Commercial Satellite Communication Project; 22 October 1959

Editor’s note:  The Hughes IDC presented below along with the attached NASA commentary can be found in NASA SP-4407, Volume III, 1995.

By 1959, work on communications satellite research and development was going on in several industrial firms besides Bell Laboratories. The Department of Defense had taken the lead in sponsoring research on active repeater satellites, while NASA concentrated its initial efforts on passive reflectors. In particular, the Department of Defense was supporting research on a complex satellite project called Advent, which intended to develop a satellite for use in geosynchronous orbit. An engineering team at Hughes Aircraft in mid-1959, led by Harold Rosen, devised a proposal for a much simpler geosynchronous satellite and asked the company to support its development. This memorandum reports to Hughes vice president for research, A.V. Haeff, the conclusions of an internal task force set up to assess the proposal of Rosen and his team, which also included Donald Williams and Thomas Hudspeth. (The appendices referred to in this memo are not included.) Over the following months, Hughes managers debated whether to provide support for the proposal from company funds or to seek government support for the project. Enough corporate funds were made available to keep the project going, but it was not until NASA contracted with Hughes to develop and demonstrate what became known as Syncom that the project became the foundation for the many geosynchronous satellites to follow.


Hughes Aircraft Company

Interdepartmental Correspondence

 To: A. V. Haeff     cc: See Distribution                        Date: 22 October 1959

Subject:  Commercial Satellite Communication Project;    From: S. G. Lutz    Preliminary Report of Study Task Force

(Task Force working members are: E. D. Felkel,  S. G. Lutz,  D. E. Miller,  H. A. Rosen and J. H. Striebel)

1. It is the unanimous opinion of the Task Force working members that the satellite communication system proposed by Dr. H. A. Rosen is technically feasible, is possible of realization within close to the estimated price and schedule, has great potential economic attractiveness and should not encounter too serious legal or political obstacles.

2. The Task Force has, of necessity, concentrated on technical aspects of the program and has not been able to make an adequate market survey. The phraseology, “great potential economic attractiveness” is justified by the following:

a. A rapidly increasing demand for new long-distance communication facilities is being created by: (1) Population increase, (2) Shrinkage of travel time via commercial jet aircraft, (3) Increasing foreign industrialization and international commerce, (4) Increasing military communication loads, and (5) Forthcoming decrease in HF [high-frequency] communication capability because of the declining sunspot cycle. Rather than being able to open more HF radio circuits to carry the increasing traffic, new circuits (cable, scatter or satellite) will be needed to pick up perhaps a third of the traffic now carried by HF circuits.

b. The Bell System, which formerly depended on radio for intercontinental phone circuits, has been investing heavily and profitably in long submarine cables; four in the past few years. The first trans-Atlantic phone cable provided thirty-six circuits (about 140 kc [kilocycle] bandwidth), cost about $30,000,000.00, and reportedly paid out in its first two years. A second trans- Atlantic cable soon will be placed in service at a reported cost of $40,000,000.00, presumably for a similar number of circuits. Tropospheric scatter radio chains are comparable in cost and are geographically constrained.

c. Comparing the proposed satellite system ($5,000,000.00 for 4500 kc band- width) with submarine cable, it could carry up to thirty times as much traffic at one-sixth the investment!

3. Converting “potential” into “actual” economic attractiveness will depend on acquiring communication traffic, most probably via cooperative agreement with one or more communication common carriers. General Telephone may be the best prospect (certainly a better one than the complacent Bell System) because it is trying to gain stature despite Bell’s long-distance monopoly. The proposed satellite system could bypass Bell landlines in linking General’s east coast and west coast systems, in addition to giving it non-Bell circuits to Europe and other continents. General Telephone also could negotiate more efficiently with the communication services of other countries and even other domestic companies (Western Union, etc.) than [Hughes Aircraft] could; not being a common carrier. This and related market survey problems seemed too sensitive to be explored adequately by the engineers of this task force, even if time and suitable contracts had been available. General Telephone need not be the only potential partner, of course, for even a smaller common carrier might supply enough traffic to get started. As few as six circuits (30 kc out of the available 4500 kc) to Europe should justify a five-million-dollar investment in proportion to submarine telephone cables.

4. . . . (15 October [Interdepartmental Correspondence] from Lutz to Haeff, Jerrems) lists three questions which define the scope of the market survey believed to be desirable. To this list should be added a study of the relative costs and outage times for splicing a broken cable vs replacing a dead satellite repeater. As a preliminary estimate, keeping a launching in readiness on Jarvis Island should be less expensive than keeping a cable ship in readiness and a new satellite could be put up in hours, instead of the weeks required to locate and repair a cable-break.

