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 4 of 4)
But things had changed at home. As soon as Rubel returned to Washington, he met with NASA and struck a deal effectively ending the passive/active firewall. If NASA would pay for Hughes to build the satellite, the defense department would supply the ground stations from ADVENT hardware. In August, NASA awarded Hughes a $4 million contract for three geosynchronous satellites. The program would be called Syncom.
“We were thrilled,” Rosen says. Later, Hyland went to brief Howard Hughes, the company’s reclusive founder, and found him sitting in bed surrounded by models of the satellite. Hyland was the only employee who spoke with Hughes. Neither Rosen nor Williams ever met him. Hudspeth’s only encounter was brief and unpleasant: “Tom was walking across Hughes’ landing strip one day,” Rosen says, “and Hughes yelled at him: ‘Stay off the grass!’ ”
On February 14, 1963, the moment of truth arrived. At 78 pounds, Syncom 1 was bigger than the prototype, and rode atop a new Delta rocket. The spacecraft launched flawlessly from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and climbed easily to transfer orbit, where it entered geosynchronous altitude. Then the apogee kick motor ignited for a 22-second burn to circularize the orbit.
One second before burnout, all communication stopped.
“We were devastated,” says Rosen, who is convinced the apogee motor must have exploded. The team made several modifications, and on July 26 they tried again with Syncom 2. Rosen and the other team members waited in a bunker near the launch pad. Again the launch was flawless. Five and a half hours later, the apogee motor lit. Seconds ticked away. The signals continued without interruption, and the room erupted in cheers. We have a mission, Rosen thought. The Delta didn’t have enough power to put the satellite into a strictly geosynchronous orbit over the equator, but with a few ground stations Syncom 2 would work well enough. In August, with the U.S. warship Kingsport acting as a relay in the harbor of Lagos, Nigeria, President John F. Kennedy called Nigerian Prime Minister Abubaker Balewa from the White House for the first satellite conversation between two heads of state.
Syncom 3, launched a year later, attained true geosynchronous orbit over the equator in time to broadcast live the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the first continuous TV broadcast across the Pacific. Syncoms 2 and 3 operated until 1966, providing phone service home for U.S. troops in Vietnam.
Hudspeth, who went on to become Hughes’ chief scientist and, like Rosen, a Caltech Distinguished Alumnus, died last year at 89. Williams, perhaps the team’s most innovative thinker, committed suicide in 1966 at age 35.
Rosen is a member of the Inventors Hall of Fame and winner of numerous awards for achievement in engineering. He has a movie-sized, high-definition TV in his den and a satellite dish on his roof. Rosen follows the fortunes of the UCLA and University of Southern California football teams on TV, and loves the Turner Classic Movies channel because, he says, “I can watch movies from my childhood.” He points out that while the antenna used during the Tokyo Olympics cost millions of dollars and provided just a single channel, the 24-inch dish on his roof cost less than $100 and provides 300.
Guy Gugliotta is a writer in Pelham, New York.