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Weekly Features
The Other Side of the Control Room Glass
Bill Pasternak, (ham radio call letters WA6ITF), is an oddity in our profession: a Broadcast Engineer who can write outside of the realm of technical publications. He works as a Broadcast Engineer with KTTV Fox 11 / UPN 13 Television in Los Angeles and private Broadcast Consultant specializing in the design of video post production facilities. He is the co-founder and Managing Editor of the all-volunteer Amateur Radio Newsline(tm) bulletin service and Creator/ Administrator of the annual “ARNewsline(tm) Young Ham of the Year Award” program. He is the author of three books, production staff member to several educational films and videos including Co-Producer of the award winning “Amateur Radio Today,” authored the “Looking West” column for 73 Amateur Radio Today Magazine for 26 years, currently writes the monthly “VHF, FM and Repeater” column for Worldradio Magazine, is a contributing writer to several broadcast trade publications and is a frequent contributor to CQ Magazine. He is a member of the ARRL, Radio Club of America and Quarter Century Wireless Association as well as a founding member of the Hollywood Hills QRP Contest Club. Bill is the only person ever chosen to be recipient of both the prestigious Dayton Amateur Radio Association’s “Specific Achievement” (1981) and “Radio Amateur of the Year” (1989) awards. He also was presented the ARRL National Certificate of Merit (1995) in recognition of his contributions to the “furtherance of the goals of the Amateur Radio Service.” Bill and his wife Sharon (KD6EPW) reside in Santa Clarita California with their two “puppy people” and can be reached by e-mail to or


From Washington, it would be a two-hour ride for Roy and me on an aging Eastern Airlines 727, down to Orlando to meet up with Gary Eldridge, KC8UD. These days Gary resides in Laurel, Maryland where he is Operations Manager for studio operations at the world headquarters of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Back when Roy put out the call for ham radio operators who were camera people to volunteer to shoot "Frontier," Gary was working at the video studios of Kettering Hospital in the suburb of Dayton, Ohio. He offered his vacation time to handle the shoots at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. We met at Orlando International Airport, rented a car and headed down the "B-Line" Expressway to our hotel home in Cocoa Beach for the next two days.

A bit of an aside here. If you have been following the sequence of events as they unfolded, by now you probably realize that Roy had a rather interesting way of doing a multi-location show. We would travel to a given location on the day prior to a shoot, have a good dinner, get up early and be ready to work at dawn's early light. As soon as everything was recorded on tape to his satisfaction, we would be on the first available flight to our next destination. Except for the cross-country jaunts, there were no days set aside specifically for travel. That's how the two of us were able to hit so many locations during a two-week vacation slot and still be back in time to spend a few days relaxing with our families. It worked like a charm, and it's the system that stayed with us through many other video production adventures.

But back to our narrative. The Cape - more specifically the Shuttle Launch Complex - was one of three locations where Roy would be on camera as host and narrator. Because of this, our normally long and leisurely dinner was a bit shortened for Roy, because he had to write his script. Gary and I sat around and talked for a bit, but we retired soon as well. Now, 6:30 a.m. comes real early. That was our time to be up, so that we could shower, have breakfast, go through base security, and be on-location by 9:00 a.m.

Three words are appropriate here: "What a greeting" when the three of us entered the Public Affairs Office to pick up our guide. Starting with the dawning of the "space-race," Roy had been a fixture of NBC News at the Cape and everybody knew him. It was like a big family and thanks to Roy, I had been invited to become a part of it.

Speaking of the early days of covering launches from the “Cape,” here's an interesting little story that Roy told me and I want to share with you. In the beginning, the government tried to keep the press corps at bay - well away from the actual launch facility. The only way reporters could be fairly certain that a launch was imminent was when the NASA launch radio system came on the air. But nobody could be quite certain where in the VHF Public Service Band (152 to 173 MHz) NASA launch controllers would show up. In fact, it was this problem that lead Roy and his technical crew to invent the world's very first "Public Service Band" scanner radio.

I won't go into all the technical details, because it's well beyond the scope of this article. That said, keep in mind that this was the 1950s. All electronic gear used tubes. Transistors were on the horizon, but integrated circuit chips and microprocessors were only dreams. The mainstay receiver back then was the mechanically tuned Hallicrafters S-81 "Civic Patrol" unit that had no modern conveniences like programmable channels and squelch controls that are common today. No, this baby only had a tuning knob and a volume control.

Also during that era, many upscale automobiles featured an automatic station finder called "signal seeking." You touched a button or bar, gears began to grind, and the radio dial scale would move up and down the AM broadcast band, stopping on stations it heard. If you did not like that one, push the button again, and it found another. So, using his ham radio knowledge Roy reasoned that there had to be a way to make the S-81 auto-tune the band and stop on a signal, just like car radios were doing. That's just what he did, coming up with a highly modified S-81 that now had noise free "squelched" operation and would stop on any signal it heard. The only signals in the band in that geographic area were those of the NASA controllers. When they came on the air it meant a launch was imminent and Roy's jury-rigged scanner would stop on their frequency and let everyone listen. Needless to say, this gave NBC Network News a decided advantage over the competition. (And now you know the origin of scanner radios.)

