The following is a statement prepared by Tecwyn Roberts for an interview held with Alfred Rosenthal for an un-published work called “Vital Links”, detailing the early NASA communication systems: -
Flight Dynamics Officer for Project Mercury, 1960
Head Mission Control Center Requirements Branch, 1962
Chief of Manned Flight Support Division, 1965
Chief of Network Engineering Division, 1967
Director of Networks, Goddard Space Flight Center, 1972
“I joined NASA in April 1959, one of a group of 25 hired from AVRoe Canada by NASA. I was involved immediately in formulating the requirements for the network, and the Mercury Mission Control Center to provide the flight control of the missions. I was the first flight dynamics officer in the early days of the Mercury Project, and as such, had the opportunity to use the tools we had designed and implemented. Later, at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, I was involved heavily in the design of the Mission Control Center and its interface with the network.
To have been involved in the growth and evolution of NASA's space tracking and communications systems has been a great personal experience which provided those of us who were associated with it tremendous professional challenges. It must be remembered that these facilities were the only links we had to get the data back. What started literally as a spin-off of the IGY program in 1958 evolved into the satellite and manned tracking networks of the sixties and, in the seventies, became a combined space tracking system serving all of NASA’s missions. Now, with the help of the new concept which enables us to communicate directly with orbiting satellites, most Earth tracking stations are becoming obsolete.
And what an evolution it has been! It started with Minitrack and some rather primitive teletype links to four South American tracking stations. Later, large antennas and high quality circuitry were added. Then came computerized switching facilities, and flight controllers no longer were needed at the various tracking sites. Their operations could be consolidated at the major mission control centers — the nerve centers for major space missions. Other significant advances were made by dramatic increases in our capabilities to transmit an ever-increasing data flow: 1,000 data bits in 1960 to a staggering 50,000,000 bits in 1980. When we developed the Unified S-Band system and built NASA’s fleet of tracking ships deployed on the oceans, we had the tracking capabilities needed to send the astronauts to the Moon and return them safely to Earth.
We not only made great technical strides, we also learned how to manage large international projects involving other governments, private industry and academia. Of course, there were problems and disagreements, but all of us were truly motivated to get on with the job and create a system which was reliable and ready when needed.
What began as a diverse and diffuse tracking system for specific space missions has now grown into a single, unified network serving manned, i.e., Space Shuttle flights, scientific and applications as well as commercial and foreign payloads. Much of the technology which NASA programs helped foster has found its way into the commercial sector where it has created new business opportunities for the eighties. And what were some highlights of this dramatic period? The first rendezvous and docking of two Gemini spacecraft. It was in the mid-sixties. The first circumlunar mission was in December 1968; the lunar landing of July 1969; and the launching and safe return of the first Space Shuttle flight on a lonely California lake bed.”