TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Camelot on the Moon: 25 Years Ago We Walked There

Camelot on the Moon: 25 Years Ago We Walked There

TELECOM Digest (
Fri, 15 Jul 94 15:12:04 CDT

A quarter century ago this weekend ... Sunday night, July 20, 1969 --
A whole bunch you were not even born then; others of you were but little
tykes who would not remember the occassion. But to those of us over about
thirty years of age ... wow! The image is burned in our minds forever.

We sent men to the moon! This was not a Ralph Kramden scene where he
tells Alice she is going to the moon ... we actually did it. People
sat glued to their television sets that night watching in silence as
the men climbed out of their ship and walked around on the moon. Even
the talking heads of television news had nothing to say, so shocking
was the scene before all of us. Imagine nearly an hour of dead air,
just silence from the men and women who usually have plenty to say ...
they sat there as shocked as the rest of us. We stared at a picture on
a screen for nearly an hour without a word of sound as the men
collected rock and dirt samples, and other things. We watched as they
installed the American flag there ...

I remember well being at work; I was a part time telephone operator at
the South Shore Country Club. AT&T said later phone calls across the
USA came almost to a complete halt. No one spoke, everyone watched ...
my own switchboard was dead and in the lobby of the country club main
building perhaps a hundred people stood and watched the television
set. In the UK and the rest of Europe people stayed up all night to
watch, and it was Monday afternoon in Australia as people sat at their
lunches or workplaces in the same silence watching what was going on a
quarter million miles away ... but in Chicago July 20, 1969 - a very hot
Sunday night, -- we just watched and prayed -- if we believed in
prayer -- that they would leave in safety and return to their ship and
soon to Mother Earth ...

After a long period of dead air on the television and that image, the
silence was broken by Walter Cronkite, speaking for CBS News who made
some comments. We did some channel surfing to see what the other stations
were saying, and we paused on Channel 5 to listen to the commentators
from NBC for a few minutes. As they were talking and explaining as best
they could the historic occassion we were witnessing, one of the
commentators interuppted saying, "just a minute, we are going back to
the network for a few minutes ..." then a familiar voice whose face
we had never seen but whose voice was heard frequently for station-
identification messages came over the air:

"This is the National Broadcasting Company ... the President of the
United States, Mr. Richard Nixon wishes to speak at this time".

A very humbled president, Mr. Nixon extended his congratulations and
kind regards to the astronauts who were able to hear him speaking. He
spoke for just a moment thanking the government agencies involved for
the work needed to make this possible. He spoke about 'completing the
challenge which President Kennedy gave us' and the need to 'place our
partisan feelings aside in bipartisan support of our space program.'

Immediatly after he finished speaking the familiar voice returned again

"President Richard Nixon has addressed the nation and extended his
best wishes to the astronauts. You are listening to NBC, the National
Broadcasting Company ... and now, our National Anthem."

At the conclusion of the anthem, the familiar three-note chimes the
NBC network used in those days to identify itself and a return to the
unusual events on the screen. Finally people began to walk away from
the television in silence, dumbfounded by it all. Some wept; others just
stared, or grasped the hand of their friend as they left the lobby.

Throughout the night and the next day the television stations kept
replaying exceprts from the moon walk, and the {Chicago Tribune} in
its Monday editions devoted its front page to a full size picture of
the astronauts as they were installing the US flag on the moon, and
for perhaps a month afterward it was common that whenever a television
station had twenty or thirty seconds to spare between programs as part
of their station ID they'd show that same magnificent photo, or the
one of the astronauts as they were re-boarding their ship to leave for
'home' with the music of 'America the Beautiful' in the background.

All of us were so very proud of what had been accomplished. If you have
never seen it, you can order the Moon Walk video from Columbia Video
in Terre Haute, Indiana. It contains the actual footage from the events
of that night a quarter century ago and commentary.

Don Kimberlin has something to add on this topic in the next message
of this special issue. He was part of that effort and tells us now what
he recalls.