After a while it apparently dawned on NASA that it might be a good thing to have the news people, then camped miles down the beach, a bit closer; they were not going to go away. America was fascinated with space, mainly because of three well-known newsmen who were bringing it into everyone's living room. They were the late Jules Bergman, at ABC, Walter Cronkite at CBS, and, of course, Roy Neal at the "peacock." My guess is that NASA decided the publicity they were getting was good for the agency, so they opened the doors to the press corps. Once that happened and reporters had direct lines to Mission Control, the "mission" of Roy's makeshift scanner radio was completed and the unit was retired from service. Roy was not sure what became of it, but we both lamented that by the standards of the 1990s it would have been quite a one-of-a-kind collector's item.

So here we were, back in what was really Roy's stomping ground. Taping in the various control rooms, training operations, launch complexes and even the famed V-A-B where we actually got to shoot inside the cargo bay of a space shuttle, Columbia, which was being made flight-ready.

I was climbing the ladder 50 or 60 feet straight up while carrying a Sony VO-4800 U-Matic portable, and tethered to Gary by 15 feet of multicore cable which was connected to a Thompson ENG camera. It had to be one of the most exciting experiences of our collective lives. Not the climb - the Columbia!

Another moment that lives in my memory was out at the Launch Complex 39, where, since April 12, 1981 shuttles have taken to the sky. We were in our second, and final day of shooting, and the script called for the launch pad as a backdrop - with or without a shuttle. So the three of us were out on a gravel road surrounded by marshland shooting stand-ups, as our NASA assigned docent looked on. It was a bit late in the day and the sun was at the wrong angle. A reflector was in order, and aiming it fell to me. I was slowly backing up, and backing up, to get just the right lighting when Roy called out in his most serious broadcaster's voice: "Bill, stop right there!"

I answered that the lighting still looked too harsh. Roy looked right at me and said: "You really do not want to go off this road. There are some really mean alligators out there and you don't want to become their main course at dinner, do you?"

The docent then looked at me and said "...he's not kidding. Old 'one-eye' is probably no more that 25 or 30 feet from here."

Not wanting to tempt fate, I took Roy's advice. We went with the not-so-perfect lighting.

That location done, we were on our way again. After stopping at the Delta counter in the Orlando airport to check in and air ship all the tapes back to Alan Kaul in Los Angeles, the three of us spent the next several hours flying first to Atlanta and then backtracking to Huntsville. We made it to the Huntsville Hilton just in time for a quick dinner before the restaurant closed for the night. No, it was not all that late by our standards, but this was the South on a weekday night. After 8 p.m., the streets were rolled up and all you could get was room service. It was just as well, as we had an 8 a.m. call.

The welcome at Marshall was just as warm as that which we had received at the Cape. The only difference here was that almost everyone we ran into had a ham radio call sign as a suffix to their name, and everyone knew Roy not only as the newsman, but also as a friend they regularly chatted with on the airwaves. Even so, we were not allowed inside the Spacelab I module, because it had been sealed to prevent any sort of contamination prior to flight. But using it as a backdrop, Roy conducted a number of interviews after which we got as much B-Roll as we could of the Spacelab's exterior, and the center itself. By 3 p.m. that afternoon we were at Huntsville's airport, bidding goodbye to Gary and heading to Houston-Hobby, by way of Dallas.

>From the time when I was a kid watching space launches on our 10" RCA, I had dreamed of going to the various places where spacecraft were built, launched, and operated. Now, a week and a half from the time Roy and I left Los Angeles, he had made the first two parts of the dream come true. And in a few hours we would be at the heart of U.S. manned spaceflight operations: Mission Control at "JSC" - the Lyndon B. Johnson Spaceflight Center, in Houston.

As it happened, Houston was the only place we could not get a volunteer camera crew. So, Roy had me hire someone with whom he had worked before and who was known to be the best of the best - Bob Brandon. Actually, in hiring Bob we got three very talented people. In addition to Bob, there was soundman Phil Lauder, and associate Justine Schmidt. As I recall, Phil was a licensed radio amateur. I believe they called themselves the "Texas Crew" in that era, and they were they always an efficient and fun bunch.

The main reason for this stop was to interview the star of our show: Astronaut and Mission Specialist, Dr. Owen Garriott - ham radio call letters W5LFL. The venue that Roy had chosen was about as perfect as one could get: The "1-G Simulator" at JSC. This is an exact replica of the shuttles that fly in space except that it has no engines, no solid rocket boosters, and sits horizontal, like an airplane on a runway. As it is a full size mock-up, it's about the size of a DC-9 jetliner and the "front office" crew area is about as crowded as the cockpit of that airliner.

The mid-deck where Roy conducted the interview was a bit roomier - but not very much more. It was an area about the size of a bathroom in a luxury hotel suite, but with a lower ceiling. Into that confined space had to go Dr. Garriott, Roy, myself, Bob, Justine, an Ikegami HL-79A, and a Sony BVU-110 recorder. With Bob well over 6' tall and Roy being no slouch either, how all of us fit into that confined space, lit it, ran microphone cables and did close to 40 minutes of talking head interview - including 'reverses' - has to be one of the true mysteries of the teleproduction business. As usual, Roy pulled off yet another miracle. It was followed by a dinner thrown for us by members of the Astronaut Corps and other JSC employees - all of whom were ham radio operators, members of the JSC Amateur Radio Club (W5RRR) and very happy to have been a part in the upcoming quest to conquer "Amateur Radio's Newest Frontier."

Next week: Putting it together and the years that followed.