I Remember Pioneer Venus—Do You?–Andy Ott

I look forward to new posts on the SCG Heritage website (blog) as I feel very lucky to have been at Hughes 1969 – 1999, which were part of the “Golden Years”. As I read the latest post “HAC Bids for Venus Probe Work”, transcribed from an article in the Hughes News August 31, 1973, I was motivated to go to the section for Pioneer Venus and read all the articles again. With one exception, the articles were technical, factual articles from past issues of the SCG Journal or Hughes News. The one exception was a transcription from a keynote address given by Steve Dorfman in 2004, which is the only article to have a comment from anyone at Hughes (thank you Dick Switz). I then scanned several other sections of the blog and, with few exceptions; the posted articles did not get any comments.

I feel the Hughes bog does not adequately reflect the emotions and true experiences of uncountable number of Hughes employees that gave their all on many different challenges they confronted. Every year we lose some more “actual history” as our memories fade and individuals pass away. Why is this? Why do not more Hughes employees from the “Golden Years” actively participate by contributing, at least comments if not actual articles, to the blog? In that spirit, I post the following.

There were many Hughes employees extremely nervous in 1978 when the Pioneer Venus Orbiter was launched on an Atlas Centaur on May 20, and the Multiprobe 3 months later on August 8. The missions were controlled from Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, with significant presence by Hughes for real time Mission support. In addition, Hughes set up their System Test Equipment to aid in real time data evaluation by monitoring and recording the live Spacecraft telemetry. Lance Mohler was the young system test engineer that suggested and set up the STE for this support function. Many of you do not know that Hughes hired Lance from the U.S. Forestry Service where he had been a firefighter. How visionary was that?

Both launches were successful and both spacecraft performed well on their way to destiny. The mission plan was for the two spacecraft to arrive at Venus within 5 days of each other. The probes were to enter Venus’s atmosphere about 90 minutes ahead of the Bus, so they would impact before the Bus begins its descent.

Nervousness grew as the Large Probe was released from the Multprobe Bus on November 16 and the Bus was spun up to 50 rpm. The 3 Small Probes were released on November 20.

The mission was controlled from Ames, but a direct telephone communications link was set up in building 373 conference room on the 11th floor in El Segundo to allow Hughes employees AND family members to listen to the mission real time and have the opportunity of asking questions from the Hughes Pioneer Venus team members present as well as at Ames.

The Orbiter “Orbit Insertion Motor” was fired on December 4 and a significant sigh of relief from the Hughes employees at both Ames and El Segundo was experienced as it became clear the spacecraft was performing well and was in the desired Venus Orbit. (Note: I hope some “Hughesites” will further elaborate on some of their actual experiences and emotions during this time period by adding to the website). Exhilaration lasted only a short time before anxiety once again started to set in, growing significantly as arrival at Venus by the Bus and the 4 probes was only 5 days away.

The real time communications link with Ames kept the 300 person standing room only audience in the conference room from 7:00 AM the morning of December 9 mesmerized, as well as anxious, as activities unfolded with frequent updates and illustrations on the white board and some vu-graphs (remember those) that had been prepared in advance to explain the mission profile.

Norm Wong and Fred Richardson announced acquisition of probe telemetry and described its significance. All 4 Probes transmitted data throughout their descent through the sulfuric acid laden atmosphere to impact at a surface temperature of 900 degF and a pressure 100 times that on Earth. Since data was real time, all in the audience shared in the anxiety and excitement and fear of what would happen next. Although neither the Probes nor the Bus were designed to survive impact, surprisingly, one of the small probes not only survived but also continued transmitting data for 67 minutes after impact. The question was asked – “How come one probe survived this incredibly hostile environment?” The answer is – “Why Not?”

I believe the experience in the conference room left an everlasting memory to all present, especially the children, in the audience. They got a better perspective of what the space program is all about and what an important role their Mom or Dad played in it.

Jack Fisher has done an excellent job creating and organizing this website. Unfortunately, due to lack of support from other “Hughesites”, he has had to resort to posting existing articles from wherever he could find them, such as old copies of the SCG Journal and Hughes News. If we are to keep the legacy of the Golden Years of Hughes alive, he needs your support. Please take the time to comment with your own personal remembrances on some of the existing articles or, better yet, post your own.