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Space Communications

Page history last edited by Alan Hartley-Smith 1 year, 2 months ago




Space Communications

Because of the expertise built up around large moving antennas the Radar Division became involved with large-scale communications systems for use in space applications. Following several successful military systems the opportunity came to move into civil applications with the contract from Cable and Wireless to construct the Ascension Island station for the Apollo moon mission. This resulted in the formation by the company of a new Space Division and entry on Communications wiki. which went on to equip the BT Goonhilly II and III stations and others for C&W. There is a film of the Apollo build available here in three segments 1.  2.  3.  A brochure about the 2020 capability of Goonhilly is here (large file)


Input from John Brown

This covers the whole period of the work within the Radar Division prior to the formation of the new Space Division. As details of the equipments are found these will be added.


A Toe In The Water

In 1963, Dr Tom Straker, Manager Radar Division, tasked me to take an active interest in space communications and to follow-up any possible leads, as he was convinced it had future business potential for the Company. At this time I was Chief of Systems, within Bill Quill’s Special Projects group, where my principal focus was our NATO work, including the preparations for the NADGE tender.


I first visited the Signals Research Development Establishment (SRDE) at Christchurch, who had been studying the techniques and building up their own knowledge, but it was fairly low key at that time; however, I expressed our interest in participating in any developments should these arise. I also visited Colonel Warren at MOD (Army), whose department was monitoring the situation, and confirmed that I would keep in touch. The following year, however, events took an unexpected turn.


The USA Military had instituted the Initial Defence Communications Satellite Programme (IDCSP), and had now invited the UK MOD to join in the system. Initially, there would be seven satellites launched in the first half of 1966; these had been ordered from Philco-Ford, and would be in random-orbit, operating at 18.000miles above the Earth. Later phases of the programme would increase the number of satellites to twenty-six. The UK accepted the invitation to participate, and MinTech, having sought proposals from UK Industry, placed the order for SCAT (Satellite Communication Air-Transportable Terminal) with Marconi; the requirement was that the first Terminal be delivered in eighteen months, with the remainder shortly after. Alec Kravis at Baddow was appointed Project Manager, and the whole programme called for ‘crash measures’ to be adopted in all parts of the Company, as well as at certain factories of English Electric. The 40ft Dish was mounted on a non-orthogonal mount so as to track the random orbit of the satellites. The project was a great success; following system testing at Rivenhall the first Terminal for SRDE (installed in its inflatable radome at Steamer Point near Christchurch), was in communication with the USA by June, 1966 as scheduled. The other terminals were stationed at Cyprus and Singapore.


Hughes Aircraft Company And The Synchronous Satellite

One day In the middle of 1964, Bill Quill and I were summoned to Dr Straker’s office; he told us that he’d been called by Don Carlson, Vice-President of Hughes Aircraft Company, who had invited Marconi to join with them, to undertake some studies on a military SATCOM requirement link for the British Government. Hughes had a lead in synchronous satellite technology and thought that Marconi might wish to participate on the ground stations. At this time, we had also linked up with Hughes for the forthcoming bid for NADGE so relations were cordial. The British Aircraft Corporation (in which English Electric had a 40% stake) already had a link-up with Hughes: a company called EMI-HUS was already in being and represented Hughes’ interests in the UK; up until then, it had been mainly involved in valves. Dr Straker asked Bill and me to attend the first meeting with him at EMI’s London offices in Manchester Square. A few days later we all travelled up to London to meet our partners in what would be a move into a new field of activity for Marconi’s - space communications. We learnt that the UK Government was considering the use of a synchronous satellite, stationed over the Indian Ocean, to provide military communications from UK to Perth in Western Australia, and linking Cyprus and Singapore, as part of the network. At this stage, a feasibility study would be funded by MinTech, covering an initial period of six months; first we would need to write some proposals. The work-packages were then agreed and allocated among the consortium members, together with the time-scale for each. The co-ordination task was going to take up some of my time, but fortunately, much of the writing of the individual chapters would be done by Baddow. This was a relief to me, as the NADGE proposal stage was very immediate, with the first inter-company agreements for a consortium now in place. Over the next few months Bill and I attended the military SATCOM progress meetings usually held at EMI Hayes, but occasionally at EMI’s HQ Manchester Square; I remember with some amusement that, on one occasion, our departure had to delayed (for our safety) as hordes of screaming fans outside were awaiting the imminent exit of the Beatles, who were within the building with EMI Records.