5. Technical aspects of the proposed program have been evaluated in more detail, and with higher confidence in the conclusions, than was possible with the preceding economic aspects. The crux of the technical attractiveness of this program (and an important economic consideration as well) lies in quick-reaction capability at low cost. By being able to keep the weight of a simple broadband repeater payload below 25 lbs, it can be put in stationary orbit by an inexpensive (one-third million dollars) solid-fuel Scout booster. Everyone else (NASA, RCA, Space Electronics, Signal Corps) has viewed a stationary orbit repeater as a more sophisticated, hence heavier device, with attitude control to use high gain antenna beams on the satellite. More payload weight requires a larger liquid-fueled rocket and severe logistic problems in transporting or making liquid oxygen for an equatorial launch. The alternative of launching from the U.S. and “dog-legging” into an equatorial orbit increases guidance problems and requires Saturn thrusts. Thus, NASA and others consider the stationary orbit communications repeater as a high-cost program for 1965-70. This Task Force has convinced itself of the feasibility of putting 25 lbs, or possibly 30 lbs, into a useful quasi-stationary orbit with a Scout booster, of achieving a 4500 kc bandwidth repeater within this weight and of doing this within a year of the date that full funding is provided.

6. How can Hughes expect to do so much better than others? The answer does not lie in any startling but questionable innovations, inventions or breakthroughs. Rather, the answer lies chiefly in application of the Hughes brand of System Engineering, plus exploiting Hughes competence in low-noise reception and traveling-wave-tube development. The starting point was to assume a quasi-stationary orbit (satellites held within about 5 ̊ angular limits of desired point on the stationary orbit), to be put there by a Scout booster. The limited payload weight to 30 lbs on the basis of Chance Vought performance predictions, or to 25 lbs on derating the predicted velocity by 800 fps. This obviously limits the satellite transmitting power, energized from solar cells, to a watt or so. [3] Transmission at or near 2 kmc (the accepted optimum frequency for space communication) favors high antenna gain and use of traveling-wave-tubes. The nearest to a break- through was the assurance by Dr. J. T. Mandel of the feasibility of developing a 2.5 watt periodic PM focused 2 kmc high efficiency traveling-wave-tube of one pound, including its INDOX VI focusing magnets. The low satellite power is handled at the earth terminals by low noise (cooled maser or parametric) reception and very high antenna gain (58 db). In achieving the latter at reasonable costs, the quasi-stationary position of the satellite avoids the need for full azimuth and elevation control which has been made even 80 ft steerable parabolas so expensive. At similar cost, the beam from a 150 ft truncated parabola can be steered through a +5 ̊ range. Thus, the burden is put on the earth- terminals, where it belongs. The satellite antenna design is a compromise between using an omni-directional antenna for maximum simplicity and using a 17̊ beam for maximum gain. While either of these extremes could be fatal, the compromise of a spin-stabilized doughnut pattern provides 6 to 9 db gain, with simplicity. Finally, with adequate design for a 14 db S/N ratio, the addition of frequency modulation raises the S/N ration to a commercial 32 db.

7. Because of the importance of assessing feasibility of staying within the weight capability of the Scout booster, Ed Felkel was named to the Task Force to analyze the weight of the payload package. His report shows confidence of keeping it safely within weight.

8. Putting the satellite in orbit and keeping it in position entails a sequence of individually practicable operations within today’s state of the art. Cumulatively, however, the multiplicity of stages plus operations of velocity adjustment, de-spinning, re-spinning and incremental orbit adjustment present a currently-indeterminable hazard to the success of any one firing. It is believed that a combination of (a) careful and conservative engineering with step-by-step pre-testing, (b) adequate training on analog simulators, (c) study of any troubles in earlier NASA Scout firings, and (d) adequate determination of the cause of any initial Hughes failure, will result in adequate probability of success within the programmed three tries. Admittedly, there can never be certainty of success in only three attempts. However, a fourth or subsequent firings should not increase the program cost proportionately.

9. As might be expected, the Task Force study has resulted in significant system improvements, by Dr. Rosen as well as by Task Force members and others. For example, the payload configuration has been broadened to improve spin-stability and has been stiffened by a central column. More important, perhaps, has been the swing away from design primarily for television relaying, with additional narrower i-f channels for other communication services, toward the simpler and more flexible and potentially rewarding approach of coordinated use of a broad-band single-channel repeater simultaneously by several earth-terminals. This mode of operation requires that earth-terminals equalize their transmitting powers by monitoring the spectrum from the satellite, rather than depending on AGC of separate i-f channels in the satellite to prevent a too-strong earth- signal from weakening other retransmissions. Also, this mode of operation provides flexibility of bandwidth reapportionment between earth-terminals in accordance with shifting relative traffic loads. In short, this approach overcomes the “two at a time” limitation of most prior proposals and thus approached more closely the eventual many-user “exchange in orbit” concept. Furthermore, it accomplishes this without sacrificing television capability, requiring only that other traffic be limited during a television program and be kept out of the television band.

