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First-Hand:S-Band Story

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S Band Story

Submitted by Robert Walp

(Because many of my statements are based upon memory of the somewhat distant past and have not been checked for accuracy, there may be some errors. None, I believe, distorts the overall picture, nor could affect the general outcome.)

(Many individuals are mentioned in passing, because of the significant roles they have played. In some cases they are mentioned to provide links between this paper and other papers I have written, or hope to write.)

In mid 1965 I was working at Hughes Aircraft Company in El Segundo, California. This was at the beginning of commercial communication satellite operations. At this time, satellites were looked to for implementing intercontinental telephone trunking and, possibly, occasional television service. They were referred to as, “Cables in the sky.” The first satellites had very low power transmitters (five to eight watts), requiring large earth stations (as large as 30 meters diameter) to carry a group of twelve voice channels.

Anticipating higher powered satellite transmitters and other component improvements, Hughes set out to exploit the cable television industry which was beginning to use microwave transmission facilities to distribute signals from points of origin to cable system head ends. Hughes planned to broadcast television by satellite to intermediate size earth stations (10 meters) for local distribution.

During the latter part of the 1960s Hughes began to promote national satellite systems for other regions, preparing proposals for several Near East, South American and Asian countries. The theme of providing improved means for communication between the governments and their citizens was often used. One engineer, Phil Rubin, had served in the Peace Corp in India and was promoting satellite television for its rural communities. We worked on plans for earth stations and television receivers that required minimum amounts of electric power for use where electric utilities do not exist. Higher-powered satellites would allow the use of lower powered earth stations with smaller antennas, all else remaining fixed. There was an implied trend toward smaller equipment on the ground and more power in orbit, but the true potential wouldn’t be realized for nearly a decade.

At times, visitors with visionary ideas for satellite applications would arrive at the Space Systems Division of Hughes. Some had reasonable ideas, but many of these highly motivated people had totally impractical schemes and were a nuisance to upper management. As I was several layers down from the top, these people would often be shunted to me. One was an attorney, Edmund Pease. His wife’s nephew, Monsignor Pierre DuMaine, in the San Francisco Archdiocese, had responsibilities for primary and secondary education in Roman Catholic schools in that area. Ed was obsessed! By digital transmission and satellites for schools. He was certainly a visionary and his concepts were very sound. A dynamic person who talked in megabits during analog days, he predicted a time when libraries would be all digital and linked by telecommunication links to their users. He cited the immense cost to the University of California in starting a new campus, when the cost of building and stocking a conventional library would be upwards of $100 Million! An electronic library would cost far less! Ed thought satellites could use the same frequency band assigned to the ITFS, the Instructional Television Fixed Service, 2500-2900MHz. At that time Catholic schools and some public school systems in the United States were using the ITFS band for district-wide distribution of television to their schools. Ed wanted satellites to take over on a global basis. This intrigued me, especially as I had just become aware of computer based instruction.

During this time I had become responsible for managing Hughes IR&D, Internal Research and Development, budget for commercial satellites. We spent several million US dollars each year in funding hardware development for future communication satellites. I therefore got to know the various laboratory managers responsible for component and structure development and design. This was a genuine privilege and gave me a good understanding of technology’s potential at that time. I soon began to think the Company wasn’t moving as fast as it should in preparing for the immense small earth station business of the future. I thought about forming a small earth station company on my own, checking with venture capital firms and interviewing key personnel who would might leave Hughes and join me. I thought I was putting a pretty good organization together and bounced my ideas off of an associate: he wasn’t as loyal as I had assumed. I was enjoying my work immensely and didn’t rush to implement my plans; soon, another Hughes manager had put together a copycat plan and left the company with a few other engineers, including my not-so-loyal confidant! (The new firm eventually failed, probably because of the wrong personnel and poor timing.) One of the engineers who left, Howard Weinberg, had been planning to respond to a NASA “Invitation to Participate in Space Flight Experiments,” a request for proposal for scientific packages to be placed on NASA’s ATS-G Satellite. The NASA RFP was directed toward the academic community for the study of cosmic rays, the earth’s magnetic field, solar wind, ocean temperature and such phenomena. ATS-G was to be launched in 1977. It was 1969 at the time. Howard suggested that I give it a try. It would serve the company well because NASA had contracted with Hughes and General Electric for the construction of these spacecraft.

ATS-G, the seventh in a series of Applications Technology Satellites, was a “bus” for scientific experiments to be flown upon. It and its predecessor ATS-F, which was to be launched in 1974, were novel in that they had immense 9-meter antennas which were to be unfurled after reaching orbit. (NASA used Letter designators for pre-launch identification; after launch, numbers are used. Thus the F becomes 6 and G becomes 7.) The large antennas increase the effective power of a transmitter as well as the receive sensitivity by hundreds of times compared to existing satellite antennas. When Ed Pease learned of the opportunity, he suggested that I propose an S-Band package to demonstrate instructional television from satellites to schools. He thought that, even if NASA didn’t accept the proposal, the fact that Hughes was backing such a plan, would serve to endorse the concept, accelerating the use of these frequencies for satellite based education.

