Spinoff is NASA’s annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.

Today, conference calling is so easy and common that it is essentially unremarkable. With a phone number and meeting link, dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people from anywhere on the globe can collaborate. But behind the scenes, all of these simple operations take quite a bit of complicated technology that didn’t exist before the 1980s when NASA Mission Control decided to improve the system by which its engineers, technicians, and astronauts communicate.

During any mission, information flows constantly and a spacecraft’s fuel levels, the weather at the landing site, biometric readings from the astronauts, and more are monitored. In the 1950s, NASA built a complex system that connected people on the ground and in space through a network of 18 ground stations and three ships in different oceans, with the central hub at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

But by the 1980s, NASA was ready for an upgrade. In particular, NASA wanted a digital 4,000-port system that would instantly connect people within multiple, interchangeable groups across distant physical locations. The existing system allowed such networking but it was cumbersome, explained Curt Suprock, chief of the NASA Communications (NASCOM) Division at Goddard.

“There would be these huge patch panels with all the cables pulling in and that’s how you connected people,” by manually plugging and unplugging the cables to link different ports together, he said. If you wanted to connect a group of people on a single call, that required a different manual “conference ring” that was difficult to reconfigure once it was set up - it might even require ending the call and starting from scratch.

With improving computer technology, NASA decided to automate the system to make it easier on the front and back end. NASA hired Compunetics to build two new digital systems for voice switching and voice distribution (VSS and VDS), which allowed voice connections and conference loops to be reconfigured instantly and automatically. Where before, dozens of technicians were moving cables between ports, now it could be done instantly with the push of a button.

The Compunetics systems were installed in 1992 and after extensive testing, NASCOM ultimately switched over entirely. The network has been updated since and another update is in the works. Today, NASCOM is still staffed around the clock but instead of 40 or 50 technicians, it needs just eight.

NASA’s original communications network was a complicated analog system that required manually plugging and unplugging wires to link different ports (left). By the 1980s, Compunetix had designed and built a digital system that allowed voice connections and conference loops to be reconfigured instantly and automatically (right).

Compunetics based their commercial offering on the VSS system it had built for NASA and called it a conference bridge. Next, they added a user-friendly operator interface that allowed an operator to add and drop parties from the conference by computer. Essentially, it changed conference calls from a manual task of connecting phone wires to contiguous ports, to a software function of linking different pieces of an interconnected network, which is the backbone of how conference calls still work today.

Today, Compunetics comprises three companies, all of which trace back to the original innovations created for NASA. Compunetics specializes in building small runs of complex printed circuit boards. The second company, Compunetix, spun off in 1990 to manufacture and sell the conference bridges first developed for NASA. The third company, commercial conferencing agency Chorus Call, was created around the same time to help build the case for the Compunetix conference bridges. That small company created as a proof-of-concept is now a worldwide collaboration provider.

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This article first appeared in the July, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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