10. Determination and resolution of possible legal and political problems and governmental restrictions obviously is beyond the scope of this Task Force. A few of the pos- sible problems will be mentioned. The usual difficulties with the Federal Communications Commission can be expected in obtaining a license for a new type radio service for frequencies have not yet been allocated. Similar, or worse, difficulties can be expected with the corresponding regulatory bodies of other nations where earth-terminals are located. Characteristically, the FCC makes no precedent-setting decisions without holding industry-wide hearings and these could be competitively detrimental. Furthermore, the State Department might become involved because of the international nature of this venture. Next, some governmental agency probably has control of Jarvis Island and would insist on approving its use. Finally, NASA probably would have to sanction the commercial sale and use of Scout boosters and could impose other controls on the program, such as requiring provision for removing dead repeaters from orbit, or provision for disabling their elec- tronics in event that the project is abandoned with repeaters still in orbit. As a ray of sun- shine, NASA’s mission is non-military space technology. They have expressed encouragement toward commercial projects which would not require NASA funds. If NASA becomes “sold” on the proposed project, they might provide inestimable assistance in surmounting the other governmental obstacles. One recognizes that exploration by a Hughes representative of the above governmental restrictions could readily “leak” to competitors, or even to the press, and be highly detrimental. This danger can be avoided, it is believed, by retaining a consultant to make this preliminary investigation without disclosing his client or the details of the project.

11. The impact of the proposed program on the military services could be both good and bad. It would be conclusive proof of Hughes’ competence to execute a major space program and in Hughes’ confidence and initiative in undertaking it without governmental funds. Thus, it should put us in better competitive position for managing future governmental space projects. It could have a bad impact, however, in “showing up” the inefficiency of military satellite programs.

12. It is known that Bell,  RCA and probably other large companies recognize the potential attractions of satellite communication and probably have program plans. It is reasonable to assume that Bell would plan to invest several times the cost of the trans-Atlantic cable in a big stationary orbit project, timed to the availability of big boosters, five or ten years hence. Pressure for additional international circuits may lead them to re-examine the feasibility of moving faster by using a smaller booster and lighter payload, much as we propose. Certainly they could be expected to do this if they learned that their chief competitor, General Telephone, planned such a program in cooperation with Hughes. Most of the prestige value and a portion of the economic value would be sacrificed if our communication satellite were not the first. This indicates the need for a quick decision and a fast program under tight security.


 I. If another company gets into orbit first, much of the publicity and prestige value will be lost and we would have to compete for traffic. Furthermore, this must be a low-cost program and delays increase costs. Consequently, the program should be planned to start development now. The expensive commitments (for rockets, ground installations, etc.) can be deferred for a few months without delaying the launching date.

II. Fund the traveling-wave-tube development separately as a commercial product. A one-pound tube of this capability should find application in Signal Corps portable microwave relay repeaters, possibly in field television transmitters, as well as in other programs. A quarter-million for its development seems a normally good product development risk. This tube is the heart of the proposed satellite electronic system and will be its longest lead-time component.

III. Fund the remainder of the payload development and earth-terminal (antenna and low-noise receiver), in an amount of about $850,000.00.  Also, take an option three Scout boosters, plus necessary real estate,  etc. If this is too large a commitment in advance of completion of the comprehensive market survey and negotiations with potential customers, fund a sufficient fraction to carry the development program this long. Delaying the start of development would delay completion of the program correspondingly.

IV. Explore with General Telephone Company,  at top management level, their interest in a non-Bell long-distance and overseas capability and their willingness to cooperate as the common carrier in the proposed program. Avoid disclosing details which might permit General’s electronic subsidiary, Sylvania, to attempt to replace us. Reach a working agreement which will permit prompt working-level discussions of General’s cooperation in the program. If negotiations with General fail,  try the next best company.

V. A task force, or project team, consisting of key personnel loaned as required from several organizations—Communications Division, Research Laboratories, Systems Development Laboratories—should be set up to carry out the program.

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About Jack Fisher

Jack was a systems engineer at Hughes from 1961 to 1992. He contributed to various programs including Surveyor, Pioneer Venus, Galileo, Intelsat VI and innumerable proposals. He was the manager of of the Spacecraft Systems Engineering Lab until his retirement. Upon retirement Jack taught systems engineering at a number of national and international venues.