The Adventure of the Atomic Clock

April 9, 2014  - By

In consulting my notebooks for the spring of 2014, I find many remarkable cases that engaged the attention of my intimate friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Among them stand out the tragedy of the ancient British barrow, the disappearance of Pemblestoke the magician, and the curious facts associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a tale for which the world is still not prepared. Perhaps none of these so well illustrate, however, the advanced technical insights and consultative powers of the great detective as did the intrigue into which we were drawn by the brilliant young American scientist, Geo. P. Hess.

“Watson, we have a new client,” Holmes announced over breakfast, “a friend, actually, upon whom I have depended for many years. He has always proved reliable, helping me navigate the highways and by-ways all across the land.”

“His name?” I inquired.

“The Right Honorable George Parkinson Hess from California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Florida, and doubtless many other parts of the American nation. I have watched G.P. Hess grow these last 36 years into a prodigiously successful entrepreneur, known the world round for his ubiquity, openhanded generosity to all, and, equally, his devotion to his own country. Now it seems he needs my advice, and I cannot refuse him.“

“I wonder that an American should be able to find his way here this morning,” I replied. “There’s a beastly fog about, and London streets are no friendly environment under the best of conditions.”

“Have no fear, Watson,” Holmes chuckled. “I have never known G. P. Hess to be late for any function. Since a lad he was always on time, right to the second. You can set your watch by him, and as far as I know he has never been lost. He has an uncanny sense of direction and is indeed a fount of knowledge concerning maps and directions. I believe I hear his ring at the bell even now.”

Mrs. Hudson ushered in our American visitor, and Holmes introduced us. “It is always good to see you, G.P. How are you — in good health, I presume?”

“Indeed, Mr. Holmes, things are neither as well they may seem on the surface, nor as well as they could be. I am troubled of late, severely troubled by potential gaps in my future. Not to mention the seismic activity lately in Los Angeles. In the last 18 months, the magnitude of the tremors has grown from 3.1 to 5.1 on the Richter scale. I just can’t understand why they thought to have our major acquisition headquarters in a place that is constantly threatened by tremors, outright quakes, wild fires, floods, landslides, and tsunamis. Not to mention the traffic. It would have been much better to co-locate acquisition with the main headquarters in Colorado. All they have to worry about there are blizzards, high winds, and an occasional wildfire.

“While I could not agree with you more, G.P., I fail to see what I can do, try as I might, about Mother Nature.”

Fire in Florida

“Right you are, Mr. Holmes. I’ll get to the heart of the matter. I am deeply concerned about several of our business ventures: expansion and modernization efforts, if you will. You may have heard about a small but rather serious fire at the U.S. Air Force’s Cape Canaveral radar tracking facility and the subsequent launch delays. That small fire at a single tracking facility has already delayed a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) launch, and a resupply mission to the International Space Station, currently manned by U.S. and Russian crews who, whether or not they are still speaking to one another, really need the replenishments. Now we aren’t allowed use Russian engine cores for space launch any more. A blessing, actually, as the Russians have put more malfunctioning GLONASS satellites into salt water lately than into the vacuum of space, when they aren’t simply blasting them to kingdom come.

“With all the troubles besetting Cape Canaveral, Elon Musk is burning figure eights in his Tesla, and SpaceX is a very happy company — in the right place at the right time, what? Able to launch its Falcons and Falcon Heavies from Vandenberg as well as Canaveral.

“Imagine, one little fire has caused the cancellation of several space launches, and those still on the manifest are moving to the right daily. We had hoped to put into orbit four new IIF models this year, but that looks next to impossible now. Plus it appears the GPS III payload has hit a snag. It is delayed six to nine months.”


“A delay in GPS III had not been looked for, had it?” queried Holmes.

“No sir, it had not. Everything was proceeding smoothly, but now the satellite payload is in question. Subcontractor Exelis has provided every GPS payload since 1978 and all have worked marvelously well, some of them for more than 23 years. But now — there is a problem. Some say it is signal crosstalk, some say it is with the new rubidium clocks. One thing for sure, it is demoralizing. I am given to understand the powers that be in Colorado Springs and Los Angeles are calmly but firmly looking for some competition or even an alternate payload provider.

OCX Delay

“And then there is the GPS ground segment. It has moved one month to the right for every month it has been in existence, it has gone over budget, and now is on its third program manager in three years. Whatever happened to the days when a capable leader conducted a program from beginning to end, knew it intimately from top to bottom, from soup to nuts? What is this world coming to? Where are our leaders?

