Hughes Enters the Space Business 1960-1979–Will Turk & Jack Fisher

Several years ago a group of former Hughes employees concerned about the lack of a dedicated source of historical information regarding the achievements of the Space and Communications Group created this website/blog to give everyone the opportunity to record memories that otherwise might be lost. The effort has been a modest success with many interesting recollections posted.   Hughes space activities were focused on NASA, commercial, and defense programs. Unfortunately, due to security concerns several defense efforts which comprised a large part of Hughes space related business could not be adequately described and are not included herein. However, many interesting accounts of NASA and commercial programs have been posted.

Will Turk, the lead author of these posts, shortly after joining Hughes became involved in NASA new business endeavors and continued in that area assuming roles of increasing responsibility. He has recorded his many efforts in this area over the time span from 1965 to 1979. Jack Fisher was involved in several NASA programs throughout this era including Surveyor, Pioneer Venus and Galileo and has added a few recollections of his own.

Hughes space endeavors began with the award in 1961 of NASA contracts for Surveyor and SYNCOM and the formation of the Space Systems Division (SSD) under Dr. Fred Adler. In 1968 Clare Carlson took over leadership of SSD when Dr. Adler left to head the new Electro-Optical Data Systems Group, EDSG. SSD continued operations through 1970 under Bob Roney and Paul Visher when the Space and Communications Group headed by Bud Wheelon was formed. Business efforts were then divided between the NASA, Commercial and Defense Divisions.

Other potential customers during this period included the European Space Agency, ESA, formed in 1964, NASDA, the Japanese space agency, formed in 1969, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) formed in 1970. All business opportunities for these customers would be dealt with by the NASA Division. The following sections will consider new business ventures for NASA as well as for ESA, NASDA and NOAA. Note that our dealings with NASDA were through contracts with Nippon Electric Company (NEC).

This narrative of Hughes new business activities will be posted in three parts as follows:

1.  Space System Division 1961-1968

2.  Space Exploration Opportunities 1965-1975

3.  NASA Systems Division Campaigns 1975-1979

  1. Space Systems Division–Beginnings

          In 1961, several years after the NASA was formed and less than four years after the USSR Sputnik was launched into orbit, Hughes Aircraft’s decision to participate in the space business resulted in two very important NASA awards. The Surveyor Lunar Lander contract was awarded by NASA JPL in January 1961 followed by the SYNCOM Satellite contract awarded by NASA Goddard in August 1961. These contracts resulted in the formation of the Hughes Space Systems Division (SSD) in April 1961 that was first led by Dr. Fred Adler and later by Clare Carlson, and Dr. Bob Roney.

1.1 The NASA/JPL Surveyor Program 1961-1968

The Surveyor contract for seven spacecraft was part of NASA’s bold venture to explore the Moon and conduct scientific operations on the lunar surface. The award was the result of a six-month competitive study conducted by a Hughes team led by Dr. Leo Stoolman and Dr. Bob Roney. A key objective of the Surveyor spacecraft was to travel to the moon with a payload that would operate after the vehicle made a “soft landing” on the Moon’s surface. The landing and the gathering of the scientific data was perhaps the most technologically challenging mission of that time.

After the contract award to Hughes, program changes were incorporated as a result of President Kennedy’s decision to undertake an aggressive manned lunar mission. Instead of a mission devoted purely to the scientific exploration of the moon, Surveyor became a precursor to the Apollo Mission. In addition, mission difficulties due to the reduction in the Centaur upper stage payload capability as well as alterations to the mission modes of operation increased the problems for the program. Nevertheless, despite significant delays, five successful lunar landings were achieved from 1966 to 1968. The Surveyor program was managed in turn by Dr. Leo Stoolman, Dr. Bob Roderick and Bob Sears with the systems engineering effort led by Jim Cloud and Dr .Dick Cheng.

The Surveyor mission, as originally planned by NASA in 1960, included a lander and a lunar orbiter; both congressionally authorized programs. The early NASA concept considered an orbiter based upon a modified lander to be launched with an Atlas Centaur. However, the Surveyor orbiter did not materialize although studies were conducted by Hughes and JPL. Lunar exploration became much more focused as a result of the Apollo program with the need for a photographic atlas of the moon to aid in the selection of landing sites. This became a high priority goal. JPL had their hands full with the Ranger, Mariner, and Surveyor programs and Centaur development difficulties ruled out a timely launch of a lunar orbiter based upon this approach.

