Adapted from the 1987 NRL Review article, "NRL and Space Technology; Peter Wilhelm Reflects on the Origin and Mission of NCST" by NRL's Historian, Dr. David van Keuren
The Naval Center for Space Technology (Code 8000) was officially inaugurated on October 1, 1986, making it the Navy's lead laboratory for space technology research and application. The Center's roots date back to the immediate post-Sputnuk era when NRL established the Satellite Techniques Branch within the Applications Research Division.
The Vanguard Program had recently been transferred from NRL to the newly established National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and this transfer had effectively deprived NRL and the Navy of its competency in space launch and satellite technology.
A major question facing the Navy and the DoD as a whole was to what extent would the military services in general, and the Navy in particular, maintain independent space capacities to meet defense research and development needs.
An "Ad Hoc Committee on Rocket, Satellite, and Space Research" had been appointed by Robert Morris Page, NRL Director of Research, in February 1958 to reassess NRL's program in space research and to recommend a long-range research program. However, external events overtook the Laboratory with the official establishment of NASA that year and the consequent transfer of Vanguard and its staff to the new agency.
Nevertheless, the committee had argued that potential Navy interest in space research was extensive and continuing. It concluded that "the Navy must have a research program in space and will look to the Laboratory for a part of this effort. To provide proper response to the Navy needs in this regard, the only logical conclusion is that the Laboratory must strongly support a program in space research."
The organization of NASA did not subtract from the committee's conclusions. One result was the establishment of Satellite Techniques Branch (code 5170) to provide a technical core around which a Navy competency in satellite research and development could be maintained and developed.
Satellite Techniques Branch (code 5170) was staffed by researchers who transferred back to NRL when Vanguard was handed over to NASA in 1958. The first head was Martin Votaw, who believed the Navy had an important role to play in space and that with sufficient funding support an important program could be established at NRL.
He was supported by a handful of scientists and technicians who concentrated on the engineering hardware of what was referred to as the satellite bus. The Satellite Techniques Branch staff was responsible for the structure, power supply, command, telemetry and the coordination of the satellite, along with its interface with the booster. Additionally, they handled any special circuitry needed to support the satellite payload.
SOLRAD I was Satellite Techniques' first major project and NRL's first post-Vanguard satellite. Conceived by the Space Science Division as a means of measuring and analyzing Solar Radiation, twelve SOLRAD satellites were successfully launched between June 1960 and March 1976.
The first SOLRAD had an immediate scientific impact. Equipped with both X-ray and Lyman-alpha sensors, SOLRAD I quickly determined that radio fade-outs were caused by solar X-ray emissions, verifying a theory of Dr. Herbert Friedman. Subsequent SOLRADs also had important, although not quite so dramatic, scientific payoffs.
Another interesting story about the SolRad satellite was it's classified payload, called Grab. It was kept secret for nearly 40 years, until its existence was revealed by the Director of the National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO) during NRL's 75th anniversary jubilee events.
The Low Frequency Trans-Ionospheric (LOFTI) satellites were produced as a cooperative effort with the Radio Division. Launched in 1961 and 1962, LOFTI attempted to determine whether very low frequency (VLF) energy could penetrate through the ionosphere and be received by submerged submarines. The satellites demonstrated that under many ionospheric conditions VLF signals were extremely attenuated and could not be detected, making them unreliable for submarine communication.
SURveillance CALibration (SURCAL) satellites were produced in cooperation with the NRL group who had designed and developed the Naval Space Surveillance system and needed to calibrate it.
NAVSPASUR was the successor to NRL's innovative Vanguard tracking system, the Minitrack. Launched between 1962 and 1965, the SURCALs were built in different shapes and sizes.
Martin Votaw left NRL in 1963 and was succeeded by Edgar L. Dix, another first-rate NRL engineer. In 1965, Peter G. Wilhelm, current Director of the Naval Center for Space Technology, followed Dix as head of the Satellite Techniques Branch (code 5170). SolRad VIII launched in November 1965 for successful operations.
Satellite Techniques Branch also worked on the important "time navigation" satellites. The precision timing technology efforts begun under Roger L. Easton in the Space Surveillance Branch (5160) in the TIMATION Project were continued in the NAVSTAR GPS development program.
The Satellite Techniques Branch pioneered many developments in spacecraft technologies, and in September 1969 launched the first satellite to be stabilized in all three axes -- pitch, roll and yaw -- using a single boom with damper and a motor-driven rotation flywheel.
On that launch, another "first" was achieved: a multiple satellite launch consisting of nine separate satellites on a single launch vehicle.
