One World Network

From the beginning of 1959, the United States' first manned space flight program was committed to manned ballistic suborbital flights as prerequisite to a manned orbital flight, and to a world-wide tracking and communications network as a safeguard for its man in orbit. Both of these distinguishing features were means of man-rating its machines. The second began to be implemented only in the latter half of 1959, after NASA Headquarters had relieved STG of the burden of the network.

Neither suborbital flight nor the tracking network for Mercury was established with any real notion of what the Soviets were doing toward a manned space flight program. But that the Soviets were doing something toward this end was made perfectly clear by Premier Nikita Khrushchev during his autumn tour of the United States. Having presented President Eisenhower with a medallion of the Soviet coat-of-arms borne by Lunik II, the first manmade object to hit the Moon, Khrushchev visited Hollywood, Iowa cornfields, and the Presidential retreat at Camp David. His departure coincided with press announcements that Soviet pilots were training for an assault on the cosmos. The first pictures of the back of the Moon, made by Lunik III on October 4, demonstrated impressive Soviet sophistication in guidance, control, and telemetry, if not in photography.98

If various American government agencies late in 1959 knew more than the public did about the probable speed and direction of the Soviet manned space [214] program, this information was not passed down to the Space Task Group. Top administrators in Washington were undoubtedly accorded "need-to-know" briefings on Soviet progress, but at the working level around STG at Langley there was no such privileged information on the so-called "space race." In fact, not until mid-December did STG learn some of the operational details of Air Force programs then being conducted on the West Coast. Even the Dyna-Soar program, so heavily influenced by Hartley A. Soulé, John W. Becker, and others at Langley, seemed at times to be out of reach to Mercury engineers.99

In the "spirit of Camp David" the seven astronauts themselves proposed an exchange of visits and information with their Soviet counterparts, but to no avail. Proof that the United States and the Soviet Union could agree was shown in the Antarctic Treaty signed by 12 nations, including the two giants, on December 1, 1959. In the same spirit only a week later the NASA Administrator offered the services of the Mercury tracking network in support of any manned space flight the U.S.S.R. might care to undertake, but this offer also was stillborn. So sparse seemed available official information on Soviet manned space plans that Paul Purser, as special assistant to Gilruth, assumed an extra duty by beginning a scrapbook of published accounts relating to Soviet manned space flight plans.100 It would have been "nice to know" in more detail what the Soviets were planning and how well they were proceeding, but STG's "need to know" was mainly psychological curiosity. Such information, if available, probably would have made little difference to the technological momentum of Project Mercury at the end of 1959. The impetus generated for the project by that time was truly formidable and still accelerating.

NASA Headquarters had relieved STG of developing the global range network in the spring of 1959, believing that the Tracking and Ground Instrumentation Unit (TAGIU) at Langley and the communications center at Goddard Space Flight Center together could develop radar and radio facilities more expeditiously. The wisdom of this assignment would prove itself; the communications network was never a cause for delay in Mercury operational schedules.

The decision to build an extensive new tracking network girdling the globe had derived largely from Langley studies of operational tracking requirements made by Edmond C. Buckley, Charles Mathews, Howard C. Kyle, Harry H. Ricker, and Clifford H. Nelson in the summer of 1958. Then followed four extensive and independent studies by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ford, Space Electronics, and Radio Corporation of America in the spring of 1959. Many interrelated technical, operational, and diplomatic considerations were involved in the evolution of the network, with pilot safety and limited capsule battery power setting the first standards.

Next to manufacturing the capsule itself, the Mercury network was the most expensive part of the entire program. But that network represented a capital investment in tracking and communications ability that NASA would also use effectively for scientific satellites and space probes. The full compass of the [215] tracking range and communications network built for Project Mercury is beyond the scope of this volume, but salient features of the chain of tracking stations, of the communications grid, and of the ground instrumentation planned for Mercury set other basic parameters for the project. Hartley A. Soulé, the aeronautical scientist who directed Langley's part of the establishment, made a circumnavigation of the Earth to prepare the circumferential path for orbital overflights.101