As the work of assembling the proposal began, I was encouraged to focus upon Brazil as a user on the ground. Brazil had a well-developed telecommunication infrastructure along its Atlantic Coast, where most of the population was; its interior had essentially nothing and commercial development, as well as education, required improved communications. I was told that the company’s interest in Brazil was closely linked to investments in Brazilian cattle land by some high-level Hughes executives.

The proposal was due at the end of 1969. I worked with various engineering specialists to establish technical specifications for satellite and ground equipment that could be developed in time. The S-Band equipment had to be integrated with the spacecraft and be compatible with other experiments and the spacecraft power supply. We came up with an unprecedented amount of transmitter output power, 200 watts. With the 9-meter antenna concentrating this on a 300km spot on earth, wristwatch radios would be practical and television could be received with a 50cm diameter antenna! It wasn’t necessary to focus all of this power on a small spot and plans were made for covering larger areas of Brazil at lower power densities.

Although the use of S-Band frequencies for space to ground transmission was not authorized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), we felt that approval for experimental and demonstration use in Brazil could be obtained. Ed Pease wanted us to work on getting formal authorization through the ITU. This requires support from the FCC and, ultimately, recommendation by an international study group convened periodically to review and act on proposals for new frequency allocations. (The ITU, originally the International Telegraph Union, was established in the mid-1800s to create standards for telegraph transmission on an international basis. It is now a United Nations organization and coordinates standards for international telecommunications on a global basis.) These S-Band frequencies were already authorized for terrestrial use, so the work before the study group would be to show that both satellite and terrestrial systems could use the same frequencies. This requires studying transmitter power flux and receiver sensitivities, a function of relative positions of all antennas and their directional patterns and can get complex. Ed Reinhart, a Rand Corporation scientist, was a great help in this effort. Once the ATS-G was in orbit as the ATS-7, our theoretical calculations could be tested by beaming it down on an existing ITFS system. The satellite would be located at the same longitude as the ITFS system in order to get a high angle from ground to satellite. Then, the satellite could be moved until it was just above the horizon to get a low elevation angle, the condition most threatening to system compatibility. Interference measurements at both extremes, as well as intermediate satellite locations, would validate out theory, we assumed. The Ft. Lauderdale, Florida school system had the southernmost ITFS facility in the United States at the time, so plans were implemented to incorporate it as part of the experiment.

Then, a few months before the proposal was due, I received a call from Greg Andrus, an engineer at NASA Headquarters engineer who was our liaison for the S-Band project. He said to forget Brazil. There was no way we could have international participation because US State Department approval would be required and could not now be obtained. NASA personnel were unable to communicate with State Department personnel. This was because of a friendship that developed between Dr. Leonard Jaffe, NASA’s administrator and Dr. B.S. Rao, head of India’s space agency leading to an agreement between their organizations, that the ATS-6 spacecraft would be moved to an orbit location over India for a one-year period after its first year of operation over the United States. This agreement was made without consulting the US Department of State, a flagrant violation of governmental protocols. As State and the Nixon White House became aware of this, NASA found its existence threatened and, at the minimum, its future severely restricted. NASA had been taught a lesson and Brazil had to be abandoned.[1]

Since I had to, “Keep it in the Country,” the first thing I did was look at a map of the United States. Tucked in the lower left corner was an inset showing the relatively new state of Alaska at a reduced scale. I decided it would be a good surrogate for Brazil because it also had a large, sparsely settled interior region with inadequate telecommunication services. Next, I had to convert the draft proposal from Brazil to Alaska. I first phoned Frank Norwood, the Executive Director of the Joint Council on Educational Telecommunications (JCET), a Washington, DC lobby for the public television industry. He put me in touch with Bob Arnold, Director of the Alaska Educational Broadcasting Commission (AEBC), in Anchorage. I described my problem to Bob, a gentle person, a historian and political scientist; I believe he somewhat comprehended the situation. He let me use his name and office in any reasonable and responsible manner and recommended a few other Alaskans to talk to. The proposal was suitably modified and, without the Ft. Lauderdale interference-measuring project, was delivered to NASA by the deadline. A few months later, Hughes was informed that the proposal was accepted and funding would be supplied to detail plans for development and execution of the demonstration experiment.

