When Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon in 1969, Larry Brown watched the black-and-white footage in awe, knowing the astronaut’s image — and his now famous utterance — was relayed to Earth by a transponder he and about 150 other people in Scottsdale designed and built.

The Apollo 11 mission needed that device to broadcast the lunar landing to the nearly  650 million people who tuned in. 

“I felt proud,” Brown said. “Very proud to be part of the Motorola team and the NASA team. Very proud because it put America back as the leader in space.”

Brown was a teenager working in an Arizona copper mine when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 in 1957. The event prompted him to go to college, become an engineer and help his country in the space race.

After graduating college in 1963, Larry Brown found a place to do that: the Motorola, Inc. plant in Scottsdale. One of his first jobs there was working on design and analysis for communications equipment for the Apollo mission.

“At that time, the United States thought we were the most innovative nation in the world, and Sputnik — it was a good wake-up call,” Brown, 81, said.

Motorola goes to the moon

Motorola, Inc.’s Government Electronics Division in Scottsdale provided key communication devices to the Apollo 11 mission. General Dynamics purchased the government space division of Motorola, Inc. in 2001, and General Dynamics space tech operations are still based in the city.

The success of the Apollo 11 mission was a relief to Scotty Miller, now 88 years old, who worked as a design engineer at the Scottsdale plant at the time. Miller said he remembers working on a tight, stressful but “fun” schedule, with 50 to 80 hour weeks in the months leading up to the mission. 

“You feel pretty happy when you see everything going to plan without any glitches or any failures,” Miller said.

Failure was a real fear.

The 1967 tragedy of the Apollo 1 mission loomed large over those who worked on anything for the later Apollo missions, Miller said. The cabin fire that killed the three members of that first crewed Apollo mission served as a reminder that the smallest mistake could have dire consequences.

“If you didn’t have the ultimate reliability in the hardware, you could lose some of your astronauts,” Miller said.

Miller started at Motorola in 1957, working on communication systems for the Army. A switch to space-related projects about a year-and-a-half later was significantly different, he said.

“If something’s on the ground and it fails, you can repair it and make it work properly,” he said. “With space hardware, you don’t have that luxury. If it fails, the whole mission is gone.”

Beyond a certain point, these devices were the only way the astronauts could communicate to Earth.

The Apollo 11 mission carried two transponders Miller helped with. One was on the lunar module, with a backup in the command module in case the first failed, said Sue Topp, the corporate archivist for Motorola Solutions, the successor to Motorola, Inc.

“The Motorola engineers estimated that there was a one in a million chance of both of them failing,” Topp said.

Scottsdale plant before Apollo

About 10 years before Armstrong walked on the moon, the Motorola, Inc. plant in Scottsdale started working on space communications. From 1958 onward, multiple articles in the The Republic’s archive describe new contracts and deals for the company’s Scottsdale plant.

Astronaut Alan Shepard used Motorola commander receivers on his flight in 1961 when he became the first American in space, according to Republic archives.

Shepard’s spacecraft carried two Motorola receivers in case one failed during the mission. Combined, the receivers were about the size of a “big city telephone directory,” Robert. R Gilruth, then-director of the Mercury Project task force, told The Republic at the time.

Scottsdale’s Motorola plant also contributed to the Gemini and Mariner missions. Electronic command receivers manufactured in Scottsdale even accompanied Enos the space chimp in his orbit around earth in 1961.


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To infinity and beyond

On that July day in 1969, a Scottsdale high schooler also was glued to his TV set watching the moon landing broadcast, which was made possible by Miller and his coworkers.

It was the summer before his senior year, and Mike Wright was a dishwasher at Gene’s Broiler Buffet with an affinity for sci-fi novels, Star Trek and ham radio. He hadn’t really believed there would be a person on the moon anytime soon until the Apollo 10 mission a couple months before. And suddenly, it was happening.

“I was going to stay up if it took all night,” he said.

Fast-forward a few years, and Wright started at the Scottsdale Motorola plant in 1974 after graduating from Arizona State University. He said the very first day he got there, they had him laying out circuits for the Mariner Jupiter-Saturn project, later renamed Voyager. 

Brown was Motorola’s engineering project manager for the Voyager communications equipment at that time.

Wright worked on five space missions in his two years in that section of the company. He then transitioned to work in a number of classified missions before he retired early from General Dynamics in 2008.

“I’ve learned to feel like I was part of something much bigger,” Wright said. “At the time, it was just like, ‘Oh, they needed something, and I was there.’ … (Voyager I and II) are still out there, still on course for God knows what and still reporting back.”

Apollo mission helped relationship with NASA continue

The Apollo 11 mission especially put Motorola in a strong position to provide communications equipment to subsequent space programs, said Manny Mora, vice president and general manager of Space and Intelligence Systems for General Dynamics Mission Systems. 

“We continue to provide the same type of communications equipment to just about every deep space probe that’s out there today,” Mora said.

“Voyager I and II are still out there and have gone beyond the galaxy. They have our communications equipment. Spacecraft currently traveling to Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars — they have our communications equipment.”

Scotty Miller’s family also has continued to be a part of that legacy. Miller’s son Scotty Miller Jr. is vice president of supply chain management for General Dynamics Mission Systems.

Reach reporter Kyra Haas by email at [email protected] or find her on Twitter @kc_haas.

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