“Dual Disconnected Monologues”: NASA Expert James Oberg Visits DPRK Launch Site

[The following are two interviews with James Oberg, NBC “space consultant” and NASA Mission Control veteran. Both were conducted by Ed Flanagan, NBC News Producer, and published on World News on MSNBC.com. The first interview (Monday, 9 April 2012) carried the title NBC space expert on North Korea satellite launch: ‘It’s not a military missile … but it’s darn close’, with the second (Wednesday, 11 April 2012) titled North Koreans desperate for Western approval of launch. –CanKor]

First Interview:

A close up view of North Korea’s Unha-3 rocket at the launch platform of the Tongchang-ri space center. (Photo by Pedro Ugarte, AFP - Getty Images)

When we learned that North Korea was planning on opening its tightly restricted Sohae Satellite Launching Center to foreign journalists for the first time, NBC News quickly decided we would need an expert eye to determine the accuracy and authenticity of Pyongyang’s claim that this latest rocket launch was for peaceful scientific purposes.

North Korea says it is planning to launch a weather observation satellite using a three-stage rocket during mid-April to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. But the United States and South Korea say it is a test of a ballistic missile.

So NBC News invited James Oberg, our “Space Consultant,” to accompany us into North Korea to view the Kwanggmyongsong-1 satellite.

With a 22-year career as a space engineer in support of NASA’s spaceflight operations, Oberg has the experience and technical expertise to determine the veracity of North Korea’s claims about this mission.

NBC sat down with Oberg after visiting the Sohae Satellite Launch Center on Sunday to get his initial impressions of the facility, the mysterious satellite and the future of North Korea’s space program.

Q:  What are your first impressions from this visit to Sohae?

A: It was just amazing to be there, and the impression was that someone in the North Korean government made a very courageous decision to let us in.

Q: Going into this, you said you had a couple of standards you were looking for in this satellite that would in your mind, settle whether it was real. What were they?

A: I expected the satellite to be in a clean room; a clean environment free of dust, smudges and things. I expected the satellite to probably be already mounted on the third stage [hardware that connects to the booster] and ready to move out to the launch pad. I expected the satellite to have a reasonable design; it should follow standard designs, like power and solar panels and so forth. I was really surprised by what we saw.

Q: So did this satellite pass muster?

A: The satellite did not meet the expectations I had. I have to ask myself whether these expectations may have been too narrow, but at the same time it raised questions in my mind as to how real what we were being shown was. We asked whether this was a mock-up; in fact, we kept on asking them again and again because they insisted this was a real satellite.

The problem is the North Koreans didn’t just let us in [to the same room as the satellite], they let us get much too close. I could’ve walked three steps and poked it with my finger. But I didn’t want to put grease and smudges on the outside because it could lead the device to overheat in space or it could change a lot of things about the electro-static environment.  So you need to protect the satellite from contamination – from touching, from people breathing on it, sneezing on it. And we were all coming in covered in dust after a long road trip. They didn’t protect the satellite from any of that.

Maybe the satellite is built to be rugged; maybe they don’t care. We’ll find out if they launch it, if it works or not.

Q: Talk about your first impressions of the satellite. Was there anything surprising about the satellite to you?

A: I thought at first it was a model. I thought it was a symbolic representation. I couldn’t believe it was flight hardware. I couldn’t believe it was the one being launched in a few days.

It’s certainly not a design I’ve seen much before.  Right now, I’m curious about how the satellite was designed. I think perhaps they were worried we would be interested because until today they had not released a photograph or even a drawing of it. They kept its configurations a secret. Maybe it’s because they realized it was going to puzzle people.

Q: Talk about the significance of this launch. Why is it important?

A: This is a very significant launch because of the publicity on it. It’s going to be much harder to fake it if something does go wrong. But we should be prepared to accept a launch abort or a mission failure in a mature way, because that’s what happens to space powers when they start their program.

The significance of the launch, of course, is the booster itself. The booster is bigger than it has to be. It’s based on Han missiles. It’s not a military missile … but it’s darn close. Like we’ve said on TV, this rocket is not a weapon, but it’s maybe 98 percent of one.

It can be converted all too easily and all too frighteningly into a weapon, and they don’t need it. They don’t need a booster of this size, of this cost, to launch a satellite they say they want to. They seem to be overdoing it, and that can hurt a country, not help it.

For example, the Russians were seriously involved in building similar projects like their own Buran space shuttle just to compete and show off to the West. And they contributed significantly to bankrupting their own intellectual potential and real budgets in the 1980s as [the Soviet Union] was grinding to a halt.

