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The Trouble with Telstar

4th November 2017

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Title: The Trouble with Telstar
Author: John Berryman
Summary: The real trouble with communications satellites is the enormous difficulty of repairing even the simplest little trouble.  You need such a loooong screwdriver.
Word count:  13643
Public Domain Mark (PDM)

Image:  Analog Science Fact & Fiction June 1963


Doc Stone made sure I wouldn’t give him the “too busy” routine. He sent Millie to get me.

“Okay, Millie,” I said to Stone’s secretary. “I’ll be right with you.” I cleared the restricted notes and plans from my desk and locked them in the file cabinet, per regulations, and walked beside Millie to Stone’s office.

“It’s a reflex mechanism, Mike,” Dr. Stone said as Millie showed me in. “Every type knows how to fight for survival.” He took one thoughtful puff on his pipe. “The old fud,” he added.

“The solenoid again, Doc?” I asked.

“What else, Mike?” he said, raising his pale eyebrows. “It’s Paul Cleary’s baby, and after all these years with the company, he doesn’t figure to go down without a fight.”

So I was in the middle of it. I had no business to be there, either. The design of that solenoid certainly hadn’t been mine. All I had ever done was find out how to destroy it. And after all, that’s part of what my lab does, and what I do, for a living.

“Quit staring out the window, Mike,” Doc said behind me. “Here, sit down.”

I took the chair beside the desk and watched him go through the business of unloading his pipe, taking the carefully air-tight top off the humidor we had machined for him down in the lab, and loading up with the cheapest Burley you can buy. So much for air-tight containers. Doc got it going, which took two wooden matches, because the stuff was wringing wet—thanks again to an air-tight container.

“I just left Cleary’s office, Mike,” he explained. “He won’t admit that there’s any significance to the failures you have introduced in his solenoid. He insists that your test procedures affected performance more than design did, and he wants to talk with you.”

“Great,” I said glumly. “Can I count on you to give me a good recommendation for my next employer?”

“Cut it out, Mike,” he said, coming as near to a snap as his careful voice could manage. He blew smoke out around the stem of his pipe. I think sometimes it’s a part of his act, like the slightly-out-of-press sports jacket and flannel trousers. It says he is a sure enough Ph.D. If you ask me, he’s a comer. You can’t rate him for lack of brains. He knows an awful lot about solid-state physics, and for a physicist, he sure learned enough about micro-assemblies of electronic components. I guess that’s why he was in charge of final assembly of the Telstar satellites for COMCORP.

“Don’t worry about what Paul Cleary can do to you, Mike,” he suggested. “Think a little bit more about what Fred Stone can do for you. Cleary is only a year or so from retirement, and you know it.”

“He could make that an awful tough year, Doc.” I said. “You told me he won’t hear of design bugs in that solenoid. He’ll insist something went wrong in assembly.”

Doc Stone smiled thinly at me and brushed at his blond crew cut. “It is a tough spot, Mike,” he agreed. “Because I won’t hear any talk of faulty assembly. You’ll have to choose, I guess. If you think you can make your bed by playing footsie with an old fud who has only a year to go, try it. Just remember that I’ve got another thirty years to go, and I’ll breathe down your neck every minute of them if you let me down!”

“Sure,” I said. “When do I see him?”


Doc Stone got someone named Sylvia on the phone and then told me to go right up. After I got there, I had to sit and wait in Cleary’s outer office.

I shared it with a small, intense girl named Sylvia Shouff, if you believed the little plastic sign on her desk. There was barely room for it in the welter of paper, files, notebooks, phones, calendars and other junk she had squirreled. She was much too busy banging at a typewriter and handling the phone to pay any attention to me. Her pert, lively manner said she hadn’t taken any wooden nickels lately.

But I had. The last series of tests in my lab had put me in the middle of a hell of a scrap. It had all started a couple years back, when the final design had been approved for a whole sky-full of communications satellites. Well, eighteen, to be exact. One of the parts in the design had been a solenoid, part No. M1537, which handled a switching operation too potent for a solid-state switch. That solenoid was one of the few moving parts in the Telstars, and it had been designed for skeighty-eight million cycles before it got sloppy or quit.

