How I Learned to Count Backwards

How I Learned to Count Backwards

© David Burton 2023


     I learned how to count backwards sometime during the erly 1980s when I was “forced” to assume the position of “launch director” on a signature mesurements program at the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) in New Mexico. The program was run out of the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory (AFGL) at Hanscom Air Force Base (AFB) in Lexington, Massachusetts.

     At the time, I was working at a small engineering company in the greater Boston area company that had spun off from the Naval Supersonic Laboratory (NSL) at MIT. At this company, we had developed a novel infrared detection and tracking sensor. We obtained a contract from the nearby AFGL to use the sensor on a program they were conducting to determine the feasibility of detecting and tracking Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) during the mid-course phase of their flight.

     Hit-to-kill ballistic missile defense is the ultimate precision guidance challenge. Many elements of a defense must come together to achieve a long-range intercept. One of the most important and difficult parts is known as mid-course detection, discrimination and tracking.
     After a ballistic missile launches, its engines burn hot and can be detected by infrared sensors on satellites. Outside the Earth’s atmosphere, the missile engines burn out and it reaches its peak velocity. At this point, the missile’s payload, a warhead, usually separates from the rest of the body. The warhead is also accompanied by the flying junk pile of debris created by launching a missile as well as by decoys or other countermeasures designed to complicate the missile defense job. All of these objects move together through space as part of a threat cloud. So, for a missile defense system to successfully destroy the warhead, its various sensors must first discriminate it from among the various other parts of the cloud.
     The key to successful discrimination - finding the warhead in the accompanying pile of junk - is the sensor architecture. Sea and land-based radars provide one picture of the threat cloud. Some of the radars are able to track the threat cloud but have trouble distinguishing the warhead payload within it. But radars are limited by the vantage point and by their technology. Air or space-based sensors provide still other perspectives with greater persistence, potentially allowing for birth-to-death tracking. And infrared sensors show not just objects but their heat signature, especially from low orbit satellites looking sideways comparing the objects against the coldness of space.
     Back in the 1970s and 1980s, U.S. homeland missile defense was dependent upon only terrestrial radars. This placed a large burden on the sensor network and made it harder to identify the objects. That, in turn, meant the defender had to engage more of the objects in the cloud so as not to miss the warhead.
     After interceptors are launched, they receive imagery of the threat cloud and they then pick which objects should be engaged. All this data is fused with the kill vehicle’s own observations using onboard sensors to make the final determination for intercept. Finally, they move into position to intercept or destroy the several targets that could be a warhead.[1]

     In the 1970s, AFGL conducted data collection tests for ICBM mid-course detection, discrimination and tracking. One of these prorgrams was called the Multispectral Measurements Program (MSMP).

     On 11 November 1977, AFGL launched its the first payload in its Multispectral Measurements Program (MSMP). The TEM-1 experiment utilized a new rocket payload which divided into two parts during flight. A Sensor Module (SM) tracked the Target Engine Module (TEM) and recorded the signatures of the exhaust plumes from its small rocket motor.
     On 2 May 1980, AFGL launched its one-thousandth sounding rocket from WSMR. The rocket carried the second Target Engine Measurements (TEM-2) payload in the Multispectral Measurements Program.
     On 28 May 1982, the third Target Engine Measurements (TEM-3) payload was launched from the WSMR test site.[2]

     The field testing phase of the MSMP program was conducted at the southern tip of WSMR, just north of the town of Las Cruces, New Mexico. These field tests consisted of launching a rocket with two payloads – a Target Engine Module and a Sensor Module. The TEM had a small rocket engine which was fired when the payload had risen above the nominal atmosphere. The sensors on the SM - which had separated from the TEM and was following the TEM on its trajectory - recorded the signals during the firing of the TEM engine. The two payload modules were then parachuted back to the test range where they were – hopefully - recovered and used in later test flights.

     The launch vehicle for these tests was the solid-state rocket that constituted the second stage of the Minuteman ICBM. It was not reusable and no effort was made to recover it. It simply fell back to earth and crashed after performing its mission. More on that later.