When Christopher Kraft spoke to the Society of Experimental Test Pilots on October 9, 1959, he explained certain of the major criteria used to choose the orbital plane for Mercury and to select ground stations to monitor the man in orbit. "Since the first manned orbital flight will be a new type of operation involving many new experiences," Kraft said, "it would be desirable to keep the time in orbit as short as practical, while at the same time making an orbital flight." Emphasizing the necessity to secure an accurate and almost instantaneous determination of the potential orbit before actual insertion, as well as an exact retrofiring point and thereby a low-dispersion "footprint," or recovery area, Kraft explained how the first manned orbital mission should shoot for three rather than one or two orbits. He also listed four specific reasons why the best orbit inclination to the equatorial plane would be 32.5 degrees and the most desirable launching azimuth, or direction, would be 73 degrees true: (1) maximum use should be made of existing tracking stations and communications facilities; (2) the Atlantic Missile Range should be used for both the launching and the planned recovery area; (3) the orbital track should pass directly over the continental United States as much as possible to maximize unbroken tracking, especially during reentry; and (4) the orbital path should be planned to remain over friendly territory and temperate climatic zones.102

These criteria constrained the choice of both Mercury's orbital plane and its launching azimuth. East-northeast was an unusual firing direction from Cape Canaveral, where ballistic missiles were normally shot southeastward down the Atlantic range. Taking the sinusoidal track displaced for each orbit as it would look on a Mercator world projection, Soulé, Francis B. Smith, and G. Barry Graves of Langley, Mathews, Kraft, and Kyle in STG, and many others resolved the complex trades between the Atlas booster characteristics, capsule weight limitations, launch safety considerations, suitable recovery areas, existing Defense Department tracking and communications networks, and available land for locating instrument stations. Soulé and his Tracking Unit at Langley shouldered most of the responsibility for the compromises between what should and could be done with electronic communications and telemetry to promote pilot safety and ensure mission success.

While STG delegated such decisions as whether to select sites in Kenya or Guadalcanal, where to use C- or S-band radars, and whether to lay a cable or build a redundant control center on Bermuda, it kept tight control on all matters affecting control of the missions and especially of the decisions on orbital parameters. [216] John Mayer and Carl Huss, leading STG's Mission Analysis Branch, had learned their celestial mechanics from the traditions established by Johannes Kepler, Sir Isaac Newton, and Forest R. Moulton, but from 1957 through 1959 more and more data from various artificial satellites continually refined their calculations. Keeping in close touch with STL on the improving Atlas performance characteristics, Mayer's group sought to establish the ideal "launch window" or orbital insertion conditions. Not until May 1960 were these parameters established.103

John D. Hodge, another Anglo-Canadian, who helped Mathews learn how the Defense Department launching and tracking teams operated at the Atlantic and the Pacific missile ranges, explained how the major compromise on man-rating the worldwide network was achieved in 1959. Physicians like Lieutenant Colonel David G. Simons, of Project Manhigh fame; Major Stanley C. White, on loan to STG from the Air Force; and Colonel George M. Knauf, the staff surgeon at the Air Force Missile Test Center, had argued for continuous medical monitoring and complete voice and television coverage around the world. Physicist-engineers, like Soulé, Smith, and Graves, saw these demands as virtually impossible. The doctors were forced to retreat when asked what could possibly be done after diagnosis had been made on an ailing astronaut in orbit. Twenty minutes would be the absolute minimum time required to return him to Earth from orbital altitude after retrofiring. "Aeromedical clinicians finally had to agree late in 1959," said Hodge, "that they could do little if anything to help the astronaut until he was recovered." Once in orbit the pilot's safety primarily depended upon mission success. Mission success depended at this stage primarily upon positive control over reentry and recovery operations. The ground command and tracking systems were consequently more important than complete voice or telemetry coverage.104

Aside from the tight security surrounding the Atlas ICBM, perhaps the most closely guarded operational secret in Project Mercury was the ground control command frequencies established at strategic points around the Earth to enable flight controllers to retrieve capsule and astronaut from space in case of extreme necessity. Unlike the technological secret of the heatshield, this highly reliable command system was not classified as an industrial production secret, but rather to avoid any possible tampering or sabotage by electronic countermeasures.105

