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Deep space to retail space: an electric life

Posted: March 17, 2008 3:12 a.m.
Updated: May 18, 2008 5:02 a.m.
Jim Pontius, who has spent a lifetime in electronics, strikes a lighthearted pose with some of the space-age knickknacks from his collection. Jim Pontius, who has spent a lifetime in electronics, strikes a lighthearted pose with some of the space-age knickknacks from his collection.
Jim Pontius, who has spent a lifetime in electronics, strikes a lighthearted pose with some of the space-age knickknacks from his collection.
Jim Pontius may be grounded in Friendly Valley Village nowadays, but for years he had a bird's eye view into deep space - and boy does he have some stories to tell.

Pontius, 71, lives quietly in the gated retirement community. A retired retail electronics company owner, he spent the first part of his working life at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where he worked on dozens of the early space exploration missions.

After studying electronics and radio communications at community college in Glendale in the 1950s, Pontius first went to work for the old AT&T. He stayed there for a couple of years, but initially it was not all smooth sailing.

"After only two weeks they put me on one circuit board where I had to measure and test lines and tones," he recalls.

"I pulled a plug on one circuit and all of a sudden a bunch of bells and whistles went off all over the phone company. I almost peed my pants."

"Twenty guys came rushing up to me and they said, 'We should have warned you - this circuit handles the strategic air command for the whole United States. You just mobilized an entire squadron of bombers.'"

Luckily he was not fired, but Pontius said the president had to call the enemy and explain that it was a mistake, and AT&T was charged for the cost of jet fuel.

It was while working on phone lines leased by JPL that Pontius first came into contact with the space agency, which eventually hired him.

He started out as a communications technician in the Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF), the center where all deep space exploration missions were carried out. He maintained all telecommunications equipment, and eventually became a "com tech" controller, supervising others who did that job.

Pontius said that those early days of space exploration were unpredictable, and never, ever dull. "It was exciting - you never knew what to expect," he said.

He recalled the deafening hum of the generators that powered the lab, the bomb-proof basement with its six-inch-thick concrete walls, and the 60-ton hard drive that processed all the images coming in from the various spacecraft.

Known as a hard worker and a good problem-solver, Pontius saved the day more than once when a potential crisis loomed.

"One time in the late 1960s all the TV stations were in the lab broadcasting live during an early pioneer mission," he said. "But all of a sudden they lost their signal and they went black. They were all freaking out and no one knew what was wrong."

But Pontius immediately realized that the TV crews had inadvertently plugged into the lab's power grid, whose self-generated supply was incompatible with their broadcast equipment. "They didn't know we had set up dedicated outlets for them that would work with their systems. After a few seconds they switched, and got the broadcast back."

Another time Pontius was helping monitor a deep space mission that relied on satellite stations from all over the world to transmit data and pictures back and forth, when one of the signals failed. He ended up finding a low-tech solution that saved the mission.

"Stations 51 and 52 in South Africa lost their signals, and no one knew what to do," he said. "They all looked at me for the answers. I had to think real quick on my feet. So I got on the phone - which relied on trans-Atlantic underwater cable - and asked the operator to connect me via two phone lines to both stations. Within five minutes we were back up and running. That's what we used to run the whole mission. The lines stayed open for two days, at government expense."

Pontius enjoyed working at JPL but eventually left to pursue his own electronic sales and repair business. He said that his JPL experience was fascinating, but exhausting.

"I worked there for 10 years then burned out," he said. "When you work on these missions, there is a lot of pressure.

You cant make a mistake. You have to act quick."

However, the lasting legacy of Pontius' work on the space program is his conviction that there is definitely life out there somewhere, beyond Earth's atmosphere.

"It's just common sense that tells you that we are not the only ones out there," he said. "There are billions of other galaxies out there. There must be millions of other places where there is other intelligent life. It may not be at all like us, and we may find it tomorrow or a million years from now, but we're gonna meet."

When his electronic shops in Van Nuys and Panorama City started to get edged out by big-box retailers, Pontius moved from the San Fernando Valley to the Santa Clarita area to be near his daughter and son.

Chuck Pontius, his son, was a city employee and something of a rising star when he was killed in a bicycle accident in 1993 at age 29. A commemorative plaque was placed in his honor along the city's commuter rail bike trail in 1996.

Pontius, who lives alone, keeps several pictures of his son among his shelves and display cases, which are bursting with piles of memorabilia, crossword puzzles, electronic gadgets and space-age knick-knacks.

Though Pontius no longer works in the space exploration field, the outer-space "bug" apparently runs in the family.

Pontius' grandson, who lives in Hawaii, studied aeronautics in college.


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