“And don’t get me started on the effects of ‘seques-castration’!” fumed the young man.

“And the Chinese!” he continued, gathering steam. “Just who do they think they are? Do you know they called their regional system a PNT gold standard? Gold standard! Don’t make me laugh!”

“Now G.P., don’t despair,” soothed Holmes. “There are still excellent leaders out there, you just have to look a bit harder nowadays. In the space arena, Elon Musk, General William Shelton, Wild Bill Cooley, Frank Kendall, and Keoki Jackson are just five of many that come immediately to mind. Of course I would not want to play poker with any of them, but I digress.”

Solutions Appear

“I have been reading and thinking about the alternative payload issue,” the detective continued, “and I have other sources of information as well. Dr. Watson calls them my Baker Street Irregulars, and they are both resourceful and quite knowledgeable. These sources tell me there is another Colorado company, with excellent leadership, that is really on the ball, can move mountains (or huge boulders, anyway), and mark my words, they have top-notch crews, expertise, and even some past performance where an alternative GPS payload is concerned. They might be worth watching.

“As far as OCX goes, frankly I am hearing there are indeed backups and alternatives. My sources have confirmed the existence of a bracket of applicable technologies belonging to a small residual company, run by an Irish clan, believe it or not, with considerable past performance and expertise. Once officially launched to work on the real-time issues, they should be able to help the ground-segment team get back on the fast track.

“As for as the Chinese and their claims, all I can say is no one believes their gold standard rhetoric, although it obviously has a purpose.”

“Mr. Holmes, I hope you are right,” the American replied with an assuaged look. “I knew that if I talked with you I would feel better about these perplexing issues.

“I must resume my journey to Rotterdam, where I will hear a lot more about the Galileo program meeting its launch dates — or not — and the GLONASS outage. As rough a shape as we are in, we’re still far better off than the rest! In the meantime, I’ll pop over to Greenwich to synch up and universally coordinate with those folks before I move on to the Continent.”

G.P. Hess carefully scrutinized his pocket watch. “Now Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson, I must depart. As you know I have a reputation to maintain: always precisely on time, never lost, and as far as I know, I have never blacked out. Cheerio!”

“What a remarkable fellow, Holmes!” I said after our client had left. “He is certainly full of energy.”

“Yes,” my friend replied, “energetic and very successful. If you had observed him more closely, Watson, you would have noticed his pocket watch. Ah, you did not remark upon it? Standard-issue, atomic-reference version, crafted of solid gold. You might say, and rightly so, that where time is concerned, G.P. Hess is the undisputed holder of the Gold Standard.”

So ends our brief visit with Holmes and the illustrious Watson. Stay tuned for further adventures, and until next time, Happy Navigating! G.P. Hess and I hope to see you all next week in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, at the European Navigation Conference, ENC-GNSS 2014. Drop by and say Hello!

If you can’t drop by and say hello in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, then please join me at the 30th Space Symposium, which is slated for May 19-22, 2014, at The Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. The Space Symposium is considered by many of us in the Space business to be the premier gathering of space professionals in the world.

In June, I will be attending the 39th NIST Time and Frequency Seminar. It has a great lineup of speakers this year to include: Judah Levine who is the NIST civilian time leader, David Allan who is the original creator of the famous Allan variance, and Neil Ashby, an expert in relativistic timing effects. The seminar takes place in Boulder, Colorado, June 3-6, 2014.

What Is Don Reading?

I had very little time for reading this month, or so I thought — then I had a brief but enlightening correspondence and conversation with local author George E. Nolly, who also lives in Colorado. George sent all four of his wonderful books direct to the Kindle app on my iPad. I had told George I was so swamped I would save his books to read on the airplane on my way to Rotterdam and report on them after the European Navigation Conference.

Then I read just one chapter of the first book and I was hooked. There was nothing for it but to devour all four volumes of the escapades of young Vietnam era USAF pilot, Hamilton “Hamfist” Hancock.
Hamfist Out: The Chill Is Gone;
Hamfist Over Hanoi: Wolfpack on the Prowl;
Hamfist Down! Evasion, Survival and Combat in the Jungle;
Hamfist Over The Trail: The Air Combat Adventures of Hamilton “Hamfist” Hancock

Hamfist-Out Hamfist-Hanoi

Hamfist-Down Hamfist-OverTrail

It will be like going back in time for many readers of a similar age. George Nolly writes with such an easy-going grace and fluidity that reading of these often stressful and life-threatening times, while sitting in my lounge chair, was, for me anyway, indeed a pleasure.

