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Title: Sam Araki Interview II
Narrator: Sam Araki
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: San Jose, California
Date: January 20, 2016
Densho ID: denshovh-asam-02-0001

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TI: Today is January 20, 2016. We're at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, and on camera is Dana Hoshide, and I'm the interviewer, Tom Ikeda. And so, Sam, four years ago we did an interview, I think maybe in the same space. And this is kind of a unique thing for me. I rarely do follow-up interviews, usually I do an interview, we took your life up to when you were eighty years old, and usually that's where we kind of stop. But then when we last talked, it was like you were opening another chapter of your life. And so I really wanted to kind of check back with you, and we're now four years later, and so this interview is really to follow up on the previous interview and just see what has been happening the last four years. And I think the way I want to start it, when we last talked, that part that really fascinated me was your work really from the '80s when you were really working on national security and how it related to the use of space and technology to make our country safer. And I just wanted to maybe start from there in terms of maybe an assessment from you on what's been happening, where we are from your perspective in terms of national security and the use of space.

SA: Well, after I retired, there was a number of things that came to my mind that I wanted to share part as history and part as looking at the earth as it is today. And I also concluded that I was very fortunate to have started my career in space right after I got out of college, and I was one of the few living persons now that saw national security in space start from the beginning, and now what it is today, both from a national security perspective, but more importantly, how it contributed to today's internet revolution. So I thought it might be worth, sort of, resurrecting that history a little bit. And my main emphasis is on innovation, because the innovation that has taken place in the last fifty years is when you integrate the various ages that we went through, it is very interesting because we started space when there were no transistors, no computers, basically mechanical and electrical devices. And as a result, we built at that time a satellite system mechanically, and basically was able to accomplish with film-based camera, a very, very capable reconnaissance system which basically became the backbone of the Cold War strategy which was "trust but verify." We became the verification arm of "trust but verify" for the Cold War.

But what happened was that space race was started by Eisenhower, President Eisenhower, and it was created by a breakout team, and I'll talk a little more about the breakout team. But at that time, the breakout team was formed within the government and also within industry, and Eisenhower wanted to make sure that he adopted the U-2 Skunk Works operation that Kelly Johnson developed at Lockheed. So that's what we embraced, and that's how we got started, and it worked very well, it accomplished a lot of successes. That managing technique was then applied to the follow-on programs of Corona and other space efforts like GPS, like communication satellites, weather satellites and the like, and they were all accomplished in the 1960 period, very early. And so the whole system, the innovation practices, carried on and it became basically institutionalized. And when the space capability got to the point where the military finally realized how powerful space is in augmenting military operations, because from the ground, you can't see over the horizon. With space added, you see over the horizon. So now you can basically target and create weapons that go over the horizon.

TI: And I want to make sure I understand this. And the point you're making here is about the process, the innovation.

SA: It's the process.

TI: And you call it Skunk Works, and so was this as simple as smart people on small teams figuring things out?

SA: Well, let me summarize that because that's an important aspect. First of all, when you form a breakout team, you have to build around a strong need, a set of requirements that are very, very important to fulfill. And in those days, it was threat-driven, it was based on threat. So you have to have a strong need, and the need has to have enough budget assigned, and most important, a need date. And if you think about it, the commercial practice does the same thing. In the military, the need date was dictated by the threat, in the commercial market, it's market-driven, it's time to market. So in both cases, you set up a very, very tight schedule. You form a team and you lay out the objectives, the need, and give them almost an impossible schedule. In Corona, Eisenhower was so concerned because when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik, he says, "We cannot allow the Soviet Union to have a more powerful space system than we have. We've got to get on top of this." So he gave us almost, I considered it an impossible target and almost an impossible dream to accomplish. He says, "In nine months" -- we didn't know anything about space -- "in nine months I want you out there on the launch base and I want you to launch that satellite. A crash program and just do it."

TI: Now, could a President, I know a President can make that order, but did he have enough knowledge and information to make --

SA: He had some scientific advisors.

TI: Okay, so what he was saying was not, it was aggressive, but not totally impossible.

SA: That's right. And he had some very key advisors at that time, one was Edwin Lamb of Polaroid, and the other person was Professor Killian, who was the president of MIT, and at Stanford at that time there was Sid Drell, Dr. Sid Drell. And at the same time at Stanford there was Professor Terman, who was at that time a radio engineering professor. So those people had a vision that says, "Space is really important, and you've got to get there fast." So that's the whole... and so basically Eisenhower started a space race and a technology race. And if you think about what happened in Silicon Valley at the very beginning, people like the people that started Intel, the reason they were here in Silicon Valley was because when Terman created a Stanford Industrial Park, ninety-nine year lease, and he attracted companies like Fairchild, companies like Lockheed, Westinghouse in those days, all came to Stanford Industrial Park to set up an R&D lab. So that's how all of the startup companies emerged in Silicon Valley. Same thing happened at MIT with Route 128, the exact same thing happened. So basically technology, and I call it system innovation because when you build a satellite, that's a system. You build a GPS, that's a system. So both technology innovation and system innovation went in parallel, and Eisenhower was the catalyst to make that happen.

TI: And with this history, the part that we covered in the interview is you lived through this. You were part of this revolution.

SA: Well, what happened here was I joined Lockheed in 1958, the Corona program. I just happened to be there at the right time, I got to the ground floor of Corona. Of course, in those days it was called Discoverer, and the fact that it was a photo reconnaissance was totally classified. It wasn't declassified until 1995, so that's how long it was kept a secret. But those programs basically, the reason I feel that I can tell this story is because when you don't know anything about a space and you're told to develop and fly something very fast, we just built what we knew that we would build on the ground or maybe an airplane, because that's all you know. So that's the way we built it, and of course, it didn't work. And every time we flew, we learned something about space. We learned about the environment, we learned about the space physics, we learned about how to operate in a vacuum, how to operate with radiation, space radiation, and so on.

TI: But this is where maybe this unreasonable deadline comes into place, where, with a deadline, you have to go ahead and launch.

SA: Yeah, and it was trial and error. But what was very important was failing and learning, failing and learning, don't be afraid to fail, because when you fail, you've got to be prepared to learn and correct, learn and correct. And we did that twelve times. And so instead of being successful in nine months, we were successful in twenty-four months, which is very, very short, considering we started with zero knowledge of space.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2008 Densho. All Rights Reserved.