Patrick Townson


Date: Thu, 14 Jul 94 17:10 EST
From: "Donald E. Kimberlin" <>
Subject: Camelot On The Moon (25 Years Ago In Telecom History)

The following story was first written for publication in the
July, 1994 edition of NARTE News, the official journal of the National
Association of Radio and Telecommunications Engineers, for
approximately 30,000 NARTE members and interested persons. It is
reproduced here with permission of NARTE. Further republication must
contain this permission notice. For interested writers on topics of
telecommunications and radio, the Editor welcomes your submissions for
consideration. For engineers and technicians interested in NARTE
membership, telecommunications or EMC certification programs, or
NARTE's administration of FCC Commercial Radio Operator License
examinations, contact NARTE HQ at: P.O. Box 678, Medway, MA 02053 or
telephone +1 508 533-8333; fax +1 508 533-3815.

By: Donald E. Kimberlin
June 1, 1994

John F. Kennedy's truncated presidency was often called "The
Camelot Era" to describe JFK's White House years. There was an
unspoken feeling that the U.S. had gone to sleep while Eisenhower
presided. Expectations grew that "America" had to do something
spectacular, since the glow of victory in war had dimmed. The
charismatic personae of the Kennedy family seemed to say these were
the ones who would bring it. Compared to the previous century, JFK's
relative youth, with Robert as his close aide, counterpointed with his
young children and beautiful spouse made every day a potential
harbinger of great news.

There had been great news, but not happy news, from the Soviet
Union. The launch of Sputnik shocked Americans and gave many people
reasons to worry in the tensions of that time. Indeed, the Evil Empire
might be able to rain down destruction and ruin on the United States.
Nikita Kruschev had personally shown on television during his United
Nations visit that he was self-confident to the point of arrogance.
We were losing the race for dominance in space. The Missiles of
October were to drag JFK into a global poker game like none before.

The Promise is Made

That's why, in major part, JFK's promise to put an American on
the moon was so well received. America needed an effort to rally
behind. Best of all, this promise was one with a peaceful objective,
not war as are most such rallying points in history. One can probably
say there has not been any single event since that caused as much
solidarity across the entire American population, and indeed, perhaps
the whole world. Further, he promised it would happen before the end
of that decade. It was the sort of promise of the Sixties that people
really wanted. It was The Promise of Camelot.

Problem: Fragile Telecom Link

What many people don't know is that it came very close being a
failure. And at the very last moment, the last possible launch window
for a lunar mission in the 1960's was almost missed.

The potential failure was not due to problems with rocket
science or astrophysics or astronautics. Those had caused earlier
slippages, but had been solved. The last problem that almost caused a
failure of the Final Tribute to Camelot was a telecommunications
problem. It was related to the then relatively new technology of
communications satellites. Only a mass effort of telecomm people
contributing in ways we might today find impossible made recovery
possible. Some readers may know pieces of the story, but few have ever
known the whole picture.

It all focused on NASA's Deep Space Network, consisting of
only three of the twenty-plus ground stations NASA built around the
world for tracking and communicating with objects it launches. Most
of the NASA stations were capable of communicating only with objects
in earth orbit less than 100 nautical miles above the surface. For
the planned lunar missions three very large earth stations, with 85
foot dishes that could sweep the horizon rapidly, and track a point on
the moon or anywhere between the earth and the moon, had to be
constructed. Such special stations were needed in order to maintain
communications across the quarter million miles of space to the moon.
Those three stations were Robledo in Spain, about 70 miles north of
Madrid; Goldstone in California, and Canberra, near Sydney, Australia.
A look at the world map shows each is about one-third of the way
around the earth. With only three, only one at a time has a view of
the moon for an eight-hour portion of each day.

In order to maintain communications with the first humans to
make lunar journeys, all three stations would have to function
perfectly and continuously during their eight-hour periods of being
able to see the moon. Humans had made occasional contact with the
moon, bouncing radar off it as early as 1947. Even amateurs had made
"moon bounce" communications demonstrations. Meeting the Promise of
Camelot would, however, require solid, secure communications for the
entire mission. Maintaining a link from the Earth to the moon for
more than a week had never been done before.