In practice, out in space, the switching operation simply hadn’t worked. After about a hundred hours of use in Telstar One, it failed. Unfortunately, this had not been discovered until the first six satellites had been launched. Further launchings were postponed while they ran accelerated switching tests on satellites Two through Six out in space. The same kind of failure took place on each bird.

There were two schools of thought on licking the bug. Doc Stone, of course, insisted that solenoid M1537 had failed, which was one possible interpretation of the telemetry. And Paul Cleary, who had been in charge of design, insisted that faulty assembly was to blame. Well, somebody would make up his mind pretty soon, and my evidence would have a lot to do with it. I had done the appraisal tests of the circuit in the test lab once the bug had been detected, and now Cleary was going to smoke it out of me.

“Mr. Seaman,” Sylvia Shouff said to me, kind of waking me up. “Mr. Cleary will see you now. Have you ever met?” she added, as I came toward her desk.

I shook my head. “I’m a working stiff,” I said, “I never get to meet the brass.”

“You are also somewhat insolent,” she said tartly. “Better wash out your mouth before you try that on Paul Cleary. He eats wise young laboratory technicians for breakfast.”

“Yes, mam!” I said, feeling my ears burn. She led me to the door, opened it, and introduced me to Paul Cleary. He lumbered out around his desk and shook my hand with his rather gnarled and boney paw.

“Hello, Seaman. I’m glad to meet you, young man. Come in. We have a lot to talk about,” he said.

Considering that Cleary was a wheel, and had thirty years of service with Western Electric behind him, his office wasn’t especially large. Maybe that’s because Communications Corporation is owned half by the government and half by AT&T. The government half makes us watch our pennies.

“Have a seat, Mike,” Cleary said, going around to lower himself carefully into a tall swivel chair. He learned back and rocked slowly, like an old woman on the front porch of a resort hotel. His pipe was still smoking in a rather large ashtray. He picked it up, showing it to be a curve-stemmed old-man’s style, and puffed contentedly at it. On him it didn’t look like an act.

“Well,” he said, pulling big shaggy eyebrows down so they shaded his pale blue eyes. “You’ve become something of a celebrity around here, Mike.”

This was an unexpected approach. “Nobody told me,” I complained. “Does this kind of fame show up in the paycheck?”

“Not always,” Cleary said, scowling a little. “I just meant that your name gets bandied about. Every time I talk to Fred Stone he says, ‘Dr. Seaman says this,’ or ‘Dr. Seaman says that.’ I just had to see what this doctor looked like.”

“You can forget the doctor part,” I said uncomfortably. I had heard that Cleary was sensitive about having no advanced degree. When he went to work for the Western, college was plenty. You did your post-graduate work on the job. He sure had—and he had a string of patents as long as your arm to prove it.

“That’s good,” he said. “I’d hate to think I was competing with you in the field of knowledge where you are the world’s specialist.”

I grinned at him a little sickly. “COMCORP has never made any use of my specialty,” I conceded. “You already had about ten guys around here who had learned twice as much as I had simply by doing it every day for a living. They could have written rings around my thesis.”

“Sure,” he said contentedly, puffing more smoke. “So we made a testing engineer out of you. And you may amount to something, to hear Fred Stone tell it.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Now let me hear what you’ve been doing for Fred,” Cleary suggested, in a sort of avuncular tone. “I’d like to measure you myself.”

“You mean the tests I ran on the switching gate?” I asked.

“Why, yes, we can start there,” he nodded, squinting his blue eyes more and blowing a real screen up between us.

“When Telstar One packed up, they sent me down the whole gate from that sector,” I said. “Dr. Stone asked me to run destruct tests on the whole assembly, which I did. The only failures I have induced so far are failures in M1537, the solenoid that all the shouting is about.”

“What kind of failures did you get?”

“Armature froze on the field,” I said. “I guess the bearings really went. When there was enough load on them, they couldn’t maintain concentricity.”

