Fall 2006 Issue

The Orbital classroom

Furthering AMSAT’s Mission Through Education
“Hams in Space”


By Dr. H. Paul Shuch,* N6TX

 

 

 

W5LFL operating from orbit, December 1983. The inscription on the photo reads “To Paul Shuch N6TX, and all the students, San Jose City College—from the spacecraft Columbia. 73 Owen W5LFL”

Remember the Muppets? From 1976 to 1981, these puppet creatures, created by the late Jim Henson, had their own TV variety show. One humorous recurring segment was the “Pigs In Space!” science-fiction spoof starring Kermit the Frog’s longtime romantic interest, Miss Piggy Lee (a porcine torch singer loosely based upon a popular, but slightly overweight, singer of the time with a similar name) and set aboard the S.S. SwineTrek. This Muppet sketch in turn inspired a popular “Hams In Space!” T-shirt sold as an AMSAT fundraiser for a few years. It depicted amateur radio satellites in orbit, being operated by, well, hams. I still wear mine to hamfests.

Who, in fact, was the first actual ham in space? Legend has long held that Col. Yuri Gagarin, hero of the Soviet Union and the first human to orbit the Earth, held amateur radio callsign UA1LO. I, in fact, inadvertently helped to disseminate this legend (the veracity of which is now in doubt) in a letter to an aviation journal.1 It turns out that my claim, which has appeared widely in the amateur radio literature, resulted from an interesting misunderstanding.

At a time when radio contacts across the Iron Curtain were relatively scarce, Soviet QSL cards were considered quite the prize in the U.S. One, received in the mid 1960s by a U.S. ham, documented a contact with UA1LO. It sported a photo of the famous cosmonaut and was signed “73, Yuri.” Although Gagarin’s tragic death in an airplane crash in March 1968 made the assumption impossible to verify, many of us accepted this QSL card as proof that the first man in space had indeed been a ham.

Recent discussions on the amsat-bb e-mail reflector have shed some light on what now appears to be a legend born of good intentions. Printed QSL cards, a costly commodity, were a luxury that most Soviet hams could ill afford. It was common practice to add one’s callsign, by linoleum block printing, to purchased picture postcards and to inscribe all relevant QSO information on the back. Tourist postcards of the day featured breathtaking natural landscapes, architectural masterpieces—and, of course, the faces of heroes of the Soviet Union. A popular postcard featuring Gagarin’s countenance apparently was used for this purpose. The fact that he and UA1LO shared the relatively common given name “Yuri” gave this appealing rumor a life of its own. However, it now appears that the Yuri who operated as UA1LO, and the first human in space, were not one and the same.

Gagarin notwithstanding, there is no controversy at all surrounding the identity of the first radio amateur to operate from space. That honor fell to Dr. Owen Garriott, W5LFL, aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on its mission STS-9, in early December of 1983. Garriott previously had tried unsuccessfully to obtain authorization for ham radio activity aboard the Skylab space station during its second manned mission a decade earlier. By the time STS-9 flew, small HT technology had made amateur operations from space far more feasible.

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