The Deep Space Network was unique not only in the reach of its
stations. The communications bandwidth required was also larger than
previously accomplished for such a distance. Networking the
information together once it was back on earth was another new feat.
While Intelsat was newly available, there had been uncertainty about
its availability at the time of project planning. The costs would be
at levels NASA really did not want to have to afford, either.
Besides, running a full color video baseband from the moon to earth
with the electronics of the new discrete transistor era was not proved

Single Comm/Video Link Requirement

Early in the lunar project, the decision was taken to combine
all communications between the lunar module and earth into one 48
kilobit multiplexed digital signal of video, speech communications,
spacecraft telemetry and biomedical data using 2 gigahertz radio.
That was the task of the Deep Space Network. Getting that 48 kilobit
stream created and transported back into NASA, and its parts back out
for the world to see was in itself a risk factor. NASA called the
link reaching that quarter million miles across space its Unified
S-Band system. The combined signal would be fed through each Deep
Space Station back to NASA's Communications Center at Greenbelt,
Maryland for signal processing and distribution to the outside world.
"Outside" even meant Mission Control at Houston, where the actual
communications with the astronauts occurred.

NASA needed to get the Deep Space Network built and its
operations shaken out well before July 1969. Earlier launch windows
would have been used if other problems had not cropped up causing
slips in the actual launch attempt. One by one, lunar launch
opportunities frittered away while other problems in the program were
being solved, but NASA's Deep Space Network was being made

The Search For a 48 Kilobit Connection Is Accelerated

Up until late 1968, there was not even the means to transport
a data stream as large as 48 kilobits across the Atlantic or Pacific.
NASA was not about to commit reliance on the HF (shortwave) radio that
preceded submarine telephone cables across the Atlantic and Pacific
dating to 1956. The cables themselves still had precious few channels
in the late 1960's, in that era before digital fiber optics. The
integrated circuit devices to make tiny units with really low power
consumption were also only on the horizon. Devices like micron-thick
solid-state electronics were still in the future. Vacuum tubes were
really still more reliable in many uses than transistors had yet been
found to be. In summation, there was no 48 kilobit data path across
the oceans, yet NASA needed a way bring lunar signals from Robledo,
Canberra and Goldstone into the NASA communications center at
Greenbelt, Maryland. Intelsat was forecasting satellites that could
provide whole 48 kilobit channels on which "wideband" analog modems
could be used by the late 1960's, but NASA needed something sooner.
And, that something had to be reliable enough to risk astronaut lives
on. It had to be at least relatively proved technology.

SCAMA Technique

The interim method was called SCAMA. Today, that technique is
called "inverse multiplexing," and it's hyped as a recent development.
Telegraphers had used inverse multiplexing on wirelines and HF radio.
The military had employed it just after WW II, and at least one NASA
earth station (at Santiago, Chile) achieved a 2400 bps digital link
with Greenbelt using inverse multiplexing. In that link, the serial
data was converted into 24 parallel FSK streams riding on HF radio
between Panama and Chile. The portion from Greenbelt to Panama rode
on submarine cable.

But that was only 2400 bps, and the lunar project needed 48
kilobits, especially in view of giving the world acid proof with live
color video from the moon. SCAMA was the largest inverse multiplexer
built to that date. It split the 48 kilobit data into twelve parallel
paths of 4800 bps sync data for intercontinental transmission, then
recombined them into the original 48 kilobits at the receiving end.
The transport cost was enormous. At that point in time, one analog
voice channel across the tlantic rented for $13,000 a month, and SCAMA
used twelve. A dozen circuits across each ocean were being held up
all day and all night, just to be ready in case a launch window could
be used. Of course, they also provided a test bed for the Deep Space
Network and the terminals that would go to the moon. And, when not in
mission use, Robledo and Canberra had a dozen telephone tielines back
to Greenbelt. The "phone bill," as it were, approached a half million
dollars a month, largely to be ready to sustain the Promise of

The Intelsat Option

Intelsat's Series III satellites began to come into
operational use in 1968, and contracts were let to ITT and RCA to
provide 48 kilobit channels from Robledo and Canberra respectively
back to Greenbelt. Goldstone was not such a serious problem, reaching
across the U.S. With the satellites available, SCAMA would be
relegated to "back-up" status. That would release back to the world's
telephone network a dozen sorely needed trunks across each ocean. Dial
telephone demand had soared far beyond capacity of the few cables
installed to the time, and the released channels would immediately be
given over to reach various nations from the U.S.

