The first Space Cadets
Ampex’s clever idea
Coolbaugh also made his trip to Bing Crosby Enterprises (BCE) and Ampex, along with Jim Huckaby of the Electronics Lab. The engineers at BCE had nothing to show him, but Ampex was another story. The company was located only a short drive south of San Francisco. “I was eager to get to Ampex because I was familiar with their high quality audio and data recording equipment,” Coolbaugh explained. The Air Force used a lot of Ampex equipment to record test data. Coolbaugh met with the founder of Ampex, A.M. Poniatoff, and his chief engineer. He explained that he needed a tape recorder that could record at least a 4.5 megacycle signal and had to be small and use little power. “They laughed and asked if I wanted the sun too,” he recalled.
But Coolbaugh told them that the requirement was for a device at least five years in the future, not immediately. He also told them that the only demonstration he had witnessed had been a failure. Poniatoff replied “You must have been at RCA.” Ampex’s chief engineer explained that RCA was on the wrong track. A video signal had a lot of information and a magnetic tape could only hold so much. So RCA sought to solve this problem by moving a lot of tape past a fixed head very quickly. Ampex had a different solution. They used a rotating drum with multiple heads moving over a relatively wide magnetic tape. This “painted” as much information on the slower moving tape as RCA’s faster moving version.
The two men then took Coolbaugh down an alley to their lab. There about a half dozen technicians were recording the signals from a San Francisco television station. Coolbaugh was amazed. It was an impressive accomplishment. He asked Poniatoff if there was any way that the Air Force could place a contract with Ampex to develop the video recorder they needed. The chief engineer told Poniatoff that there was no way that he could take on another contract. But the work they were already doing for commercial purposes was moving in the direction that the Air Force needed. Coolbaugh then suggested that they sign a contract whereby Ampex would keep the Air Force informed of its research and allow them access to Ampex’s engineers. Poniatoff agreed.
Coolbaugh told Huckaby that they could use RCA’s failure as an argument against RAND and get them to finally fund a winner, like Ampex. While at RAND he had been told that the think tank had some extra money that it needed to spend by the end of the fiscal year. They headed back to Santa Monica. “Now we were going by RAND to tell them that we had a program which could use their money.”
So RAND signed a contract with Ampex and the company began sending detailed progress reports on their work to WADC every month. “The only glitch showed up several months later when the RAND contracts officer called me to say that Ampex had not sent in any bills for their work,” Coolbaugh remembered. So Coolbaugh called up the chief engineer he had met with several months before. The man told him that the reports did not take any effort and that the company felt guilty about taking government money for something they were going to do anyway. Coolbaugh convinced him to take the money and solve RAND’s problem. “I now knew for sure this company was different than any other I had dealt with,” Coolbaugh said.
Ampex later played a major role in developing commercial videotape recorders, including the home Video Cassette Recorder (VCR). Forty years later, while reading a magazine, Coolbaugh laughed when he learned the real story behind Ampex’s ingenious video recorder design. For six months in the early 1950s, Ampex and RCA had a comprehensive cross-licensing agreement. This agreement gave each company access to the other’s unissued patents. An RCA engineer, Earl Masterson, had filed a patent for the rotating drum recorder in 1950. But the patent was not issued until the end of 1956, by which time Ampex had already successfully stolen the idea and begun developing it, all the time while RCA was charging down a technological blind alley and spilling yet more tape on the laboratory floor.
The first Space Cadets
In July 1954, Riepe and Coolbaugh had become a separate project office and later in the year they had moved to new quarters with their own office at WADC. In the fall, Robert Copeland had joined their office as a civilian administrator. Copeland knew how to navigate the bureaucracy at WADC with skill.
In the spring of 1955 their office grew again. One of Coolbaugh’s contacts at MIT had told him that there were three young reserve officers who had been enrolled in the Air Force’s master’s degree program at MIT. They had learned about the horizon scanner and were interested in working on it. Riepe managed to get the best of the three assigned to the program. His name was Jack Herther. Riepe managed to get the other two assigned to the C&N and Armament laboratories where they could work on the two horizon scanner programs. “Jack was made responsible for the guidance and stabilization areas of the program.” Coolbaugh explained. Captain William O. Troetschel joined the group as well. He was an expert in radio communications and they needed him to coordinate the work with the Rome Laboratories on the communications system. Coolbaugh, Herther, and Troetschel were the three most enthusiastic members of the team, the ones who thought that the satellite was simply the coolest program in the Air Force. “Bill, Jack and I were the ‘Space Cadets’ of the office,” Coolbaugh remembered.