Moves To Set Up A Global System

INTELSAT had been set up in 1964 in New York, and had a membership from those nations wishing to participate in world-wide space communications. INTELSAT procured and operated the satellites, and the individual nations would be responsible for procuring their own transmitting and receiving ‘earth’ stations. These would normally be the individual PTTs, which in the case of the UK, was the GPO. Historically, in 1960, the GPO had decided to participate in the TELSTAR programme, and had ordered an experimental antenna from Husband & Co of Sheffield, mechanical consulting engineers. The structure had been built on Goonhilly Downs in Cornwall, and the electronics had been provided by the GPO’s Dollis Hill R & D Establishment. After the TELSTAR experiments, which started in 1962, the system was modified to operate with EARLY BIRD, launched in 1965 and also known as INTELSAT 1. Goonhilly was staffed mainly by Dollis Hill engineers, but in London at 207 Old Street, Post Office Telecommunications set up (under Ron Back), a Satellite Communication Department who would be responsible for the future growth at Goonhilly; I became a regular visitor in order to keep abreast of their plans.


Industry Starts To Take Note

In 1964, two industrial organisations, the Society of British Aircraft Constructors (SBAC), better known for organising the Farnborough Air Show, and the Electronic Engineering Association (EEA), had each decided to set-up Space Committees to keep abreast of what was foreseen as a new business opportunity for British Industry.


The first was the National Industrial Space Committee (NISC), on which sat representatives from the ‘space segment’ companies (satellites, spacecraft, and launchers), British Aircraft Corporation, Hawker Siddeley, and Rolls-Royce; and also the ‘ground segment’ companies (earth stations, and telemetry & command stations), which included Marconi (represented by me), Plessey ), and Standard Telephones & Cables (STC).


The second organisation was the EEA; the Space Division attracted membership from the British Aircraft Corporation, Ferranti, GEC, Marconi, Plessey, STC, Standard Telephone Laboratories (STL), and Thorn-EMI; again, I represented Marconi.


A Visit To Cable & Wireless

As part of my brief to seek out possible openings for the Company in the field of space communications, I arranged a visit to Cable & Wireless HQ at Mercury House in the summer of 1965 to meet Dick Cannon, the Deputy Engineer-in Chief. We had a wide ranging discussion on the role that synchronous satellites might play in future global communications; although he had been monitoring the technological developments (Early Bird had been launched), his Board considered it was not the right time yet for them to enter the field. We had lunch together, and agreed to keep in touch; rather as in the case of the military, the situation changed totally within a matter of weeks.


Project Apollo

Late one Friday afternoon, a few weeks after my discussions at Mercury House, Dr Straker received a telephone call from the Managing Director of Cable & Wireless saying that an urgent requirement had arisen for them to provide an Earth Station on Ascension Island. Bill Quill and I were summoned to attend a meeting in Dr Strakers’ office on the Saturday morning, together with some of the key design people, including: Frank Dutton (Aerial Design); Eric Gilbert (Mechanical Design); Bill Barbone (Transmitters) Building 46, New Street; Peter Cott (Receivers) Writtle; and Wilbur Wright (Communications Research) Baddow. We learnt that it was for the Apollo ‘man on the moon’ project, and that the tendering time would be only three weeks; the tender documents, together with the vital technical specification, would be available on Monday. Dr Straker said that I would be responsible for co-ordinating the Company’s tender. I called a meeting for Tuesday morning, having already distributed the technical specification the previous day. I also had been across to Bridge Works, the company’s printing plant to see Peter Bass, the Superintendent; as always, Peter was most co-operative, and agreed to the very tight timescale, even though he was as busy as ever.


