Madagascar from above as seen from NASA's Terra spacecraft. Credit: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

Revolution in Madagascar

A Reflection on Innovation and Resilience in Space Communications

By ​Danny Baird

June 8, 2020

This blog post was written prior to a reorganization of ESC’s projects and networks in support of the agency’s commercialization effort. Though accurate at the time of publication, it is no longer being updated and may contain broken links or outdated information. For more information about the reorganization, click here.

In the early days of crewed spaceflight, NASA relied on an extensive network of ground station antennas positioned in distant and often remote locations across the globe. This included stations in Australia, Nigeria and on Ascension Island, which rests in the Atlantic Ocean — a thousand miles from the nearest continent. NASA managed these far-flung stations from Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

In 1964, NASA built a tracking station on Madagascar, a large island to the east of Africa. This station — the Tananarive Tracking Station — was built to give ground controllers more information on the orbital injection of Project Gemini, a predecessor to the Apollo missions to the Moon.

The agency struck a ten-year agreement where there would be no exchange of funds between the U.S. and the Malagasay Repulic for construction of the station, focusing instead on the international benefits of space research and exploration. The tracking station would provide critical weather forecasts to the region and jobs for some 200 residents of the Malagasay Republic. For NASA, the station became an important component of the Manned Space Flight Network (MSFN), which supported both Gemini and Apollo.

However, this symbiotic relationship ended in 1975. The assassination of the Chief of State of the Malagasay Republic allowed a rival government to take control of Madagascar. In the ensuing months, the new rulers demanded one million dollars in rent per year, retroactive to 1963. The United States, unable to agree to these terms, evacuated NASA employees from the station but had to leave the tracking equipment behind.

At the time, Gary Morse worked as the shift manager for Bendix Corporation, which operated the MSFN for NASA. Morse also worked on the Apollo Lunar Module in his early twenties as a contractor with Grumman (now Northrop Grumman) and served as the network director for NASA’S Space Suttle Program, overseeing communications for the first 100 flights of the space shuttle.

“I was working in the Network Operations Control Center at Goddard, where we managed the MSFN, when I heard about the situation at Tananarive,” said Morse. “I remember hearing that the new government had parked a tank — maybe a couple tanks — outside the station. Fortunately, NASA and Bendix pulled all our people off the island quickly, reassigning them to positions at other stations in the network.”

Thanks to creative thinking and communications innovation, mission support for crewed spaceflight was not disrupted due to the station’s closure. NASA shifted much of the workload to other MSFN ground stations and increased use of U.S. Naval Ship Vanguard, a floating tracking station, and the Apollo Range Instrumentation Aircraft (ARIA), a flying tracking station. Additionally NASA used Applications Technology Satellite-6, an experimental satellite, to provide communications relay support to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, a mission to test the docking capabilities of U.S. and Soviet Union spacecraft that would have used the Tananarive Tracking Station.

Ultimately, NASA would develop the Space Network, our constellation of Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS), reducing the need for an extensive network of ground stations. The TDRS system could provide improved performance and contact time over the MSFN and, without an extensive ground network off U.S. soil, NASA could avoid the vulnerabilities and vicissitudes inherent to leasing land from other countries. Today, TDRS can provide near-continuous communications services to missions in low-Earth orbit — like the International Space Station — and to launch vehicles ascending to space.

The agency does still maintains a network of ground stations, though the architecture is far more streamlined and efficient due to years of innovation. NASA’s Near Earth Network has antennas on every continent, many of which are operated by private industry. The network is uniquely situated to support polar-orbiting missions, and can also support missions up to a million miles away, including missions at the Moon like the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

As the agency journeys to the Moon, Mars and beyond with the Artemis missions, NASA’s networks continue to grow and change, incorporating innovations like optical communications and Disruption Tolerant Networking. Looking back at the NASA’s resilient response to the closure of the ground station in Madagascar, it is clear that NASA has a storied legacy rising to meet and solve unexpected challenges. Incorporating these revolutionary technologies fits perfectly into that history. The Artemis missions will continue a timeline of communications excellence — an excellence that empowers bold exploration of the universe.

For additional information about the Madagascar ground station, check out some of the sources used to develop this blog post. These are made available to the public by the NASA History Office.
NASA Historical Data Book: Volume III — Programs and Projects 1969-1978
Read You Loud and Clear! by Sunny Tsiao