Space Flight: Then and Now

Regardless of whatever controversy may be going on with the rest of the world, the space program is showing no signs of slowing down.  In fact, it’s the strongest it’s been in a very long time.  Last week marked exactly a year since SpaceX and NASA made history with the launch of CrewDragon on May 30, 2020, which safely delivered two astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).  This was the first manned space mission launched from American soil in about nine years, since the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on July 8, 2011.  There have been American astronauts traveling to the ISS in the past nine years, however they have had to do so via a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.  Now that NASA has begun working with the private sector, more space action is looking feasible for the near future, including the possibility of travel to Mars or asteroids.

And thanks to President Trump, we now have Space Force.  Among their recent projects is the launch of their fourth Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite, which orbits 22,300 miles above the equator and is able to detect enemy missiles with an early warning.  With ballistic missile technology becoming more and more of a threat from other countries around the world, this development couldn’t be more significant to the United States Defense.  And on December 3, 2020, Aevum, Inc. showcased the massive Ravn X Satellite Launch Vehicle, which is described as the world’s largest unmanned spacecraft system.  One of the primary purposes for this spacecraft is to deliver satellites into orbit.

What’s strange is, one of the problems we are actually facing now in the orbits is excessive debris (often referred to as “space junk”).  This is because over the years there have been so many objects launched into Earth’s lower orbit that are no longer needed for space missions.  One of the most recent casualties of space junk took place late last month when junk collided with the ISS’s robotic arm Canadarm2, creating a hole in the arm’s boom and thermal blanket. Cybersecurity expert, former US Marine and “Cyber Farmer” Max Justice recently proposed an interesting solution to combat space junk:  the creation of a new type of satellite that is built out of mycelium fibers (which come from mushrooms).  When satellites are decommissioned or deorbited, they burn up in the atmosphere, leaving behind harmful chemicals and pieces of metal.  But Justice explains that the mycelium fibers would make the satellites more heat-resistant and environmentally friendly, and more likely than metal satellites to survive an LEO collision unscathed.

I just can’t help but take a step back at this point and laugh, thinking back to 1957, when the first satellite was launched into space.  I doubt that the people involved could have guessed that in another 63 years Earth’s lower orbit would have a traffic jam, and that we would be launching mushrooms into space to be more eco-friendly.  It made me think back to what it must have been like for the pioneers of the United States space program, and I thought it was worth stepping back in time to interview one of these legendary minds behind RCA’s involvement in creating satellites for the space program.  

Thomas Elliott’s career began with the RCA missile test project in Cape Canaveral, FL, which he worked on from 1963-1967.  “I started there just after Mercury ended, which was the first US man space flight program, and just before the Gemini program started, and I was there for the entire Gemini program, which was a predecessor to Apollo.  [The Gemini program] was the flight of two astronauts in a capsule, to practice things like rendezvous and other exercises in there, so they included a long-term flight.”

“My job in the space program was internal and external communications; corporate communications.  Not technical communications, but communications with the news media, and internal audiences and external audiences, which involved writing and publishing and those related activities.”

At this point in history, no one had gone to the moon yet, but satellites had been created years before that.  According to Elliott, most of them were weather satellites and communications, and “the Department of Defense had many classified satellites.”  So what was the first communications satellite like?  “Well the first one was experimental.  An early one was called Relay.  It was built by RCA, and it relayed TV signals from earth to satellite and back to earth.”

When Elliott first began his work at Cape Canaveral, “my main job was editor of a magazine for the employees of the missile test range.  RCA operated all the instrumentation that tracked the satellites and gathered data from the satellites. “  For those who are too young to know this, although the only part of the company that we still hear about nowadays is the record label, the RCA brand has made a significant impact on American technology.  On their website in their own words, RCA describes itself best, as “an iconic brand that has endured from generation-to-generation. Its timeless logo and technological advances have permeated worldwide culture as a symbol of quality and reliability.”

