First-Hand:George Whitehead Apollo S-Band Communications

I'm George Whitehead, an IEEE member, and now 79 years old. From my graduations with a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering degree from Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College in June 1962, up to November 1967, I worked at North American Aviation, Space and Information Systems Division in Downey, CA, the prime contractor for the Apollo Spacecraft Command and Service modules. In 1967, NAA merged with Rockwell Standard to become North American Rockwell, later just Rockwell International; and, in 1996, Rockwell sold it's space and defense industry divisions to Boeing. In a quirk of fate, as a result of changing employers from NAA Rockwell to Collins Radio Company, later purchased by Rockwell, I now receive a modest pension from Boeing having received 15 years of employment credit as a Rockwell employee, a company I never really went to work for.

At NAA, I was a member of the Spacecraft Communications Subsystem Engineering Group, headed by Bob Page, and, at first working with Vern Dorrell, I had engineering responsibility for the Apollo PCM Telemetry Equipment. In that group, I worked in close proximity to, and had daily work and personal interactions with other Communication Subsystem engineers responsible for equipment such as the Unified S-Band Transponder, the Spacecraft High Gain Antenna, the Spacecraft Audio System, the initial Television Camera, the Central Timing Equipment, the S-Band Power Amplifier, the Pre-modulation Processor and the Signal Conditioning Equipment. Although Collins Radio Company, Cedar Rapids, IA, had a major subcontract for Apollo Spacecraft Communications, some of this equipment was not included in that and subcontracted directly from our group.

At NAA, we had system design equipment and integration and specification responsibility, including, in the case of my PCM Telemetry Equipment, the functional design for and writing of very detailed equipment specifications. For example, the NAA PCM Telemetry Equipment specification, MC 901-0083, which by late 1967 was in the double letter revisions stage, was imposed on Collins, who simply added their cover sheet with a Collins part number, and in turn imposed it on the detailed development and production "second tier" subcontractor, Radiation Incorporated, (later a division of Harris Corp.) in Melbourne, FL. Similarly, the Unified S-Band Transponder, was subcontracted by Collins to Motorola. Other equipment under the Collins major subcontract was designed, developed and produced directly by Collins.

I won't make this much longer, but I feel there is much to be said about the Apollo engineering environment, methods and processes that resulted in the program's success. And there are many anecdotes to be shared as well. There was an extremely high amount of interaction via phone, meetings and memoranda. There was of course no email and only limited FAX/TWX. For the first couple of years, we traveled almost monthly to Melbourne, FL for coordination meetings with Radiation Inc. and I expect I might well have spent several thousand hours on the phone with Collins, Radiation and NASA during my 5 1/2 years on the Program. The Apollo Program literally got done on the phone, with flip charts, by ditto memos and with highly detailed engineering specs and documentation, mutually reviewed and approved. I like to characterize the program as one of "brute force" engineering, in which, by decree and practical necessity, we maximized the use of existing proven components and technologies. In fact, there was an initial decree that we could only use electronic components previously qualified for the Minuteman Missile program. I believe there were only two pieces of electronic equipment in the Spacecraft that used integrated circuits, the Apollo Guidance and Navigation Computer, (Fairchild Micrologic), and the Central Timing Equipment (TI's first family of ICs). Everything else, including the PCM Telemetry, used discrete components.