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He Was Voyager's Radio Link to Outside World

January 08, 1987|DOUG BROWN | Times Staff Writer

While Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager were setting a world record flying around the globe non-stop without refueling, a support crew of radio technicians worked on the ground at Mojave Airport, desperately fighting to keep communications lines open, feeding vital navigational information to Voyager as it braved storms, rationed its limited supply of fuel and struggled with occasional engine failure.

Dick Blosser, a Fullerton engineer, was at the center of this hectic exchange of radio messages.

As radio communications coordinator for last month's Voyager flight, Blosser, 58, supervised a staff of 12 that worked eight-hour shifts around the clock monitoring how well Rutan and Yeager held up during the psychologically and physically demanding nine-day flight.

Prayers--and Fears

Back this week at his engineering job at Rockwell International in Anaheim, Blosser remembers that he and the 46 other volunteers at mission control at Mojave Airport prayed for the success of the 25,000-mile flight--but also had a gnawing fear that disaster could happen any minute.

"You always felt this tremendous pressure not to make any mistake that could lead to the failure of the mission or that would endanger the lives of Dick or Jeana," he said.

"Copying down the (Voyager's) location correctly was a heavy responsibility. If the plane had gone down, a search mission would have been instigated based on the information you took down. You would've been the last person to have heard from them. What would've happened if the search had gotten under way based on something you'd taken down wrong?" Blosser said.

Uncertainty preyed on his mind when hours would go by with no communication between Voyager and the radio staff. Sometimes the numbing silence was the result of Rutan's turning down the sound in his headset to get some sleep. More often, it was caused by weak radio signals.

Those hours seemed like an eternity to Blosser because he had no way of knowing whether the Voyager had crashed or was having other difficulties.

"Then radio silence would suddenly be broken with Dick saying: 'Mission Control, this is Voyager I.'

"Just hearing his voice told you a lot," Blosser said. "You thought to yourself: 'Thank God, he's safe; he hasn't crashed.'

"And from the tone of his voice you could tell that there was no emergency, that everything was all right. . . . You were the first one in the whole world to know that."

Mike Hance, assistant director of the Voyager project, said communications was a crucial link in the success of the mission. "No matter how well the weather people or the others here on the ground did their jobs, it wouldn't have done much good unless we'd been able to get this information to the Voyager," he said in a telephone interview from the Voyager hangar. "Dick Blosser (and the communications crew) did an excellent job because Dick and Jeana were able to get all their reports. The success of the mission demonstrates that."

Volunteered Services

The Voyager tested many assumptions about air travel, and Blosser believes this challenge attracted him to volunteer his services to the mission 1 1/2 years ago.

"I was curious about what they were trying to accomplish," he said in recalling how a friend introduced him to Rutan in Mojave in September, 1985.

Because Blosser had been a licensed pilot for 35 years and had developed expertise in both short- and long-range communications as a radio hobbyist, it seemed natural that his talents could be used in setting up a communications system to monitor Voyager's planned round-the-world trip.

Blosser, who has a master's degree in engineering from UCLA, for 25 years has been in charge of conducting computerized performance trials of models of submarines and other ships being designed by Rockwell.

When it was decided last January that mission control would be in Mojave, Blosser began setting up the communications system during weekends and vacations from his job.

Radio Buffs Recruited

He loaned the project his shortwave radio and acquired the necessary government licenses for radio transmissions between Voyager and Mojave. He also recruited other radio buffs to staff the ground communications system.

Throughout 1986, he spent most weekends in Mojave making improvements on the radio room that had been set up in a trailer adjacent to Voyager's hangar, or testing the communications system during its trial flights.

He would often be accompanied by his wife, Ruth, who pitched in to help sell Voyager souvenirs in the gift shop set up in the hangar to help underwrite the cost of the project. They were encouraged in their efforts, they said, by their six adult children by previous marriages.

The culmination of their efforts came when Voyager took off Dec. 14 from Edwards Air Force Base and headed across the Pacific.

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