The following story was first written for publication in the July, 1994 edition
of NARTE News, the official journal of the National Association of Radio
andTelecommunications Engineers, for approximately 30,000 NARTE members
and interested persons. It is reproduced here with permission of NARTE.
Further republication must contain this permission notice. For interested
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By Donald E. Kimberlin
June 1, 1994; edited for the Internet July 11,1999
John F. Kennedy's truncated presidency was often called "The
Camelot Era" to describe JFK's White House years. There was an
unspoken feeling that the U.S. had gone to sleep while Eisenhower presided.
Expectations grew that America had to do something spectacular,
since the glow of victory in war had dimmed. The charismatic personae of
the Kennedy family seemed to say these were the ones who would bring it.
Compared to the previous century, JFK's relative youth, with Robert as
his close aide, counterpointed with his young children and beautiful spouse
made every day a potential harbinger of great news.
There had been great news, but not happy news, from the Soviet
Union. The launch of Sputnik shocked Americans and gave many people reasons
to worry in the tensions of that time. Indeed, the Evil Empire might
be able to rain down destruction and ruin on the United States. Nikita
Kruschev had personally shown on television during his United Nations visit
that he was self-confident to the point of arrogance. We were losing the
race for dominance in space. The Missiles of October were to drag JFK into
a global poker game like none before.
Promise is Made
in major part, JFK's promise to put an American on the moon was so well
received. America needed an effort to rally behind. Best of all, this promise
was one with a peaceful objective, not war as are most such rallying points
in history. One can probably say there has not been any single event since
that caused as much solidarity across the entire American population, and
indeed, perhaps the whole world. Further, he promised it would happen before
the end of that decade. It was the sort of promise of the Sixties that
people really wanted. It was The Promise of Camelot.
Problem Fragile Telecom Link
What many people don't know is that it came very
close being a failure. And at the very last moment, the last possible launch window for
a lunar mission in the 1960's was almost missed. The potential failure
was not due to problems with rocket science or astrophysics or astronautics.
Those had caused earlier slippages, but had been solved. The last problem
that almost caused a failure of the Final Tribute to Camelot was a telecommunications
problem. It was related to the then relatively new technology of communications
satellites. Only a mass effort of telecomm people contributing in ways
we might today find impossible made recovery possible. Some readers may
know pieces of the story, but few have ever known the whole
It all focused on NASA's Deep Space Network, consisting of only
three of the twenty-plus ground stations NASA built around the world for
tracking and communicating with objects it launches. Most of the NASA stations
were capable of communicating only with objects in earth orbit less than
100 nautical miles above the surface. For the planned lunar missions three
very large earth stations, with 85 foot dishes that could sweep the horizon
rapidly, and track a point on the moon or anywhere between the earth and
the moon, had to be constructed. Such special stations were needed
in order to maintain communications across the quarter million miles of
space to the moon. Those three stations were Robledo in Spain, about 70
miles north of Madrid; Goldstone in California, and Canberra, near Sydney,
Australia. A look at the world map shows each is about one-third of the
way around the earth. With only three, only one at a time has a view of
the moon for an eight-hour portion of each day.
In order to maintain communications with the first humans to make
lunar journeys, all three stations would have to function perfectly and
continuously during their eight-hour periods of being able to see the moon.
Humans had made occasional contact with the moon, bouncing radar off it
as early as 1947. Even amateurs had made 'moon bounce' communications
demonstrations. Meeting the Promise of Camelot would, however, require
solid, secure communications for the entire mission. Maintaining a link
from the Earth to the Deep Space Network was unique not only in the reach of its stations.
The communications bandwidth required was also larger than previously accomplished
for such a distance. Networking the information together once it was back
on earth was another new feat. While Intelsat was newly available, there
had been uncertainty about its availability at the time of project planning.
The costs would be at levels NASA really did not want to have to afford,
either. Besides, running a full color video baseband from the moon
to earth with the electronics of the new discrete transistor era was not
the lunar project, the decision was taken to combine all communications
between the lunar module and earth into one 48 kilobit multiplexed digital
signal of video, speech communications, spacecraft telemetry and biomedical
data using 2 gigahertz radio. That was the task of the Deep SpaceNetwork.
Getting that 48 kilobit stream created and transported back into NASA,
and its parts back out for the world to see was in itself a risk factor.
NASA called the link reaching that quarter million miles across space its
Unified S-Band system. The combined signal would be fed through each Deep
Space Station back to NASA's Communications Center at Greenbelt, Maryland
for signal processing and distribution to the outside world. 'Outside'
which even meant Mission Control at Houston, where the actual communications
with the astronauts occurred.
needed to get the Deep Space Network built and its operations shaken out
well before July 1969. Earlier launch windows would have been used if other
problems had not cropped up causing slips in the actual launch attempt.