Then, citing irregularities in the bidding and/or contracting process, NASA cancelled its ATS-F and ATS-G contracts with Hughes and General Electric and made new ones with Fairchild-Hiller and Philco-Ford. This generated qualms about the S-Band experiment, but there was no effort to abandon it. It still gave us NASA funding for the development of new components, especially a powerful transmitter tube.

In early 1970, after the proposal was sent to NASA, I visited Alaska, met Bob Arnold, and started promoting the project. And, I needed to learn more about the state the experiment was destined for. First, telecommunication services were much worse than I had anticipated. Many bush locations relied upon high-frequency radio which is often disrupted by the aurora in northern latitudes. The long distance telephone system had evolved from military telegraph lines built during the first few years of the 20th century and covered only the major settlements. The US Congress had recently enacted legislation to auction it to a private company; the RCA Corporation was the successful bidder. There was no live television from the, “Lower 48,” as Alaskans called the contiguous states. Videotapes of popular and timely programs were flown up from Seattle, but most entertainment television was shown a week after the rest of the country. I have fond memories of watching “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.” in the mornings as I was dressing in my hotel room. (Once satellites brought real-time television to Anchorage, I never saw Walter Cronkite again!) Others who helped were Charlie Northrip, Manager of KUAF, the University of Alaska television station in Fairbanks, and Richard Dowling, his Chief Engineer. I met the late Bob Merritt (Robert P. Merritt), Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University, an outstanding teacher and advisor for most Alaska-raised EEs. Bob pioneered the use of experimental satellites to deliver medical services in rural areas. He adapted mobile radio equipment of the day, using a helical antenna to get enough gain to work with ATS-1, the first of NASA’s ongoing series. ATS-1 had a simple transponder, comprising receiver, frequency converter and transmitter, which operated at frequencies used by the mobile telephone service. These push-to-talk earth stations worked through the satellite from remote Alaska villages to the Native Medical Center in Fairbanks, where physicians would consult with medical aides in the villages. Many villages in Alaska’s Bush were equipped with Bob’s ATS-1 radios. The single channel, push-to-talk system allowed all to listen in on the others’ conversations as part of one big party line. This resulted in much vicarious learning by those “just listening!” Comment on dates of launch for ATS-1 and –3 and their actual vs. design lifetimes. Heather? RPD?

Another task of mine at Hughes was that of liaison and mentor for Al Horley, recipient of a Howard Hughes Fellowship for graduate study at Stanford. Al was working with Dr. Bruce Lusignan who had been promoting broadcast of television via satellites to small earth stations. When Al received his doctorate, we discussed his future; it had been assumed that he would work at Hughes after he left school. The ATS-G S-Band study was under way and, although the satellite part would be funded, there was no provision for ground equipment for education or medical demonstrations. Al mentioned ties with Elliot Richardson, then Secretary of the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, HEW. We quickly concluded that he should go to HEW and generate funding for the ground segment. He managed to pull it off and his help was immense. HEW contributed $13 Million for ground equipment and instructional support. A side effect was to bring the Federation of Rocky Mountain States and the Appalachian Regional Commission into the project in addition to Alaska. It was easier to justify funding by expanding involvement from only Alaska to other regions in the United States. This cut down on the number of sites we had planed to serve, but it was far better than nothing. Without Al’s help, there might have been very little activity on the ground.

Al and I thought we might be able to place a lower powered version of the 200 waatt ATS-G transmitter on ATS-F, yet to be launched. NASA would be getting two systems for the development cost of one and the medical and education community would have a low-power version of ATS-G to become familiar with before ATS-G was launched. Hughes’ Microwave Tube Division had developed a 20-watt S-Band traveling wave tube that would make an excellent transmitter. Al Horley collected expressions of interest from the educational community and I wrote an unsolicited proposal to NASA, explaining the synergies of the two-stage concept. Our friends at NASA were backing us in this. Eventually the answer from NASA arrived in a letter from Russ Burke at NASA Headquarters. He explained that all experiments are selected on the basis of negotiated, sole-source procurement and that there was not enough time to consider a new application at this late date. However, he said, NASA had instructed the spacecraft contractors, Fairchild-Hiller and Philco-Ford, to “modify” the transponder and include an S-Band package, suggesting that Hughes negotiate with them for hardware procurement. Unfortunately for Hughes, Philco-Ford had already developed high efficiency solid-state S-band amplifiers capable of generating 20 watts and was not interested in Hughes’ components. The advantages of combining development for both satellites was lost, but an S-Band experiment would be conducted several years earlier, in the latter part of 1974, if only for a one-year period before the ATS-6 spacecraft would be sent to India. But there was no role for Hughes. In light of subsequent events, this turned out to be very fortunate.

