The People and the Stories

SAC Book Stories

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We have lift-off!

SAC staff celebrated the 1998 Year of Science and Technology with the launch of a variety of model rockets. The front runners among SAC’s model builders were Frikkie Meyer, Pieter Sevenhuysen and Joe Schiller.

Onlookers showed a keen interest as the three-man team made critical adjustments to their rockets as they readied them on the launch pad before lift-off. The crowd waited in anticipation for the count- down and saw the rockets perform faultlessly during lift-off.

“Once again, attention to detail paid off. We proved our rocket building and launch procedure prowess with faultless precision. We had no choice but to get it right – there was SAC’s reputation to think of.”

– Frikkie Meyer

Tasso’s Lady

Tasso Karantonis received training in the US on the electronics of SAC’s 10 m LSX8 antenna, which was installed and commissioned in 1988. After an illustrious 20-year career, the LSX, fondly dubbed Tasso’s Lady, finally started showing signs of fatigue.

A lightning strike in 2007 put the antenna out of action for several months. When all revival attempts failed, Tasso – who had retired in 1994 – was called in to rescue the Lady.

By March 2008, the antenna was back in action but in 2010 an electrical storm permanently crippled the control unit. As the SAC era came to an end, so it seemed, did two decades of service from Tasso’s Lady.

In July 2011, a local company designed and installed a new control unit in the antenna, restoring it to full functionality. Once again, Tasso’s Lady could look towards the stars and listen for the sound of satellites.

“The task to get her going again in 2007 was daunting. I had to repair the new control unit along with the S- and X-band feeds and auto-track systems. When it seemed that she had taken her final bow in 2010, it was a sad day for all who had known and worked with her. I am just happy to see her working again now.” 

– Tasso Karantonis

Camaraderie across cultures

The success of the unique working environment at SAC had a lot to do with a shared work ethic and amazing camaraderie among the members of staff, despite their diverse cultural backgrounds.

The larger group of people hailed from a number of different South African cultures, while other nationalities included Helmut Neumann (German), Yves Moizant and Bruno Meyer (French), Tasso Karantonis and Johnny Rizos (Greek), Jim Weeks (American), Geoff Quick (British) and many others. All were seamlessly incorporated into the SAC team.

“I have fond memories of Elijha Tshefu in the Genhouse, Isak Ramela, a whizz in the garden who brought the ladies flowers, and Piet van der Westhuizen with his boule (steel balls), who taught us to play petanque (lawn bowling adopted from the French) – we even built a special area for the game.”

– Karen Wentzel

Barn Owl family at SAC

During 2005, SAC’s big Ka-band antenna at Hartebeesthoek became home to a family of barn owls. The female selected the structure of the antenna to build her nest and breed three chicks. Frikkie Meyer set up a web camera inside the nest for the staff to watch the chicks growing up.

“It was a unique experience, one that not many people are fortunate to see. Everyone became interested in the well-being of the baby owls and checked on them regularly. I think if we could, we would have adopted them into the SAC family.”

– Frikkie Meyer

Behind the scenes

An invitation to a SAC event was welcomed by all within the space community, locally and abroad. Many itineraries were rescheduled to include attendance at a SAC event as a firm commitment.

Credit for the popularity and success of those events must go to SAC’s impressive events team, Magriet van Wyk, Elsa de Beer, Carole Liddy and Betsie Snyman “vir wie se hande niks verkeerd gestaan het nie”, who all ensured that every event was a winner. Their ‘behind the scenes’ hard work always did SAC proud.

“SAC events had a special lustre.The faultless organisation by SAC’s amazingly competent events team ensured that everyone always had an astounding amount of fun.” 

– Karen Wentzel

First dual launch support

The expertise and teamwork of SAC’s mission controllers were thoroughly tested when the station was contracted to support the dual launch of the AMC-21 and Superbird-7 satellites aboard an Ariane-5 launcher from Europe’s Kourou space port in French Guiana in 2007.

The TT&C team was well-practised, but the dual launch was a new experience and required intense concentration and supreme co-ordination to deliver error-free mission support services.

“Our faultless performance on the launch day again demonstrated our technical competence to the international space community.” 

