For that satellite dish on your roof and the phone calls you make to Japan, you can thank Harold Rosen.
- By Guy Gugliotta
- Air & Space magazine, September 2009
(Page 3 of 4)
By the end of 1959, the team had a working design. Rosen and Williams presented it to Hughes general manager Lawrence “Pat” Hyland. In an interview with author Helen Gavaghan for her 1998 book Something New Under the Sun: Satellites and the Beginning of the Space Age, Hyland, who died in 1992, described listening to two young engineers with a costly, “hare-brained scheme.” While it sounded plausible, Hyland didn’t want to take the risk. Rosen wanted to launch from a Pacific island on the equator, and Hyland objected: The island was owned by the British, he said, and there was no launch infrastructure. It couldn’t be done. And that was the verdict, at least at first. Management urged the team to seek funding partners, especially the government. Rosen and his team presented their plan to GTE, Bell Labs, the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and the new space agency, NASA. There were no takers.
From the beginning, Rosen said he believed the design offered no technical showstoppers, but others weren’t so sure. Mendel, now retired in northern California, recalls that in 1960 a geosynchronous satellite “was anything but a slam dunk.” The reason: money. “The whole key to this experiment was economics,” he says. “It costs $30 million or $40 million for the launch vehicle, and you have to get the satellite on station and leave it there for years. If you can’t do that, there’s no way to do this and make money.” Rosen’s bluntness and lack of interest in a gradual development plan were not helping matters. “He wanted to go for the whole thing,” Mendel says. “He made some people upset, especially in the government.”
But Rosen’s team had faith in him, and Rosen in them. Hudspeth, Mendel recalls, was “a great nuts-and-bolts guy,” and Williams “was a genius. Nobody else in the country knew how to do what he was doing.” At one point in 1960, the team members decided to kick in $10,000 apiece of their own money and start their own business.
Rosen took the plan to his old bosses at Raytheon, who were interested. But Raytheon wanted to build the satellite without partners, and insisted that Rosen’s team quit Hughes and move to Massachusetts. The Californians weren’t anxious to relocate and Hyland didn’t want to lose them. Williams told Hyland about the team’s self-financing plan and plunked down a $10,000 check to show he was serious. At that point, Hyland finally agreed to fund a prototype.
This working model, completed in 1960 and covered with a gleaming mosaic of dark blue solar cells, is now in a glass case in Boeing’s satellite factory, next to Los Angeles International Airport. It looks like a large snare drum and weighs 55 pounds. By comparison, Boeing’s biggest geosynchronous satellites today weigh more than four tons and stand more than 20 feet tall.
But even with a prototype in hand and systems already tested, Hughes still wanted a partner, and Rosen couldn’t find one. What he and the company did not know was that the Army had its own geosynchronous satellite program, ADVENT. The project was in deep trouble, bogged down by cost overruns and unreasonable scientific requirements. NASA, meanwhile, had an agreement with the defense department stating that it would build only “passive” communications satellites, leaving the “active” programs to the Pentagon. Rosen thought talking to NASA was a waste of time.
In early 1961, Hughes’ management invited John Rubel, the defense department’s assistant director for defense research and engineering, for a visit. Rubel, a former Hughes executive, was in charge of ADVENT and recognized it as a near-hopeless, bureaucratic morass. Now retired in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Rubel recalls that before traveling to L.A. to visit the company, he had heard something about Rosen’s satellite project, but wasn’t expecting to discuss it, since the visit schedule Hughes had given him mentioned nothing about satellite communications. Rosen says he was supposed to brief Rubel on laser programs and was specifically told not to talk about satellites. But he disobeyed orders; “satellites were all we talked about,” says Rosen. He, Hudspeth, and Williams even showed Rubel the prototype and let him pick it up. ADVENT, by contrast, weighed almost as much as two Volkswagens.
That spring, Hughes sent Rosen and his team to show off the satellite at the Paris Air Show. At a showing at the Eiffel Tower, one spectator is reported to have scoffed that that was “as high as it would ever get.”