The People and the Stories

SAC Book Stories

Read on >>

Preferred training provider

In the late 1990s, the old Minitrack station was refurbished as the SAC Training Centre. The success of training courses at SAC can be attributed to people such as training manager Tim Boyle and co-ordinator Betsie Snyman, as well as UK business consultant Geoff Quick, who sent training business SAC’s way, and a variety of professionals who presented the training courses. The station became a preferred training provider in remote sensing, with course participants benefiting from the significant knowledge, skills and experience of SAC stalwarts, such as Tasso Karantonis and others who assisted with the training.

“Many course participants returned for further training or requested that additional courses be added to SAC’s training schedule.” 

– Tim Boyle

Archived satellite data an invaluable investment

SAC’s impressive archive of remote sensing7 data that dates back to 1972 is an invaluable resource for analyses and change detection applications, such as finding out how land has been used over time.

The importance of access to this priceless archive was brought home when SAC received a call from the office of the then Director General of the Department of Science and Technology, Dr Rob Adam. “Can you tell us what happened in the past?”

The Department had to deal with the dangerous situation of people erecting dwellings and structures under a power line. When efforts to convey the danger to those living in the dwellings did not succeed, the court had to make a decision to prevent harm, but the decision was dependent on knowing when these dwellings had been erected.

Dr Rob Adam contacted the station to find out if the archived satellite imagery at SAC could provide an answer. There were a number of obstacles. At the time, satellites covered the specific area only once every 25 days and cloud cover during the overpasses could have prevented coverage of the area. But the imagery from the SPOT satellite was clear and with the data SAC could determine the exact date when the dwellings were erected. Geoffrey Quick was SAC’s expert in the court case.

“It was one of many instances where the immeasurable value of SAC’s archive of satellite imagery gathered over many years was demonstrated. Over time it proved to be an invaluable investment for future comparative studies.”

– Renier Balt

Let sleeping dogs lie

In the late 1990s, SAC’s three-man marketing team– Renier Balt, Roy Blatch and Piet van der Westhuizen – negotiated contracts with aerospace companies in the US to increase its client base.

Negotiations with McDonnel Douglas had been ongoing for some time. The SAC team had done exhaustive preparation for a telephone conference to clinch the mission support deal for the launch of the Iridium satellites.

Their determination paid off when all parties agreed to finalise the contract. The trio said goodbye to their new client and, thinking that they were no longer connected, jumped up as one man with arms pumping the air and shouting with glee until one of them realised that the speaker phone was still on.

“We will never know if the client heard us and, if so, what they must have thought! For a couple of days we expected a phone call to cancel the contract. In our dealings with them afterwards we often wondered whether they had heard us, but they never let on and we never asked. It was a classic case of letting sleeping dogs lie.”

– Piet van der Westhuizen

Lightning bAlt

In the late 1990s, lightning struck the control room at Hartebeesthoek, destroying much of the equipment. The damage was considerable. An investigation determined that unearthed equipment had exacerbated the damage, which required expensive repairs to bring the station back online and prevent a loss in revenue. Renier Balt, station manager at the time, contacted David Bath at the CSIR to explain the dire situation and request funding for the repairs. The funding was granted but Renier earned himself the nickname Lightning Balt.

“We learnt an important lesson: a maintenance job was never completed until everything had been well-earthed and checked. It was a lesson that had lasting consequences – we made sure that we didn’t learn it twice and I was stuck with a nickname that I never quite lived down when David Bath was around.”

– Renier Balt

Missed opportunity

When CNES veered towards awarding the mission support contract for the new generation Ariane launchers to the Malindi ground station in Kenya in 1996, SAC negotiated to be the standby station for the first launch. The home team planned to somehow outperform the other ground stations and reclaim the contract.

Confident of their performance, the SAC TT&C team had invited the SABC to attend the launch event for publicity support. Journalist Kim Cloete and a cameraman joined them and a CNES oversight team in the control room, where all ears were on the audio-streamed countdown.

A mere 37 seconds after launch, the Ariane launcher self-destructed. A malfunction in the control software had caused the satellite to veer completely out of control, leaving the SAC team with no opportunity to demonstrate anything.

When Kim Cloete understood what had happened, she called Freek Robinson, head of SABC news at the time and shouted excitedly: “We have a story!” The story made the evening news as planned, but for all the wrong reasons.

“An hour later the French oversight team had packed up and left. Flawed manufacturing decisions that had caused the failure of a superior launch vehicle worth billions had also dashed our hopes of retaining that specific Ariane contract.” 