“What kind of loads?” he growled, sinking down lower in his chair. He put his elbows on the arm and laced hairy-backed fingers together under his chin.

“I put the whole gate on the centrifuge and swung it up to twelve gees” I said. “Switching was normal there for the twenty thousand cycles I gave the gate. But when I added undamped vibration at twelve thousand to fifteen thousand cycles per second, I could induce failure pretty quickly. Say an hour or so.”

“You had to apply the vibration throughout the whole test period to get these failures?”

“Yes, Mr. Cleary.”

“Then how do you explain how vibration during no more than six or eight minutes of blast-off and launch could have the same effect on the actual installation on M1537 in a satellite, Mr. Seaman?” Smoke poured from the curve-stem.

“I don’t have to explain it,” I said, beginning to get a little hot. “All I have done is find a way to make one part quit. I haven’t said it did quit in use, or that it could be made to quit in use.”

“Then what the hell are you good for?” Cleary growled.

I didn’t have any answer for that.

He repeated his question, blue eyes glittering. “I asked you what the hell you were good for, Seaman!” he said, much more loudly.

“For putting in the middle,” I snapped back.

“That’s how you interpret this affair, then?”


“All right,” Cleary said, straightening up. “We’ll stop talking about your work as if it were scientific study and talk about it as a play in office politics. Is that what you want?”

“I don’t want any part of it,” I said, hoping I wasn’t plaintive. “I work under orders. The director of assembly asked me to test the part to destruction. I tested it. I’m sorry that it wasn’t a soldered joint that failed. It wasn’t. It was a solenoid. What has that got to do with me?”

“Nothing, maybe,” Cleary conceded, pushing himself up out of his chair. He went to his window to stare out at the parking lot. “You can be a test engineer all your life, if that’s what you want.”

“It isn’t.”

“And what do you want, Mike?” he said, turning back to face me.

“Your job,” I said. “In time.”

He nodded. “Well said,” he decided. “But if you want it, you’ll have to learn that business is about ninety per cent people and about ten per cent operations. You know, as you have clearly shown, that Fred Stone is pushing to get me out of here a little before my time, and pushing to make sure that he gets this spot, for which there are other claimants of equal rank in the organization. Oh no,” he said, holding up his hand. “Don’t tell me that is none of your affair. Right now you are in the unusual position of being able to cast a vote that will decide just how soon Fred Stone can make his move for the top spot. And as long as you sit there and try that smug line of ‘I just test ’em and let the chips fall where they may,’ you are really siding with Fred Stone. I need something else out of you, and you know it. What’s it going to be? Are you a wise enough head at your years to pick a winner in this scrap? And what if it isn’t Fred? I’ll have your hide, young man.”

“That’s what your snippy little brunette said,” I told him. “She told me that you’d eat me for breakfast, and she was right.” I got to my feet.

“Where are you going,” he growled. He was still standing behind his chair.

“To look for another job, Mr. Cleary. There must be some place where the honest result of a test will be assessed as the honest result of a test rather than a move in a political fight.”

“Honest result?” he echoed, and snorted. “Was your test honest? What really happened out there in space?”

“Nobody asked me,” I said hotly. “My assignment was to test that gate until a part failed.”

“A dishonest assignment,” Cleary said. “Sit down a minute.” We both calmed down and took our seats. I got a cigar out of my coat, peeled the wrapper and made counter-smoke. “Here, I’ll give you an honest assignment, Seaman. You’re a test engineer. Tell me what happened out there in space. Why did that switching operation fail?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” I said.

“Then find out!”

I chewed my cigar. “Without duplicating the conditions?” I protested. “And how can we? There’s zero gravity—zero pressure—all sorts of things going on out there we can’t duplicate in a lab.”

“I really don’t care how you do it,” he said. “But if it were my job I’d just light my pipe and sit here and think for a week or so. Why don’t you try it?”

I got up again. “Yes, sir,” I said. “I suppose it would help to have the original telemetry data so that I could evaluate for myself what went wrong.”