And where exactly was all the instrumentation operated by RCA located?  “It started at Cape Canaveral, and then there was a series of RCA installations on the Caribbean islands, which we called downrange.  Islands like Grand Bahama, they had some instrumentation, all the way down to Ascension Island.  Regarding the way the satellite data was gathered, Elliott explains, “The islands had installations.  So these would track the satellites all the way down as they flew during test flights when the nation was developing missiles and satellites.”

And back then the satellites could also be tracked from the ocean, via ships, when there wasn’t adequate coverage using land-based instruments.  These ships tracked satellites and received communications from them.  “The stations did two things, they acquired data on the performance of the various spacecrafts and missiles, and they did communications with the astronauts as they circled the earth.”

When probed for more detail about the missiles, Elliott went on to say that “they were the minute man missile, which was a defense missile, which was designed, it was in a silo, and it was a solid fuel rocket.”  Elliott also described other kinds of missiles tested at Cape Canaveral, such as the Polaris missile, which was fired from submarines.

Though Elliott’s time at Cape Canaveral ended in 1967 (four years after he began), his career working for RCA and in the space program had only just begun.  He was moved to RCA’s New Jersey office, and the night before him and his family moved was quite memorable. “We left Cape Canaveral to move to New Jersey the night three astronauts were killed in the Apollo ground test.  It caught fire, and all three were killed.”  And that was the beginning of the Apollo project.

“Then my next job was in New Jersey, and had to do with the divisions that manufactured satellites and other space equipment.”  These satellites included Tiros, a weather satellite launched from California.   Explaining why this location was chosen, Elliott says, “All the satellites launched, with a couple exceptions, from Florida were in equatorial, around the earth.  They wanted to put the weather satellite in a polar orbit because they could cover the entire earth in one day.”  And according to Elliott, “there were several of the Tiros missions.”

Elliott worked for RCA in New Jersey from 1967 to 1970.  And while he was there, the Apollo began at Cape Canaveral.  “And that was when they landed man on the moon,” Elliott points out.  “Man spacecraft center was in Houston, TX.  So I went out to Houston, TX each time they launched the Apollo.”   Elliott recalls a particular Apollo flight launched in October 1968.  Then he recounts a rather ecclesiastical personal story related to another mission that took place around Christmastime, when an Apollo capsule circled the moon:

“My wife and my family, we all packed up for Christmas and went out to Houston.  And for the Apollo missions we had developed a camera to put inside the spacecraft so people could see what was going on in the spacecraft, and the most famous use of the camera at that time was…it was just a black and white camera…but on Christmas Eve of 1968, the astronauts trained the camera on the moon, and you could see the surface of the moon, and they read from the Bible the creation story.  Then they circled the moon several times and turned the rockets on and came back and landed on Earth.”

Just this week, Space Force put in a request to Congress for $832 million over its $17.4 billion budget request for its unfunded priority list, referred to on as “an annual wish list of spending every service sends lawmakers.”  Some of the efforts these funds are intended for include a tactical ISR mission, which is likely to, in essence, begin the creation of Space Force’s own constellation of imagery satellites.  Space Force also needs the funds for cislunar awareness (which allows them to observe what is happening within and beyond the orbit of the moon) and for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s WARTECH program, which is where they test advanced technology for the Department of the Air Force.   

Military capabilities have certainly come a long way since Elliott’s time in the space program, to say the least.  But even though Space Force is brand new, the military has always been part of the space equation.  “We did some work for the army on things, we built radar, ground-based radars that track spacecrafts and airplanes and so forth,” Elliott recalls.  And speaking of advanced technology, when describing some of the equipment for communications system on the Apollo, Elliott beams with excitement when he talks about the umbrella antennae that RCA created for the spaceships.  “It was an antennae case that was about three feet long and ten inches in diameter.  When they got to the moon they would take it out and open it.  It was called an erectable antennae, and it would open up to about  a 10 foot antennae.  And it was made out of woven material and they used that to send signals back to earth.”