At the Tuesday meeting, everybody was enthusiastic and appreciated the importance of winning this prestigious contract; furthermore, having successfully won the first military contract with SCAT, Apollo would be our first station using civil frequencies, so adding to our capabilities. Our principal competitor was likely to be World Satellite Terminals, a consortium set up by GEC, Plessey, and STC. The Marconi design would utilise a 42ft parabolic reflector, fully steerable in both azimuth and elevation, mounted on a 15ft tripod gantry (the turntable and gantry being similar to those supplied to NATO for the Early Warning Chain contract).


The next two and a half weeks were hectic, but the material flowed in and was passed through to Peter Bass, after editing by me. The cost estimates started to come together as well, as the designers settled on their preferred plans. I delivered the twelve sets of tender documents to Mercury House before the deadline of noon on 9 September, 1965. After Cable & Wireless’ scrutiny of the bids, including clarification meetings, on 11 October we received the momentous news that Marconi’s had won the contract. At his own personal expense, Dr Straker held a ‘thank you’ lunch at Marconi College, and invited everyone who had contributed to the successful bid, including Peter Bass who had printed the entire document.




Apollo Satellite Tracker completed                            Apollo at Rivenhall



The Final Consequence

As part of the major re-organisation of the Company’s management structure, the formation of Space Communications Division was announced, as it happened, on the day following the winning of the Apollo contract. Thus a new chapter was started in the history of the Company, the story is carried forward in the "Marconi in Communications" wiki, and we became the most successful Company in Europe in building Global Communication Earth Stations around The World.


Out of interest triggered by the Apollo anniversary here are some relevant links from The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA):





Catalogue entry

Also in 1965, Britain's first overseas civil satellite communication system was required, and Cable and Wireless, Ltd, responsible for providing and operating it, placed with Space Communications Division the contract to design, build and install the system.Through a synchronous satellite 22,300 miles over the west coast of Africa, this station on Ascension Island provides key communication facilities with the Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland, via the Andover, Maine, earth station and is playing a vital role in America’s ‘man-on-the-moon’ project, Apollo. The Ascension Island station, which was cited in the Queen's Award to Industry for outstanding achievement in technological innovation, was fully operational in less than a year from the date the order was received.


There was also the provision by Comms Division of HF transmitting and receiving equipment, including antennae, to the Bermuda station.


Apollo Specific Page



Following various changes in the Space activities there were numerous changes of name eventually beyond the Marconi orbit, viz: Marconi Space Systems; Marta Marconi Space; BAe Marconi Space; EADS U.K.; Astrium U.K.; Airbus U.K.


Fiftieth Anniversary July 2019

Preparations are being made to mark this event and it was on the cards that as the supplier of an essential component of the support systems we would be involved. Subsequently the UK Space Agency decided to publish a list of Fifty Memories contributed by people in the UK, and this includes one submitted by John Brown, the author of the article above, which is now available for download here.


New installations for the 21st century

A colleague who originally worked in the Marconi Research Laboratories and is now with BAE Systems Applied Intelligence, who took over the Baddow establishment, informed us that he is currently the lead engineer on a project being carried out by BAE Systems to refurbish an antenna at Goonhilly which will be used to support future lunar missions, 50 years after the Apollo 11 landing. Details of the work are this article <https://www.theengineer.co.uk/goonhilly-earth-station-bae-systems/> and in this article in Astronomy Now. There is also a write-up on the Goonhilly website here.


There is continuing activity on space-related topics on the BAE websiteand there is also the work of Teledyne e2v (formerly EEV).


It is pleasing that, 50 years after the original Ascension station played an important role in the Apollo landings, Chelmsford-based companies are involved in a new venture which should do the same in the coming decade.


Also the UK Space Agency has a website.





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