“I thought you’d get to that,” he said, passing me a fat file-folder. “Here it is.” He stood up, too, and led me to the door. “And other data you might want?” he asked, now a good deal more kindly. His hand was on my elbow.

I looked at him. “How about the phone number of the brunette out there?” I asked without taking the stogey from my teeth.

“Sylvia? That’s pretty valuable information,” he said, beginning to grin in a sleepy old fashion. “But she only dates astronauts. If you haven’t made at least three orbits, she won’t even have dinner with you.”

I stopped at Sylvia’s desk with half an idea of asking her for a date. “Well, Dr. Seaman,” she demanded as I chewed on my pacifier. “What did you learn?”

I thought about it. “That a lot depends on knowing where to put your feet,” I said, puffing smoke. “And my name is Mike.”

She sniffed. “If you think Paul Cleary hasn’t been around long enough to catch Fred Stone trying to fake him out of position with a meaningless test,” she said, “you have another think coming!”

“He’d never have tried it,” I told her, “if he’d known Cleary had you to look after him.” That got me a much louder sniff and toss of the dark curly head, which broke up my plans to ask her to dinner.

The telemetry results had been decoded, of course, so that a mere mortal could read them. I didn’t have a pipe, which probably meant I’d be a failure as a physicist, so I chewed cigars ragged for about three days and did some serious thinking. When I got a result, I looked up Shouff, Sylvia, Secy./Mgr./Dsgn., in the phone directory, and talked to my favorite brunette.

“Mr. Cleary’s office,” she said.

“When would he like to see Mike Seaman?” I tried.

“Probably never,” she told me. “But I suppose he’ll have to. Isn’t Fred Stone going to run your errand for you?”

“I’m running Fred Stone’s errands, isn’t that what you really think, Sylvia?” I asked her.

Sniff! “He can see you at eleven.” Click.

Paul Cleary had his coat off and was poring over a large black-on-white schematic when I was shown in by sniffin’ Sylvia. “Hello, Mike,” he growled. “Here, Sylvia. Mike’s not supposed to see this stuff. Drag it away, honey. Drag it away!”

With quick motions she rolled up the drawings, snapped a rubber binder around them and went out. Cleary wagged his hairy old paw to the chair beside his desk.

“So you’ve been thinking?” he asked, reaching for his curve-stemmed pipe.

“How do you know?”

“My spies tell me you haven’t been out in the lab since the other day. Certainly you were doing something besides sulk in your office.”


“Well, what did you come up with? Why did that switching operation fail out in space.”

“I don’t know.”

His shaggy eyebrows shot up. “You don’t know? Is that all COMCORP got for three days’ pay?”

“A confession of ignorance is a hell of a lot more revealing than a solid error,” I snapped. “The honest answer that I get out of the telemetry data is that something in that gate broke the circuit and the switching operation failed. I think there are about seven thousand components in the gate. I don’t know which one failed. A few I can rule out, because they would only cause part of the gate to fail. But a hundred different breaks could account for the data. So I don’t know.”

He lit his pipe and blew smoke around the curved stem before he made reply. “So we got a philosopher for our money,” he said. “A confession of ignorance, eh? What are you going to do about it?”

“You tell me, Mr. Cleary. You’re the old head around here.”

“So I am,” he said evenly. “So I am. Well, my advice to young pups is that they should not be ashamed when they don’t know. They should say so. But they should have something else to say along with it.”

“For example,” I suggested grumpily.

“They should say, ‘I don’t know, but I know where to find out,'” he said. “Tell me, Dr. Seaman, do you know where to find out?”

He puffed at me for the two or three minutes I thought about it. Really, that’s a very long time to think. Most ideas come to you the moment you identify the problem, which is the really hard part of thinking. But this problem took some thought, and I wanted him to think I was thinking.

“Yes,” I said at last. “I know where to find out.”


“Out in space.”

This called for a lot more smoke. “You mean, go out there and look at the satellite, in space?”

“Yes, I can’t imagine any other way really to figure it out.”

