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My Nasa Vanguard Experience

by Clarence Somner


Clarence SomnerThe year was 1974 and the Apollo program had cooled down somewhat. Nasa's ship, theVanguard, was reassigned near the Cape Verdi Islands to do an international weather experiment collecting data on how hurricanes were formed. This location was considered to be the spawning ground for hurricanes.

The Vanguard was a 600 ft ex-military ship converted for Apollo Lunar operations in remote locations. The outward appearence was the 30ft dish S Band antenna - 29ft VHF Telemetry - 30ft Satelite Relay Communications for real time two way, Command, Voice, Data to Goddard Space flight Center, Greenbelt, MD. Lastly, the 12ft FPS16 Radar antenna, and for non mission status, a marine band Yagi for communication.

Clarence Somner, who worked in the Unified S Band (USB)Vanguard tracking ship at the Nasa Bermuda Tracking Station, was offered an opportunity to be a part of the experiment, get some off island exposure and double his wage. The offer was too good to resist as Clarence explains his story:

"It was a good experience for myself where the rubber hits the road... I was on the Vanguard some 90 days and was assigned to the FPS16 radar section as the Optical Tracker person. Guys that were working there had done this before, I was the rookie! I was suppose to be going there for the USB section. When I got there I was told I would be going to the radar section. I knew little about Radar operations, but in many ways it was similar to the S band systems with which I had worked. We were able to steer the antenna to follow a space craft or a weather balloon corner reflector across the sky, hense the necessity of an Auto Track system which made it possible to get 'On Tract' and record real time geo position and range data which was very similar to S Band systems."

Clarence worked along with two other technicians who had more field experience than he had but less electronic tube technology with which he was somewhat familiar. This allowed him to shine a little better than the other guys when they had some success with repairing the radar.

Explaining more of what the mission was about, Clarence commented that it was called the 'GARP GATE' Global Atomospheric Research Program (GARP), GARP Atlantic Tropical Experiment (GATE).


"There was a weather specialist on board from the islands, a black professor named Sylvester, who coordinated the data in the form of graphics for interpretation. There were, at the least, six professors on board from various universities. Lots of fun too! you get to see all the problems come up, hear some of the discussions, what's not working right, how we can cope around what's not playing. There were certain sessions about what we were going to do, what we were up against, how things were going. Some of the graphics Sylvester explained what it meant."

"There were several weather science related international ships placed around the Vanguard, about a mile or so apart. As we launched weather ballons on a somewhat scheduled basis, the ballons were tracked by a FPS16 radar which recorded height and geo-positional data. An optical tracker was used to get the radar locked on to the weather sonde corner reflector attached to the balloon; when this was done both radar and vhf telemetry downlink data was recorded. The only thing I didn't hear about was the other ships, how things were going and their contribution to the mission There were detrimental concerns about any one radar antenna pointing and transmitting pulses into another antenna."

"On the Vanguard, being the Optical Tracker, I was in part, sort of like the coordinator for everybody, meaning most of the technicians were below deck, out of sight, and I had to coordinate with the scientist who launched the balloons."

Firstly, I had to know the status for all systems below."

"Secondly, I could see the balloon launchers. I could go over and find out when they would be ready to launch. These were mostly women launching the weather sondes. I had a clock time, if possible, a 'when' in minutes to launch."

" Thirdly, I wore a head set and could give a 'Count Down' to all sections down below. I could call below and ask if all sections were 'Go'. Most times they were ready and sometimes they were not. In my case, it was a matter of coordinating so that once they launched, all sections were getting good data."

" The Optical Tracker was a 10 degree telescope mounted on an up/down horizon to straight up elevation, drive mechnism and a 360 degree, horizon spin-a -round, drive mechanism with a look through the scope, handle grips, pointing device. The drive mechanisms were azimuth and elevation synchro motors which drove the 'slave bus'. They looked like small 2 inch ac motors."

"These synchro devices drove the antenna system's 'slave bus' and in effect the Radar and VHF telemetry antenna could slave to the 'slave bus' however, they would wait until things looked stable and then acquire Auto Track Mode at which time they no longer needed the Optical Tracker. The Telemetry antenna would slave to the Radar. The Telemetry was not as critical as the Radar when it came to pointing. The FPS-16's twelve foot radar dish was a 42db high gain antenna with a one degree beam width. It could track the weather sonde out of sight or until the balloon swelled to the size of a house, burst and fell into the ocean."

"Looking through the OT scope at the weather sonde, provided directional data for other antenna systems as a slave source with azimuth and elevation or x and y coordinate readouts. Most high gain antenna systems use a camera with a telescope lens to aid, verify and look at objects they are tracking."

Clarence was asked if he ever got sea sick on the Vanguard and his response to that question was:

" Certainly did!" " My worst week was my first week. Surprisingly, I was not conscience of it. The first day I got on the ship, I was shown where my bunk was. It took me a while to figure how to get back out. Equally it was a challenge to find the Mess Hall, to get breakfast and supper but in a couple of days I was able to comfortablly go to the deck or find the Mess Hall. Then I notice that certain locations like the bilge area, as the week progressed, got more difficult for me to walk past this area. It got to a point where I would actually hold my breath... but after the 6th day I threw up! I went to see the nurse. She wanted to know if I was from Boston and equally, I wanted to know why she gave me such small pills! All I can tell you it worked! I was thankful that someone had done the research... she could give me this pill and it worked. After that I was ok and I was broken in."

" I was on the Vanguard some 90 days. The ship left from the Cape area in Florida, the same area where today's cruise ships leave. We were on mission location for some twenty days. Then we sailed to the African port of Monrovia, Liberia for rest, recreation and provisions for about a week. After this, we returned to the data collection area and later, went to Senegal, Dakar for R&R and provisions. Back to the data collecting location. Finally we went back to the Cape in Florida and then home."

"Food was really good! I recall being served a steak cooked on one side and frozen on the other!"

(see Clarence USB experence)