Connecting Humans to Breathtaking Space History
BY JANET NICKLOY, STRATEGIC INITIATIVES VICE PRESIDENT
The first words of a human being orbiting Earth. Data from the surface of the moon. Signals from probes on distant planets. The first human-built spacecraft to enter interstellar space.
Harris’ ingenuity has been part of these and many other breathtaking moments in space exploration history, playing a vital role that continues to this day – keeping spacecraft in touch with Earth.
As we look back at Harris’ six-decade partnership with NASA, some of our proudest achievements have been providing critical communications links with satellites, manned space vehicles, planetary rovers, and probes.
These links served NASA’s first active communications satellites, including the spacecraft that broadcast the first human voice from space in 1958. They have been part of every manned U.S. spaceflight program and some of the most inspiring unmanned projects – voyages that have furthered our knowledge of neighboring planets, the farthest corners of our solar system, and beyond. And they will allow astronauts to communicate during tomorrow’s deep-space exploration.
We have provided these links through audio, video, and data systems aboard spacecraft; advanced space antennas and reflectors that connect the spacecraft back to Earth; and the ground-based systems that receive the signals.
Photo Galleries: Historic Space Missions (Images courtesy of NASA)
Harris was part of early U.S. satellite programs, beginning with the Signal Communications by Orbital Relay Equipment (SCORE) project in 1958. A communications demonstration project built into an Atlas rocket, SCORE broadcast a Christmas greeting from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, representing the first words transmitted from space.
In 1961, Harris equipment enabled TIROS 1, the first satellite to transmit weather images, beginning a long legacy in weather technology that continues today.
A year later, the United States entered the manned spaceflight era with the Alan B. Shepard Jr.’s suborbital flight in the Mercury capsule. It came in May – just three weeks after the Soviets reached space. Astronaut John Glenn would become the first American to reach orbit in February 1962 as the space race ramped up. Harris equipped tracking stations around the world with telemetry technology and transmitters to maintain voice contact with the astronauts.
As American spaceflight capabilities soared, Harris connected the Telstar 1, the first active communications satellite. Developed by AT&T and U.S. and European government partners, it began the era of live television with the first transatlantic transmission in 1962.
Harris would later provide telemetry capabilities for the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory 2, the first successful space telescope, when it launched in 1968.
Throughout that decade, the Apollo manned spaceflight program set the groundwork for Apollo 11 to meet the famous presidential goal of landing a man on the moon. Harris technology allowed scientific, biological, and operational data to be gathered and transmitted to Earth and provided antennas to help recover the astronauts from their command module upon their return.
As the United States moved into the next phase of exploration, Harris continued to play important roles. We provided communications equipment on the first space shuttle in 1981 and had technology on all subsequent missions through the program’s retirement in 2011.
A new generation of space connection arrived in 1989, when the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) went operational. It moved the tracking and communications functions to multiple satellites, greatly increasing coverage with the International Space Station (ISS), satellites, and spacecraft in low-Earth orbit. Harris provided antennas for the satellites as well as the ground systems from the dawn of the TDRSS program through today.
In 2001, Space Shuttle Atlantis delivered two Harris-built systems to part of the ISS communications infrastructure – the Internal Audio System and Internal Video Distribution Subsystem. On-orbit astronaut interviews and broadcasts go through Harris equipment and antennas on the ISS, are relayed through Harris antennas on TDRSS spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit, and are received by Harris-operated ground stations.
In 2012, the remarkable Mars rover, Curiosity, arrived on the red planet. Larger than previous rovers, it wielded an advanced suite of scientific instruments. The data it has uncovered – and is still sending home – on organic carbon compounds, biosignatures, mineralogy, surface radiation, and water and carbon dioxide cycling, is transmitted by Harris-built technology within the Deep Space Network.
And then there are the Voyager probes. Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are the most intrepid spacecraft ever conceived. They were initially built to explore the solar system’s giant outer planets, which had aligned in a once-in-175-years configuration.
After success on their primary mission, the spacecraft began a second, astonishing task – trekking beyond the reaches of our solar system. On Aug. 25, 2012, Voyager 1 became the first human-made object in interstellar space after passing beyond the heliopause, the solar system’s scientific border. Voyager 2 marked the same crossing Nov. 5, 2018. The Harris-built Deep Space Network provided the communication that confirmed both milestones.
Both spacecraft are still sending back data: Voyager 1 from more than 13 billion miles from Earth, and Voyager 2 from more than 11 billion miles. The probes are expected to lose the ability to generate enough power to continue transmitting in 2020.
Given that their original lifespans were to be five years, it is remarkable they have already surpassed that by more than eight times. The Deep Space Network will continue to receive the signals back on Earth for as long as the spacecraft can send them.
Throughout these and other exciting missions, Harris systems have helped connect most satellites orbiting Earth and U.S. spacecraft that have traveled the solar system.
Another Harris innovation has set the stage for the future of space communication. Harris successfully demonstrated the capabilities of a Ka-band software-defined radio on an ISS testbed in 2012. It proved that dynamic, reprogrammable communications capabilities could be deployed in space. A major benefit is the ability to update software while it is already in use, like a smartphone. Harris is applying this in the newest wave of space technology, including hosted payloads and smallsats.
Our communications legacy continues with NASA’s next wave of exploration. Harris is providing the astronaut audio system for the Orion spacecraft in NASA’s first human deep-space mission, which is planned to launch within the next few years. Orion will be the vessel that takes humans farther then we have ever gone before, with the ability to go beyond the moon to reach Mars and other destinations straight out of science fiction. Along with the Space Launch System, Orion will usher in a new era of human space exploration.
When I think about the pioneering space missions we were part of and where we are today, I can only wonder what mind-bending discoveries we will help funnel back to Earth in the next wave of exploration.