He nodded. “You may be right, Mike. But do you know how much it costs to send a manned satellite aloft?”

“Oh,” I agreed. “There are cheaper ways. We can beef up every part in that gate, test it much tougher than we already have, and when we get the gate to where all seven thousand components can stand any imaginable strain, we can rebuild the twelve Telstars we haven’t launched yet and be pretty sure they won’t have switching failures. But that isn’t what you asked me.”

“We’d have to fix eighteen of them,” he said. “The first six are about sixty per cent useless. They’d have to be replaced.”

“I still think you should consider sending a man to examine the Telstars in orbit,” I suggested.

“Science demands it, eh” he growled.

“No, I was thinking that perhaps a simple repair could be made in space, and that you wouldn’t have to launch six extra birds.”

He got out of the chair and went to the clothes tree to put on his coat. The elbows were shiny from leaning on his desk. “It might be cheaper at that,” he said. “The first six are launched in only two orbits. Three telstars in each orbit, separated by one hundred and twenty degrees. Two launches of a repair man might do it, with careful handling. Is that what you had in mind?”

“Something like that.”

“We’d have to send a pretty rare kind of a repair man, Mike,” he said, coming back to sit on the corner of his desk and glower down at me. That was about his kindest expression.

“Yes,” I agreed. “You need somebody who can test and diagnose, and then make a repair.”

“And who is an astronaut, too,” he said. “I wonder if there is such a thing?”

“Make one,” I suggested.

He scowled a little more fiercely. “Explain that,” he ordered.

“I figure you could take one of our men from my laboratory, who knows how to test the gate, and a man who is handy enough with miniature components to cut out the one that failed and replace it, and teach him how to get around in a spacesuit. That would surer than hell be quicker than taking one of these hot-shot astronauts and teaching him solid-state physics.”

“Yes,” he agreed, looking down his fingers. “That was a pretty sneaky way to get out from between Fred Stone and me, young man.”

I couldn’t resist it: “That’s what took most of the three days,” I said, just a little too smugly.

“I liked you better in the middle,” Cleary grumped. “Well, you have a thought, and it calls for a conference.” He took his coat off again, hung it on the clothes tree, came back to his desk and got on the phone.

“Sylvia? Have Fred Stone come up, and you come in with him, eh? That’s a dear.”

He racked up the instrument and smiled at me as he stoked his pipe into more activity. “Relax,” he advised me. “It always takes a while to round up Fred Stone.”

He wanted no small talk, so I fidgeted in my chair while Cleary rocked gently in his. In about ten minutes, curly-headed Sylvia brought Dr. Stone in with her.

It was, “Hello, Fred,” and “Hello there, Paul,” when they came in. Sylvia didn’t have anything to say, although she gave me a hot-eyed glance before pulling out the dictation board on Paul Cleary’s desk and making herself comfortable with her notebook.

Cleary offered Doc Stone some of his tobacco, which was politely refused. The old man began it:

“Your Dr. Seaman has quite an idea, Fred,” he said, in a mild, kindly voice, with a dumb, guileless look on his face.

“Good, Paul,” Doc Stone smiled thinly. “I’ve told you he’s a good boy.”

“Hm-m-m,” said Cleary. “He says his tests can’t prove what went wrong with the switching gate on the satellites, and in effect that the telemetry doesn’t make it plain whether we have design or assembly trouble.”

“Well, well!” said Fred Stone. I decided to start shopping for a marker for my grave.

“Yes,” Cleary said. “He made quite a suggestion, that we send a man out in space to look over the Telstars and find out what went wrong. Even better, he says it might be possible to make a repair at the same time and get the bird working. You can see the advantages of doing that, the way they are orbiting.”

“Yes, indeed,” Doc Stone said, looking at me with slitted eyes. “Quite a unique adventure for some technician.”

“Just what I was thinking,” Cleary said. “The problem resolves into: Who do we send? Now Mike, here, says we should take a man from his lab who knows the bird and its assembly and teach him how to get around in a spacesuit—that, he claims, would be quicker than taking one of these space jockeys and making a technician out of him.”