     There were several teams participating in these tests, among them engineers from WSMR that operated the test site, the AFGL group that ran the measurements program, my company with its infrared sensor, a group from the Wentworth institute in Boston, and engineers from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. The people from Brigham Young University were all Mormons. More on that later.

     The test preparations and countdown ran for several days prior to the actual launch. The final phase of the countdown took place throughout the entire night preceding the actual tests so that the launches could take place early in the morning, when the lighting conditions would be appropriate for obtaining the test engine signatures.

     As the MSMP launch director on the TEM-3 flight, I had to count backwards throughout the night, eventually - just after sunrise - getting to, “ - ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero, LAUNCH!

     So how did I get to be the director on one of the field tests? My original contact with AFGL was as a program manager on my company’s contract with that organization that called for the building and delivery of the sensor that would collect the infrared signature data during the MSMP tests at WSMR. I would be present at those tests to verify that our sensor was operating properly. My contacts at AFGL were primarily Steve, the AFGL Program Manager and Bill the AFGL electronics engineer. Bill was responsible for all data collection and communication, including the data from my company’s infrared sensor.

     Early in the program, Steve, the AFGL Program Manager, mentioned to me that he needed someone on the program to handle the program’s documentation, the drawing up of the launch protocol, and generally the overseeing of all the program’s data collection.

     At that time, I had an older aeronautical engineer working for me, by the name of Art. When I hired Art, he had been out of work for an extended period of time because of layoffs at his company and throughout the technology sector of the American economy during the first half of the 1970s.

     During the time Art worked for me, I found that he was very capable, very experienced, very reliable and extremely detail oriented. He fit the bill perfectly for the position that Steve had described to me. I recommended Art to Steve. Steve agreed, issued a subcontract to my company and Art took over the responsibility for the AFGL program’s updating and maintaining of the program documentation that included the launch procedure for the tests. The arrangement worked out exceptionally well and everyone was extremely satisfied.

     During the first two tests on the AFGL program, the rocket launches were directed by an Air Force officer. However, just before the third launch, the Air Force officer was transferred, leaving Steve and the program without a launch director. Steve knew that I was familiar with the launch procedure, since I had been at the two previous launches and I had worked with Art in drawing up the detailed launch procedure. Steve asked me to be the launch director for the next test – TEM-3. I didn’t feel qualified for such an important role on the program and told that to Steve. He responded by jokingly saying that he would have to remove Art from the program unless I agreed to direct the next launch. What could I do in response to such a “threat”? I agreed and that’s how I became a launch director. I immediately began practicing counting backwards.

     While at the WSMR test site, the various participants would normally stay in motels in and around the New Mexico town of Las Cruces. Las Cruces was a short drive to the MSMP launch site.

     During one of my stays in Las Cruces, I had to be there over a weekend. I decided that I would attend synagogue services while there, so I looked up synagogues in the local phone book. I found one synagogue listed. I called the number listed and got the recorded message that services were only conducted on one Friday night a month. I checked and, as luck would have it, the coming Friday was the one day in the month for the synagogue service.

     I found the Las Cruces synagogue, sat through the short service and joined the small group of worshippers for light refreshments after the service. I got to talking with the rabbi and, to my surprise, found that he had come to Los Cruces after being a rabbi at a synagogue in Worcester, Massachusetts. He even knew the family of a friend and coworker of mine who came from Worcester. So here I was – 2,000 miles from home in a strange synagogue in the town of “The Crosses” - meeting someone from my home state who knew the family of my friend. It is indeed a small world.

     One of the features of Las Cruces was its cultivation of chili peppers. Located there is the world's Largest Chile Pepper, a 47-foot-long fire-engine-red pepper made of 2.5 tons of concrete. It's designed to entice travelers to notice the hotel in front of which it stands rather than the ones lacking giant chiles. At the time when I was visiting Las Cruces, there was an unofficial competition among the chili pepper growers for the “hottest” chili peppers. The acknowledged winner then was the “tombstone chili pepper”. One day, as I drove around the town, I noticed a house with several tombstones in its front yard, along with a sign advertising “Tombstone Chili Peppers”. It turned out that the town’s tombstone engraver also grew and sold very spicy chili peppers. I ended up buying a bunch of red Tombstone chili peppers on the vine and brought them home with me. For several months afterward, I enjoyed adding the spice to various dishes.

