Electronic Systems Test Laboratory


Electronic Systems Test Laboratory (ESTL) Stepping Stone Award

In 2019 IEEE Region 5 recognized NASA/JSC for the development of Electronic Systems Test Laboratory (ESTL) which supported the complexities of an entirely new communications technique-- a unified voice/data carrier.  Subsequent system configurations are currently providing the testing for newer technical advances in communication techniques. The following is a brief summary taken from the award nomination.

Historical significance of ESTL’s work

The Electronic System Test Laboratory was established to fulfill a need that developed as manned spaceflight communications systems evolved in complexity and required new capability. The combining of all communications functions into one unified communications system for the Apollo Program, instead of the multiple communications systems that were used disparately on Project Mercury and the Gemini Program necessitated the innovation of a brand new combined systems test approach. For the first time, a concept of simultaneously testing spacecraft-to-spacecraft-to-ground communications systems was established as a fundamental portion of communications system development and accurate performance verification. A new communications architecture technique, the combination of all information on one radio frequency carrier, required new ways to assure system compatibility and performance evaluation prior to actual flight use. The success of this new paradigm of simultaneous systems level testing and its legacy carried into today’s methodology has established a precedence of lasting historical significance.

The ESTL capability evolved with enhanced capabilities supporting the myriad of new programs and developmental space communication subsystems throughout the following decades including the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Skylab, the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and the Orion Programs, as well as space payload systems and aeronautics communication subsystems. The ESTL also established a new philosophy of testing full systems capability by conducting radio test stress plans beyond the threshold of nominal operations. The characterization of performance up to threshold limits was a new paradigm to accurately capture the parametric robustness of hardware off their nominal conditions. This feature provided flight operations personnel extensive understanding of the communication system capability limits and serves as a valued tool used to manage in-flight operations and anomalies.

Across the ISS program, the ESTL served as a valuable tool to progressively provide early ground testing to mitigate compatibility and functional integrity of Ku, S-Band, and UHF development and upgrade systems. Its unique interfaces to exactly mimic White Sands Complex ground stations and vehicle forward and return links using exact modulation scheme and encryption allowed the highest degree of fidelity to assure mission performance during flight deployments. Today’s newest 600 Msps high rate Integrated Communications Unit was rigorously vetted with an extensive ESTL characterization test program. Today’s new commercial vehicles are undergoing extensive ESTL communications testing to ensure capability with all the NASA communications interfaces.

ESTL Overcomes Issues and Makes Unique Contribution

The obstacles to prove this integrated test facility concept could be successful were significant. Never had this type of test methodology been conducted of this magnitude in the human space program. The risks and potential high consequences were a looming burden for those that made the choice to pursue a nonconventional testing methodology. The experience with this new telecommunication system technique for Apollo- the unified carrier/multiple signal combination capability was essentially non-existent. The fact that each type of spacecraft was manufactured by a different contractor and that the ground communications system was provided by several different sources intensified the need for a combined systems test that could be conducted in an integrated simultaneous real-time manner. Theoretical analysis and early laboratory tests indicated a reasonable chance of success, but this test program was subjected to high investment commitments that had to produce timely results - to prove the feasibility of a new system designed to take humans safely to the moon for the first time.

NASA’s human spaceflight program is unique. The space communications architecture is unique and the risks and consequences to successfully develop this technology is high consequence. There are no other high fidelity integrated end-to-end human space communications capabilities in the world. The precedence of an early model of a systems engineering approach in Apollo was innovative yet fundamental in its concept, as proven by the ability over the decades to evolve and to scale the initial systems test concept to today’s complex capability to simultaneously test space communications vehicles and ground station configurations. There are no other comparable work achievements that can be considered similar.