Once the specifications for the tracking and ground information systems for Project Mercury had been drawn up and distributed at a bidders' briefing on May 21, 1959, the Tracking Unit at Langley proceeded to select a prime contractor for the tracking network. In mid-June the organization, membership, and procedures for a technical evaluation board and source selection panel were specified. A month later the evaluation of industrial proposals was completed. The Western Electric Company, supplier of the parts and builder of the network for the American Telephone and Telegraph system, won the prime contract to build the Mercury network. After NASA sent Western Electric a letter of intent [217] on July 30, 1959, Rod Goetchius and Paul Lein began organizing the resources of Western Electric for Project Mercury.106

Soulé arranged for six site survey teams chosen from his group at Langley to travel over Africa, Australia, various Pacific islands, and North America to choose locations for communications command posts. Much of the traveling Soulé did himself; he enjoyed both the technical intricacy and the scientific diplomacy of getting foreign scientists to urge their governments to cooperate for the tracking stations.107

Meanwhile NASA Headquarters acquired from the National Academy of Sciences Arnold W. Frutkin, who had had experience during the IGY in dealing with the State Department and foreign governments for international cooperation in scientific affairs. Beginning in September 1959, Frutkin laid the staffwork basis with the United Kingdom for Mercury tracking stations in Nigeria and Zanzibar. Zanzibar and Mexico in particular appeared reluctant to accept at face value the United States' good - that is, civilian - intentions for Mercury. The President's brother, Milton Eisenhower, personally obtained consent for full Mexican cooperation.108

By the end of November, preliminary designs for the Mercury tracking network were almost completed and a five-company industrial team was developing facilities. Western Electric had subcontracted to the Bendix Corporation for the search radars, telemetry equipment, and the unique display consoles for each site. Burns and Roe, Inc., took over the engineering and construction of the buildings, roads, towers, and other structural facilities at 14 sites. International Business Machines Corporation installed the computers at Goddard Space Flight Center, the Cape, and Bermuda, and supplied programming and operational services. Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc., designed and developed the operations room of the Mercury Control Center at the Cape, and furnished a special procedures trainer for flight controllers as well as overall network systems analysis.

Eighteen ground stations were chosen for terminals in the communications network. Eleven of these sites, equipped with long-range precision radar equipment, would double for the tracking system. Sixteen of the stations were to have telemetry receivers, but only 8 of the 18 would be located on military missile ranges where existing radar and other facilities could be used. One new station (at Corpus Christi, Texas) would have to be established in the United States. Two stations were mobile, located on tracking ships at sea; seven were built in foreign countries. In November 1959, the total cost for the system was estimated at $41,000,000. The target dates for operational readiness were set as June 1, 1960, for suborbital Atlantic missions and as New Year's Day 1961 for worldwide operations.

The tracking and communications network for Project Mercury was a monumental enterprise that spanned three oceans and three continents by means of approximately 177,000 miles of hard-line communications circuitry. [218] Although most of these wires were leased, the subtotals were likewise impressive: 102,000 miles of teletype, 60,000 miles of telephone, and over 15,000 miles of high-speed data circuits - plus the microwave radio telemetry and telecommunications circuits, which are not so easily described in linear distances. Although colossal in conception and execution, the Mercury tracking and communications network fell far short of 100-percent voice contact, telemetry contact, or tracking capability, not to speak of complete television coverage, which some aeromedical designers would have included.109

Despite NASA's boast about "real-time," or instantaneous, communications, the historical novelty of the Mercury communications network lay less in the temporal than in the spatial dimension. So-called "instantaneous" communications were born in the l9th century with the installation of "speed-of-light" wired communications - the telegraph, submarine cables, and the telephone. Neither radio nor radiotelephone of the 20th century brought strategic placement of telecommunications installations into such a unified network that the time of signals from antipodal sides of the world could be reduced to an "instant." Transoceanic telephone conversations between Hong Kong and Houston, for example, still delayed responses by enough time to give one the feeling of talking to oneself. Synchronous communications satellites supposedly would soon change all this, but surface communications used for Mercury operations cost some slight, but nonetheless real, time in transmission. The real innovation of the Mercury network lay in its combination of extremely rapid communications lines, linked and cross-linked around the world, culminating in digital data processing, which displayed its results in Florida virtually as soon as computed in Maryland.110

