Spin Doctors

For that satellite dish on your roof and the phone calls you make to Japan, you can thank Harold Rosen.

The Navy’s 85-foot-tall antenna at Point Mugu, California, relayed signals from the Syncom 3 satellite until 1966. (Boeing)
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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.”

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.

About Guy Gugliotta

Guy Gugliotta, a long-time science writer, and most recently lead editor of the memoir Swift Boats at War in Vietnam, published by Stackpole in 2017, is a journalist and author based in New York.

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