– Renier Balt

Recognition for technical leadership

In 1995, Tasso Karantonis and Pierre Picard received a Certificate of Recognition from the “Clementine”6 Deep Space Programme Science Experiment for their leadership and contributions in supporting the demonstration of advanced space flight technology.

During a hectic start to 1994, the pair configured the CNES communications equipment at SAC to interface with the equipment at the Van den Berg Base. After a pre-launch test, they supported 22 passes including the final solid rocket burn (SRM) to enter lunar orbit.

“The spacecraft was designed and launched in 22 months for less than $80 million and provided the first multi-spectral images of the entire lunar surface. The mission demonstrated the benefits of government/industry co-operation and SAC’s ability to contribute meaningfully to space missions.”

– Tom Kennedy

An impressive walkway

South Africa’s post-1994 democracy drew an influx of foreign visitors. SAC received its fair share of dignitaries and traditionally rolled out a red carpet to welcome such VIPs – the red walkway always presented an impressive sight. On one such an occasion, the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, flew in by helicopter. SAC’s reception team at the helipad included the then Ministers of Science and Technology and Communications.

The red carpet was rolled out over the grass which, overgrown in patches, created unsightly lumps unsuitable for VIP feet.

With the sound of helicopter blades in the distance, Raoul Hodges was seen in low flight behind one of SAC’s powerful lawnmowers, grabbed in haste without a bin to catch the cut grass. As the clumps disappeared, the grass fell where it was cut. The carpet rolled out smoothly. Murphy chuckled.

The helicopter arrived with blades spinning furiously and hovered for a moment before it set down on the helipad. The sudden gust of wind blew the freshly cut grass directly onto the carpet. As if orchestrated, numerous pairs of hands including those of VIP’s, dignitaries and cabinet members grabbed and shook the carpet in snakelike undulations to rid it of the pestilence. When the helicopter door opened, Presidential feet stepped out onto an almost pristine, albeit not entirely straight, red carpet with no evidence of the frenetic activity moments before.

“We used the red carpet many times after that visit, but always made sure that no loose grass was lying around in the vicinity of the carpet before we unrolled it.” 

– Renier Balt

A landmark ruling

Early in 1994, disaster struck the Merriespruit mining community near Virginia in the Free State. Within less than 30 minutes, a late afternoon thunderstorm created a massive build-up of water that caused the collapse of a tailings dam wall. The 2.5 m high wave of sludge water flooded through the town, leaving a 4 km trail of devastation with 17 people killed, 80 houses destroyed and widespread damage to the environment.

SAC’s extensive archive of SPOT data contained images of the dam and surrounding areas before the disaster. The images clearly showed the water build-up against the dam wall. The mine cited inoperative pumps as the cause of the build-up. During the trail, the mine’s legal team objected to the use of satellite imagery as causal evidence. Dr Geoff Longshaw represented SAC as an expert witness and, based on his testimony, the judge ruled that the data was admissible as evidence.

“The ruling set a legal precedent and the mine was found guilty. The verdict enabled those affected by the disaster to file civil suits for compensation.”

– Dr Corné Eloff

Ingenuity to the rescue

In 1984, the Hartebeesthoek station required a separate transmit facility to support the launch of the Telecom-1A satellite. Selwyn Clark’s hydromechanics expertise and electronics engineer Bram Broere came to the rescue.

Selwyn mounted a 6.1 m parabolic reflector onto an existing antenna and reconfigured (‘skewed’) the transmit feed to reach the satellite in its geostationary orbit 36 000 km above the Earth. Bram built the electronic interface to support the French Intertechnique command equipment. Their ingenuity provided SAC with the transmit facility it needed, ensuring that the TT&C team could complete their preparations for the launch and provide mission support for the satellite successfully.

“Selwyn and Bram’s expertise and the co-operation from the French team ensured that the station could provide CNES with the required mission support. This was one of many similar examples of why SAC became known as a reliable launch support partner.”

– Tasso Karantonis

Teamwork at work

In 1983, Robert Guedj and Yves Moizant flew to France for training at CNES on a newly installed system to support the launches of the European Ariane family of launchers.

While the two were still in France, Hartebeesthoek was scheduled to support the launch of Ariane-6. With no-one trained on the new system and a manual available only in French, the challenges seemed daunting. Tasso Karantonis (fluent in French) and Ike Marais tackled the problem head on. Tasso translated the instructions and procedures in the manual while Ike took notes. With the translated notes and the benefit of years of experience, the TT&C team supported the Ariane mission successfully.

“We figured out what to do and wrote down the operational procedures. As the only English version available at the time, the translation became the training manual and was used for quite some time thereafter.” 

– Ike Marais