NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz and me in December 2008 This is Gene Kranz, the legendary NASA flight director portrayed by Ed Harris in Ron Howard's 1995 movie Apollo 13. As everyone who's seen the movie knows, he was the flight director on duty when oxygen tank #2 in the Service Module blew up on the way to the moon. Kranz was also in charge during the very first lunar landing on Apollo 11; an audio clip of him polling his controllers ("Retro?" "Go!" "FIDO?" "Go!") has become almost iconic in many documentaries and computer recreations of that event.

My wife Kimberly took this picture during the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission held at the San Diego Aerospace Museum in December 2008. In addition to the crew of that mission (Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders) I recognized many other Apollo astronauts including Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Walter Cunningham, Gene Cernan, and Alan Bean. I did get the chance to chat briefly with Bean and Anders, but the funny thing was that I'd already read so much about these guys and their missions that I had great difficulty thinking of a question to which I didn't already know the answer! (I finally thought to ask both Anders and Bean if the depiction of S-IC/S-II staging in "Apollo 13" was accurate. Both said yes.) I then realized that the Apollo people I really wanted to meet were the guys on the ground: the flight controllers and their backroom support teams, the designers, the programmers, all the engineers who made everything and made it work. Judging from Sy Liebergot's book I'm sure they all have plenty of stories to tell that only other engineers can fully appreciate. (Liebergot was the EECOM controller on duty at the time of the Apollo 13 emergency; in the movie he was played by Clint Howard.) Above all, I wanted to meet the flight directors, the guys in charge of the ground controllers.

The Star Trek exhibition was still at the museum that night, and when Kimberly and I came out, there was Gene Kranz! I recognizd him instantly, and I was quite surprised and delighted as I hadn't known that anyone would be there aside from the Apollo 8 astronauts. Being easy to recognize, the astronauts were mobbed by crowds but apparently few people recognized Kranz despite Ron Howard having made his name famous. So I had the wonderful opportunity to introduce myself, chat for a few minutes and ask for this picture. Kranz, despite his famously gruff appearance (he's a former Marine fighter pilot) came across as a remarkably open and friendly guy.

When I was a kid, few things outside school and my immediate family made as much of an impression on me as the NASA space program of the 1960s and early 1970s. I was 12 when Apollo 11 landed; I watched it at Boy Scout summer camp on a tiny TV set on a high shelf in the corner of the dining lodge. For years I had followed every step and setback in the buildup to the first lunar landing, ever since I first understood what the space program was. And while I certainly dreamed of being an astronaut like every other kid my age, I saw Gemini and Apollo a little differently than most of them. What really fascinated me was the new technology behind it all, especially the computing and communications. The precise computations to get Apollo to the moon and back, and the communications that make it possible to see and talk with the astronauts over a distance so great that it took three seconds to make the round trip even at the fantastically great speed of light, made it all seem almost like magic. Of course, I knew it wasn't magic; it was perfectly real, a careful, methodical application of everything we'd been learning for centuries about how the physical world works. And I wanted to learn how it was done too. I already knew that I wanted to be a scientist or an engineer, and I would have been perfectly happy to work on the Apollo program in a ground support role. My fascination with communications in Apollo led to becoming a radio ham in high school, and with the steady encouragement of my parents that led to two college degrees in electrical engineering and a satisfying career in computer networking and digital radio communications. So I'm pretty sentimental about the Apollo program and I'm probably much more aware than most people that the astronauts were backed by a huge team of engineers on the ground who made it happen.

So guys like Gene Kranz were actually bigger heroes to me than the astronauts themselves. Kranz led the people who really understood how everything worked and who knew how to fix things when they broke, if that was at all possible. And it was a thrill to meet him in person, something I never thought I'd do.

Me and AMSAT Phase 3-D (AMSAT-OSCAR-40) Here I'm standing behind the antenna deck of Phase 3-D, the spacecraft that became AMSAT-OSCAR-40 when launched in 2000. The tall cone in the midde of the deck is not an antenna but a rocket engine -- the MBB 400 N bipropellant kick motor. I believe the very same model flew on the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter.

