(From NASA Educational Brief, EB-89-1, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, D.C.)


Past Flights for Ham Radio

On November 28, 1983, STS-9 was launched carrying mission specialist Owen Garriott, call sign W5LFL, and his ham radio into orbit. For ten days the Space Shuttle Co/umbia streaked through the skies, and for the last seven of those days, hams around the world were sent emotionally into orbit when they heard Dr. Garriott's voice break their squelches calling Earth-bound stations. But it was just the beginning. Amateur Radio had moved into its newest frontier, and it was there to stay.

Lance Collister, WA1JXN, of Frenchtown, Montana, became the first Amateur Radio operator to work an astronaut-ham orbiting the world. He was far from the last. More than 300 calls were logged by Garriott on his ten-day journey. These calls ranged from classrooms of children to King Hussein of Jordan. Garriott was even patched into the Capcom at NASA's Mission Control Center to demonstrate the utility of the ham system operating as a backup to some of the space shuttle's communication systems.

Dr. Garriott had been interested in carrying a ham radio into space since his Skylab mission in the early 1970s, but the plan to do so came too late in the development of the program, and so it was rejected.

Space Shuttle flights presented another opportunity. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) and the Amateur Radio Satellite Corporation (AMSAT) jointly requested that NASA supply a small transceiver to be carried by Garriott on STS-9. NASA accepted the proposal with the stipulation that the activity would not interfere with mission activities and that safety requirements would be met.

All ham radio operation for STS-9 was in the Amateur Radio 2-meter band (144-148 MHz). Dr. Garriott's transceiver had the capacity to transmit and receive on channels 20-kHz apart. To simplify procedure, Dr. Garriott transmitted on only one or two frequencies to make it easier to locate him. He received on 10 to 20 different frequencies so hams could spread out across the band and not pile up on one frequency.

As Columbia approached the portion of the ground track where Amateur Radio operations were planned, Dr. Garriott called and listened on alternate minutes.

He transmitted continuously for one minute, beginning on the even minutes, and received continuously for one minute, beginning on the odd minutes.

The second ham radio transmission from space came on the Challenger STS 51-F mission, and a new dimension was added to the already proven techniques used on STS-9. Working with a small group of NASA hams, mission specialist Tony England developed the idea of adding a repeater with a two-meter input and a ten-meter output that also would have the capability for slow-scan TV (SSTV) uplink and downlink. The Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment (SAREX) on STS 51-F would determine if TV images could be sent and monitored in space.

A system was designed to comprise an MX 300 series transceiver from the Motorola ARC in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; a Panasonic TV monitor, camera and cooling fans; Abbott-Transistor's dc-to-dc power converters; and a ROBOT scan converter. An Amateur Radio group at the NASA Lewis Research Center came up with the buffer amplifier required to provide the proper interface between the scan converter and the shuttle's video system. It allowed images from the Challenger cameras to be selected in addition to the small, hand-held camera in the SAREX package.

Many of the unit's capabilities not needed for the flight were deleted. But, in order to accommodate the maximum number of SSTV hams worldwide, the capability to allow a special automatic sequence of frame speeds was added.

The software was designed to provide two red frames followed by one green frame, one blue frame, a low-resolution color image, and a high-resolution color image, concluding with a carrier wave (CW) identification, W00RE/CHALLENGER.

During the flight, 130 independent voice contacts were established including one from an automobile ham radio. In order to generate enthusiasm for this project and ham radio in general, young people had been encouraged to take part in the communication. Youth groups that participated included Scouts, Civil Air Patrol and the Young Astronaut Program.

In addition to the voice contacts, there were 10 exchanges involving SSTV signals monitored by the shuttle ham station. The first SSTV image monitored by Tony England,the first TV watched in space, was a picture of his wife, Kathi.

Amateur Radio in Space Again

There are currently two flights scheduled to continue Amateur Radio experiments in space. Payload specialist Ron Parise, WA4SIR, will fly on STS-35 and Ken Cameron, KB5AWP, will pilot STS-37. These missions will demonstrate the unique capability of packet radio to collect and disseminate a high volume of stored messages to and from orbit. Packet is a digital transmission technique becoming increasingly popular with Radio Amateurs. Because of high capacity of the mode and the fact that the proposed SAREX-II will permit operation without an astronaut present, it is conservatively estimated that more Amateur stations will be contacted using this mode than the total contacts in both of the previous missions.

The scheduled flights will also demonstrate the capability of providing a television uplink to manned spacecraft using a broadcast-standard transmission format which has never been done on U.S. manned missions. Amateur Radio operators hope to use this uplink to carry live video from crew members' families to the Shuttle.

In addition, these experiments will show that Amateur Radio operations can proceed for virtually the entire Shuttle mission without adversely impacting other activities. This will be possible because the modifications being made to SAREX involve a new antenna that can be left in place without affecting other in-orbit activities, as well as the automatic operating capability associated with packet operation.

These missions will provide another opportunity for the public, especially school children, to become directly involved in the U.S. space program by witnessing demonstrations of amateurs communicating with the shuttle.

Equipment Configurations

The configuration for STS-35 (configuration C) consists of a hand-held transceiver, interface module, a payload general support computer (PGSC), spare battery set, window antenna, packet module, SAREX headset assembly, personal recorder, and the required cable assemblies. The packet module contains a power supply and a packet radio terminal node controller (TNC). The power supply provides power for the TNC and the hand-held transceiver. The TNC interconnects with a radio transceiver so that data to and from the computer is transmitted to and received from other Amateur Radio stations. This configuration is capable of operating in either the voice or data mode in communications with Amateur stations within line of sight (LOS) of the orbiter. This configuration can be operated in the attended mode for voice communications and in either the attended or automatic mode for data communications.

