A story about the Galaxy 4 Failure of 1998.


Hello all,

I would like to tell you a story of a fallen satellite. It’s a true story, by the way. In May of 1998 I was working for TSR Wireless, a paging company. Pagers were popular in the late 90s! Anyway, we were at a conference in Las Vegas with most of the engineers in the company. This is something that TSR Wireless did for its engineers once a year, an awesome perk. We would all get together to discuss engineering ideas, problems, and improvements. It was a great technical conference. I was the VP of engineering at the time and we had our senior level team all there to discuss the past year as well as the upcoming year.

TSR Paging, at that time, was a profitable company that had a near nationwide presence in paging. It was something to be in paging back then. Where else could you work long hours, be on call 24/7/365 and still say you love your job? Well, this was it. The engineers there were talented. We would work on everything to do with paging. When I say everything, here is what I am talking about, dish alignment, transmitter setup, RF prop studies, satellite uplinks, T1 lines, DOD lines, DID lines, Frame Relay, routers, paging terminals, laptops, and the list goes on. It was a job where you had to be a Jack of all trades and a master of some. Most field work is like that in the RF field.

So there we were, at our conference watching a demonstration of a piece of test equipment that would capture data over the air, paging data. It would tell you the paging format and the message all in one shot from the receiver that is in the pager. Pretty cool! So the demonstration was going on when all of a sudden it went flat line. Like there was no traffic or like the local transmitter died. Well, needless to say, it wasn’t the transmitter, the paging terminal, or the uplink! It was the satellite. The Galaxy 4 satellite failed.

What had happened was that it had a failure and started to spin. PanAmSat control center didn’t know what to do. It began spinning out of control. They could not stop it. Let’s face it, that a long way to go for a service call! So once it started spinning and control lost all communication, it was all over! To put this into perspective, 45 million people with pagers were down, including most of ours! Several TV stations lost their network feed, and life was miserable. Luckily PanAmSat had a backup satellite. All we had to do was point all of our transmitter’s dishes to the new bird. This was well over 500 sites nationwide. We had about 30 people nationwide. We had someone in Columbia, Pa, realign the uplink, he did it very quickly. His name was Dan and he did a great job! We were soon able to get all 500 sites back on the air.

Talk about teamwork! The field engineers and the tower crews all came together for all the companies and went to every site and did the alignments. They did a great job going out and aligning each dish at every site in the country. Remember that several companies needed this done. The job was massive!

Let me tell you, this was nerve-racking for everyone! You feel helpless but at least we had a contingency plan. It was something I never want to go through again, a massive outage. It was something that was memorable but not something I want to take a moment to remember all the hard work the teams put in that week. It was outstanding work! I really appreciate the effort put in by all!

On another note, I remember we went to the insurance company to see if we could file a claim for lost revenue. They said no because it wasn’t an act of GOD nor was it something on Earth. That is why we don’t like insurance companies, they always find a loophole!

So we had a major outage and the team came together to get us back on the air. It was a big deal and in my mind I still think it’s one of the greatest team accomplishments ever. We all worked together to get on the air and stay in business. I really appreciate all the hard work the team did do make it happen. Field work can be so demanding to the workers. It has its rewards; don’t get me wrong, but the field worker sacrifices a lot to make sure that the people using the device have a working device. I appreciate all the hard work you all are doing and have done. Thank you all!

HPIM0254

Some links to help you reminisce.

http://www.cnn.com/TECH/space/9805/20/satellite.explainer/

http://space.skyrocket.de/doc_sdat/galaxy-4.htm

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/satellites-failure-leaves-millions-speechless-in-us-1157828.html

http://www.zetatalk.com/theword/tworx516.htm

http://transition.fcc.gov/Bureaus/International/Orders/1998/da980969.txt

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