Certainly I can remember undergoing many of the same flying and ground ordeals, and Nolly tells his tales with such honesty and clarity that it brought back vivid memories. In fact I have never read such accurate descriptions of what it was like to fly the old T-29 with radial engines and all that entails. George actually brought back the unforgettable sound and smell of those two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial, air-cooled engines. They are from a long-forgotten era of aviation, but those of us who heard them will never forget them.

T-29A Aircraft, Vietnam era, restored. Courtesy of CONVAIR T29A.

T-29A Aircraft, Vietnam era, restored. Courtesy of CONVAIR T29A.

George also makes wonderful plugs for GPS, possibly without knowing it, when he describes using LORAN maps under red lights in a cramped cockpit. This, along with all the time he spent just trying to figure out where he was or where the target was located, just screams for a GPS solution. In truth, in the Vietnam era we airmen spent a great deal of time trying to figure out exactly where we were, where our target was, and where the enemy was located, especially if he was shooting at us. Today all those tasks are made infinitely simpler with the use of GPS and modern electronics. However, this also highlights the amazing feats of airmanship accomplished in the Vietnam era, all while being constantly targeted by the enemy, all the more incredible.

Radial engine.

Radial engine.

Just between us veteran airmen, the author relates the tales with such clarity and detail I suspect many of them are autobiographical. George E. Nolly, after graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy here in Colorado Springs, served as a pilot in the United States Air Force, flying 315 combat missions on two successive tours of duty in Vietnam, winning three Distinguished Flying Crosses and 24 Air Medals, flying O-2A and F-4 aircraft, so he knows whereof he writes.

Even if you are a few generations younger than George Nolly and me, and don’t undergo a nostalgic experience as you read, you will certainly enjoy these fabulous books. Be sure to read them in order, as they are actually one running story that brings to life the trials, tribulations, and joys of Hamilton “Hamfist” Hancock for all of us and vividly recreates the way things were back in the 1960s and ’70s in the United States, the USAF, and what it was like flying in combat in Southeast Asia. I highly recommend these tales. I hope there are more to come.

Upcoming Conferences

If you can’t drop by and say hello in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, then please join me at the 30th National Space Symposium, which is slated for May 19-22, 2014, at The Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. The National Space Symposium is considered  by many of us in the Space business to be the premier gathering of space professionals in the world.

In June I will be attending the 39th NIST Time and Frequency Seminar. It has a great lineup of speakers this year to include: Judah Levine who is the NIST civilian time leader, David Allan who is the original creator of the famous Allan variance, and Neil Ashby, an expert in relativistic timing effects. The seminar takes place in Boulder, Colorado, June 3-6, 2014.

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About the Author: Don Jewell

Don Jewell served 30 years in the United States Air Force, as an aviator and a space subject-matter expert. Don’s involvement with GPS and other critical space systems began with their inception, either as a test system evaluator or user. He served two command assignments at Schriever AFB, the home of GPS, and retired as Deputy Chief Scientist for Air Force Space Command. Don also served as a Politico Military Affairs Officer during the Reagan administration, working with 32 foreign embassies and serving as a Foreign Disclosure Officer making critical export control decisions concerning sophisticated military hardware and software. After retiring from the USAF, Don served seven years as the senior space marketer and subject-matter expert for two of the largest government contractors dealing in space software and hardware. Don currently serves on two independent GPS review teams he helped found, and on three independent assessment teams at the Institute for Defense Analyses, dealing with critical issues for the U.S. government. Don has served on numerous Air Force and Defense Scientific Advisory Boards. He writes and speaks extensively on technical issues concerning the U.S. government. Don earned his Bachelor’s degree and MBA; the Ph.D. is in progress.

2 Comments on "The Adventure of the Atomic Clock"

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  1. Rick Reaser says:

    Urban legends die hard when it comes to GPS–even when you try to debunk them them in GPS World itself. Exelis (formerly ITT) has NOT provided every GPS payload since 1978. ITT built parts of every payload for every satellite block–but not the whole thing There is a table on page 13 of the November 2008 GPS World that shows who built what. I’ll email a pdf of that page back to the author so he has the data. And I’ll get with the GPS Program Office to update my spreadsheet to include GPS III which wasn’t around when I compiled the initial table.

  2. Don Jewell says:

    You are absolutely correct. We should have said “the payload or portions of the payload…”
    Thanks for catching that. Our desire is to always provide our readers with accurate information.