NASA’s Space Shuttle Program to Come to an End
When Atlantis once again touches the Earth in Florida on Thursday, July 21, an era will come to an end. This era saw dreams realized when men and women could go into space on a craft -- the space shuttle -- that could be used again and again. NASA’s space shuttle fleet has set dreams aflight since its first launch on April 12, 1981, starting with Columbia and continuing with Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour. These crafts have carried people into orbit repeatedly, launched, recovered and repaired satellites, conducted cutting-edge research and transported materials to build the largest structure in space, the International Space Station.
Barely 30 months after Columbia first lifted to the skies, radio amateurs around the world were excited about another first: a ham in space. It was 1983 -- the third year of the space shuttle program -- and Mission Specialist Owen Garriott, W5LFL, was on board Columbia for mission STS-9. NASA had given Garriott permission to attempt radio contact with Amateur Radio operators on Earth during his free time.
“On the morning of Wednesday, December 7, 1983, Garriott’s voice and call sign was plainly heard over Florida and Georgia as the space shuttle Columbia came across Florida and up the East Coast of the United States on orbit 144 of the mission,” remembered Pat Lightcap, K4NRD, of Madison, Florida. “At 7:58 AM, W5LFL confirmed a contact with Jimmy Brooks, WA4BEV, in Georgia. Jimmy was at his home in Valdosta and used a homemade antenna for the transmissions on 145.550 MHz. Garriott was using a 5 W handheld transceiver with a temporary antenna taped inside a shuttle window. During the contact, the spacecraft was approximately 160 miles above the Earth.”
According to Bill Pasternak, WA6ITF, Garriott's antenna was designed specifically for his use on STS-9. "It was designed and developed to meet NASA flight standards so that it could fit the contours of a specific window [on the shuttle]," he told the ARRL, "I believe it was built by Lou McFadin, W5DID. The radio was a Motorola commercial unit. For several reasons, it was decided to use a commercial handheld transceiver that could be flight certified quickly, rather than a ham radio handheld transceiver that would require a long NASA qualifying process."
In 1983, the Goddard Amateur Radio Club team provided around-the clock space shuttle retransmissions from its WA3NAN club station. These retransmissions provided the international ham radio community up-to-the-minute information during Garriott’s flight and subsequent Space Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment (SAREX) flights; SAREX was the precursor to the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) program. In the days prior to the Internet, these real-time bulletins and frequent orbital element updates could only be obtained through Amateur Radio.
"The first contact Owen made from Columbia was with Lance Collister, WA1JXN (now W7GJ), of Frenchtown, Montana, while approaching the US Pacific coastline," Pasternak told the ARRL. "This in itself was kind of an oddity because there were thousands of California hams vying to be the first contact and after that first CQ, 145.55 MHz sounded like 20 meters during a rare DXpedition."
The series of two-way radio transmissions from STS-9 were so successful that Amateur Radio has been a significant part of the space shuttle program ever since. Amateur Radio has offered multiple educational opportunities between the astronauts on board the space shuttle and the International Space Station with students and campers, allowing young people to communicate directly with the astronauts as they circled the Earth. As the space shuttle program comes to an end, the many memories associated with space flight will remain with those who have grown up with the excitement of our men and women blasting off in to space -- the new frontier. -- Thanks to Pat Lightcap, K4NRD, and Bill Pasternak, WA6ITF, for some information
For more on Garriott's historical flight, please see "Well Done, W5LFL!" in the February 1984 issue of QST (you must be an ARRL member to view the link).
Below, find recordings made by Pat Lightcap, K4NRD, of Madison, Florida, of two transmissions between Owen Garriott, W5LFL, and radio amateurs on Earth during STS-9. Lightcap made these recordings while parked in front of Madison County High School just before 8 AM on December 7, 1983 via his mobile VHF radio.