Friday morning, July 26, 1963: Another warm, muggy dawning in coastal Florida. Although it was cool inside Bldg AE at Cape Canaveral, perspiration—mental as well as physical—was evident. For a small band of Hughes engineers, technicians, and company brass gathered in the Delta mission director’s center to monitor the launch, now only minutes away, of the little Syncom II satellite, this Friday was a climax to four years of intensive effort—and more than occasional frustration.
Back in 1959, when Hughes first began looking for someone to sponsor Syncom, the idea of a small spin-stabilized satellite to relay communications from geosynchronous orbit was not exactly well received. The idea was to place a communications satellite in a path 22,300 miles high, where the vehicle would seem to hover above a selected spot on the surface of the Earth. In this geosynchronous orbit, the satellite would act as the “sky-high” terminus for the tallest radio tower ever conceived, able to broadcast continuously to one-third of the Earth’s surface within the blink of an eye. Dr. Harold Rosen and his colleagues Thomas Hudspeth, now chief scientist, Division 41, and Donald Williams, and others had produced a working prototype with company funding, but no one was biting.
They Said It Couldn’t Be Done
Initially, the concept was nixed by every U. S. agency, as well as every commercial communications firm Hughes approached. The reaction was the same from European firms, even after Hudspeth demonstrated communications with Syncom from atop the Eiffel Tower during the 1961 Paris Air Show. “People doubted that a small satellite could work,” Dr. Rosen now SCG vice president Engineering, recalled recently. “Experts outside the company also questioned whether voice communications relayed from geosynchronous altitude would be any good.” However, Hughes finally convinced NASA that Syncom could work, and the company was awarded a $4 million contract to build three of the roughly two-feet high, two-and-a-half-feet-wide satellites.
The Little Satellite That Couldn’t
Then, in February 1963, catastrophe struck. During the first Syncom’s apogee motor firing in space—the crucial burn to boost the craft into geosync orbit—the little satellite exploded. Small wonder, then, that six months later, “there was a fair amount of anxiety and anticipation associated with Syncom II’s launch,” said Clyde McGee, who was in charge of launch operations for Syncom, and who has overall responsibility for Division 43 mission operations.
Last minute crises just days before liftoff probably didn’t help lighten the general mood. “It was a rough week for all of us,” said Rosen. “NASA was worried whether Syncom would actually work and their reps kept throwing “What if….?” questions at us.” Gremlins popped up to plague the engineers: Electronics had to be modified while Syncom was perched on the 11-story rocket; the night before blastoff, the communications repeater mysteriously started oscillating; and during countdown, someone accidentally activated one of Syncom’s attitude control thrusters. The way events were developing, the Hughes team was on the lookout for positive omens. When the Bldg AE soft drink machine jammed open and began spewing out bottles of Coke, “I took it as a sign of good things to come,” Rosen deadpanned.
The Bird Flies
Perhaps it was such a sign. At 7:30 am on July 26, 1963, Thor Delta No. 20 rocketed the 85 pound Syncom II into space. Five and a half hours later, NASA telescope in South Africa recorded the historical moment when the pioneer achieved geosync orbit, the fiery plume from its apogee motor blazing out behind.
Because the Thor Delta rocket and Syncom II’s apogee motor together couldn’t generate the thrust to boost the satellite into an equatorial orbit, Syncom II’s path was inclined to the equator. To an observer on Earth, Syncom II would seem to drift north and south along a straight line during a 24-hour period, but would always remain in sight. An attempt at a geostationary orbited satellite would come later, using a new, more powerful Thor Delta equipped with strap-on rockets.
Beyond the achievement of the hardware, the story of Syncom II is a story of people. At the program’s peak, 350 employees of the old Hughes Aerospace Group were involved. Today, nearly all of the key Syncom II personnel are still working at Hughes. Many are at SCG: Pres Du Pont, Meredith Eick, Tom Hudspeth, Joe Lotta, Clyde McGee, Murray Neufeld, Al Owens, Dick Parfitt, Bill Penprase, Laura Pesola, Bob Roney, Harold Rosen, Bob Scrafford, Paul Sengstock, John Swancara, Joe Vorndran to name a few.
Syncom pioneers gathered in 1973 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the little satellites successful orbiting. Photo provided by Adele Pausmer.