It fell to me at ITT to produce the system design for the
first 48 kilobit circuit between Robledo and Greenbelt, while RCA took
the contract across the Pacific a few months later. We used proved
components from domestic "wideband data circuits" and rather routinely
put it into operation. NASA achieved regular use immediately. We
foresaw no problems, and it appeared we at ITT would have no concern
whenever America launched an Apollo spacecraft.

It would just happen routinely to our view. Our efforts were
turned toward other tasks. By late 1968, I was on a different
assignment in Europe. That assignment was the beginnings of knitting
AUTOVON and AUTODIN into trunked networks reaching the U.S. from
Europe, to which were added miscellaneous civilian circuits across the
Atlantic, most on the new Intelsat satellite, some on cable.

All seemed well until July 14, 1969, when Howard Briley called
me from his ITT Geneva office at my office in Paris. He told me the
lone Intelsat III over the Atlantic had suffered Intelsat's first
failure in space. It had pointed its antennas out into space and
would not respond to telemetry commands. There were several possible
recoveries, and all were being pursued. The Early Bird satellite
might be used, but it was questionable if the CTNE earth station at
Buitrago, Spain had receivers to tune into its weakened signals.
Early Bird's batteries were already running down their power curve

The T Minus Two Hour Deadline

Intelsat had one spare Series III satellite and launch rocket.
It was being rushed to a pad at Cape Kennedy to try meeting its one
possible launch window before the last lunar shot window on the
morning of July 16. If neither of those worked, it would be necessary
to try getting twelve voice channels across the Atlantic between
Robledo and Greenbelt working as 4800 bps data circuits and pressing
SCAMA back into use. I got marching orders for Madrid.

There, I was to check in for orders at the headquarters of
Compania Telefonica Nacional de Espana (CTNE). The NASA Mission
Director had put a hold and check point in the countdown. He said the
mission would be scrubbed if Robledo was not on line to Greenbelt by T
minus two hours. Robledo was most critical because it was the Deep
Space station that would be facing the moon at the first moment the
astronauts could step on the lunar surface for the world to see.
Making them wait eight hours in the mission once on the moon would
deplete life support supplies dangerously. Lacking a link with
Robledo, the Promise of Camelot would fail!

Fortunately, there was a commercial airline seat, a rare
commodity in European air travel at the time. The weather over
southeastern France and Spain that day was sparkling clear. Even the
cabin steward was impressed, pointing out land features and cities we
passed over enroute, because they could be clearly seen from six miles
up. It was difficult for me to fully enjoy that scenery, wondering
what awaited after leaving Barajas Airport and getting to the Palacio
de Telecomunicaciones, CTNE's rococo, modern Moorish reproduction HQ

The Palacio's history included a famous moment in which
Sosthenes Behn spirited himself into Spain during the Spanish Civil
War. Behn rode a PanAm Clipper via the Azores to Lisbon in the best
movie spy fashion, then sneaked overland into Madrid. He called
Franco on the phone and said he was responding to Franco's threat to
bomb the Palacio if ITT did not give Franco the telephone company.

When Franco renewed the threat in that conversation, Behn told
him that bombing the building would kill ITT's chief negotiator.
Then, when Franco asked how that could be, Behn told Franco the
negotiator was himself, calling from inside the Palacio. On the spot,
the deal was cut to give 49% to the Spanish government, with ITT
keeping 49%. The remaining 2% was to be held by the public. That way,
neither ITT nor the government could control CTNE from that point on.

Somehow, I felt in part like Behn, not on a mission of the
same personal risk, but on one of similar import to get into the
Palacio. It was critical in our case, with Robledo being the one Deep
Space Station in view of the moon at the moment scheduled for an
American to step onto the lunar surface. Getting connectivity from
Robledo to Greenbelt was of the utmost importance.

