Tracking, Trekking For Space Agency


Home On The Range


Dan Kovalchik

Back in the stone age of space exploration, United States agencies relied upon a global network of tracking stations to communicate with spacecraft. This network was referred to as "the range."
The contractors who manned these stations (and quickly gained a reputation for frequent inter-station transfers) became known as "range rats."
In 1973, I jumped at the chance to join this high-tech army of migrant workers. Fresh out of school and possessing a near-fanatical devotion to the space program, I couldn't wait to work on the equipment that had relayed the astronauts' voices from the moon. The post-Apollo range was already shrinking, but I became one of the privileged few who managed to stay employed.
There were times, however, when I didn't feel quite so privileged, like when I was ducking the tornadoes that whipped across the prairies surrounding the Corpus Christie, Tex., station.
Other dangers there included scorpions, tarantulas, rattlesnakes, and jalapeno bean dip. As I warily pulled some cables through a slim crawlspace, I counted myself fortunate that I wasn't in Pakistan; I'd heard that a tracking station there had been built over a cobra nest.
We closed the Texas station without having to break out the snakebite kit, and I transferred to the USNS Vanguard, which was NASA's only tracking station afloat (although my mother always referred to it as NASA's only tracking station that could sink.)
I knew before boarding the antenna-laden ship that it had had its share of problems: While docked in politically unsound Argentina, guards had dropped grenades into the water to discourage scuba-diving saboteurs. But I continued to pretend that the NASA emblem carried as much prestige overseas as it had in the US.
It wasn't until our Tananarive site was overrun by Madagascar government troops that I admitted the rest of the world would make no distinction between a NASA tracking ship and a spy ship.
NASA soon added the Vanguard to its list of retired tracking stations, and I considered myself fortunate for landing a position at the two-mile-high station near Quito, Ecuador, in the Andes Mountains. Fortunate, that is, until I began to suffer from altitude sickness and dysentery.
Then there was the traffic. DNA tests will someday prove the link between Ecuadorians and New York City cab drivers. The real villains of the Andes, however, were the road crews. A missing section of the twisting, turning, Pan American Highway was announced, not with barricades and flashing lights, but with a row of small boulders placed a few feet in front of the hole. Gradually, skid marks and assorted auto parts also would help to mark the spot.
I left Ecuador in favor of a tiny outpost in the South Atlantic. Ascension Island, a.k.a. "The Rock," was reputed to be the least attractive assignment on NASA's dwindling list. Standing a safe distance from Quito, I disagreed.
That's not to say Ascension was without its hazards. Once, one of the island's wild donkeys found its way to the tracking station mess hall and bit anyone who didn't emerge with a carrot. We banished the donkey from the station, but he wound up outside our pub. This time he demanded beer. Eventually, we had to haul the drunken donkey to a little farm to dry out.
I left Ascension long before the special tracking satellites rendered the range obsolete, but that didn't make me feel any better when I heard the news of the network's demise. Sure, there had been times when I'd clicked my heels and wished I was back home with Auntie Em. More often, though, I cherished my role; I'd helped NASA maneuver satellites, talk to astronauts, and retrieve untold gigabytes of scientific data.
What's more, having driven the Pan American Highway at night, I guess I've had as much excitement as anybody else in the space program, and I didn't have to break the sound barrier to do it.


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