Spying from Space
Constructing America's Satellite Command and Control Systems
Publication Year: 2008
Published by: Texas A&M University Press
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For the past fifty years, an important part of space history has been missing. It’s not a glamorous part of space history, and it’s been lying in the background, waiting for someone to tell its story. Finally someone has been willing to dig through the technical documents, talk to the people who built the military’s system of satellite command and control, and uncover this piece of space history. This book isn’t a story about rockets or satellites but is instead a story about a command and control system that made rockets and satellites useful...
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In August, 2000, my house became a satellite tracking station. Sears sold mean eighteen-inch satellite dish in a box, and a subcontractor (of course) stuckit up on the side of the house. Then, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, thetelevision had 157 channels but there was still nothing on. That diminutivedish turned the house, for less than two hundred dollars, into a passive...
Introduction: “Goldstone Has the Bird!”
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SOCIETIES SEND ARTIFICIAL satellites into orbit to collect data. Today, satellites perform a variety of data-related tasks: science, reconnaissance, navigation, weather observation, and communications. To accomplish long-distance relay of data, engineers and scientists use telemetry, which is simply the transmission of data from the satellite to Earth using electromagnetic signals such as radio waves. Satellite telemetry tells the amount of propellant remaining on board a satellite or the voltage level in its batteries; it can reveal the temperatures of certain critical parts or advise us when the engine starts or stops. Telemetry may also include mission data, such as pictures of far-away lands, or telephone calls, or navigation signals. “Satellite...
1. The Inescapable Premise: Inventing Satellite Command and Control
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IN THE EARLY days of space operations, sending satellite telemetry over telephone lines—the most common means of transmitting data from the remote tracking stations to engineers in California—challenged engineers almost as much as launching the satellites themselves.1 Telemetry in the1950s and the 1960s, as it does now, contained important facts about systems status or for calculating a satellite’s orbit, and engineers required the data for troubleshooting. The data, which were frequency modulated onto sine...
2. Of Vital Strategic Importance: Developing a Satellite Command and Control System
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IN THE EARLY 1950s, nobody knew how to build antennas capable of tracking a low-Earth-orbiting satellite; the air force and its contractors learned as they went along. During construction of the earliest ground stations to support the national satellite reconnaissance program, mechanical problems plagued the command and control antennas on the ground. Because the analog transmitters on board the satellites sent only weak signals, the tracking stations needed big reflectors to acquire the transmissions. Enormous ...
3. Getting Off Dead Center: Innovating for a Single Customer
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THE FIRST ATTEMPT to launch a reconnaissance satellite on board a Thor/Agena booster came on Januar y 21, 1959. While the Thor booster sat quietly on the launch pad, the Agena upper stage malfunctioned when small, solid rockets that forced propellant into the rocket engine’s fuel inlet fired prematurely. After inspection, the Agena turned out to be a total loss. Engineers referred to this launch attempt as Discoverer...
4. Too Many Fingers in the Pie: Growing into a Satellite Control System
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ON DISCOVERER 14’S seventeenth orbit, a controller at the Kodiak re- mote tracking station transmitted the eject command to the spacecraft. Three hundred miles above Earth, explosive bolts fired and separated the film-carrying reentry vehicle from the Agena vehicle, beginning the goldplated bucket’s fiery journey back to Earth. At 50,000 feet the capsule’s parachute opened, and the capsule began transmitting its automatic radio beacon. As the capsule’s descent slowed to 1,600 feet per second, air force Capt. Harold Mitchell and the crew of Pelican Nine, a recovery-equipped, C-119 Flying Boxcar, caught up with the descending capsule in plenty of time. Mitchell...
5. Unbounded Faith: The Technological Style of the Air Force Satellite Control Facility
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WHEN THE U.S. Air Force began studying satellite command and control, very few people had any idea how to track a satellite or predict an orbit. The mathematical model for calculating orbital parameters, known as an ephemeris, remained a matter of great mystery. One Lockheed programmer finally developed the computer software for taking antenna tracking angles, developing an ephemeris, and then pointing an antenna at a satellite. Retired air force Col. Thomas O. Haig called the program “the most monstrous pile of punched cards” he had ever seen. This engineer patched and repaired the software so many times the total number of cards sent through the computer amounted to “four or five times” the number actually...
6. The Pressure Cooker: Overcoming Momentum
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WHEN BRIG. GEN. William G. King Jr. became the commander of the Air Force Satellite Control Facility in September, 1966, he introduced a system for the remote tracking stations to score their performance in supporting the National Reconnaissance Program. The senior members of his staff resisted the idea as “too complicated” and possibly even damaging to morale, but King implemented the system over their objections. He ordered the scores to be sent by teletype to all of the stations so they could compare themselves with each other. In his mind, the satellite programs that were using the AFSCF needed this performance information. Showing the stations their weaknesses also helped them improve their...
Conclusion: Inveniemus Viam vel Faciemus
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THIS STORY ENDS in 1969 because in that year the Air Force Satellite Control Facility became a complete satellite command and control system. After 1969, the changes in the system became less qualitative, more regular, and to some extent...
Glossary of Acronyms
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Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 25 b&w photos.
Publication Year: 2008
Series Title: Centennial of Flight Series