During the build-up of the tracker, I met
the only person I've ever known with a photographic memory. In
my opinion, George, an immigrant from the Ukraine, was an electronic
genius. Like myself, he was an electronic technician. George would
lay electronic logic diagrams out all over the TRAM room and patiently
pencil in circuit installation and modifications details in red
pencil. He would sometimes have several hundred square feet of
diagrams laid out, all "D" size blueprints. While pencilling
in a modification, he might shout, "This cannot work!"
Walking over to the other side of the room, remembering intricate
electronic details, he would explain to the engineers who developed
the modification that the signal did this or that; then he would
travel around over the diagrams, getting more and more excited
as he'd explain how the signals would arrive at the point of the
modification and how the mod kit as delivered would not work.
Better still, he'd tell the engineers how to correct the mistake.
Most of the engineers listened. George didn't make mistakes.
We watched as the steel erectors constructed
the tracker antenna on the roof of our building inside the immense
radome. The antenna mount was conical, about 20 feet in diameter
tapering upward 40 feet to the mammoth azimuth bearing upon which
the 105 ton antenna rotated. The azimuth bearing was
a ball bearing, perhaps 10 feet in diameter, whose balls were
about 4 inches in diameter. To move this mass, two electric motors,
each producing 150 horsepower, were connected to the antenna through
hydraulic transmissions nearly identical in design to the "Hydrostatic"
transmission familiar today in lawn tractors. A similar arrangement,
but with a single 150 horsepower motor and transmission, powered
the elevation axis, rotating the antenna up and down through an
arc of nearly 180 degrees. The hydraulic transmissions provided
an infinite movement rate. Controlled by the MIPS computer, the
antenna could move so slowly that movement was invisible to the
eye, or accelerate at 32 degrees per second per second, to a maximum
rate of 32 degrees per second. Movement this rapid was necessary
to track multiple incoming targets, one after another, as would
be the case during an attack. The slow precise movement was necessary
to obtain the precision measurements needed to fine tune impact
predictions and ultimately determine whether the U.S. would give
a launch order of its own.
Slowly, but surely, the antenna erection
was completed, the doors to the electronic cabinets were closed,
transmitter and receiver tests were completed, and the TRAM console
began showing green indicator lights. The tracker came to life,
going online officially in the summer of 1961. The mammoth system's
mechanical parts worked together with the precision of a fine
watch, the transmitter sending 10 megawatts of energy into the
heavens and incredibly sensitive receivers gathering signals from
space junk or satellites upon command from the MIPS. Much of the
tracker's time was spent tracking known pieces of space debris,
developing a catalog of orbiting bits and pieces. At that time,
the catalog was very small, perhaps a couple hundred items, taking
perhaps ten pages of computer listings. Today, orbiting debris
is more like a cloud of dust particles, counted in the hundreds
of thousands of individual pieces, and presenting a hazard to
space navigation. Perhaps the new BMEWS radars are still assisting
in the cataloging of this debris.
At other times, the tracker, like the detection radar, was running simulations, ensuring that all components were working as they should. During a simulated missile attack, the tracker would rapidly switch from one simulated target to another, tracking each for about one or two seconds, then moving on. The movement of the antenna from target to target could be heard on the mezzanine below as a low growl, straining as it accelerated. If one watched the immense concrete antenna pedestal carefully during these movements, one could see the pedestal twist slightly in reaction to the torque exerted on the 105 ton mass above. The power, yet incredibly precise movement, of this mechanical giant was magical to me. I never ceased being awestruck with this, and always enjoyed going into the radome to watch the antenna move during the simulations.