They didn’t go bankrupt because of the Buran project, but it did symbolize the wasteful spending that they were doing based on merely show-off projects. Those lessons should be taken to heart in a rational — hypothetically rational — North Korean regime.

Q: In your opinion, what are some of the problems the North Koreans face in launching this satellite?

A: The North Koreans face scheduling pressures as they have stated publicly already that they will launch it in time for a national holiday, and not just any holiday, one of the most profound national holidays in the country’s history [the 100th birthday of North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung]. That kind of pressure has frequently led to disaster in other countries’ programs.

So I think the odds of them actually successfully launching is a real toss-up. I wouldn’t want to put a number on it, but in my opinion it’s significantly in doubt that they’ll get this thing into orbit. And then, once it’s in orbit, I think it’s significantly in doubt that they can make it work. But they’re going to try, and they’ve chosen to do it in the full glare of publicity.

But I think they need to be rewarded for making that decision. It doesn’t mean that we have to believe everything they have said, but we should at least pay some attention to it. It is a very dynamic situation because of the North Koreans’ unprecedented openness. If we don’t want them to slam the door shut, we probably need to find some way of making it pay off for them.

Q: We only had limited access to the North Koreans’ launch control room, but can you give us your impressions of the area and its team?

A: As I’ve observed the control team, they were obviously set up in staged positions. The main thing I was impressed with was the familiarity of it from my own experience on our mission control. It really struck me as too elaborate and too authentic to be a fake. It felt real to me. The director’s presentation and answers felt real. They resonated with my own experiences, and so I have no doubt that they’re showing a genuine launch control center. To see this team there, it was a remarkable feeling of familiarity, even though I couldn’t understand them except through the interpreters.

Q: If the launch is successful and the satellite deploys and accomplishes its mission, would that be a step toward North Korea becoming an equal partner in space?

A: It’s a sign they’ve put a lot of money on show-off projects because the actual services they expect to get from this [weather] satellite can be obtained tomorrow with a credit card. There are a number of providers who already supply the information this satellite is supposed to provide like taking orbital pictures, providing weather data, etc. For a country of approximately 24 million in the economic state it’s in now, it basically can’t afford a rocket of this size. They are spending far too much money for a service they can easily obtain elsewhere. So the reasons for the launch must lie elsewhere. They probably want to sell these rockets to other countries. These other countries probably don’t want them for peaceful purposes either.

Second Interview:

Several screens are displayed at the front of the control center inside the Sohae Satellite Station. (Photo via AP - Kyodo News)

With just one day before North Korea’s expected controversial satellite launch to commemorate the 100th birthday of “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, the government invited journalists to view its Mission Control – the nerve center where the rocket and satellite will be monitored and guided from.

Coming after a press conference the day before, this was likely our last preview of preparations before launch. It was important because it gave us a critical view of the real operators of the satellite.

Following the visit, NBC News sat down with 22-year NASA Mission Control veteran and NBC space consultant James Oberg to discuss what he learned from this visit and his expectations for the launch.

Q: First off, what were your impressions of the Control Center? Was it as you expected it to be?

A: It looked like a real control center – from the outside as well as the inside. First the communications links – two communications domes and a pretty hefty antenna farm on top of the hill – looked real, and inside the displays appeared logical and made sense to me.

One difference: There was a big sign outside the building here that I found out didn’t actually say Mission Control Center; instead, it said, “Everyone follow the leadership of the Great General.”

Q: The director of the center made a short speech and then specifically called for you to come to the front of the press scrum to witness everything. What was that like for you?

A: It was certainly flattering, but clearly also an attempt at manipulation because he asked me to endorse his claim that the satellite launch was peaceful. Still, I recognized it as a gesture of respect for the American space program, for which I am the only representative to have ever visited the North Korean space program, though completely unauthorized officially by NASA.

Q: For a while there, it seemed like there were as many North Korean cameras focused on you as foreign ones. Did you expect all that attention today?

A: No, I didn’t. But when you think about it and realize how desperate the North Koreans are for the appearance of Western approval, they’re bound to look for it wherever they can get it. Just the presence of this press corps, not just me, is interpreted as a sign of foreign respect for the program.

Q: Some might view your presence at the launch center as a convenient propaganda prop for their claims. How do you respond to that?

A: They certainly felt it was. But I was able to use the visibility to raise some questions they had not yet answered to my satisfaction. I stressed that the boasted transparency of the North Koreans was nowhere near complete and that we didn’t have reliable insight into what was under the nose cone of that rocket.