One by one, lunar launch opportunities frittered away while other problems
in the program were being solved, but NASA's Deep Space Network was being
For a 48 Kilobit Connection Is Accelerated
Up until late 1968, there was not even the means to transport
a data stream as large as 48 kilobits across the Atlantic or Pacific. NASA
was not about to commit reliance on the HF (shortwave) radio that preceded
submarine telephone cables across the Atlantic and Pacific dating to 1956.
The cables themselves still had precious few channels in the late 1960's,
in that era before digital fiber optics. The integrated circuit devices
to make tiny units with really low power consumption were also only on
the horizon. Devices like micron-thick solid-state electronics were still
in the future. Vacuum tubes were really still more reliable in many uses
than transistors had yet been found to be. In summation, there was no 48
kilobit data path across the oceans, yet NASA needed a way bring lunar
signals from Robledo, Canberra and Goldstone into the NASA communications
center at Greenbelt, Maryland. Intelsat was forecasting satellites that
could provide whole 48 kilobit channels on which 'wideband'
analog modems could be used by the late 1960's,but NASA needed something
sooner. And, that something had to be reliable enough to risk astronaut
lives on. It had to be at least relatively proved technology.
The interim method was called SCAMA. Today, that technique is called 'inverse
multiplexing', and it's hyped as a recent development. Telegraphers
had used inverse multiplexing on wirelines and HF radio. The military had
employed it just after WW II, and at least one NASA earth station (at Santiago,
Chile) achieved a 2400 bps digital link with Greenbelt
using inverse multiplexing. In that link, the serial data was converted
into 24 parallel FSK streams riding on HF radio between Panama and Chile.
The portion from Greenbelt to Panama rode on submarine cable.
But that was only 2400 bps, and the lunar project needed 48 kilobits,
especially in view of giving the world acid proof with live color video
from the moon. SCAMA was the largest inverse multiplexer built to that
date. It split the 48 kilobit data into twelve parallel paths of 4800 bps
sync data for intercontinental transmission, then recombined them into
the original 48 kilobits at the receiving end.
The transport cost was enormous.
At that point in time, one analog voice channel across the Atlantic rented
for $13,000 a month, and SCAMA used twelve. A dozen circuits across each
ocean were being held up all day and all night, just to be ready in case
a launch window could be used.
Of course, they also provided a test bed
for the Deep Space Network and the terminals that would go to the moon.
And, when not in mission use, Robledo and Canberra had a dozen telephone
tielines back to Greenbelt. The 'phone bill', as it were,
approached a half million dollars a month, largely to be ready to sustain
the Promise of Camelot!
Intelsat's Series III satellites began to come into operational use in 1968, and contracts
were let to ITT and RCA to provide 48 kilobit channels from Robledo and
Canberra respectively back to Greenbelt. Goldstone was not such a serious
problem, reaching across the U.S. With the satellites available,
SCAMA would be relegated to 'back-up' status. That would
release back to the world's telephone network a dozen sorely needed trunks
across each ocean. Dial telephone demand had soared far beyond capacity
of the few cables installed to the time, and the released channels would
immediately be given over to reach various nations from the U.S.
It fell to me at ITT to produce the system design for the first
48 kilobit circuit between Robledo and Greenbelt, while RCA took the contract
across the Pacific a few months later. We used proved components from
domestic wideband data circuits and rather routinely put it into operation. NASA
achieved regular use immediately. We foresaw no problems, and it appeared
we at ITT would have no concern whenever America launched an Apollo spacecraft.
It would just happen routinely to our view. Our efforts were turned
toward other tasks. By late 1968, I was on a different assignment in Europe.
That assignment was the beginnings of knitting AUTOVON and AUTODIN into
trunked networks reaching the U.S. from Europe, to which were added miscellaneous
civilian circuits across the Atlantic, most on the new Intelsat satellite,
some on cable.
All seemed well
until July 14, 1969, when Howard Briley called me from his ITT Geneva office
at my office in Paris. He told me the lone Intelsat III over the Atlantic
had suffered Intelsat's first failure in space. It had pointed its antennas
out into space and would not respond to telemetry commands. There were
several possible recoveries, and all were being pursued. The Early Bird
satellite might be used, but it was questionable if the CTNE earth station
at Buitrago, Spain had receivers to tune into its weakened signals.
Early Bird's batteries were already running down their power curve anyway.
The T Minus Two Hour Deadline
Intelsat had one spare Series III satellite and launch rocket.
It was being rushed to a pad at Cape Kennedy to try meeting its one possible
launch window before the last lunar shot window on the morning of July
16. If neither of those worked, it would be necessary to try getting twelve
voice channels across the Atlantic between Robledo and Greenbelt working
as 4800 bps data circuits and pressing SCAMA back into use. I got marching
orders for Madrid.
