“NASA’s Electronics Research Center: We Hardly Knew Ye”


Andrew J. Butrica
Historical Consultant

Presentation

Abstract:

One of the least studied—and least known—aspects of the history of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the Electronics Research Center located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The agency’s entry into electronics research was new to both NASA and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The main reason for this lack of knowledge is probably the center’s short lifespan (1964 to 1970).

This paper provides a basic overview of the Electronics Research Center (ERC). It starts with how and why the ERC came into existence (including the abortive attempt to get it started under the NACA), then briefly covers the organization of the center into laboratories, the missions of those laboratories, and the key organizational changes the center underwent, especially the abrupt change of director and the shift from an emphasis on basic research to applied research.

Although a thorough discussion of the work carried out at the ERC is not possible, this talk will touch upon a few that merit special attention (because they interested me personally).

One specific project will be applications to solid-state microwave communications of the Gunn Effect (Ridley-Watkins-Hilsum-Gunn Effect), discovered in 1963 by J. B. Gunn of IBM (and formerly with the Radar Research Establishment in Malvern). The Gunn Effect work, carried out in the center’s Electronic Components Research laboratory, resulted in several patents and advanced the state of the art. NASA’s interest in the Gunn diode was its potential capability for carrying data at enormously faster rates.

Two other projects examined are a proposed experimental navigational and air-traffic-control satellite over the Atlantic Ocean, based on an existing military satellite system, and the Electronics Research Center’s pilot plants for studying and improving the process for manufacturing silicon-based integrated circuits and for enhancing the reliability and other performance characteristics of integrated circuits.

The presentation ends with a discussion of the circumstances and reasons for the closing of the ERC, as well as its impact on NASA.

 

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