The director joked about letting one journalist ride on the rocket. I told him that photographs of the installation of the satellite would be enough to dispel lingering suspicions, including in my own mind. He promised to provide them, but I’m not holding my breath.

Q: One of your primary questions over the last couple of days has been how soon after launch would we start to receive radio signals from the satellite to confirm its success. Do you feel you got an adequate answer on that?

A: Absolutely. The director gave an answer that was totally consistent with my own calculations that it might be up to 12 hours before they get a good solid communications link with the satellite.

In the meantime, he enthusiastically agreed that amateur radio listeners around the world should try to pick up the signal, which he assured us would be broadcast continuously. Of course, it’s to their advantage that a foreign expert confirm the first proof of the satellite’s successful launch since controversy remains over the success of their [previous] satellite launch, which they still insist was successful against all other evidence.

Q: At one point you asked where the equivalent of your old console would be in the control room and he pointed to the orbital information station in the room, a station you manned for many years. That was pretty impressive.

A: Yeah, I got a kick out of that. But it’s too bad I couldn’t talk to the actual operator. Because there are still interesting – to me, at least – questions about some third-stage rocket steering maneuvers they seem to need during launch to get into their target orbit. We could have had a real geek-level conversation that would have blown the interpreter’s mind.

Q: NBC’s Richard Engel, as well as other Western journalists, continued to ask North Korean officials about the military application of these rockets, but the answers were at times exasperated and sometimes sarcastic. What do you make of it?

We’re really engaged in dual disconnected monologues here, not a real conversation. The North Koreans don’t seem to understand foreign objections and act as if their pure ideological correctness deserves worldwide obedience. They’ve dug themselves deep into the true-believer’s self-delusion that disagreement is caused by stupidity and malice, a bad habit that isn’t restricted to this corner of the world. In the West we have a hard time understanding how genuinely crazy so many North Korean projects – such as this satellite – really may be.

Q: But isn’t political single-mindedness a plus for advancing a difficult effort such as space exploration?

A: It might seem so at first, but I’m beginning to worry that the opposite is more likely to turn out to be true.  An effective safety culture in space, or any other high-tech field, demands disobedience and independent thinking from people who detect real problems that require real solutions.

But the official North Korean reaction to difficulties looks like resorting to appeals for divine inspiration from their infallible leadership so they can bully reality to “fit” their intentions. I can’t detect any indications of the necessary kind of critical problem-solving and that’s a bad sign.

Space programs infected by such a pathological culture, whether Soviet-era or NASA pre-Challenger [and pre-Columbia] era, or today’s North Korea, are doomed to encounter major setbacks.  As the bumper sticker warns, when it comes to human fallibility, “Man forgives, God forgives, Nature – never.”

Q: This visit was likely the last satellite-related site we’ll visit before the launch itself. Any final thoughts before we begin the wait for launch time?

A: Opening these facilities to outside observers still strikes me as a bold and risky tactic, which I welcome. We may be able to utilize it for the good.

As the old song wisely observes, the North Koreans may not get what they WANT from this gambit – foreign approval. But they may get what they NEED – better foreign insight into their motives and decision-making. And that could make it all worthwhile.

Also for radio enthusiasts around the world, this could be your day to shine. The first people who will get a crack at catching the North Korean hymns the satellite will play to honor Kim Il-sung will be those in Western Australia 20 minutes after launch. About an hour after launch, the Eastern seaboard of the United States will be able to listen in.

Radio enthusiasts hoping to listen to catch the sounds from the satellite can tune into 479MHz. North Korean officials say they will play music continuously on that frequency.

One Response to ““Dual Disconnected Monologues”: NASA Expert James Oberg Visits DPRK Launch Site”

  1. Scott Dorsey Says:

    479 Mhz is not enough information to allow people to detect a weak signal from a satellite. A couple additional decimal places would be nice to have, since I presume the signal will be very narrowband.

    479 MHz is actually in US TV channel 15… there is a space-to-earth band for met satellites from 460-470, then 470-690 is television broadcast.

    So, not only do we have a rather vague frequency, but we’re trying to pick it out of the middle of a somewhat noisy TV broadcast band.
    It does not appear that the North Koreans have registered a frequency with the ITU at all, at least not according to the online ITU records, so my guess is they’re just going to cowboy it.

    Perhaps the folks at NBC should have brought their frequency coordination team and some SBE guys along with Mr. Oberg.

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