Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong made history when he declared the lunar
landing a “giant leap for mankind.” But before he could speak those
words from hundreds of thousands of miles away, MITRE engineers in
Houston provided objective insight into the design of key parts of
NASA’s Apollo control systems.
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A diagram from a 1970 MITRE briefing titled “Some possible Ways to Assign Frequency to Satisfy Lunar Exploration Program (LEP) Communication Requirements.” Source: MITRE Archives.
Leveraging its work on command, control, and communications systems with
the Department of Defense, and responding to a direct NASA request for
help in 1966, MITRE began to apply this expertise to the Mission Control
Center in Houston. NASA also asked MITRE to forecast future information
processing needs for the post-Apollo space station program.
NASA implemented several MITRE recommendations, including a control
system design for research modules to be deployed on the moon during
lunar landings, measurement and analysis of display and control system
performance, and a feasibility analysis of network data compaction. NASA
also adopted MITRE’s design for a command and control simulator.
“MITRE’s work for the Air Force in radar systems, short-range and
long-haul communications, and the Manned Orbital Laboratory were the
independent, objective systems engineering needed by NASA to facilitate
earth-to-space communications necessary for the lunar landing,” said Jay
Schnitzer, MD, MITRE’s chief technology officer.
MITRE’s work protecting space has continued long after the Apollo
program concluded. From securing
critical technology like GPS receivers to improving U.S. airspace
operations, MITRE is solving problems to make commercial space safer.
MITRE GOES TO HOUSTON
In 1966, MITRE began evaluating NASA’s systems, beginning with the
Mission Control Center in Houston.
“The first job we were given was to review the system design and
capabilities of what people know as the Mission Control Center,” said
John Quilty, one of the first eight MITRE engineers in the Houston
office, and who went on to become Senior Vice President and General
Manager of MITRE’s Washington Center for Command, Control, and
Communications, the precursor to the company’s National Security
Engineering Center. “We were analyzing what kind of processing loads
would be on the computers and if the computers would be adequate.”
MITRE employees also evaluated the requirements for a NASA-run
simulator, which allowed Mission Control staff to train for unexpected
scenarios without a rocket in the sky.
Quilty said the work for NASA in the late-1960s still stands out from
his 40-plus year MITRE career.
“It was an amazing time, and it was great to be a participant,” he said.
“We felt honored to be involved.”
MITRE’s Houston office eventually grew from seven technical staff in
1966 to 28 in 1970, becoming MITRE’s Space Mission Control Systems
department along the way.
MITRE was soon tasked with assessing whether NASA’s existing control
center would be able to service the space program’s future aspirations.
In 1967, NASA contracted with MITRE to design a new Mission Control
Center for post-Apollo spaceflight, according to a 1967 memo from
then-MITRE president John McLucas.
“The new challenges that the center must face include the simultaneous
control of several long-duration lunar or earth-orbital missions,”
McLucas wrote in a memo to employees advertising the job opportunities.
“Our responsibility requires system engineers with experience in
communications, display, computer hardware and computer software
applications in control system design.”
MITRE work projected the technical requirements for advanced missions,
emphasizing communications and information processing support for
experiments aboard a projected space station and lunar base. Though
NASA’s initial vision for the future of the space station program did
not come to fruition as expected, MITRE’s technical work focused on
improving control systems on rockets and shuttles, as well as the
planned lunar base and space station.
“To date , spaceflight has been aimed at teaching man how to
exist, work and maneuver in space; at gaining experience and confidence
in space vehicle operation; and at flight-testing and improving the
equipment. But as more experience is gained, we expect to move out of
this stage,” said Robert Grandy, who was the department head of MITRE’s
Space Mission Control Systems Department, in a 1970 article in MITRE
Matrix, an internal magazine.
By the time Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969, most
MITRE work in Houston was done with an eye toward the future. But the
occasion was still cause for celebration.
“I was at a friend’s house with my kids, watching them land,” said David
Buckley, who was one of the first MITRE employees in Houston. “I said,
gee, I helped with a little bit of that.”
Quilty said he still remembers watching the landing in his Houston home.
“We took great satisfaction for being involved in that,” he said. “It
was a true privilege and opportunity to be involved in that endeavor.”
MITRE’s mission-driven teams are dedicated to solving problems for a
safer world. Through public-private partnerships, as well as federally
funded R&D centers, we work across government to tackle challenges to
the safety, stability, and well-being of our nation. Learn more at mitre.org.