In addition to running around and meeting with scientists and engineers, there were always briefings. In March 1955, Coolbaugh and Riepe went to Washington to brief a number of top officials on the satellite. The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Development, Donald Quarles was there. He was the top Department of Defense R&D official. Coolbaugh was also pleased to see their ally General Putt in attendance. Coolbaugh brought with him a couple of toys—a model of a small atomic reactor that he had obtained from Atomic International, and a mock-up of a stable inertial platform. Coolbaugh had learned that such models were an important part of any effective briefing. The general officers liked to play with them after the briefing was over and this increased the likelihood that they would remember who Coolbaugh and Riepe were the next time they encountered them.
The briefing went well. Putt was supportive as usual. Quarles, however, was another matter.
During the Pentagon briefing Coolbaugh remembered that Quarles asked a question or two but did not seem very enthusiastic about the whole idea. In contrast, Putt and a few of the other generals showed a lot of enthusiasm. Coolbaugh remembered that after every presentation Putt would come up to them. “If you could get me a picture made from 300 miles, I could get you all the money you could use.” Coolbaugh remembered their standard reply: “General, you’ve got to give us the money to get to 300 miles, so we can take the picture.” Despite the fact that Putt was on the Air Staff—he was, in fact, the chief uniformed research and development officer in the Air Force—he could not get a program funded if neither his superiors or the civilian leadership of the Air Force or the Department of Defense supported it. And Quarles was skeptical. As the top DoD official on research and development issues, his lack of enthusiasm meant that the program would stagnate.
In early spring Riepe and Coolbaugh learned that they were getting $1.5 million in fiscal year 1956. They had previously calculated that they needed $1.5 million for the design studies and another $1 million for the technology development work. But they learned that their resourcefulness had done them in. “Our ability to get along without supporting funds in the technical areas had cost us,” he explained. “We were informed that FY 56 would be a period devoted to selecting a contractor.”
Finding a contractor
In early 1955 Riepe and Coolbaugh scheduled their request for proposals (RFP) meeting. They invited every major aircraft and electronic manufacturer to the meeting, preparing 18 invitations in all. But when they mentioned this to their colleagues at RAND, they were told that a massive invitation was completely inappropriate for such a highly classified activity. They agreed and hurriedly sought to prevent the mailing. Fortunately, only one invitation had gone out, and this was retrieved from the contractor, unopened.
They then reduced their invitations to four firms: Lockheed, RCA, Douglas Aircraft, and Martin, with the expectation that Douglas and Bell would work as a team. They viewed Douglas Aircraft and Bell Telephone Laboratories as the best in their fields. The two companies had already worked together on a short-range ballistic missile for the Army called the Honest John. The contract was to be called “Pied Piper,” which was a nickname that had been assigned to the program in December for administrative purposes.
The meeting was held on March 4, 1955 in a theater at Wright Field and each of the companies was given a package of information. Coolbaugh was pleased to see the top engineering and management people from all the invited companies. Q Riepe started the presentation by discussing RAND’s work on the satellite. Then he said that the companies would get 90 days to submit their proposals. The Air Force would select the three best proposals and award each of them a $500,000 contract for a further six-month study. At the end of the six months, the Air Force would select a winner and award a prime contract.
James Lipp from RAND was there and gave a detailed briefing on the Feed Back report’s findings. He also showed some of the sample photographs from the report, which one observer described as “surprisingly intelligible.” Lipp also mentioned the satellite’s role in collecting electronic signals.