Only the development of digital electronic computers in recent decades made possible quick enough data digestion and display to allow communications engineers to speak of "real-time" presentations for Project Mercury. Telemetry grew more sophisticated separately in industrial and military circles until biomedical telemetry became by 1959 a recognized part of the margin of safety for manned space flight. But computer technology did not suffer this kind of bifurcated development. In fact, commercially sold digital computers were ready and actually operating under canvas tents while workmen were laying block and brick for the permanent building to surround them. No construction time could be lost if the communications and computing center was to be completed at the Goddard Center early in 1960.111

Harry J. Goett, formerly chief of Ames' Full Scale and Flight Research Division, took the reins as director of Goddard in September 1959. He found that the nucleus of some 150 Vanguard people had grown to approximately 500 employees. After Vanguard III finally terminated that program successfully on September 18, about one third of Goddard's complement turned to developing the facilities and teamwork for a space operations data control and reduction center. Actual direction of all Mercury computer programming was done from [219] Langley by J. J. Donegan and H. W. Tindall, Jr., of the Tracking and Ground Instrumentation Unit. But in August 1959, John T. Mengel of Goddard conferred with Soulé; together with Edmond Buckley of NASA Headquarters they decided to assign about 14 senior engineers to specific Mercury problems. From October 1959 over the next 18 months this Goddard staff tripled in size and then doubled again when the Tracking Unit's responsibility and key men were transferred to Goddard.112

To raise the reliability of the computers and telemetry used in Project Mercury, redundancy and cybernetics were again incorporated in design. [220] For example, "real-time multi-programming" was the name for a technique and some hardware developed as digestive aids for Mercury data processing machines. M. J. Buist and G. M. Weinberg of Goddard tried to describe their efforts to achieve "real-time" data:

The problem . . . is to develop a real-time computer system capable of receiving input arriving at asynchronous times and at different rates of transmission with minimum delay. It must be capable of performing mathematical computations while input is being received and edited. Simultaneously, it must send out information to numerous sites in varied formats and at varied speeds without human intervention.113
For this purpose two IBM 7090 transistorized computers were installed at Goddard, in Maryland. Two older model IBM 709 vacuum tube computers, one installed for NASA on Bermuda and the other an Air Force "IP" (impact predictor) for the Range Safety Officer at the Cape, were modified to handle a computer logic designed with equivalent alternative programs rather than with the usual subroutines. By means of special memory traps and automatic switching, the most critical data reduction operations were redundantly programmed into the IBM machines to ensure cross-checks on the man-rated machines in orbit.

Curiously, the difference between the IBM 709s and 7090s, so far as reliability was concerned in 1959, was the same difference the Mercury team encountered with miniaturization techniques. Although solid-state electronic devices like transistors, printed circuits, and molectronic capacitors promised tremendous savings in space, weight, and trouble-free operation, they were as yet so new that their reliability was not proved. The two 7090s at Goddard, therefore, were necessary redundancies for the heart or brain of the global tracking and target acquisition grid. The two independent and separate 709s at the Cape and Bermuda, amply stocked with spare parts, had the more limited but no less critical job of computing whether orbital launch conditions had been met. The two new transistorized computers at Goddard should man-rate the worldwide Mercury switchboard and data reduction. The older, more reliable vacuum-tube computers in the Mercury launch area should ensure nearly perfect orbital insertion conditions before the point of no return.114

That point of no return was first selected as insurance against landing in Africa. Later refinements to the "go/no go" decision point incorporated parameters from the standardized atmosphere, better drag coefficients, perturbation theory, preferred recovery areas, the improved Atlas booster, and the heavier Mercury capsule. These and many other intertwined considerations made the efforts of man-rating the machines for Mercury seem almost as limitless a task as space is a limitless continuum. They had the effect of canceling, for the time being, STG's hopes for an 18-orbit, or day long, final Mercury mission.

