Roger Clapp Eulogy—Tony Iorillo

Like all of you, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Roger in the last several weeks. I’ve been troubled since I talked to Dottie, and later read his obituary. His 39-year professional career is covered in just a couple of sentences. The reason is that Dottie and the family really don’t know more because Roger couldn’t tell them. He had spent his most productive years working on government programs which are classified to this day. So, I’ve elected to use my allotted time to tell them, and you, as much as I can using information which I just discovered has been released.

I first met Roger in 1962 when I returned to Hughes from school. By this time, Roger was already a distinguished microwave technologist with numerous patents to his credit. He had spent the previous 16 years, through the Korean War and the early Cold War, developing equipment for Hughes products found on most military aircraft, ships, tanks and land installations.

After Sputnik and the start of the “Space Race”, He changed course and was now involved in satellite programs. It was my good fortune to be assigned to his programs, and I had a front row view of his accomplishments. You’ll recall that 1962 was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and, arguably, the height of the Cold War. Those old enough, remember those grim days, and being urged to build home bomb shelters. You can imagine how anxious the government was to develop intelligence gathering and communications satellites as quickly as possible. We were commissioned to study the possibilities, and Roger spent a few years leading teams of our best engineers developing ideas.

Some ideas matured, and by 1966, we were under contract to build the largest communications satellite our Air Force would have in that decade. It was called TACSAT, and Roger managed the development of its communications payload. The program, whosedescription can be found on the Internet, was successful in every respect.

Another idea matured, and, in 1968, we were under contract for a new series of satellites which are still classified. All I can say is that they were successful in every respect, and Roger was a key member of the management team. We called it our ” Green” program because that was the color of the security badges we wore.

By 1970, Roger was at the peak of his powers. He was 44 years old and he spent most of this decade as manager of our newest and largest satellite program, the “Yellow” program. I know Roger would agree that this was his most rewarding professional performance. To put his work in context. I have to review some history. After Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson relied on a series of photographic satellites for the intelligence they needed to navigate the Cold War and the various non-proliferation agreements which reduced tensions dramatically through the 1960’s.

In 1967, President Johnson said, “We’ve spent 35 or 40 billion dollars on the space program (including Apollo). If nothing else had come of it except the knowledge we’ve gained from space photography, it would be worth ten times the program cost. Because tonight we know how many missiles the enemy has and, it turned out, our guesses were way off. We were doing things we didn’t need to do. We were building things we didn’t need to build. We were harboring fears we didn’t need to harbor.”

You can read about these satellites and the wonderful people involved on the Internet. As valuable as they were, these satellite were fairly primitive by today’s standards. They used old-fashioned film. Flying at 150 miles or so, rolls would be exposed over targets, put into buckets which, when full, were ejected over water with parachutes. Ships and aircraft were waiting to fish them out of the sea. Weather permitting, airplanes could catch them and reel them in.

There had long been a desire to use electronic cameras as you have in your iPhone and to acquire the images as soon as they were taken. A major stumbling block was the lack of adequate communications technology. By 1970, more ideas matured, and we figured out how to do it.

I’ll read again. “The National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO) declassified limited information about its first electro-optical system, that President Ford declared operational in 1977. The system’s camera used charge-coupled device technology, the same basic technology used in today’s digital photography.”

“In association with this declassification the NRO declassified the fact that it operates a relay satellite program, which the Hughes Aircraft Company developed in the 1970’s. The satellite relays data, at the rate of 100 digital television channels, directly to a ground station in the United States.”

The relay satellite was our “Yellow” program. The combined development of the imaging satellite, the relay satellite and the elaborate ground data processing system has been called the “Apollo” program of the 1970s.  President Obama and our troops around the world rely on them today.

Roger managed the relay program from start to finish. It involved thousands of Hughes people, and the satellites were launched on the precise days he had committed to 4 years earlier. He was masterful using all the skills he had accumulated from his years as a microwave engineer, on TACSAT, and on the “Green’ program.

In the process, he mentored me and many others who would relieve him at the end of the decade. Roger, always a consummate gentleman, was admired, respected and liked by all who knew him at Hughes, in the government and throughout the aerospace industry. I am pleased to note the men and women here today from each of these segments. I know I speak for all of them.

I am profoundly grateful that my life’s trajectory merged with his for so long. May he rest in peace.


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