by Ralph Roberts … originally published in the magazine Argentus
If you have one dream job in your life — even if only for an all-too-brief time — you have lived well.
I have lived well. My dream job was with NASA during the latter part of the Apollo moon program. These were heady times for those of us who believed, who still believe, in space. Not in running big trucks around low earth orbit but in SPACE exploration.
Training for this job began for me, I think, about 1955 or ’56 — before NASA was NASA. The training manuals were in the form of books with rockets on their spines …
These books were in the Winston SF series. Then came everything Heinlein had written to date, Asimov — both fiction and nonfiction — resulting in a doctorate in space enthusiam from Doc Smith, Kimball Kinnison, and Dick Seaton. I was ready for an invitation from Mentor of Arisia — I BELIEVED in humanity’s destiny in space!
Not that practical matters were ignored. Through high school and college, I pursued a career in electronics engineering. What little money I had and did not spend on science fiction went to buying tubes and transformers and the other components for electronic experimentation of all types, especially amateur radio. I got my ham call letters in 1963, WA4NUO, and still hold them.
A lot happened in all those years, Sputnik, the U.S. satellites — our first tiptoes into space were happening! But… alas… also there was trouble on Earth, in a place called Vietnam and to there my Uncle Sam sent me.
July 20th, 1969, found me ducking enemy fire in the Vietnamese jungle up near the Cambodian border. You say ‘jungle’ you think of leaves dripping moisture, banks of fog seen moving menacingly down the long rows of trees all around you. Not so during half the year in Vietnam, the dry season. There were trees but the ground was red clay dust that got into everything.
Like the cheap little transistor radio I had then and still have in 2009 with the red, red dust of the Song Be river corridor still in it. On that radio, I listened intently as Neil Armstrong said, “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.“
As he took that “one small step” my heart soared and for a moment I could forget standing there in sweat-stained jungle fatigues, steel pot on my head, trusty M-16 loaded and ready for the business of combat survival. I swore, I firmly swore, I would come out of that hellish place and back to the real world and that I WOULD get into the space program.
The army gave me an honorable discharge, a few medals, and a lighter with the First Cav logo on it in January, 1970 (never figured out the last as I did not smoke, but still got the lighter). I flew home ready to go to space!
Only… How to do it? In the meantime, I took an engineering job with a company which at least made aerospace parts — servo controls and small motors for military and civilian aircraft. It lasted a year but I hated it. Tons of paperwork, not enough engineering, and headquarters in New Jersey always took credit for successes but made sure us local engineer dudes got full blame for THEIR mistakes. It was more like the army than the army. I quit, looked up the nearest NASA facility, and pretty much drove straight there.
The Rosman STADAN (Satellite Tracking and Data Acquisition Network) sat high up in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, miles from the nearest town. Driving through the gate and seeing those two huge 85′ parabolic antennas and all the other neat stuff flowering like Doc Smith’s garden in Spring, I knew I was home.
With some trepidation, I found the office and asked if I could please apply, more than half expecting to be sent packing back down the long, curvy mountain road. Instead, an engineer-type, complete with pocket protector (I had one of those, too, we were brothers in the craft!) gave me a short interview, glanced at my resume (pretty good stuff there both techie and military hero like), reached back to a bookcase and slapped several blue notebooks with the NASA label down on his desk. “You can start now, read these.”
Wow! I thought as I settled into an empty office to absorb these sacred NASA words, am I good or what?
Quite soon I realized — being so isolated — the station was always desperate for people and those of us with my type qualifications would have had to fight our way out of there. But what did I care, I was in the space program and instantly making twice what I had been making the day before doing servo engineering.
And it was not all isolation. My first assignment was to Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland for various classes and qualifications. All of which I passed, then it was back up the mountain for Rosman STADAN or the Tracking Station as we called it.
I should explain at this time that I did not work for NASA, I worked with NASA. Of the 200 or so employees at the station, only one or two (the Director being one) actually were NASA, the rest of us worked for RCA Service Company out of Little River, New Jersey (I cringed when I first heard that, but this New Jersey company was a lot better than the first one). We had the contract to run the station. Most of NASA’s facilities worldwide, including Cape Canaveral, ran that way.
Our job was to collect data from the many satellites that came overhead 15 minutes or so at a time. We had those two 85′ dishes, a huge room full of Ampex multi-track recorders large as refrigerators, and a computer made by General Mills (the same folks who made Wheaties, “the Breakfast of Champions”) which did orbital predictions so that we knew where to point the antennas and track the satellites as they passed over us. The computer was programmed with punch paper tape, this being 1972. And we also had a microwave link all the way across North Carolina and Virginia to Goddard in Maryland. AND we had secret tunnels beneath the buildings ’cause it got mighty cold up thar in them hills.
Was I in Space Program Heaven? You better believe it! On top of all the fascinating tracking we were doing, we were also backup communications for all the Apollo missions. This meant we got to hear EVERYTHING, even the astronauts talking to their wives.
I just about lived in the station, because you could! We worked the rotating shift from Hell — seven days on 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., off two days, on 4 p.m. to midnight, off two days, midnight to 8 a.m., four days off, those still sane (or at least not too crazy) start it all over again. PLUS, them being always so short handed, you could have ALL the overtime you wanted! Most of the time I was there, I worked 12-hour shifts, go home eight hours, back for a 12-hour shift. The money was fantastic, not that I cared — I was there for the space program!
AND I volunteered for things (something I knew better than to do from my military service). They had this 30″ reflecting telescope in a neat little dome way, way up the mountain above the station — an OPTICAL telescope. I volunteered to man it, not knowing (and definitely not being told) that this would usually be at 3 a.m. in the morning when it was -8 degrees. That was nothing to me, I ate it up!
We had the satellite, part of the GEOS series, that actually had a strobe light on board and this strobe could be turned on by our command transmitters. When it came over in its orbit, we would expose glass photo plates using the telescope running on a sidereal motor so that it was exactly tracking GEOS. This, once the plates were developed, gave us dots for the strobe and all the stars as streaks since their sidereal rate was not being tracked.
Was I in Space Program Heaven? Oh yeah, baby, oh yeah!
It was a great job and I would still be there but RCA Service Company lost the contract and the company that got it did not want to pay those big bucks we were getting. RCA Service Company offered me jobs at NASA tracking stations in Lima, Peru or Madagascar. Having spent a lot of time in service overseas, I did not want to go back, so I moved on to selling wholesale electronics. Not as much fun, but lots more time to read science fiction.
But the Tracking Station story does not end in 1974 for me. It pretty well did end soon after that for NASA, when they replaced the 200 or so folks at the Rosman, and other stations also, with one satellite that acquired the data and spouted it back down to Earth. The station was turned over to Department of Defense and went very secret for the next 20 years or so. But, in the last few years, DoD decided they no longer needed it and it became the property of a nonprofit, the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, PARI.
In May, 2009, PARI had an Old Timers Day and invited anyone who had ever worked there to come back for the day. My wife, Pat, and I went and had a fantastic time. I saw and talked with old friends not seen for 35 years or more.
The highlight for me was when the young lady tasked with catering to us old VIPS asked me what I wanted to do first. “I want to see the tunnels,” I said.
“Tunnels? How did you know about that?” she asked surprised.
“Used to jog through them at 3 a.m in the morning to stay awake between satellite passes,” I told her, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”
I don’t think she understood, although she humored me with a walk through the tunnels. But I did.
Space Program Heaven. I never left.
Ralph Roberts moved on to write over 100 books and have his science fiction published in many of the major magazines. He lives near Asheville, North Carolina with his wife, two horses, and a BUNCH of computers.