By the end of 1959 Project Mercury was well under way on many different fronts. The American astronauts, supposedly shifting from academically oriented training to practical engineering and operational exercises, were widely known as [221] men in training to challenge the impressive Soviet performances in space. Most recently, Lunik III had photographed the unknown side of the Moon for the first time. A few Soviet names and faces appeared in Western publications as challenging indications that the U.S.S.R. too was training pilots for space flights. But the imagination and hopes of the American people were pinned on the seven of their own, each of whom had the chance of being the first human being to orbit Earth. Publicized in accord with the law and in response to public demand, the plans and progress of Project Mercury were for the most part open knowledge. NASA Headquarters was swamped with inquiries of all kinds from all sorts of people. The field managers of Mercury had ruefully discovered that people, or at least reporters, were more interested in people than machines, so they allowed "Shorty" Powers to skew publicity toward machine-rating the men rather than man-rating the machines.115

98 See, e.g., Newsweek, LIV (Oct. 26, 1959), for story and pictures of three Russian cosmonauts, Aleksei Gracher, Aleksei Belokonev, and Ivan Kachur. See also Ari Shternfeld, Soviet Space Medicine (2 rev. ed., New York, 1959) .

99 Purser, logs for Gilruth, Dec. 15 and 21, 1959.

100 Memo, M. Scott Carpenter et al., to Project Dir., "Exchange of Visits with Russian Astronauts," Oct. 21, 1959; T. Keith Glennan, "Opportunities for International Cooperation in Space," Dept. of State Bulletin (Jan. 11, 1960), 62. Cf. Vernon Van Dyke, Pride and Power (Urbana, Ill., 1964), 244-246; Eugene M. Emme, Aeronautics and Astronautics: An American Chronology of Science and Technology in the Exploration of Space, 1915-1960 (Washington, 1961), 115 . See also Philip C. Jessup and Howard J. Taubenfeld, Controls for Outer Space and the Antarctic Analogy (New York, 1959), 251-282; Purser, "Review of Information Relating to Soviet Manned Space Flight Activity," a scrapbook and summary report, Jan. 22, 1960.

101 Howard C. Kyle, interview, Houston, Oct. 19, 1963; Hartley A. Soulé, interview, Hampton, Va., Jan. 7, 1964. Perhaps the best overview of the complexity of the Mercury network can be gained from the manual "Introduction to Project Mercury and Site Handbook," Western Electric Company, Inc., MG-101, Sept. 1960. This is the first in a series of some 50 volumes of operations and maintenance manuals.

102 Kraft, "Some Operational Aspects of Project Mercury," speech, annual meeting, Soc. of Experimental Test Pilots, Los Angeles, Oct. 9, 1959, 5, 6, 10. See also Kraft, interview, Houston, Oct. 20, 1964, and "A Study of the Control and Landing Areas for Post Staging Abort Trajectories," NASA Project Mercury working paper No. 100, Aug. 3, 1959.

103 Gerald M. Truszynski, "Space Communications," NASA pamphlet, 1963, 11; Mayer, interview, Houston, Oct. 19, 1964. Cf. Mayer, "The Motion of a Space Vehicle within the Earth-Moon System," in Notes on Space Technology (Langley, Va., May 1958). Memo, Mayer to Chief, Operations Div., "Trip Report of Visits to STL, Convair/Astronautics, Lockheed, and Stromberg-Carlson on Nov. 30, Dec. 1, through Dec. 4, 1959."

104 John D. Hodge, interview, Houston, Aug. 11, 1964; David G. Simons, interview, San Antonio, April 24, 1964; Col. George M. Knauf was shortly to undertake the team training of Air Force medical monitors in the areas assigned to him at Patrick Air Force Base and at the Cape. See memo, Stanley C. White to Chief, Flight Systems Div., "Trip to USAF Surgeon General's Office . . . to discuss daily training of medical monitors with Colonel Knauf," Feb. 8, 1960. The STG also conducted medical monitor training at Langley.

105 Sensitive security matters may be traced backward from various editions of NASA's "Mercury Program Security Classification Guide," SCG-9, the second and final revision of which was dated Dec. 15, 1964. The first of these guides, issued on Aug. 3, 1959, had only the particular command control code used for a specific flight designated at the highest level of security.

