Note: This article, written by Joel Nelson, originally appeared in the 4M Forum in April 1990. It was entitled “SCG Embarks on New Odyssey in China.” The 4M Forum was a publication of Division 4M, the Systems Engineering and Operations Division headed by Mal Meredith.
The fact that Division 4M’s Lance Mohler spent 16 days on a field assignment isn’t unusual, since Division 4M employees often travel to support Hughes satellite programs. The setting was unusual, however.
Mohler, manager of Systems Operations Laboratories, spent more than two weeks in China for the Asia Satellite Telecommunications (AsiaSat) program. AsiaSat was launched on April 7 from Xichang, in southwest China. Once deployed, Asiasat will provide communications links between China, Thailand, and Pakistan.
AsiaSat marks the first foreign use of the Chinese launch site, and was the first American launch from a Communist country.
Mohler and about 60 other Space and Communications Group employees flew to Xichang—a four-leg trip covering five days—to conduct systems tests and other preparations.
The field assignment required adjustment to a fascinating but unfamiliar culture and living conditions in an isolated area 1800 miles southwest of Beijing, the capital.
Even seemingly mundane chores like money exchanges weren’t easy. China has two currencies, one for its citizens and one for visitors, so Mohler and his colleagues had to be sure to get the right one.
One complication, as might be expected, is the language barrier. According to Mohler, most of the experienced native translators are in Beijing, and few in the Hughes contingent spoke Mandarin or Cantonese, two of the major Chinese languages. Even with Chinese translators available, the Americans unwittingly contributed to the language problem. “The Chinese don’t understand American slang and colloquialisms, which we use without thinking, so we learned to use only very formal English,” Mohler said following his return to the United States in late February. U. S. embassy personnel from Beijing lended occasional support.
He added, It helped that many young Chinese are bilingual, because English is now part of the secondary school curriculum. One of our translators carried a three-inch-thick English/Mandarin dictionary with him.” However SCG employees sometimes spontaneously performed some operations, such as driving forklifts, to avoid possibly being unpleasantly surprised by misunderstandings.
The SCG employees adjusted to other conditions that differed from those they take for granted at home. “We were concerned about overloading the local power plant’s capacity with our test equipment,” Mohler said, adding that local hotels also had trouble handling the increased power demand created by the visitors, resulting in chronic brown-out lighting conditions. Fortunately, the power generators have been able to accommodate the launch site’s demands.
The Xichang hotel, which houses about 10 Hughes people working daily on the satellite, was a prime viewing location on launch day. It is only half a mile from the launch tower, a much closer vantage point than is provided spectators at Cape Canaveral, Fla., where the space shuttle and most U. S. satellites are launched.
Since the Xichang site is about 900 miles inland, a launch vehicle’s discarded first stage lands somewhere in the hills of South China. By contrast, first stages of expendable vehicles launched at Canaveral and Kourou, French Guiana, fall into the ocean following detachment from the second stage.
Mohler’s work day at the launch site typically began at 6:30 am. Following an hour-and-a-half bus ride from his hotel in the city of Xichang, 25 miles south of the launch site. The workday ended with a return trip to Xichang at the conclusion of a 4 pm meeting with his Chinese counterparts.
“The older technicians are highly competent. Some of them even spoke English, and everyone was very helpful to us,” Mohler recalled. Security restrictions prevent the Chinese from participating in some phases of launch preparation.
Hughes employees took advantage of breaks in the work schedule to tour. A favorite diversion was bicycling. Finding bicycle paths was easy because cycling is a primary means of transportation in China. On other occasions, Mohler and the others visited the Great Wall and an art gallery.
The food took some getting used to. “It’s nothing like Chinese food we get in restaurants here,” Mohler laughed. Local cuisine includes pig ears, animal tendons, spicy duck, and sea cucumbers.
As a health precaution, the SCG employees imported some of their food from home, along with cooking utensils, refrigerators and water purification systems.
Communicating with employers and family back home proved a bit difficult at first, because technology transfer limitations delayed the employment of advanced telecommunications equipment needed to complete long-distance phone hookups. However, that problem has been solved.
Most SCG employees will return home soon after the launch, ending a unique chapter in SCG history.
Note: AsiaSat 1, an HS-376 configuration satellite, was originally launched as Westar VI by Space Shuttle 41B mission on February 3, 1984 along with Palapa B-2. Both satellites were stranded in useless orbits when their PAM stages misfired. The satellites were retrieved by Space Shuttle 51A mission in November 1984. Westar VI was refurbished by Hughes and eventually sold to the AsiaSat consortium and was launched by the Chinese Long March 3 booster on April 7, 1990 from the Xichang launch site.