Coolbaugh then stood up and said that the Atlas missile would serve as the launch vehicle and introduced the project managers from the Air Force laboratories, who gave detailed reviews of their projects. The presentations took nearly two hours. “At this point I told the attendees that the Air Force had concluded that none of them was capable of doing the program without the support of a very strong subcontractor team,” Coolbaugh remembered. “Therefore, the whole team working on the proposal was going to be evaluated and given a heavy weighting in the final evaluation.” There were no questions and Coolbaugh turned the meeting over to Riepe, who thanked the companies for coming and closed the meeting.
“I remember standing on the stage and watching the uproar that followed, as company representatives jumped up, looked around to see who else was at the meeting, and struggled through the throng to get to some other attendee whom they thought would be a good team member. It looked as if our plan was working!”
Their enthusiasm was to be short-lived, however. Within days after the RFP meeting they received some shocking news: Douglas Aircraft Company declined to bid on the satellite. “I called Elmer Wheaton, Douglas’ Chief Engineer, and asked why they had declined to bid,” Coolbaugh remembered. Wheaton explained that he had called Bell about forming a team to bid on the contract. The person he had talked to was James West, the same Bell vice president who had briefed Coolbaugh on electronics reliability a year before. West told him that Assistant Secretary of Defense Donald Quarles, who maintained close ties with Bell after serving as an executive there, had told West not to waste his time bidding on the contract.
“This was a real shock,” Coolbaugh remembered. “The senior Department of Defense R&D officer didn’t believe in our program!” Coolbaugh called West and arranged to meet with him during an upcoming trip. “West said that when he had visited Quarles in his office in the Pentagon, he had been told that it was going to be at least 10 years before the Air Force would undertake a serious satellite program,” Coolbaugh related years later. “Our program was only the next step after RAND’s Feed Back study. We would keep the subject warm until there was a decision to launch a ‘real’ program and at that time there would be ample opportunity for Bell to participate!”
Lockheed screws up
After being told that the strength of their design team would be a factor in their ability to win the contract, the various contractors began settling on partners. The Martin company teamed up with IBM. Lockheed Missiles System Division (LMSD), which had been created the previous year, teamed with CBS Laboratories.
Bob Salter, who had left RAND to go to work for LMSD a year before and had spent his time on several missile programs, tried to convince the head of LMSD, retired Lieutenant General Elwood “Pete” Quesada, that Lockheed should team with RCA instead of CBS. But Quesada ignored the suggestion and picked CBS instead. Salter thought this was dumb. CBS Labs consisted of “two rooms on an upper floor of 485 Madison Avenue in New York, in the center of the hype district,” Salter said, dismissively. RCA had extensive laboratories in several locations. Salter felt that Quesada picked CBS because he knew its Chief Executive Officer, Frank Stanton. But Lockheed also teamed with Eastman Kodak, which knew nothing about satellites, but did have substantial capabilities in camera systems. Salter thought that proved to be a smarter move.
Quesada was a poor manager. “When Quesada came in, he was very enamored of eggheads,” Salter said. “People with Ph.D.’s.” He stuffed LMSD with scientists and shuffled out many of the engineers. Furthermore, despite the fact that Lockheed had a backlog of orders, including work on the small X-7 solid propellant research rocket, Quesada was poor at assigning people to the tasks at hand. The result was that he had a lot more scientists than he needed and he was not employing them in useful ways.
Three months after the initial briefing and Request for Proposals, in June 1955, the various contractor teams submitted their proposals for the satellite program. Over the summer, the program office selected three company teams. Martin, Lockheed, and RCA all won follow-on studies. Each would be given half a million dollars to start a six-month study and produce a final report that would then be used to select a winner to build the satellite.
Lockheed screws up again
But before the follow-on contracts could be written, Riepe, Coolbaugh, and the others in the program office learned that many of those who had worked on Lockheed’s proposal had left the company. A couple of the key people on Lockheed’s proposal were now gone. From the Air Force’s point of view, this was not only a threat to the success of the study, but technically a change in the proposal: Lockheed had not simply proposed a way of doing the satellite development, but had proposed a team of experts to do it. Many of those people were now gone.
Coolbaugh worried that Lockheed was not taking the issue very seriously. He thought that Jack Carter, who was in charge of the satellite project at Lockheed, assumed he could simply get his boss, Quesada, a former Lieutenant General, to intimidate the junior officers of the WS-117L project.
