TV. They were certain, if we would only cooperate, that the satellite should rise and be tracked at Andover and the first signals transmitted and received on cue. This at a time when we felt that the odds of getting a signal at all were not all that high. If this seems like an exaggeration I must relate that the PR VP called me the day following what was probably the biggest communications PR coup since Alexander Graham Bellís first call, to (1), congratulate me on our success and (2), chide me for having deliberately held up the scheduled program for almost one minute!! To this day I don't suppose he ever realized that we were hardly breathing, wondering whether that little sphere in the sky was going to respond to our radio commands when we pressed the big red button.
There was much discussion concerning the content of the first transmissions. I felt that a simple, but essentially technical, explanation of what we were doing and shots of the earth station would be appropriate. In retrospect, I think this would have been deadly dull. The discussion became quite lively. After all, we were trying to decide the nature of one of the great first messages in the tradition of "What hath God wrought" and "Mr. Watson come here I want you", although in this case the message would be video. Someone finally came up with the proposal to show the American Flag waving in front of the giant radome: that ended the discussion. I have a vivid recollection of a young fellow lying on his back holding the staff, the breeze provided by a large fan, with the PR program manager shouting, "Hold it steady, dammit, hold it steady!". (The Star Spangled Banner was added later as more appropriate audio.)
After that introduction the program consisted of various dignitaries, starting with Fred Kappel, the Chairman of AT&T and the then Vice President Lyndon Johnson talking live by telephone over satellite. This, of course, was the formal program. For the historical record, the actual first signal was the white window on a black background as shown on page 392 of my book. It should also be noted that we were not about to hand the Vice President of the United States what might very well have been a dead line in front of a national TV audience. Just before the Kappel-Johnson conversation an AT&T technician checked and said, "By George weíve got a circuit!". These were therefore the first live words over an active communication satellite.
The French received our signals on the first active pass as soon as the satellite rose above their horizon. This was around midnight or later in Pleumeur Bodou. Champagne bottles popped immediately all over the French station (AT&T establishments were still strictly dry at that date). They then reopened a nearby casino and spent the rest of the night celebrating in true French style. As previously mentioned the British, unfortunately, had the wrong polarization or, I suppose, from their point of view, we had it wrong. (I would not care to debate the issue in the light of what I wrote above.) In any case they had it straightened out the following day and came through with fine pictures. I was highly pleased that the head of the British technical team, Captain Charles Booth, addressed his opening remarks to me. The first transmissions from Europe, of course, also attracted a large audience, almost none of whom knew who the "Gene" he was talking to was. Within AT&T it was generally assumed he must have been congratulating Eugene McNeely, the president of the company!
We knew, of course, that successful TV transmission over the ocean would excite a lot of public interest but itís no exaggeration to say that we were astonished at the public reaction. Telstar was front page news with six column headlines all over the United States and over much of the rest of the world as well. I have speculated that this may have been due to the fact that Telstar was perhaps the first major space accomplishment that did not seem to have any military or threatening aspect. It seemed to promise only wider and entirely peaceful vistas for mankind. It was a very emotional time for US. In 1987, at a twenty fifth anniversary celebration it was recalled that the audience to the first transmission in a BTL auditorium cheered and hugged each other. In commemoration, at the anniversary party, we reenacted the scene, each hugging our neighbor
Life After Telstar
The first Telstar succumbed to radiation in the Van Allen belts, sharply enhanced by the explosion of the Starfish nuclear bomb the day before the Telstar launch. Jim Early notes that we were relieved that the explosion took place before Telstar was in orbit. Thatís true, but no one expected the high energy particles to persist the way they did. A rapid decay to pre-detonation equilibrium conditions was expected. In any case, Telstar I failed after several months, at first temporarily, and then, in early 1963, permanently. (It is interesting to note that getting it back in operation after the first collapse was largely the work of John Mayo, who devised the special commands needed. John was just recently named the new president of Bell Labs.)