The configuration for STS-37 (configuration D) comprises a low power hand-held frequency modulation (FM) transceiver, a spare battery set, an interface module, a SAREX headset assembly, an equipment assembly cabinet, a TV camera and monitor, a PGSC, and an antenna capable of being mounted in one of the orbiter's flight deck windows. The equipment assembly houses power supplies, an SSTV converter, a fast scan television converter (FSTV), a packet radio TNC and switches and displays necessary to control the equipment as well as connectors to connect it to other equipment in the configuration. The FSTV module contains a receiving radio frequency preamplifier and a video decoder that provides the National Television Standards Committee (NTSC) video for SAREX-II. This configuration communicates with Amateur stations within LOS of the orbiter in one of four modes, e.g., voice, SSTV, data, or FSTV. The voice mode is operated in the attended mode while SSTV, data, or FSTV can be operated in either the attended or unattended mode.

All on-orbit SAREX-II operations are conducted in the two-meter (144 to 146 MHz) Amateur Satellite Service band utilizing FM with a nominal frequency deviation of 5 kHz.

Ground Equipment

An elaborate station setup is not required for making a two-meter contact. NASA, AMSAT, and the ARRL all requested that high power amplifiers be avoided to minimize interference. An effective radiated power of no more than 100 watts will give excellent results. A fixed antenna such as a turnstile or a single monopole (vertical) mounted above obstructions will eliminate the need for elaborate orbit tracking and pointing. The vertical is very desirable because it has a good radiation pattern at low elevations where the majority of the shuttle passes occur. High gain directional beam antennas require very accurate pointing and greatly increase the operating complexity because of the short duration passes.

Accurate tracking and pointing data for your station location is best provided by a computer satellite tracking program. If you have a computer or programmable calculator and need a tracking program, write to AMSAT Software Exchange, Box 27, Washington, DC 20044. The orbital parameters required by these programs are broadcast on W1AW bulletins and AMSAT nets.

QSL Cards

Specially designed QSL cards (post cards used by hams to confirm two-way contact or reception of signal) are available to anyone who sends a reception report of Amateur Radio operation from the shuttle. Nonamateurs can listen in on a ham receiver or monitor on scanners to qualify for the special QSL. Send all reception and confirmed contact reports to ARRL, 225 Main Street, Newington, CT 06111.

The real key to making a contact is being in the right place at the right time and following proper procedures, because there will probably only be a single opportunity when the shuttle passes within your range.

What is a "Ham" Operator?

More than 1.5 million persons worldwide, including more than 400,000 Americans, are currently licensed Amateur Radio operators or "hams."

Oddly enough, there is no universally accepted explanation of where the popular term "ham" originated. Various theories have been propounded and all generally discredited. The most likely explanation is that the term derives from the frontier day custom of referring to an unskilled or inept telegraph operator as ham-fisted. Regardless, it is a term in which Amateurs take great pride.

The term amateur refers to one who engages in a pursuit as a pastime rather than as a profession. Amateur Radio is the personal use of short wave radio equipment for direct, worldwide communications on a one-to-one basis. Amateur Radio has been a source of communicating and technical skills, especially during emergencies, but hams never accept compensation for services they provide.


Every Radio Amateur must be licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In order to obtain a license, a ham must pass examinations in radio theory, rules and regulations, and International Morse Code proficiency.

There are Radio Amateurs from ages 8 to 80 and they qualify for one of five grades of licenses, each at progressively higher levels of proficiency. The licenses are Novice, Technician, General, Advanced, and Amateur Extra. Higher classes of licenses have additional operating privileges. The minimum license required to operate on the frequencies to the shuttle is Technician.

Call Sign

The Amateur's call letters are issued by the FCC at the time of obtaining a license. The first letter indicates nationality‹in the United States the first letters are A, K, N or W. There are several means of communicating with Amateur Radio in addition to Morse Code (radiotelegraphy) and voice transmission (radiotelephony). These include radioteletype, computer-data exchange, and fast scan and slow scan Amateur television.

Organizations and Publications

AMSAT‹Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation: founded in 1969, to provide satellites that can be used for Amateur Radio communication and experimentation throughout the world, and to disseminate information derived from such communications and experimentation. The AMSAT address is P.O. Box 27, Washington, DC 20044.

ARRL‹American Radio Relay League: founded in 1914, as the hams' own organization; publishes a monthly technical journal, annual handbook, and is the representative body with the FCC. Send inquiries to 225 Main Street, Newington, CT 06111. The Amateur Radio Newsletter, The Westlink Report, Formerly Ham Radio Report, Poco Press, 11119 Allegheny Street, Sun Valley, CA 91352.

Questions and Activities for the Classroom

1. All Radio Amateurs must pass a proficiency exam in International Morse Code. Have your students research the history of this means of communication.

2. Contact a local ham operator and arrange for a demonstration of Amateur Radio techniques. Determine when the shuttle will be making a pass over the area and listen for the Shuttle transmission.

3. What is an Amateur Radio station and what equipment is essential?

4. What are the differences in Amateur Radio and citizens band radio?

5. Describe methods in which Radio Amateurs can provide a service in the public interest.