“I think he’s right.”

“So—there we are. Who do we send?”

“There can hardly be any choice,” Dr. Stone said, looking at me with eyes like granite.

“Hardly,” Cleary agreed. “The head of the lab is the best man, beyond a doubt.”

They were talking about me! Try to get out of taking sides, would I? Cleary wanted me back in the middle. Stone wanted me dead. They were both likely to get their way, unless I told them off.

I opened my mouth. Cleary cleared his throat loudly.

“Oh, Dr. Seaman!” Sylvia cut in, breaking her careful silence. “What a thrilling opportunity for you!”

I gaped at her. Well, Cleary had said it. She only went out with astronauts. She was space-happy.

“There are men in the shop who deserve the chance….” I started.

“Nonsense!” she said quickly. “It’s your idea, doctor, and you deserve the fame!”

“And the promotion this will undoubtedly earn—if you can bring it off,” Cleary added.

“Yes!” Dr. Stone said with relish. He didn’t think I could, either. Well, that made three of us, unless Sylvia made four.

“Thank you very much,” I started, as a prelude to backing out.

“Good, that’s settled,” Cleary said. “That’s all, Sylvia.”

She got up and left. She had done her dirty work. If I hadn’t been so sick at my stomach, I would have had to admire really great teamwork.

Stone shook my hand with an evil kind of relish and followed her out.

That left Paul Cleary and me alone. “This is a great thing, young man,” he said.

I couldn’t stand him any longer. “You are a worm!” I told him.

“You’re probably right, Mike,” he agreed, without any particular heat. “But a rather just one. I think you’ll admit you’ve been paid off in your own coin. All you had to do was beg off.”

“In front of her? You knew I wouldn’t.”

“I figured you wouldn’t. That’s one of the advantages of being older. You know more about how the young will behave. Come on,” he said, getting up to put on his coat again. “We have to see a man.”

“One thing,” I said, as I got up, “while we’re being so just.”


“I had thought of asking your Sylvia for a date. But she was so snippy the other night I decided to forget it. Now, she got me into this, and she’ll have to pay and pay! How do I get to her? It’ll be quite a while before I’m an astronaut.”

He took his pipe from between his teeth. “This calls for the wisdom of a Solomon,” he decided. “But you might try oysters.”

It was pretty good advice. I hung behind him long enough to tell Sylvia about the Chincoteague oysters they put in the stew at Grand Central Terminal, and got a dinner date. That was all, just the date, because Cleary was itching to take me to see a man.

Politics must be an awfully large part of business. The man we went to see was the government side of COMCORP, and I guess he had had to do as much explaining about Telstar failures to a Senate Committee as Paul Cleary had had to do to the Western. He wanted an out just as bad as Paul did.

There were a good many conferences before a sufficient number of people decided the cheapest way out was to send a man to fix the Telstars that had broken down. The question was whether it was possible.

We went at it from two directions. They got a team assigned to figuring out if the Dyna-Soar rocket could be modified to make the three contacts around the orbit, carry two men and enough air and fuel for the job, and at COMCORP we appointed a crew to figure out what it meant to make the repair in orbit.

Cleary put me in charge of our crew. They gave me a full-size Telstar satellite for my lab, and I went to work.

Fancy electronic equipment consists of millions of parts, and Telstar is no exception. One of the bonuses America got from its poor rocket booster performance, as compared with the Russians, was a forced-draft course in miniaturization. Our engineers have learned how to make almost anything about one-tenth the size you’d think it ought to be, and still work. To get all these tiny parts into a total system, they are assembled in racks. In the Telstar each of these long skinny sticks of perforated magnesium alloy is hinged to the main framework so that it can be swung out for testing or for replacement of parts, which is why the engineers call each component a “gate.”

I spent several weeks learning how to take each suspected component out of the gate. Most of the time I needed a screwdriver. Sometimes I had to drill out a soft aluminium rivet. The hard part was that some of the components were so deep inside, even with a couple gates swung out the way, that I needed all kinds of extension tools.

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