Coolbaugh thought that he had a way around this, however. The person who was handling their contracts at WADC was a young second lieutenant named Robert Washburn. Washburn had already made a name for himself in the contracts office because he had forced a major concession out of Boeing on a minor contract. “I decided the best way to get Lockheed’s attention would be to have a Second Lieutenant from Procurement tell them that they were not qualified for a follow-on study, because they had changed their proposal in a significant way,” Coolbaugh said. Instead of having the retired general intimidate the junior officers, Coolbaugh would have a junior officer intimidate Quesada and his managers. Washburn relished the idea of facing down Lockheed.
Coolbaugh remembered the meeting:
When they went back to the conference room, there had been a few changes. This time Louie Ridenour, who was working as “chief scientist” at LMSC, was in the center chair, with Carter and Quesada on either side. “Louie said he understood our concern and thought he could alleviate it,” Coolbaugh remembered. He said that the men who had left were good people and that they had an opportunity that they just could not pass up. Ridenour assured them that those who had left had informed him of their decision as soon as possible and that he was at the present time seeking equally qualified people to replace them. “He ended by saying he would stake his personal reputation on the quality of the Lockheed study team.”
Washburn agreed to withhold any decision for 10 days, but said that the quicker Lockheed convinced him of the suitability of their team the better. “I was proud of Bob,” Coolbaugh said. “He was a real pro.” Afterwards, Carter showed them out. “I told him Louie had saved him one more time.”
Within ten days Lockheed sent them a list of names of the people that had been hired to work on Lockheed’s satellite program. Coolbaugh and the others were impressed. “This list of new employees showed us Louie’s clout in the scientific community.”
What Ridenour had done was to raid RAND. He called up many of the people who had worked on RAND’s Feed Back study and asked them to come work for him. He had also gotten Robert Salter, who had headed all of RAND’s satellite studies for the Air Force and had been working for Lockheed since early 1955, to agree to head up Lockheed’s satellite effort as well. In one fell swoop he had gutted RAND’s satellite technical expertise. There was probably no better way to impress the ARS program office than to grab up most of the people who had been working on the satellite for the last several years.
All of this work was taking place in secret, unknown to the press or the public or, presumably, to the Soviet Union as well. But this did not mean that satellite observation of the Earth was a secret subject. In fact, it managed to receive some spectacular exposure.
In early 1955, the American Broadcasting Company aired Walt Disney’s “Disneyland” show, which was intended to flack the new Disneyland theme park outside Los Angeles. Early episodes dealt with traditional Disney faire, cowboys and Indians and fairy tales. But on March 9, the show featured the film Man in Space. Willy Ley, a protégé of Wernher von Braun, described how an unmanned satellite could be placed in a 300-mile circular orbit. This satellite could be equipped with various scientific instruments. It could also carry a television camera for looking at the Earth below. While Ley spoke, an animated, conical spaceship circled the Earth. It deployed a small mirror out its side that reflected the Earth back to a series of television lenses inside the spacecraft. The show was later repeated on June 15. It proved remarkably popular.
On March 15, 1955, the Air Force issued General Operational Requirement 80 for a Reconnaissance Satellite Weapon System. This was a formal statement of an Air Force requirement for a visual reconnaissance satellite capability by 1965 capable of providing continuous coverage of airfields and missile sites at a resolution of twenty feet on a side. The GOR established a systems approach to satellite development. What this meant was that the office in charge of the satellite effort would be in charge of all aspects of the satellite “system,” including its launch vehicle and ground control. The ten year target date was a major disappointment to the members of the office, for it was an indication of the lack of priority of their program.
On July 29, President Eisenhower publicly announced the scientific satellite program. In two years, the United States would launch a satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year. It would use the satellite to study the Earth.
But the project to spy on the Earth was languishing with minimal funds.
This is an excerpt from an unfinished history of American satellite reconnaissance during the Cold War.
Acknowledgements: The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of a number of people who helped in gathering information for this portion of my manuscript: the late James Coolbaugh, Jack Herther, R. Cargill Hall, and the late Bill King.