1.2 Competitive Opportunities

With the completion of the development phase and the ultimate success of the Surveyor program SSD management began to prepare to compete for future NASA planetary and interplanetary missions. In fact, Hughes was investigating opportunities while Surveyor was in the development phase. After 1968 Hughes would compete for a number of new NASA missions.

 In January 1963 Hughes submitted a proposal to NASA Ames for four Pioneer spacecraft. These spacecraft, to be launched by the Delta E, were intended to monitor the fields and particles environment in interplanetary space and determine the effects of solar activity upon this environment. The expected contract was for four spacecraft each weighting 100-pounds. In April 1963 NASA announced that Hughes and Space Technology Laboratories had been selected for negotiation for a contract for the design, development, fabrication, assembly and testing of four spacecraft for the Pioneer interplanetary exploration program. The contract was expected to be in excess of $10 million. TRW was ultimately selected and went on to build and launch four Pioneer spacecraft from 1965 to 1969.

In early 1963 NASA Langley developed a lunar orbiter concept using an Agena-class spacecraft that was adopted by NASA. An RFP was released to industry on August 30, 1963. Five bidders submitted proposals including Hughes, STL, Martin, Lockheed and Boeing.   The Hughes proposal effort, managed by John Housego, centered on the application of a spin-stabilized spacecraft to meet the mission objectives. While the Hughes proposal was unsuccessful it was an important step in the search for new business opportunities related to the NASA planetary and interplanetary scientific missions.   An account of these developments is presented in NASA TM X-3487 “Destination Moon: A History of the Lunar Orbiter Program” by Bruce K. Byers published in 1977. This document includes a description and evaluation of the designs submitted by the five bidders. The Boeing Company was awarded the program and was very successful in providing photographs of the lunar surface that were used to select landing sites for both Apollo and Surveyor.

Hughes intensified the search for new business opportunities following the final launch and conclusion of the Surveyor program in 1968. The prospects for competing in NASA’s Voyager program with a mission to land a payload on Mars looked promising. With Hughes Surveyor soft lander experience this seemed to be an excellent business opportunity.

Much of the following information regarding Voyager and Viking has been taken from “On Mars, Exploration of the Red Planet 1958-1978”; NASA SP-4212 by Edward and Linda Ezell published in 1984. The Voyager program originated in the early 1960s with in-house studies at JPL for missions to both Venus and Mars with orbiters and landers. Through the decade many alternatives for Voyager were considered for an orbiter and both hard and soft landers. By 1966 attention was focused on a Mars mission incorporating both an orbiter and a lander. In 1966 a Voyager Capsule Advisory Group was formed consisting of JPL, NASA Langley and NASA Ames to investigate the numerous mission alternatives. Langley chose the soft landing option, Ames became the wild card advocating an 11-kg atmospheric probe hard lander while JPL chose the option to map Mars thoroughly before proceeding with a landing mission.

In November 1966 NASA approved a Phase B procurement plan for lander/capsule bus. In January 1967 the Phase B RFP was issued to 36 potential industry contractors. In March Phase B capsule proposals were submitted by Hughes, Grumman, Martin Marietta and McDonnell. In May Martin Marietta and McDonnell were selected for 90-day $500,000 landing capsule study contracts. However, in August 1967 the Voyager project came to an end as Congress declined to fund the program.

In 1967 Hughes participated in a study with the ARC to define a small Orbiting Experiment Capsule (OEC) that would be ejected from the Voyager after the spacecraft was placed in an elliptical orbit about Mars. The purpose was to measure the differential characteristic of the Martian atmosphere. Sam Urcis oversaw this study. Will Turk, who worked on JPL’s Ranger lunar mission while at JPL supported this study. The spin-stabilized OEC would be in a slightly different elliptical orbit and would gather scientific data separate from the Voyager spacecraft and relay the resulting data back to Earth through the Voyagers deep space communications system. The OEC mission never got beyond the study phase due to uncertainties in the overall Voyager program.