With no role in the ATS-F experiment and without the construction contract for the ATS-G satellite, the ATS-G S-Band experiment had little appeal to Hughes upper management. Hughes was having difficulties in an unrelated NASA project involving microwave tube development and, in a contentious meeting, a high-level Hughes executive pulled out of the work. As a side effect, the ATS-G S-Band project was also terminated. This left me without a job and without much support, either. I was told that, to stay at Hughes, I could work on military satellites, which was clearly unacceptable to me. I left. This was in mid-1971. Finally, after this, NASA, in a still politically charged environment cancelled work on the nearly completed ATS-G spacecraft, leaving only the ATS-F to be launched.

NASA rescued me by issuing Frank Norwood’s JCET a contract for consulting services to assist in the ATS-F project. I became the consultant, spending much time in Alaska and at NASA and not seeing little of my family in Pasadena, California. Some of Dr. Lusignan’s students from Stanford were hired by the Federation of Rocky Mountain States to design earth station hardware, obtain necessary licenses, instruct the end users and operate the system. We settled on three-meter diameter antennas for the small earth stations in rural areas. They would handle two way audio and video transmissions from the ATS-6.

In early 1972, Bob Arnold concluded that his public broadcast commission wasn’t appropriate for managing the ATS-F program for Alaska. Together, we decided that the easiest approach would be for the Governor of Alaska, Bill Egan, to form an Office of Telecommunications within the Office of the Governor, and install me as its director. Bob sent a memorandum to the Governor, urging him to act soon. Governor Egan evidently liked the concept; the first news we received was that he had formed the Governor’s Office of Telecommunications and that an old buddy of his, former head of the state’s police radio system, Chuck Buck, would be its director! Thus, my career as a consultant lasted somewhat longer that we had hoped.

Around this time, the Chief Engineer at the AEBC resigned and Bob Arnold asked me to interview candidates for the opening. Just as we had eliminated all but one, I received a call from Augie Hiebert, one of the first commercial radio and television broadcasters in Alaska, the CBS affiliate and an avid supporter of satellite communications. He said that Marvin Weatherly, who had worked for him as a television engineer before joining the Voice of America in Viet Nam, had returned to Alaska and was looking for work. What luck! Marv was so far superior to the others that there was no comparison. With Augie’s recommendation, and a great interview with him, he was hired on the spot!

Next, Chuck Buck, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Telecommunications (OT), resigned and Governor Egan replaced him with Marv Weatherly; Marv’s chief engineer, Jim Croll, became the new AEBC director.

The ATS-F was launched in mid-1974, becoming the ATS-6 in orbit. Its large antenna was successfully deployed. Many education and medical demonstrations were conducted in Alaska and the other areas. In Alaska, the Department of Education and the Native Health Service set up and operated these projects. Then, after a year, the satellite was moved to India, leaving all of the little earth stations stranded and never used again.

Finally, a somewhat related item and a link to other sections of this paper, Marv Weatherly called me in Pasadena in late November 1974. He said he wanted me to go to Snowbird, Utah immediately. Why? Because Werner von Braun, who, after his career at NASA, had become head of Fairchild-Hiller’s satellite works, wanted to meet Alaska’s governor-elect Jay Hammond at a conference there. Because of Dr. von Braun’s heavy schedule, he could visit the new governor only at that time, on his way to Brazil! Marv wanted me to coordinate the meeting. I managed to get there in time, find a suitable room, get acquainted with the Hammond party and to get acquainted with the Fairchild party and then to introduce them to each other and, also, to keep the conversation going. Fairchild hoped Alaska would be interested in using, and paying for, the mothballed ATS-G to extend the ATS-6 demonstration in a dedicated, operational system. Hammond wasn’t able to do anything at that time, except to “take it into consideration,” especially because he was running several hundred votes behind in an election recount. However, the election was ultimately settled in his favor. The best part of the meeting for me was the several hours from the end of the Hammond-von Braun meeting until the Fairchild plane was ready to leave. We sat around, told war stories, and had a great time, a real privilege for me. Von Braun wanted desperately to go bear hunting with the governor and, did, before his premature death in WHEN?

Public Service Satellite Consortium???


  1. This paragraph describes the situation, as I understood it from 1969 until mid-2001 as I was preparing this paper. I checked with a former NASA official to verify some facts and was told I was completely wrong, that the proper procedures had been implemented and everything was in order. I do not have the time to do adequate research on this, but find it hard to believe that there wasn’t some basis for events the definitely did occur at that time. It is possible to generate various scenarios to explain my misunderstanding, if I am not correct, but they all imply lack of transparency at some time or other. It would be great if someone could dig into this and document events as they actually were. My respect for the effort and difficulty in historical documentation, even when one is in the middle of things, has greatly increased. How is it possible to be certain of anything when it occurred somewhere else at some other time?

Further Reading

High Power S-Band Experiment study

C-Band Story

Ku Band Story