HOW DID THE New Boston Satellite Tracking Station operate on a day-to-day basis during the 1960s? Manchester resident Dave Mooney shared his memories of his work as an airman at the station in 1968.
By this time, the facility had developed advanced satellite tracking, telemetry, and controlling capabilities.
Dave joined the U.S. Air Force in 1965. He completed basic training and studied electronics before being sent to Guam to work on the maintenance of the base telephone system and other electronics.
In 1966, Grenier Air Force Base, which shared the Manchester airfield with the expanding Manchester Airport, was effectively closed as a fully operational military facility when the New Hampshire Air National Guard moved to Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, and the Air Force Reserve’s 902nd Troop Carrier Group was deactivated.
The Air Force did leave one unit in place in Manchester — the 6594th Instrumentation Squadron, which operated the New Boston Satellite Tracking Station about 17 miles to the west.
In 1968, Sergeant Dave Mooney was transferred to this unit.
He and other single airmen lived in refurbished World War II barracks in the military section of the airfield, while the married men and their families lived off-base in civilian housing. The 6594th made use of several other structures on site, including administration buildings, recreational facilities, and a new mess hall and BX (Base Exchange store).
Dave provided a snapshot of what it was like to work at the tracking station. He wrote: “It is a most unusual set of dynamics. At the time we did not realize that we were highly trained and disciplined soldiers. It never occurred to any of us that we would ever drop a pass (let the bird (satellite) get away from us). It was simply put on the uniform, go to work, and do what is asked.”
“I worked in the Data Receiver, the 90-foot (diameter radio) dish and associated electronics…Each day (or night) when I arrived at work there was a satellite schedule. There were three categories, the spies (spy satellites), weather, and communications. The spies were about 180 miles up, and we had a narrow window of time to process them. Typically, if the pass time was less than 10 minutes, we ignored that pass for not enough time. We always did at least a few spy passes on every shift.”
He continues, “The atmosphere was tense and one could feel the sense of urgency, though the players (airmen technicians) were scattered over the multi-acre property connected only by radio through our headsets. Before the start, the commander would take a roll call to assure all the players were at their assigned posts and ready. At the start of the pass all dishes were pointed at the exact spot where the bird would break the horizon. Once presence was detected, the dish operators went to autolock mode, allowing — and assuring — the dish would follow the bird throughout the pass. During that time the commander issued a lengthy series of commands. Each player knew if the command was for him, and would respond accordingly. Every second of the pass relied on error-free timing to assure we turned the bird on, extracted the necessary data, and turned it off before it went away. The last command issued notified the dish operators that the pass was complete, and to restore the dish to manual mode…”
Dave explained that as the weather and communications satellites were in geosynchronous orbit about 5,000 miles above the earth, they would “seem to just sit there and never move in relation to us.” Data was extracted from these satellites on a schedule determined by the Pentagon.
He continued, “When we were not working passes we were responsible for the maintenance of all the electronics on the property. We were able to schedule much of this, but as you can imagine, if something critical broke, we had to drop everything and restore to service.”
After serving for several months at the New Boston Satellite Tracking Station, Dave chose not to reenlist in the Air Force, but instead stayed in Manchester where he had a career as a telephone company engineer.
Next week: The further evolution of the New Boston Satellite Tracking Station.