Art Roberts, a 30-year-old electrical engineer, huddled around the TV in a Richardson apartment with his wife and two other couples on July 20, 1969. Like millions around the world, they had stayed up late to watch Neil Armstrong’s one small step — his one giant leap.
The grainy, dream-like images of the moon landing are forever seared in Americans’ memories, and the broadcast of the lunar landing meant success for the U.S. and success for NASA.
And it was a success for Roberts. As an engineer for Collins Radio, a communications technology company contracted by NASA to establish outer space communications systems, he was one of an army of people behind the scenes who pushed the U.S. to the lead in the space race.
The system he and his team developed at Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California made the lunar landing possible. And it is part of the reason people experienced Armstrong walking and talking in real time.
Now retired, Roberts, 73, recalls the excitement of that moment. “We were holding our breath,” he said, “for the people as well as the project.”
Journey to space
Roberts didn’t set out for a career in outer space communications. He grew up in Lefors, a tiny town near Amarillo, and was the first in his family to attend college. At Texas Tech, he studied electrical engineering simply because he’d been told it was the most difficult major. It was a bonus that he enjoyed it.
In the 1960s, microwave networks were expanding throughout the world, used by telephone companies and for government communications.
Graduating in 1962, Roberts worked his way up with Collins Radio (now Rockwell Collins), climbing towers and aligning antennas for microwave communications systems around the world. At Collins, he met his wife, Bobbie, and she quit her job as secretary and traveled the world with him.
A few months before the Apollo 10 manned space flight, a test-run for the Apollo 11 landing, NASA discovered it needed a larger antenna to differentiate between the lunar module’s radio signals and the background signals reflected by the moon.
NASA set up a 210-foot deep space antenna at Goldstone in California’s Mojave Desert, but to be effective, it had to communicate with an 85-foot antenna at NASA’s Apollo Station several miles away. Not only that, a mountain stood between the two.
Collins, which had previously contracted with NASA for space communications, was put on the job, and Roberts led the team of engineers at Goldstone.
“It was pressure, but it’s what you do,” Roberts said. He and his team established a system of two smaller antennas atop the mountain. These two communicated with two similar antennas, one connected to the massive antenna, and one to the smaller Apollo Station antenna in an arrangement that Roberts says was “notoriously hard to line up.”
“The Earth is moving and turning,” he said. “The ability to track an object in space from a moving point on Earth is pretty astounding.”
Roberts adjusted the two antennas on the mountain, loosening bolts, swinging the dishes back and forth, tightening bolts. He talked by radio with people at receivers on the ground.
After months of planning, designing and building, they established the connection in one intense afternoon.
The technology “seems like magic,” said Eric Rothenbuhler, dean and professor in the School of Communications at Webster University in St. Louis. “On the one hand, it’s a very straightforward technological problem. … On the other hand, [the connection] enables a social and cultural moment that people remember their whole lives.”
Back then, there were only three 210-foot NASA deep space antennas — in California, Australia and Spain — built to ensure constant communication throughout the Apollo missions.
But on the night of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, the stakes were highest. “Our part was just a small part in what I consider to be a huge project. … It just happened to be the one that connected the 210-foot dish when they really needed it,” Roberts said. “You sit at home and watch TV with your fingers crossed.”
On that night, the video feed shifted between Goldstone and locations in Australia. But most of the audio traveled through the Goldstone microwave connection, said Bill Wood, a retired Apollo tracking station engineer who consults with NASA on Apollo history projects. That audio included Armstrong’s historic words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The video signal traveled through Roberts’ connection for the first few minutes of the broadcast, until just before Armstrong stepped on the moon’s surface. The quality of the video was much stronger from Parkes, Australia, so NASA made the switch. The difference in quality was due to the processing of the signal, not the microwave connection.
NASA historian Jennifer Ross-Nazzal estimates that 40 million U.S. households tuned in for the first steps on the moon. “Just think about what our thoughts or ideas about landing on the moon would have been without TV or radio,” she said. “I don’t think it would have been as meaningful to Americans or as sensational as it was.”
While TV pumped up public engagement, the microwave connection at Goldstone also transmitted more vital communications. NASA’s go-ahead command to land on the moon traveled through Roberts’ connection. “The extra gain of the large antenna made it possible … to say, ‘Go for landing,’” Wood said.
The 210-foot antenna, with its power to receive and differentiate signals more effectively than the smaller antenna at the Apollo Station, was necessary to overcome communication problems at that point in the mission.
“Had we not used that microwave link to tie the other antenna in, they would have waved off the mission, and it would have never landed,” Wood said.
Roberts retired as a vice president at MCI in 1997. Since then, he’s remained active in various community organizations in Richardson, and in 2002, he was named Citizen of the Year by the Richardson Chamber of Commerce.
Though the microwave connections have been gradually replaced by fiber optics, the antennas set up by Roberts still stand at Goldstone. They’re aging relics, conduits to numerous astronauts and spacecrafts.
Roberts’ best friend of 45 years was with him the night of the moon landing and had no idea that the antennas Roberts engineered were involved. He was surprised to hear the news when they chatted last week.
“Art was an engineer and he thought like an engineer, and it was all black-and-white thinking,” said Jim Jackson, a retired Richardson police officer. He describes Roberts as modest and extremely driven, even to this day.
On the night of the moon landing, Jackson recalls Roberts was quiet, “just watching.” Roberts recalls enjoying the night like everyone else. “It’s out of my hands at that point,” he said.
But, he added, “we knew the whole thing was going over our system. … I remember the step. The world was watching.”