RCA Erectable Antennae used on the moon, with Elliott on the right. This photo was taken during a media demonstration at Johnson Space Center in Texas.

Another piece of what was considered advanced technology at that time was a system RCA built called the Attitude Translation and Control System, that “helped send signals into the spacecraft for it to maneuver around, which they did on the first landing because where the spacecraft was headed it was rocky so they had to find a smooth spot to land, so that did it.”  Another celebrated piece of equipment was used for backpack communications, which allowed the astronauts, when they were out on the moon, to talk through the lunar module to earth.  “There were two pieces to the Apollo program,” Elliott explains, referring to the lunar module along with the command module.  On the Apollo missions, Elliott describes for us in detail how these two modules worked together:

“The lunar module would separate from the command module, while it was in orbit go around the moon, go down and land on the moon.  The astronauts would get out and do exploration and so forth, then they would get back in the lunar module when the mission was over, and it would rocket itself back off the moon and rendezvous with the command module and link back up and the astronauts would get back in the command module with the rocks [they collected on the moon] and other things they had…”

And as for the lunar module, that was turned loose at the end of the mission and crashed into the moon, where they would leave it to monitor and check the vibrations on the moon, which came from events like meteor strikes.

It wasn’t just the space missions themselves that made life theatrical for Elliott during those years.  Elliott chuckles as he recalls how when he was working at Cape Canaveral, he lived with his family right on the beach.  There were often missiles being tested close by, and they would rattle the dishes in the house at times, which would lead his children to run outside with excitement to watch the missiles go up.

Another fun memory for Elliott during his years in the space program was when he was helping RCA film a commercial for the division of the company that manufactured TV sets, “because they used solid copper circuits in the TVs, and those same kinds of circuits were used in the satellites, and they wanted to show how reliable they were.”  Elliott goes on to describe the day they were filming one of the scenes of the commercial in the mission control center, and they had to do it late at night because during the day people were there working.  “So they needed people to sit with headsets on for the commercial.  And so I was one of the people sitting at the desk with a headset on like I was helping launch a rocket [in the commercial].  And I was paid residuals for that, which was a pleasant surprise!”

Elliott, on the far left, in mission control at Cape Canaveral back in his days at RCA.

Some other highlights of Elliott’s time at RCA and the space program included having lunch with Gene Cernan, who was the last man to walk on the moon, and meeting various other astronauts, including John Glenn, who Elliott met after Glenn’s time in the space program when Glenn was a Senator.   “John Glenn and I talked about airplanes mostly.  He had flown to Cleveland.  I was working in Cleveland at that time and he had flown to Cleveland in his own airplane so I was interested in talking to him about that.”  Elliott himself became a recreational pilot in years following his work in the space program.

When asked what he thinks about how far technology has come since his days as a pioneer in the space program, Elliott says “Well it’s far more advanced from when I worked in it…the landing of Mars Rovers on Mars were really spectacular.  And also satellites now are used routinely, we get our television from satellites.  So the next step would be, if the government does it, is to land man on Mars.  But it takes seven months to get from Earth to Mars.  Unless they, they’re working on a system, I think it’s called a plasma rocket engine and it would reduce it to two months.”

Of course, that would probably require removal of some more “space junk” from the orbit, which hopefully these satellite made from mushroom fibers can help with.  When asked about the possibility of life of Mars, Elliott at first misunderstood my question, responding “I don’t think I’ve ever seen life on Mars,” in such a serious tone it’s comical.  When I clarified that I was referring to the possibility of human beings living on Mars (not aliens), Elliott then stated “Well if they live on Mars, they’ll be astronauts and they’ll have to provide places for them to live, and food.  It’s nothing but a bunch of rocks, as far as I can see…”  And indeed, after our lengthy discussion, he seems like the man to listen to.  

So in conclusion, what does he think of the conspiracy theories that there was actually never a moon landing?   I mean, since obviously he was there?  He appears insulted by the idea anyone would suggest such a thing, confirming “they definitely landed on the moon!”

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