There, I was to check in for orders at the headquarters of Compania Telefonica Nacional
de Espana (CTNE).
The NASA Mission Director had put a hold and check
point in the countdown. He said the mission would be scrubbed if Robledo
was not on line to Greenbelt by T minus two hours. Robledo was most critical
because it was the Deep Space station that would be facing the moon at
the first moment the astronauts could step on the lunar surface for the
world to see. Making them wait eight hours in the mission once on the moon
would deplete life support supplies dangerously. Lacking a link with Robledo,
the Promise of Camelot would fail!
there was a commercial airline seat, a rare commodity in European air travel
at the time. The weather over southeastern France and Spain that day was
sparkling clear. Even the cabin steward was impressed, pointing out land
features and cities we passed over enroute, because they could be clearly
seen from six miles up. It was difficult for me to fully enjoy that
scenery, wondering what awaited after leaving Barajas Airport and getting
to the Palacio de Telecomunicaciones, CTNE's rococo, modern Moorish reproduction
The Palacio's history
included a famous moment in which Sosthenes Behn spirited himself into
Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Behn rode a PanAm Clipper via the Azores
to Lisbon in the best movie spy fashion, then sneaked overland into Madrid.
He called Franco on the phone and said he was responding to Franco's threat
to bomb the Palacio if ITT did not give Franco the telephone company.
When Franco renewed the threat in that conversation, Behn told
him that bombing the building would kill ITT's chief negotiator. Then,
when Franco asked how that could be, Behn told Franco the negotiator was
himself, calling from inside the Palacio. On the spot, the deal was cut
to give 49% to the Spanish government, with ITT keeping 49%. The remaining
2% was to be held by the public. That way, neither ITT nor the government
could control CTNE from that point on.
Somehow, I felt in part like Behn, not on a mission of the same personal risk, but
on one of similar import to get into the Palacio. It was critical in our
case, with Robledo being the one Deep Space Station in view of the moon
at the moment scheduled for an American to step onto the lunar surface.
Getting connectivity from Robledo to Greenbelt was of the utmost importance.
The Last Hope
On arrival at the Palacio, I was taken directly to the office of Sr. Luis
Terol, CTNE's Manager of International Services. He updated me about the
Buitrago was not having
much luck establishing a link via Early Bird. Its receivers lacked custom-made
filters to tune in Early Bird's signals well. Early Bird's weakened batteries
were making its transponder output low. There would not be decent noise
levels on a link with Andover even under good circumstances. Intelsat's
replacement satellite had been launched, but went off into a huge looping
orbit. Even if the orbit might be corrected, it would take a time beyond
the lunar launch window, and would exhaust most all the satellite's station-keeping
fuel in the effort. The last-ditch back-up, pressing SCAMA into use, was
the only hope of keeping America's lunar launch on schedule for its last
chance in 1969.
Terol, like all
the other Europeans I spoke to in the months preceding that launch, wanted
Kennedy's promise to come true, too. The free world had all bought into
to seeing it happen the way JFK committed.
Terol told me that AT&T, ITT and CTNE executives had already
been working personal contacts with PTT's all over Europe. In the world
of international links there simply is no such thing as a verbal order.
Each and every circuit order is a documented transaction. There's no way
that a verbal order, no matter how urgent or convincing, can get a technician
in, let's say, France, to stick a patch cord into a panel that will cut
off a transit trunk between the U.S. and Switzerland. Each and every informal
agreement required the personal intervention of top telephone executives
in the affected nations. They promised paper orders in detail to every
we were getting a dozen trunks, one or two each from England, Belgium,
the Netherlands,Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Italy on the various
cables disconnected and re-routed on manual patches down into Spain, it
took a lot of coordination. I was sent out to first see if there was any
hope for use of Early Bird at Buitrago, and then to set up shop at nearby
Robledo. A CTNE staffer would handle negotiating reroutes from each disconnect
point. He knew the European infrastructure in considerable detail. He could
lay the plan for getting the circuits to Madrid through the least number
of places to negotiate with. Simultaneously, he minimized the number of
links to try keeping noise levels down. This was a major consideration
in building circuits that would wind up approaching 5,000 miles in route
length. We would have to eat into the noise ceiling by adding some equalization
for perhaps 6 sets of channel banks. In short, we were going to try to
engineer some quiet, clean data channels on the fly, using a somewhat random
assortment of circuits. We'd have to do it in record time, too. While the
bosses were working the system from the top down, our CTNE staffer was
working it from the bottom up. When he'd get roadblocked by a lethargic
technician a country or two away, he'd get out his own little black book
of names and numbers he knew in that country. He'd talk a supervisor or
manager into the spirit of the effort, and get that boss to motivate his
people or even go down to the office himself.
