THE CANARY ISLAND TRACKING STATION
This is a part of the history of Canary Island Tracking
Station when I arrived in 1964. It is written in the
first person because I pulled it from my autobiography.
The complete history has a second part, the new station,
which I will send when I get it extracted from the book.
When we arrived at the Canary Island Site in 1964 I was
disappointed. The Manned Space Flight Site was a small
one story building, not imposing, and I was a bit
disappointed by the size and look. There was another
small, frame building on the other side of the street. It
had been built using scraps of plywood and other timber.
There was a large sign over the door saying "Mercury."
This apparently, was the restaurant. It was about one
half kilometer from the lighthouse. Anyway, it was nice
to work this close to the sea.
There was a lot of dust blowing when we arrived and we
quickly got out of the van and went into the building.
You could see the effects of the new Gemini equipment
installation immediately. The site people were just
getting started with the installation, but they had time
to tear up all of the rooms. Most of the new equipment
was still in boxes setting out side the building.
I was introduced to the Site Manager, Mark Hampton, and
the Voice Supervisor, Dale (? ), who was in charge of
voice transmission and receivers. After the
introductions, I was shown the site, including the
building where I was assigned to work.
There were eight rooms in the operations building, as far
as I can remember. I met the NASA Site Director who was
Chuck Roullier. The site engineers, there were two of
them, Tex Tutus(Ms) and George Burch who shared an
office. The wire room was in the far corner behind the
Acq Aid System that was being installed. The wire room is
where all the communication connections for the site were
made. At the time these were similar to the telephone
connections. There was a least one pair of wires for
every voice circuit. Every one in an Operations position
had an intercom terminal with several voice circuits.
Next to the Acq Aid Room was the Telemetry and Spacecraft
Voice Communications room. The room contained the
receivers for the spacecraft telemetry and voice. In the
next big room, we were installing the (PCM) Pulse Code
Modulation System and the recorders. Off to the left was
the console room that was occupied by the Flight
Controller and Doctors during the missions.
I helped with an antenna installation and built up a test
chart on the installation to just see how efficient the
antenna was. The antenna was very simple even at that
time. It was vertical diode, about 20 feet long with rods
sticking all at right all around the bottom as a ground
plane. Next, I worked with the transmitter tech on a
transmission line. We installed the line and ran
standing-wave tests on the installation including the
antenna. That was about the last job I did for the
I volunteered to help with any thing being installed and
was put to work instantly installing the PCM Systems.
They were the first computers the site received. The
people did not call them that of course. They were called
Pulse Code Modulation systems for the job they
The building I was in, was just part of the site. The
radar and voice transmitters were located nearby. I met
the voice Transmitters Tech immediately. His name was
Jerry Petro. He was a sharp tech and one of the few
technicians with an engineering degree. In fact, there
were not many people with engineering degrees assigned to
the site. Degrees were not as important then as they are
now, but even then they meant something in the
engineering field. Remember, we are talking about 1964.
The installation included the consoles for the Flight
Controllers and Doctors who would be at the site for
every Gemini mission. The Capcom and the Flight
Controllers or the Spacecraft Engineers, as we sometimes
called then, for the Gemini and Agena vehicles each had a
console. These consoles had lights for each switch on the
spacecraft then they had meters for analog parameters.
The meters had limit switches that were set to
predetermined limits for each mission. The doctors also
had consoles. They monitored heart rate and other
astronaut health parameters.
The site M&O, Site Manager, console had a site time
control. The site M&O console had voice contact with all
site personnel from his console. Tom White was promoted
to Site Engineer, when George Burch left for
reassignment, and would help man the M&O Console.
The PCM systems installation was started. They were huge
cabinets that were placed in a line. Each PCM system was
composed of several cabinets. To check an event, the
position of a switch in the space craft, one technician
on the far end put on headsets and another one at the
operator position with headsets. The operator would set a
switch on the PCM simulator and the technician at the
other end would tell him whether the "event" was "on" or
"off." It was a pure digital system. One of the first!
The PCMs replaced the Pulse Amplitude Modulation (PAM) in
the MSFN (Manned Space Flight Network) which was bad for
two Tech Reps we had at the site representing the company
that builds the PAM. They later switched companies and
stayed with Bendix. In retrospect, the engineering
decision to stay with PAM was the end of Pacific Bendix.
One could see the "digital time" coming on the horizon if
they looked close. In today's world, 1996, digital has
conquered every thing in the Space Craft Communications
area or almost everything in the communications area.
We had lunch across the road at the small restaurant.
Every thing was pretty crude. We might have bacon and
eggs for lunchyou would get a package of bacon and
scrambled eggs and a large piece of bread. One time I
found the jacket off a golf ball in my scrambled eggs.
Anyway it was the same color as the eggsyellow. The cook
was a farmer. He knew to open cans and plastic packages.
He did not speak any thing but Spanish and fried every
thing. He just didn't know any other way to cook. We were
young and would eat anything as long as we had cold
Heineken beer go with it. The Site Manager and Director
avoided our restaurant and would bring their lunch most
One thing you could depend uponthe Heineken beer. And we
drank cases of it. We stopped at the small restaurant and
bought bottles every day when we got into the van to take
up back to the city. One of the people joking called the
road to the city 'green glass road.' Because of the
number of empty beer bottles (the bottles were made of
green glass) thrown out of the van on the way home. Shame
on us throwing bottles out the windows of the van, but at
the time we did not know any better. When we got dry we'd
stop for more beer. Many times the van would be late and
our wives would know that the van was late because of a
stop, or several stops for beer.