The Last Hope

On arrival at the Palacio, I was taken directly to the office
of Sr. Luis Terol, CTNE's Manager of International Services. He
updated me about the situation.

Buitrago was not having much luck establishing a link via
Early Bird. Its receivers lacked custom-made filters to tune in Early
Bird's signals well. Early Bird's weakened batteries were making its
transponder output low. There would not be decent noise levels on a
link with Andover even under good circumstances. Intelsat's
replacement satellite had been launched, but went off into a huge
looping orbit. Even if the orbit might be corrected, it would take a
time beyond the lunar launch window, and would exhaust most all the
satellite's station-keeping fuel in the effort. The last-ditch
back-up, pressing SCAMA into use, was the only hope of keeping
America's lunar launch on schedule for its last chance in 1969.

Terol, like all the other Europeans I spoke to in the months
preceding that launch, wanted Kennedy's promise to come true, too.
The free world had all bought into to seeing it happen the way JFK

Terol told me that AT&T, ITT and CTNE executives had already
been working personal contacts with PTT's all over Europe. In the
world of international links there simply is no such thing as a verbal
order. Each and every circuit order is a documented transaction.
There's no way that a verbal order, no matter how urgent or
convincing, can get a technician in, let's say, France, to stick a
patch cord into a panel that will cut off a transit trunk between the
U.S. and Switzerland. Each and every informal agreement required the
personal intervention of top telephone executives in the affected
nations. They promised paper orders in detail to every affected point.

Considering that we were getting a dozen trunks, one or two
each from England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany,
Switzerland, Spain and Italy on the various cables disconnected and
re-routed on manual patches down into Spain, it took a lot of
coordination. I was sent out to first see if there was any hope for
use of Early Bird at Buitrago, and then to set up shop at nearby
Robledo. A CTNE staffer would handle negotiating reroutes from each
disconnect point. He knew the European infrastructure in considerable
detail. He could lay the plan for getting the circuits to Madrid
through the least number of places to negotiate with. Simultaneously,
he minimized the number of links to try keeping noise levels down.
This was a major consideration in building circuits that would wind up
approaching 5,000 miles in route length. We would have to eat into
the noise ceiling by adding some equalization for perhaps 6 sets of
channel banks. In short, we were going to try to engineer some quiet,
clean data channels on the fly, using a somewhat random assortment of
circuits. We'd have to do it in record time, too. While the bosses
were working the system from the top down, our CTNE staffer was
working it from the bottom up. When he'd get roadblocked by a
lethargic technician a country or two away, he'd get out his own
little black book of names and numbers he knew in that country. He'd
talk a supervisor or manager into the spirit of the effort, and get
that boss to motivate his people or even go down to the office

On the whole, America, and perhaps NASA, didn't even
comprehend the drama we were engaged in. They certainly had no notion
of the geographic scope and depth of the infrastructure army being
marshaled across the ocean in support of the Promise of Camelot.

We worked through the night. Channels were patched through,
which is no mean feat in off hours anywhere in the world. I was on a
connection with ITT's Technical Operations Center at New York, setting
up and equalizing circuits.

One by one, we got circuits established. We used some pretty
dirty tricks to leave them just a bit loose on equalization, but with
smooth curves in order to keep noise lower. At the same time the NASA
folk were starting SCAMA up. They would first run pattern data with
their modems then add each channel to SCAMA. This was to establish
operation proving in the reliability for the Mission Director.

Five Minute Window

Finally, at T minus 2 hours, 5 minutes, NASA accepted the
twelfth circuit, declared SCAMA operational, and the Mission Director
removed the hold. The launch for the moon was on!

We stayed at Robledo to hear the launch get off on the
afternoon (Europe time) of July 16, and headed back to Madrid for some
sleep, after two days of none. Obviously, we slept in the car on the
ride back. I checked into another famous Madrid landmark, the Palace
Hotel, all Spanish oak, brass and tile. It was the place Ernest
Hemingway stayed when he was there writing about the Spanish Civil
War. It hadn't changed much, but I didn't get to appreciate it. I
went directly to bed.