NASA continued to study potential Mars missions during 1968 with the backing of the science community. The science objectives favored a survivable soft lander with a meaningful complement of instruments including means of detecting life. The Titan IIID-Centaur became the recommended launch vehicle. An industry conference was held at NASA Langley in November 1968 with five potential contractors including Hughes presenting their Mars landing mission recommendations. Launch vehicles considered included Titan IIIC and Titan-Centaur. Mission modes considered included both hard and soft landing as well as direct entry and entry from orbit. The Hughes briefing included consideration of low-cost landers, support modules and mission reliability.

In December NASA had selected the Mars mission parameters, renamed the program Viking and gave Langley the lead role as the mission manager and responsibility for developing the lander. Two spacecraft would be required, an orbiter and a lander, and the lander would provide the capability to enter the Mars atmosphere from orbit. JPL would provide the orbiter based upon a modified Mariner Mars 1971 spacecraft. Two missions would be flown in 1973, each launched by at Titan IIID-Centaur with a payload capability of 3400 kg.

The NASA RFP for the Mars lander was issued by Langley in February 1969 for two launches in the1973 Mars opportunity. Proposals were submitted by Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, and Martin Marietta. The Boeing team included Hughes and General Electric. GE was responsible for entry, power, data handling and attitude control while Hughes handled terminal landing guidance and control, and propulsion as well as the landing gear. The Hughes proposal team was headed by John Housego, and included Leo Stoolman, Jim Cloud, Dick Cheng, and Mal Meredith.

With the Hughes Surveyor experience the Boeing team seemed like a sure winner. Each proposal team was given the opportunity to answer written questions and elaborate and revise their offering during a NASA visit. The NASA evaluation had the Boeing team in second place technically, with the lowest cost. The evaluation stated that Boeing’s proposal contained a well-conceived mechanical design, a redundant and flexible communications system, and an excellent plan for launch and flight operations. Proposal weaknesses centered on a method suggested for dealing with scientific instruments, the power system design, and de-orbit propulsion.

In late May of 1969, NASA announced that Martin Marietta would receive the Viking contract. Both Viking missions were launched in 1975 as the result of a NASA originated slip, but were successful in landing on Mars and operating for more than 3 years. It would take several more years of preparation before Hughes would capture a planetary program.

 1.3 The NASA Syncom and ATS Programs

The NASA SYNCOM contract had a major impact on Hughes Space Systems Division’s future business. The SYNCOM Satellite Program focused on the on-orbit demonstration of the technology necessary to operate a communications satellite at a geosynchronous altitude of 22,300 miles. Significant contributions by Dr. Harold Rosen, Don Williams and Tom Hudspeth paved the way for Hughes’ dominance of the communications satellite business for the next 30 years and beyond. The NASA contract provided the means for the construction and launch of three SYNCOM satellites. The first satellite launched in February 1963 was lost during the attempted solid rocket burn and insertion into a synchronous altitude orbit. The second launch in July 1963 was successful and resulted in an inclined orbit at synchronous altitude. This satellite demonstrated voice, teletype and facsimile communications from synchronous altitude. The third SYNCOM launched in August 1964 achieved a geo-synchronous orbit over the mid-Pacific and transmitted the Tokyo Olympic Games in real-time, a stunning achievement for that time. The SYNCOM program was managed by Gordon Murphy.

In mid-1962 Hughes was awarded an additional NASA contract for the development of an advanced communication satellite incorporating a phased-array antenna and an advanced transponder. This satellite with a cylindrical body 5-feet in diameter would weigh 500 pounds compared to the 80-pound SYNCOM. However, some members of Congress feared that NASA was developing technology for the benefit of a private company, namely COMSAT. The program’s objectives were modified to include technology demonstrations such as weather observation, investigation of the space environment, and gravity gradient attitude stabilization. The program became the Applications Technology Satellite (ATS). Five ATS satellites were built by Hughes and launched from 1966 through 1969.

Commercial communications satellites became the primary focus of Hughes space endeavors based upon the on-orbit experience derived from Syncom and ATS. In fact, with the Syncom foundation and the ensuing development of Gyrostat technology, successive generations of spinning satellites led to Hughes domination of both the domestic and international communications satellite markets and eventually to the HS-601 and HS-702 body-stabilized spacecraft that continued Hughes predominance.