On the whole, America, and perhaps NASA, didn't even comprehend
the drama we were engaged in. They certainly had no notion of the geographic
scope and depth of the infrastructure army being marshaled across the ocean
in support of the Promise of Camelot.
worked through the night. Channels were patched through, which is no mean
feat in off hours anywhere in the world. I was on a connection with ITT's
Technical Operations Center at New York, setting up and equalizing circuits.
One by one, we got circuits established. We used some pretty dirty
tricks to leave them just a bit loose on equalization, but with smooth
curves in order to keep noise lower. At the same time the NASA folk were
starting SCAMA up.They would first run pattern data with their modems then
add each channel to SCAMA. This was to establish operation proving in the
reliability for the Mission Director.
Five Minute Window
T minus 2 hours, 5 minutes, NASA accepted the twelfth circuit, declared
SCAMA operational, and the Mission Director removed the hold. The launch
for the moon was on!
at Robledo to hear the launch get off on the afternoon (Europe time) of
July 16, and headed back to Madrid for some sleep, after two days of none.
Obviously, we slept in the car on the ride back. I checked into another
famous Madrid landmark, the Palace Hotel, all Spanish oak, brass and tile.
It was the place Ernest Hemingway stayed when he was there writing about
the Spanish Civil War. It hadn't changed much, but I didn't get to appreciate
it. I went directly to bed.
are blurred, but I must have slept most of two days, because the next thing
I remember other than a mite of tourist wandering in central Madrid was
a pounding on my door in the middle of the night. It was someone on the
hotel staff, apparently the best English speaker the hotel had. He was
calling me to come to the hotel's one TV set and see the Americans on the
moon! They had landed some hours before, but now were going to walk outside
on the moon.
It was only at that
moment I fully realized how much a second major function relied on our
patched-up temporary SCAMA link across the Atlantic. Not only was there
no broadband data path across the Atlantic, but the broadcasters in Europe
had lost their video channels back from NASA as well. That was certainly
important for Kennedy's promise, included showing pictures to the whole
free world of the Americans being first on the moon!
How had they done it? I was probably the only person in the room who knew
someone had solved a problem.
Standing there in my bathrobe, I recognized the familiar face and sonorous tones
of Walter Cronkite coming from the TV set at some time around 3 AM in Madrid.
He was padding for time and filling in between messages from NASA about
the astronauts preparing to open the hatch and climb down the ladder.
Then he said some words that cut into me a bit.
He talked about the heroic effort of satellite engineers to get
video for broadcast in Europe. They had uplinked from Australia, which
had normal connectivity from the U.S., onto the Indian Ocean satellite.
From there, the video was downlinked into the Bundespostes earth station
at Raisting, Germany. Raisting had swung an 85 foot dish around to
receive from the Indian Ocean satellite. He went on at length about how
Raisting was feeding the whole of Europe's terrestrial television networks,
instead of the usual routes via the failed Atlantic satellite. Someone
else had been busy getting video channels rerouted, too.
But it seemed nobody, not even Cronkite, knew what a fragile,
last-minute thread was carrying the NASA color video and sound we were
all observing from the moon back down through Robledo, splitting it into
a dozen submarine cable channels across the Atlantic to Greenbelt, Houston
and ultimately back to him at CBS before it got out to the world!
Of course, the event was so momentous that Cronkite and perhaps
nobody even questioned at that moment how, if they couldn't get video across
the Atlantic to Europe, it was coming into them from Europe.
But then, doesn't The Phone Company or NASA just 'take
care of everything', as always?
Some months after the event, the Director of NASA Communications
sent me a lovely citation. It bears a color photo of an astronaut looking
at his own footprints on the lunar surface. Part of the text
reads, "in recognition of contributions toward NASCOM support of Apollo
XI, the first manned lunar landing, July 20 A.D. 1969."
Looking at that certificate today, it's rather difficult to believe
it all worked 30 years ago, without current day wideband digital techniques,
microprocessors to compress color video to a portion of 48 kilobits, or
millimicron wafer devices to do it with. ITT's own corporate brochures
carried the achievement of the first wideband data circuit across the Atlantic
as an ITT 'first'for a number of years. As an endnote,
Robledo is still there, although I've not seen it since. It still gets
mentioned occasionally as being involved in current NASA missions, but
it's doubtful anyone knows Robledo was the place the famous lunar pictures
came down to earth, or what a tenuous thread connected it back to the outside
world. Walter Cronkite is often interviewed about his famous expression
of relief on seeing those pictures, but it's doubtful even he knows how
it all happened. Presumably NASA is keeping Robledo in shape in case we
ever again send humans to the moon.
larger question may be whether we can ever again assemble in such a unified
spirit to accomplish a goal of that magnitude.
The musical background in this presentation is a computer realization
of the first movement of the Symphony in D Minor by Cesar Franck,
transcribed for organ by Calvin Hampton.
Here to conclude, a picture of 'Rover' the vehicle used for transport
around the surface of the moon.