106 The first network specifications, numbered S-45 dated May 21, 1959, were superseded by two revisions until S-45B of Oct. 30, 1959. Memo, Reid to all concerned, "Designation of Organization, Membership, and Operating Procedures for the Source-Selection Panel and the Technical Evaluation Board - Tracking and Ground Instrumentation, Project Mercury," June 12, 1959; memo, North to NASA Administrator, "Background of Project Mercury Schedules," with enclosure, Aug. 14, 1960, 4. The definitive contract with Western Electric, NAS 1-430, was not executed until Jan. 11, 1960, after which some 500 changes were processed before completion in June 1961. See the series of monthly "Progress Report to NASA: Project Mercury," Western Electric Company, Inc., Aug. 1959 to June 1961.

107 Letter, Reid to Edmond C. Buckley, "Arrangements for Site Survey Teams in Connection with Tracking and Ground Instrumentation Systems for Project Mercury," July 16, 1959. For some indications of the extent of these difficulties, see (for Mexico) Purser, log for Gilruth, Aug. 17, 1959; and (for Africa) Ray W. Hooker, memo for files, "Tracking and Ground Instrumentation Systems for Project Mercury, Special Report on African Sites," Oct. 20, 1959. See also "Report for the Cisler Committee on Tracking and Ground Instrumentation Systems for Project Mercury," NASA, Nov. 25, 1959.

108 Arnold W. Frutkin, interview, Washington, Sept. 2, 1965; and Chaps. 1 and 2 of his book, International Cooperation in Space (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1965). For texts of all executive agreements, memoranda of understanding, and other international arrangements after 1959, see Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, 89 Cong., 1 sess., United States International Space Programs, July 30, 1965. Dwight D. Eisenhower, The White House Years: Waging Peace, 1956-1961 (Garden City, N.Y., 1965), 344.

109 Alfred Rosenthal, The Early Years: Goddard Space Flight Center Historical Origins and Activities through December 1962 (Washington, 1964), 53, 57. Cf. "Fifth Anniversary, International Tracking of Space Vehicles," pamphlet, Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., Jan. 31, 1963. Soulé interview.

110 See anon., "The Manned Space Flight Tracking Network," pamphlet, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., 1965. See also Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., "The Telecommunications Revolution in the Nineteenth Century," paper, American Studies Assn., Claremont, Calif., Nov. 1962.

111 See Wilfred J. Mayo-Wells, "The Origins of Space Telemetry," in Emme, ed., The History of Rocket Technology, 253, 268. See also Harry L. Stiltz, ed., Aerospace Telemetry (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1961) and Mayer comments.

112 John T. Mengel, comments, Sept. 14, 1965. Mengel (for the Navy), Edmond Buckley (for NACA), and Gerald De Bey (for the Army) had supported the Air Force studies for "Man-in-Space-Soonest" tracking requirements in 1958. See also Mengel, "Satellite Ground Data Networks," Appendix B in Alfred Rosenthal, Goddard '63: A Year in Review at Goddard Space Flight Center (Greenbelt, Md., 1964), B-1, B-9.

113 M. S. Buist and G. M. Weinberg, "Real-Time Multi-Programming in Project Mercury," in Donald P. Le Galley, ed., Ballistic Missile and Space Technology (4 vols., New York, 1960), I, 436. See also J. Painter and E. Chicoine, eds., "Reference Notes on Communication Systems," NASA Manned Spacecraft Center, November 1962.

114 The Burroughs and IBM computer systems at the Cape sent orbital insertion data by wire to the Goddard prediction computers, which then returned display data to the Mercury Control Center in milliseconds. For more adequate treatments, see Michael Chriss, "Establishment of NASA's Manned Tracking Network," NASA Historical Note HHN-54; Shirley Thomas, Satellite Tracking Facilities: Their History and Operations (New York, 1963); P. V. H. Weems et al., Space Navigation Handbook, NAVPERS 92988 (Washington, 1961) . See also anon., "Mercury History: An Unclassified Documentation of the Contributions of Radio Command Guidance to Project Mercury," mimeographed 24-page document prepared by Information Services, General Electric, Radio Guidance Operation, Syracuse, N.Y., ca. June 1963.

115 Powers, memo for file, "Points of Emphasis in Promoting the Public Picture of the Space Task Group," undated [ca. Dec. 1959].

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