     Following a day at the hot desert test site, I would return to my motel room, shower, and join the other engineers for dinner and one or more cold beers at one of the town’s restaurants. It was interesting to observe the drinking habits of the Mormon engineers from Brigham Young University. There was maybe a half dozen of them, about half older - maybe in their fifties - and the other half younger – maybe in their twenties of early thirties. The older Mormons observed the tenets of their faith and were tee-totallers – no beer for them – while the younger Mormons looked the other way and joined in the beer drinking. It seems that the young generation in all faiths go their own way to some extent.

     The AFGL MSMP site at WSMR consisted of three main buildings: The control center in a reinforced block house from which the countdown was conducted and which had all the equipment for communicating with the range, the launch rocket and the payload; an assembly building next to the block house in which the payload was assembled; and the launch pad on which the second stage Minuteman rocket and the payload atop it stood and which, prior to launch, had a shelter around and over it that was moved out of the way for the actual launch. The launch pad was located a few hundred yards from the control center. Communication between the rocket/payload and the communications center prior to launch was via cables that ran through conduits that ran between the launch pad and the communications center.

     Being in the southwest desert, there were rattlesnakes at the test site. These snakes would normally only come at night after the desert had cooled down. I was warned to check the ends of the conduits in the communications center at night to make sure that no rattle snakes had made their way from the launch pad through the conduits.

     One night there was a problem at the launch pad and an engineer who was deathly afraid of rattlesnakes had to go to the pad in the dark to correct the problem. He could be heard running both ways in the dark shouting “Go away snakes!’

     There were other test sites near the AFGL test site. During the MSMP preparations and countdown, rocket firings would sometimes be conducted from these nearby test sites. I would occasionally go outside the blockhouse to observe the test firings. I had been warned to stay inside the block house when these rocket launches were taking place. During the TEM-3 preparations, there was a rocket launch from an adjacent launch site. I was busy at the time and stayed in the communications center block house. Shortly after the launch, I heard a whump sound outside. When I went out of the block house, I saw the shattered remains of the launch rocket about 20 yards from a corner of the block house. I realized that there was good reason to take the advice to remain inside the safety of the reinforced blockhouse during rocket launches.

     The night leading up to the TEM-3 launch tuned out to be somewhat nerve-wracking for me. The launch had to take place within a fairly narrow span of time early in the morning in order for the light conditions to be appropriate. Sometime in the middle of the night, signals from one of the instruments in the Sensor Module were lost. As launch director, I had to halt the countdown. Bill from AGL, who was in charge of the communications, raced out of the control center and ran down to the launch pad to locate and fix the problem. I was sweating and in panic mode, afraid that I might have to cancel the morning’s launch. But shortly, Bill returned to the block house, verified that communications were restored. I breathed a sigh of relief and resumed the countdown. However, a short time later, the problem returned and I, once again, had to stop the countdown while Bill once more ran to the launch pad to correct the problem. Again, I went into panic mode, hoping that the problem would be swiftly corrected. It was, and I once more was able to resume breathing and restart the countdown. Finally, early in the morning, I got to the critical point and called out: ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero, LAUNCH!

     TEM-3 got off the ground on time. It was a success. The Target Engine fired when and where it was supposed to. The Sensor Module followed the Target Engine Module as planned. The sensors all worked satisfactorily and their measurements were recorded appropriately.

     And I had learned how to count backwards.

  1. How It Works: Midcourse Discrimination,, 23 November 2016.
  2. CHRONOLOGY: From the Cambridge Field Station to the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory 1945-1985,
    AFGL-TR-85-0201 SPECIAL REPORTS, NO. 252, 6 September 1985.

  4 May 2023 {Article 573; Suggestions?_78}    
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