From a staff of a handful in the late 1950s the Satellite Techniques Branch had increased to 30 or more scientists, engineers and technicians by the mid-1960s. The SolRad series satellite had grown from a 42 pound polished aluminum ball measuring 20 inches in diameter and with a useful lifetime of 10 months, to a 260 pound 12-sided cylinder measuring 30 x 23 inches and with a seven year lifespan.
The success of its satellite programs had dramatically demonstrated the critical importance of space-based surveillance and communications for naval operations. Accordingly, in 1971 the branch was moved to the Space Systems Division under Howard O. Lorenzen (code 7900) of the Space Science and Technology Directorate (code 7000).
Also in 1973, Reid Mayo formed the Advanced Projects Office (code 7030) out of the Space Applications Branch (code 7920). Fred Hellrich, the current Associate Director of NCST, was assigned to head the Systems Development Section (code 7032), and Lee Hammarstrom was assigned to head the Advanced Concepts Section (code 7033).
A re-organization within the NRL in 1978 saw the formation of the Space and Communications Science and Technology Directorate (code 7000) under Dr. Rabin. It included:
- Spacecraft Technology Center (P.G. Wilhelm, code 7040)
- Space Science Division (H. Friedman, code 7100)
- Communication Science Division (B. Wald, code 7500)
- Space Systems Division (N. Guinard, code 7900)
By January 1980 Dr. Bruce Wald relieved Dr. Rabin as Associate Director of Research of the re-organized Space & Communications Technology Directorate (code 7000), consisting of the Communications Sciences Division (code 7500) and Space Systems Divison (code 7900). The Space Science Division moved to the Science & Technology Directorate.
By October 1981 code 7000 consolidated into the Space and Technology Directorate consisting of the Information Technology Division (code 7500), Space Systems (code 7700, with Peter Wilhelm as Superintendent), and Aerospace Systems Division.
Spacecraft Technology Center developed the Living Plume Shield (LiPS) experiment to convert the plume shield ejected from a primary payload's upperstage into a low cost platform to conduct technology demonstrations. Although the Atlas F launch vehicle for the LiPS I failed on lift-off in 1980, the subsequent LiPS II satellite launched aboard an Atlas H rocket in February 1983 and reached orbit with a UHF single channel transponder as its payload.
The successful operation of the LiPS experiments initiated an evolutionary program that has yielded a profound impact on tactical communications supporting military operations, including development of Tactical Receive Equipment (TRE), the Joint Combat Information Terminal (JCIT) and the Radiant Hail system for dissemination of tactical battlefield information.
In another organizational consolidation Mr. Wilhelm's group absorbed the Aerospace Systems Division (code 7900) into the newly re-named Space Systems and Technology Division under Wilhelm in 1984. That move significantly increased the size and responsibilities of the division. The new division was responsible for hardware, payload, systems, and their supporting ground stations, combining all space technology into one organization.
The division's demonstrated excellence in spacecraft and systems research and its long history and experience in the field were subsequently decisive in convincing the Navy Department to choose NRL as the Navy's lead laboratory for space research in 1986. The Space Systems and Technology Division subsequently became the Naval Center for Space Technology (code 8000) on October 1, 1986, with Peter G. Wilhelm its Director and Fred V. Hellrich the Associate Director.
Its three Departments were functionally organized into:
- Space Systems Development Department (SSDD code 8100) under Superintendent Robert Eisenhauer
- Spacecraft Engineering Department (SED code 8200) under Superintendent Robert Bea
- Space Systems Technology Department (SSTD code 8300) under Superintendent Lee Hammarstrom.
NCST developed, launched and operated the Low-power Atmospheric Compensation Experiment (LACE) satellite. The LACE satellite was integrated with a USAF relay-mirror experiment payload and mounted atop a Delta II rocket for a successful launch in February 1990 from Cape Canaveral.
The LACE satellite carried four experiments:
- Sensor field for ground based adaptive optics evalution in the infrared, visible and pulsed wavelengths (for the Strategic Defense Initiatives Office),
- Ultra-Violet Plume Imaging (UVPI) tracking experiment (also for SDIO),
- Optical Radiation Detection experiment (for Aerospace Corporation),
- Background neutron environment measurements for fecoy detection experiment (for the US Army).
The last re-organization of NCST occurred in 1992, when code 8300 merged into the other departments.
In Janary 1994 NCST's CLEMENTINE Deep Space Science Program Experiment launched for a lunar orbit and rendezvous with an asteroid.
Today NCST is a broadly based matrixed organization of over 360 engineers and support staff. They are engaged in seven Lines of Business representing a diversified and growing customer/sponsor base within the aerospace and related communications technology.