Memories are blurred, but I must have slept most of two days,
because the next thing I remember other than a mite of tourist
wandering in central Madrid was a pounding on my door in the middle of
the night. It was someone on the hotel staff, apparently the best
English speaker the hotel had. He was calling me to come to the
hotel's one TV set and see the Americans on the moon! They had landed
some hours before, but now were going to walk outside on the moon.

It was only at that moment I fully realized how much a second
major function relied on our patched-up temporary SCAMA link across
the Atlantic. Not only was there no broadband data path across the
Atlantic, but the broadcasters in Europe had lost their video channels
back from NASA as well. That was certainly important for Kennedy's
promise, included showing pictures to the whole free world of the
Americans being "first on the moon!" How had they done it? I was
probably the only person in the room who knew someone had solved a

Standing there in my bathrobe, I recognized the familiar face
and sonorous tones of Walter Cronkite coming from the TV set at some
time around 3 AM in Madrid. He was padding for time and filling in
between messages from NASA about the astronauts preparing to open the
hatch and climb down the ladder. Then he said some words that cut
into me a bit.

He talked about the heroic effort of satellite engineers to
get video for broadcast in Europe. They had uplinked from Australia,
which had normal connectivity from the U.S., onto the Indian Ocean
satellite. >From there, the video was downlinked into the
Bundespostes earth station at Raisting, Germany. Raisting had swung
an 85 foot dish around to receive from the Indian Ocean satellite. He
went on at length about how Raisting was feeding the whole of Europe's
terrestrial television networks, instead of the usual routes via the
failed Atlantic satellite. Someone else had been busy getting video
channels rerouted, too.

But it seemed nobody, not even Cronkite, knew what a fragile,
last-minute thread was carrying the NASA color video and sound we were
all observing from the moon back down through Robledo, splitting it
into a dozen submarine cable channels across the Atlantic to
Greenbelt, Houston and ultimately back to him at CBS before it got out
to the world!

Of course, the event was so momentous that Cronkite and
perhaps nobody even questioned at that moment how, if they couldn't
get video across the Atlantic to Europe, it was coming into them from

But then, doesn't The Phone Company or NASA just "take care of
everything," as always?


Some months after the event, the Director of NASA
Communications sent me a lovely citation. It bears a color photo of
an astronaut looking at his own footprints on the lunar surface. Part
of the text reads, "in recognition of contributions toward NASCOM
support of Apollo XI, the first manned lunar landing, July 20 A.D.
1969." Looking at that certificate today, it's rather difficult to
believe that it all worked 25 years ago, without current day wideband
digital techniques, microprocessors to compress color video to a
portion of 48 kilobits, or millimicron wafer devices to do it with.
ITT's own corporate brochures carried the achievement of the first
wideband data circuit across the Atlantic as an ITT "first" for a
number of years. As an endnote, Robledo is still there, although I've
not seen it since. It still gets mentioned occasionally as being
involved in current NASA missions, but it's doubtfful anyone knows
that was the place the famous lunar pictures came down to earth, or
what a tenuous thread connected it back to the outside world.
Presumably NASA is keeping Robledo in shape in case we ever again send
humans to the moon.

Today's larger question may be whether we can ever again
assemble in such a unified spirit to accomplish a goal of that

(1994 Note)
(Donald E. Kimberlin is today President of Telecommunications Network
Architects, based in Concord, North Carolina, where he continues to
design and implement technologies the world has come to casually call


[TELECOM Digest Editor's 1994 Note: Don Kimberlin is also a regular
contributor to this Digest, and a long time supporter. I hope you
enjoyed this special issue of the Digest on the 25th anniversary of
the walk on the moon. This file will become a permanent part of the
Telecom Archives in the history sub-directory. PAT]

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Now, in 2005 with a totally different
world around us, I am really wondering if we will ever again repeat
the events of that summer in July, 1969. With the 34 years of progress
in science since that time, one would think so, but who can say?
Maybe Don Kimberlin can bring us up to date a little? PAT]

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