First-Hand:Research and Development in Missile Tracking and Jet Propulsion

Submitted by Marvin Udevitz

Unfortunately, 1949 was a recession year and my joy in being a college graduate was short lived upon finding there were few jobs available for electronic engineers. Since I couldn't find a job in what I considered my speciality, I reckoned that anything of a professional and technical nature was suitable. This was particularly true since I had used up every cent I had, along with the so-called "GI Bill," to get through school.

And so it was in the summer of 1949, I accepted my first engineering job with the United States Bureau of Reclamation in the Field Construction Division of the North Platte River District with headquarters in Casper, Wyoming. At first blush, one might consider this situation as incongruous. Why would an electrical engineer with an electronics major get involved in field construction even if it were "electrical" in nature? Certainly, the work was more civil engineering oriented than electrical-no?

Indeed, it was fertile ground for a civil engineer, but it turned out that taking that job with the Bureau was one of the very best decisions I ever made. Two reasons why: the first, although it didn't become apparent to me until many years later, everything that one learns is important and the time will surely come when each piece of knowledge and every skill acquired serves a need.

The requirements of the job were a far cry from what college had prepared me for. The experience I gained was probably the very best experience in maturity that a new grad could have. It provided me with a piece of fatherly advice that I could comfortably pass to youngsters fresh from school who ended up in organizations which later I managed.

The second reason was probably more self intertwined. I do believe that every engineer worth his or her "slipstick" (I guess the right word today would be "lap top computer") wants to do something which will leave his or her "mark" on the world. You know, something which is markedly different because "I was there." A lot of folks spend their whole careers hopefully looking for that circumstance and it never happens. But in my case, it not only happened, but it happened during my first job experience out of college.

I had moved from the field construction area into the District Office reporting to the office engineer when he was offered the position of field engineer on the Eklutna Project. This was the first major hydroelectric development in Alaska. When he went I went.

Thus, in the fall of 1950, I found myself driving up the Alcan in anticipation of the big adventure. When I got there I found that I was among the very first on-site and I was initially assigned as the Chief of Surveys, again hardly a job for an electrical engineer. But what fun! Later on I was assigned chores more in keeping with my background, i.e. building the switchyards, substations, powerlines, and so forth.

In the time I was there, I was able to lead my crew in establishing the tunnel axis as well as the portal locations, setting up the tunnel in line surveys, and establishing the location of the substations in Anchorage and Palmer in addition to supervising their construction and activation along with the 110KV interconnecting powerline—Alaska's first. Eventually, many folks contributed to completing the project and bringing everything on line. But only a few had the privilege of being there when there was "nothing" and leaving when there was "something." And I was one of them!

Shortly after my arrival in Cheyenne (my original home town), I accepted a position as a Project Engineer with Land-Air Incorporated. I soon lost interest in that job. Luckily, this same company had another division, located at the White Sands/Holloman Missile Range in New Mexico, where they were engaged in design, installation, maintenance and operation of both ground telemetry and missile tracking systems. Thus in the fall of 1954, I took over as Lead Engineer for the MIRAN ground tracking system.

MIRAN, which stood for Missile Ranging and Navigation, was one of the two major ground tracking systems on the range at that time. It had been developed by Oklahoma A&M and delivered to the range in a supposedly "operational" state. But operational in those days didn't mean what it does today. The system was built around a 2-GEDA computer. This had a zillion racks and ten zillion vacuum tubes, mechanical resolvers, and all the other devices of the day which either didn't work or required constant attention and calibration.

And what did all this equipment do? It solved a simple set of simultaneous equations with three variables from a possible six radar range sources . The computer ran at the fabulous rate (in those days) of 10 khertz. One could do more with a $69.95 hand-held programmable calculator today ... but no one could have been more proud of our achievements considering the state of the art.

We somehow kept all those vacuum tubes and mechanical devices operating while we tracked Aerobees, Radio Plane drones, Sidewinders, Matadors and anything else which showed up on range. I believe all the people involved in those days would readily admit that we were really groping around in trying to get things done. It seemed that no matter what we wanted to do, neither the resources nor the techniques existed. We had to invent everything. In truth, however, the early days in the missile business, whether one was involved on the ground side or the airborne side, were the most fun. Later on, when things got more disciplined and a lot of emphasis was put on quality performance, we had a lot more successful missions, but it was a lot less fun.

The other major event in my Martin Marietta history involved the Viking program in 1976. Although I was not assigned to the Viking Program until relatively late, it was in time to be designated as the Systems Project Engineer for the final test phases at Denver and the launch operations at Cape Canaveral. For me, it was a real double header. I had been part of the design team for the Titan/Centaur which was the launch vehicle. Now I found myself associated with payload, itself.

Following the successful launch of both the Viking spacecraft, I was then assigned to the Mission Operations team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) in Pasadena. My specific job was leader of the Lander System Analysis Team (LSAT). My team actually was quite small but it was composed of super experts on every subsystem on the lander. As the world knows, both landers achieved successful soft landings, each one of which was a small miracle in itself. Being at JPL and witnessing the landings in real time eyeballing the first pictures from Mars on the video displays in our LSAT operations area was perhaps the biggest thrill I have ever had.

I found out early that when you accept (and desire) responsibility, and prove your ability to work with a minimum of supervision, that your superiors are quite willing to put more and more on your plate. This is especially true when they get you at a bargain price. Because I didn't have a degree, I always had to prove my knowledge and ability by demonstration. I also was always lagging on the pay and promotion rewards.

This didn't ever matter as much to me as the opportunity to learn new things and enjoy most of the research and development projects. I also found that I got along well with my fellow engineers and technicians whether I was leading or following.