– Tiaan Strydom

Gamesmanship for the greater good

In the early 2000’s, SAC’s management team

decided to switch off the station’s receipt of data from Landsat-7 as a cost-saving measure – a measure unheard of within the satellite tracking fraternity at the time, but one SAC felt compelled to make to reduce costs.

The consequence of the decision, which would have affected the continuous archival of full sets of imagery over South Africa and the sub-continent, was of great concern to the Department of Agriculture. Most of its applications were based on access to SAC’s valuable source of Landsat imagery.

A week after the decision had been communicated to the affected stakeholders, a representative from the Department arrived at SAC with the news that an amount of R7.5 million would be made available for the station to continue with the acquisition of Landsat-7 data. The funds had been approved based on a strong motivation that spelled out the indispensible nature of the data to the activities of the Department.

“We received the funding just before the end of the financial year in 2003 and just in time to re-instate the Landsat-7 data contract without interruption to our archives. The funds also helped with critical improvements at the station, which in turn enabled SAC to continue providing stakeholders with the data products they required. It was an example, greatly appreciated, of where a client came to the rescue to the benefit of all parties concerned.”

– Renier Balt

Mankind’s astounding prowess

Willem Botha visited the Vandenberg Air Force Base in the US for the launch of Landsat-7 aboard a
Delta-II launch vehicle in 1999.

The experience left him with a permanent impression of mankind’s ability to achieve the seemingly impossible: from the countdown and billowing white smoke from six solid rockets that engulfed the nose fairing of the gigantic launcher as it lifted the satellite into space, to the deafening
roar of the rocket motors as the launcher passed
Mach 1 and climbed rapidly into the sky on a thick white smoke trail, until it became too small for the naked eye to see.

“The experience of seeing Landsat-7 on its way into orbit after a perfect launch impressed upon me the spectacular phenomenon of space flight and mankind’s astounding technological achievements.

While there have been failures, such as Landsat-6 that never achieved orbit, the many hundreds of successes far eclipse the failures. Landsat-5 is an example of a satellite that operated for an unbelievable 15 years when it had been designed for a lifetime of only three years.”

– Willem Botha

The Bonum-I story – challenges well met

When SAC needed funding to upgrade the Hartebeesthoek station with Ku-band capacity, to secure the Hughes launch support contract for Bonum-1, former CSIR President Dr Geoff Garrett invited Renier Balt and Michelle Le Saux from SAC to present the R15 million funding proposal to the CSIR Board at a meeting in Cape Town. The duo knew that their thorough preparation had paid off when former Board Chairman, Dr Bill Venter, commended them on “one of the best presentations” he had ever heard. They returned to Hartebeesthoek with Board approval and the requested funding for the upgrade.

“We were nervous, but exceptionally well prepared. In line with the work ethos at HBK, our proposal covered every detail, was factually correct, well-practiced and concisely presented. It worked.”

With the funding secured to install the Ku-band ground station, the SAC team encountered two further challenges: a very tight deadline and the assembly of a new European ground station system when SAC’s expertise at the time was based on US systems.

Always galvanised into action by the seemingly impossible, SAC called in Willem Botha and Tasso Karantonis to assist them and the team set to work. With on-the-job training and the team’s usual flair for ingenuity and will to succeed, SAC completed the installation of the 14 m antenna and baseband equipment on budget, on brief and in time for the launch on 22 November 1998.

“Our ability to meet and exceed client expectations always made me proud to be part of the SAC team.”

– Renier Balt

The Space Girls

In July 1998, four qualified young professionals – fondly referred to at the time as SAC’s Space Girls – supplemented their South African qualifications with a 10-month remote sensing course at GDTA, the Aerospace Remote Sensing Development Group in France.

SAC had arranged for the graduates to train in France as part of a training partnership agreement with GDTA. The training included an internship at SAC and contributions from the Department of Communications, the French Embassy in South Africa, GDTA and the CSIR made it all possible.

“We were delighted when South Africa’s ‘Space Girls’ obtained their diplomas in France. Credit was due to all four for their hard work, as well as to GDTA and the French Embassy for their support, while the assistance from SAC’s Geo-information Products and Solutions team also contributed to their success.”

– Renier Balt