A second satellite, essentially identical to the first, was launched in May 1963 into a higher and more favorable orbit. It too worked extremely well. Both satellites carried a timer to turn them off after two years in orbit, a wise precaution since no one wanted a malfunctioning satellite spewing unwanted radio signals into space long after their usefulness was ended. Both satellites were used to cover a number of noteworthy events, such as the funeral of Winston Churchill, and they provided a vast amount of data on conditions in space. They were especially useful in tracking the distribution and decay of the energetic particles in the Van Allen Belts, for example. But, by the end of two years on Telstar II its usefulness was pretty much over. We were watching Telstar II as the end of the two years came. The timer operated as intended to the minute. The timer operated to disable the command and control circuits but we had also provided means to turn on the transmitter by a microwave signal if required. We tried this a few times and it worked very well but there was little occasion for further operations.
The future of communication satellites, as we now all take for granted, lay with geostationary synchronous satellites. We were more or less aware of this even as we worked so feverishly on the low orbit experiment. John Pierce considered synchronous orbits as highly desirable for the purpose in his earliest publications. What we completely misjudged was the time it would take to achieve the ability to place a workable long-lived satellite in synchronous orbit. Our minds were still too full of the images of flaming failures and the Advent misadventure. Iím not sure that given some time for quiet reflection and a better opportunity to appraise the state of the technology in the rocket and space field and the prospects for its advance, we would have still believed that a generation of low orbit satellites made sense. In addition, I was present at the meeting at BTL when Harold Rosen and his associates from Hughes presented their plan for an early synchronous satellite. Besides requiring a new and speculative rocket configuration, they proposed a satellite weighing only 29 pounds (or was it only 19 pounds?). It had to be that light to achieve the synchronous orbit with the rocket they had assumed. At that time we had done enough thinking to know that it was going to be difficult to realize one with five or six times that weight. This, to put it mildly, diminished our
confidence in their proposal. Finally, the politics of the times did not allow any time for quiet reflection, or anything else but rapid action.
But Harold Rosen fully deserves John Pierceís tribute as a brilliant engineer and the father of synchronous satellite communications. He did not build Syncom and Early Bird as light as he had hoped, but they weighed a lot less than Telstar and he produced them in an incredibly short time. In retrospect, Iím quite happy that we did not go any further in the development of what could only have been a cumbersome and expensive system.
|About Eugene F. OíNeill
Born New York City, July 2, 1918 Married Kathryn M. Walls Oct. 1942 Children Kathryn M., Kevin, Jane A., Andrew T.
Columbia University, BS in EE 1940, MS in EE 1941
Professional Experience Employed by Bell Telephone Laboratories 1941-1983 1941-1945, Member of Technical Staff-design of airborne microwave radars.
1945-1955 MTS-Development of coaxial cable system (L3), submarine cable, and microwave radio relay.
1955-1957 Supervisor-Development of 11GHz microwave radio relay (TJ).
1957-1961, Department Head-Development of Time Assignment Speech Interpolation terminals (TASI). TASI doubled the channel capacity of existing submarine cables.
1961-1965, Director of the Telstar satellite project and of follow-on Bell Labs satellite development. Telstar was the first communications satellite to carry multiple channel telephony and live television overseas.
1966-1971, Executive Director, Bell Labs Toll Transmission Development. Responsibilities included coaxial cable systems (L4 and L5), continued development of microwave radio systems (TD, TH, TL/TM), and metropolitan digital carrier (T Carrier).
1971-1978, Executive Director, BTL, Development of toll transmission terminals. Responsibilities included the development of interfaces between analog transmission systems and digital switches and computer-based transmission operations systems. 1978-1983, Executive Director, Transmission Project Planning Organization. This was a staff assignment involving the oversight and budgeting of Bell Labs R&D work with special responsibility for transmission projects.
1983 to date, Telecommunications Consultant.
Honors and Awards Member Tau Beta Pi, Sigma Xi, technical honor societies. Fellow IEEE Member, National Academy of Engineering (1976) IEEE Award in International Communications (1971) Honorary Dr. of Science, Bates College 1952, St. Johnís University 1965 Honorary Dr. of Engineering, Politecnico Di Milano 1964.