Although the problems with this motor damaged much of the spacecraft, the mode L/S transponder and the S2 antenna (a small helix not yet installed in this picture) continued to function normally for several years until the satellite failed completely. I am particularly proud of the excellent performance of the FEC telemetry mode that I designed from scratch for this spacecraft to tolerate the deep periodic fading associated with spacecraft spin during the parts of its elliptical orbit when the antennas were off-pointed from earth. If you could just barely hear the signal, even some of the time, you could decode it.

Taken in the AMSAT spacecraft integration facility in Orlando FL in the mid 1990s.

Me, a ham radio HT, and a bomb This is me, doing a little ad-hoc EMI (electromagnetic interference) testing. The antenna-like rods poking out from the side of the Fat Man bomb case are, in fact, an antenna. Any ham (or anyone who knows antennas) can see that they form a 3-element downward-pointed half Yagi. The longer (upper) rod is the rear element, the reflector; the middle loop is the driven element (the one connected to the electronics) and the shorter (lower) rod is the forward element or director.

This antenna was connected to the radar fuze, a modified "Archie" tail-warning radar originally used on bombers to warn their crews about fighters approaching from behind. When it saw its own signal reflected off the ground with a delay indicating an altitude of 550 meters, it detonated the bomb.

The radar wasn't the only thing in the firing circuit. To keep the bomb from being triggered by radar reflections off the plane that dropped it, it provided only the last in a series of switch and relay contact closures. The first was provided by an arming plug inserted by the weaponeer in flight. The second switch was actuated by a cable attached to the bomber that pulled out of the bomb as it dropped. This started a timer that closed a third switch 15 seconds later. This also powered up the radars. The fourth switch was closed by barometric (air) pressure as the bomb fell through 7,000 feet (about 2100 meters). This one also charged the high voltage capacitors that would be dumped into the detonators when any two radar fuzes (there were actually four) sensed the proper altitude.

The similarity in size between the bomb antenna elements and the "rubber duckie" on my dual bander VHF/UHF HT (an Icom, made in Japan) is not a coincidence; the bomb radar was in the upper VHF/lower UHF range.

Interestingly enough, the only guy to fly on both missions over Japan was the radar countermeasures officer, Jacob Beser (1921-1992). His job was to watch for possible jamming of the frequency used by this radar fuze. Beser was an active member of the Baltimore Amateur Radio Club when I first became a ham in the early 1970s. I frequently heard him on the air but I had no idea of his role in history.

Ironically, the Yagi antenna was invented by Hidetsugu Yagi (1886-1976). Yes, a Japanese.

Enough of my dark geeky humor. I hope to god (and I'm not even religious) that none of these things will ever be used again against anyone for any reason whatsoever.

Taken sometime in the mid-late 1980s at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH.

Me, a cat, and a laser pointer This is me, infringing US Patent 5,443,036. In case you don't already believe that the US patent office is staffed with utterly clueless and incompetent idiots and that patent lawyers rival nuclear weapons (see above) as implements of indiscriminate mass destruction, check out my page on patent policy.

Probably taken in 2000.

This was taken at the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association convention in San Francisco in March 1997. Qualcomm hired John DeLancie and Brent Spiner, well known for their roles in Star Trek: The Next Generation, to promote two new Qualcomm products: the "Q-phone", and the CDMA packet data services I helped develop. ("Q" and "Data" - get it?) I managed to get my boss to snap this picture toward the end of their appearance when they'd run out of photos to autograph and the lines had dwindled.

I then exchanged places with Franklin, snapped a shot of him and had his secretary send a copy to his mom.

Photo by Franklin Antonio

[Mickey Mouse and me] Hi! Here I am negotiating with the NSA over crypto exports. Or at least I think he was from NSA - he was about as talkative as anybody I've ever met from there. Unusually big ears, too. (I'm the one on the left.)

Photo by Patty Winter

See here for some truly ancient pictures of me in my earliest days as a ham. Thanks to my old high school ham buddy Rich, WA3SKQ, for putting them up.

It's hard to believe that two of our pals from those days, Dwight (KB3LA) and Chuck (WA3LQV, later K3FT) have already been gone so long. For all his flaws Chuck was the very first ham I ever met, and so I give him much of the credit for first turning me onto ham radio, the hobby that has repeatedly guided me into a successful career. Chuck and I argued constantly. And I miss him.

Last updated: 6 August 2010