A lot of days we'd work late at the site. When one of the
group ridding one van had to work overtime, rather than
rescheduling the transportation, the remainder of the
people on that van would work over time too. We worked a
lot of over time installing the Gemini equipment. I saved
a lot of overtime as comp time (unpaid time that could be
taken later as vacation). As far as I was concerned the
PCMs were our computers, and was the heart of the Gemini
installation. David E. B. Wilkins was assigned to Manage
He replaced Mark Hampton who returned to the US for
We received a 1218 Univac computer complete with a
Technician and a Univac Company Representative. I was
fascination by the computer. I had never seen one before.
Every free minute I had from the Telemetry I was working
with the Univac Engineer interfacing the Computer with
Later, I was assigned to the Pulse Code Modulation System
in the Telemetry section. I joined the PCM people without
the benefit of a school. I didn't need one. I was
learning so much on the Site I didn't have time to go
back to the US for school. We put in a couple of buffers
to get the data from the PCM into the computer. We almost
had to rewire them to do what the customer wanted to do
with them. Looking back, it was the old thingthe PCM put
the data in format that did not agree with the computer.
Rather than rewriting the program for the computer, we
put out a contract for the buffers. Then we kept tweaking
the wiring in them until they gave the data to the
computer that it was looking for. We supported a couple
of Gemini missions with the new configuration.
A man came from the NASA Training Center to teach the
buffers and the recorders. He was my old boss from the
United States Air Force Contract in Madrid, John Gale. I
went to the buffer and the recorder schools. The buffers
were pure digital logic units and I learned a lot about
computers, or at least the computer we had, from the site
school taught an by old friend.
I had a vacation coming and I had gathered a lot of
comp-time. Comp-time is time off in place of paid
overtime. So I decided to spend my vacation on Site
learning as much as I could about the new PCM and
computer. I was curious about the interface. I became the
expert on the computer buffers. I think we almost rewired
them with modifications. This time data from the Gemini
was digital received in the TLM data as ones and zeros,
and it gave us a bit of a problem at first. We patched
the first programs in the PCM systems. This was a long
way from the later loading programs in modern computers
with their large memories. The Gemini spacecraft switch
positions that we received via TLM were patched to the
consoles where they lit lights on the console when they
came on. The DACS (digital to analog converters) were
patched to the console meters.
The meters on the consoles had limits that allowed us to
set for am alarm when the Spacecraft had a parameter such
as voltage out-of-limits. When the spacecraft came over
the hill within line-of-sight, the Capcom and the Space
craft Engineers could quickly check the vehicle
parameters. VHF and frequencies higher than VHF are
line-of-sight, anything between the receiver and the
transmitter, such as a hill or if the target has not come
over the horizon yet the signal will not be received.
Along with the computer we received another system for
command. It was a special purpose digital computer with
two operators. I believe Radiation was the contractor who
built it. Russ Lutz and a second Bendix technician were
assigned to run it and repaired it. It's strange I can't
remember his name he was a West Virginian. The histories
of commands it generated were sent to the 1218 Univac
computer. I was assigned as the Computer Engineer, again
without a computer school. I already had experience on
PCM and the other digital equipment such as the Buffers
between the PCM system and the computers.
Soon Gemini missions were routine. We programmed the PCM
with patch cords and received new programs for the
computer every mission, which we had to load and try out
permission. Off duty was good. We had the beach and night
life. Generally, it was a good time to be alive.
The Site radar was an MPS-26. This was a system we
received to support the Gemini missions. We had a couple
of newly graduated engineers to keep it running and
operate it. They re-designed the radar ranging system
when they had a problem in it. After their effort it was
a hopeless mess. The company manager came over with a
couple of design engineers to see what they could do. I
volunteered to write a program for the 1218 computer to
de-bug the ranging system. My help was gladly accepted. I
worked day and night to build a program. I eventually got
it working after a couple of weeks. The program gave the
second difference of the ranging that pointed out the
oscillation in the data. After three weeks of working to
get the ranging system back into operation the was the
radar system was green again.
Meanwhile, I had fallen in love with the sea. I bought an
18-foot sail boat from an old man who was going to buy
another larger one. I called the small yacht Mercury. The
old man from whom we bought the yacht was Hugh Bayldon
and I was very lucky to meet him. He and his wife, Ann,
taught Connie and me all about sail boats. They loved to
sail. They showed up how to rig the sails and how to tack
and reach in the wind. We soon joined them as
enthusiastic sailors. Monica was blessed like some
peopleshe never got seasick and loved the sea.
Everything had gone as expected, except for the January
27, 1967, accident. This was when Ed White, Gus Grissom
and Roger Chaffee had burned to death in a spacecraft on
We were scheduled to move to new site to support the
Apollo missions that were coming next. The new operations
building was contracted to a Spanish contractor and was
almost completed. The site was about 2 miles from the old
site. Now, we had to move the equipment and install it at
the new station. We pitched in with gusto to move the
equipment and get in operational. Antonio who owned the
restaurant across the street from the old Site watched us
move. It was a disaster for him. A second reason for his
occupation with the move was that he was loosing his
power. The Site had wired electric to his building. The
restaurant was using site power that it was going to
lose. But Antonio was a very enterprising gentlemen. He
loaded up one of his cars with Heineken and when we
finished work he would be setting there selling Heineken
beer as we came out of door of the site. The Site
Director saw him and stated that he could not sell beer
on the Government Site. So Antonio packed up and moved
out. He still had the bus contract so we stopped every
night at the Mercury for a beer.
Second part to follow.