The Enduring “SMART” Satellite Manual–Jim Thompson

I joined Hughes in mid June 1964 on the Masters Fellowship Rotation Program in the satellite area as my first rotation. Within a week or so another new hire named Mickey Haney showed up with an MS from MIT. It was an exciting time to start at Hughes Space Division. The Earlybird contract was recently awarded as the world’s first commercial satellite program. Syncom II was successfully operating in orbit and Syncom III was about to be launched.

As new guys Haney and I were doing a lot of calculations on ground station look angles (azimuth and elevation angles) as function of location relative to the satellite, as well as the satellite return look angles to the ground station.  We also collected agreed-upon values of basic parameters like earth radius, geo-stationary orbit radius, and orbit equations for synchronous inclined orbits. As systems engineering people had need for different ground station locations, we ended up repeating calculations for each case. That led to a set of charts where one could read the satellite or ground station look angles for any location in the coverage region. These were the days of the slide rule for most engineers and no pocket calculators. Fortunately there was a time-share computer system one floor away where one could program in Basic to generate the data for these graphs. Charts for other geometric parameters quickly followed. We also learned about link budgets, the details of the various contributing factors in the budget, and communications capacity calculations. We made charts for many of those parameters. Clearly the work involved learning some basics of satellite communications.

Soon another individual, Dr. Boris Subbotin, transferred from what had been the Hughes Communications Division. He was a senior scientist and in addition to his other duties he was given the task of keeping Haney and I productively occupied. Boris suggested that we compile a handbook on communication satellite parameters. It could be as simple as some content in a monthly industry trade magazine called Microwave Journal which usually had some graphs or nomograms in each issue, or a hardcover year end yearbook with a collection of technical charts. We started with a three ring binder version that could begin with modest content and grow as demand and utility needed. Boris recently stated that he liked the idea for three reasons: 1) he had no work to keep us fully occupied at the time, 2) he noted that most of the engineers in the area had their own private collection of notes, shortcuts, references etc. that they might share if a handbook was in the works, and 3) it would be a good learning experience for us.

We thought it would be nice to have a catchy name for handbook, some kind of acronym based on words representative of the content. So we filled a blackboard with words like space, satellites, Syncom, communication, technology, data, tools, charts, information, reference, book, handbook, text, manual, etc. We made lists of candidate acronyms and in the end we selected one suggested by Boris.   Thus the SMART manual was named with SMART standing for ‘Satellite Manual and Reference for Telecommunications”. We made up an outline and by Nov of 1964 issued an IDC requesting input for a handbook with four sections.

Inputs came in over time, but nearly always needed some explanatory notes, at least for us new guys. We worked on this task part time during 1965, took what came in, and asked for help explaining it. It was reformatted if necessary and added to the handbook. By year end we had enough content for a first release. The publications people printed and assembled some 50 to 100 copies in three ring binders. We distributed these first SMART manuals with red bows just before the 1965 Christmas Holiday.

People apparently found SMART useful not only for its content but also as a repository for their own favorite pieces of useful information. We solicited additional input and received material to be included in future updates. These were sent out every few years. Mickey and I eventually wandered off into programs or other assignments. The Systems Engineering folks in Leo Stoolman’s organization apparently took on the task of updating SMART, their first being in 1975. They also handed out copies to new engineering hires starting in the mid 70’s. Scientific calculators became available during the 70’s, but the manual was still useful. Equations were often provided with charts for those who wanted higher precision using the calculators.

By 1980 the amount of new material accumulated was substantial and SMART needed a major overhaul. Marty Gale was given the task of reorganizing and issuing the updated version. Additional sections were added to the manual, which resulted in a rather hefty volume. A separate book was added consisting of satellite maps of Earth as viewed from geosynchronous orbit in 5-degree increments of longitude for a total of 72 Earth maps. Overlays were included to provide information on polarization angle, elevation angle, and coverage limits. During the 1990’s a simple plastic slide rule was designed and issued to replace the book of maps. It was compact, easy to use and also served as a useful gift to customers.

Other reference materials (usually power point presentations) were generated by many departments within the organization as training material for new or old people. In some instances the company provided training to customer staff as part of the satellite contract. By the mid 90s there were probably two dozen well-developed departmental training packages. Computers were available throughout the company in this time frame. Many engineers developed their own tools for mapping (LEO, MEO or GEO), sophisticated link budgets including rain fade statistics, modeling of non-linear devices and Monte Carlo simulations of just about any kind of random event. Today these tools are called apps.

In the 1990’s Macs and PCs were in wide use throughout Hughes S&CG. The use of software to create a digital version of SMART would offer the advantages of improved accuracy via direct use of the relevant equations, and portability via laptop or compact storage medium. However resources were not available at that time to support this effort. I personally used two small notebooks with 3.5 by 6 inch pages to house my portable SMART manual. In 2005 I arranged for a power point version of the SMART manual plus a large collection of the appropriate reference material to be included in Boeing’s knowledge management database project by Mike Whelan. The references were cited to give users knowledge of any assumptions or limitations on the use of the content. I retired shortly after the last update. Today employees can carry their SMART manual around on their (also smart) phone.

It is remarkable that something simply started as a part-time project in 1964 would survive and still be useful 50 years later when updated to provide terchnically current content via technically current presentation media.

Comment by Felix Yin

Thanks for making this great site. I joined Hughes back in 1996 as a co-op student out of the University of Illinois. Though there were many employees that insisted that the golden days of the company were long past, my time there was really special and there isn’t a month that goes by that I don’t think about the great projects and people I got to work with before I left in 2004. Jim Thompson is one of those great people I got to work with and I love that he submitted a post about the SMART manual. I learned so much from that, much more practical than anything from my college education! And Jim downplays his little notebook. I will never forget being amazed whenever Jim would pull out his little notebook while we payload engineers were working proposal designs… he’d look at some lines in a graph and throw out some estimate of mass, power or cost… we’d take note and then go back to our offices to run a calculation in our, at the time, fancy excel workbooks, only to find that his quick and dirty assessment was pretty much spot on! Great times! Glad to see Jim is doing well!



One thought on “The Enduring “SMART” Satellite Manual–Jim Thompson

  1. In 1969 while working at TRW, I observed that a copy of the SMART book had migrated there as well.