Amateur Radio History: Hams Inspired by Sputnik 1 Built OSCAR-1, -2, and -3 Satellites, Taking Amateur Radio into Space

Sometimes a taste of what could be gives you the kick in the pants you need to make history happen. And that’s exactly what happened to a handful of hams after the 1957 launch of artificial satellite Sputnik 1. Eager amateur radio operators tuned in on their shortwave sets to listen in on Sputnik’s 20 and 40 MHz bands—and got hooked! And when the Columbia University Amateur Radio Club was the first group to rebroadcast Sputnik’s signal publicly, beating out bigwigs like NBC—well, those space-struck operators knew they were unstoppable. The next logical move? Proving civilians could hold their own in the space race with a ham-built amateur radio satellite, of course.

Or at least, that’s what a highly proactive ham named Don Stoner, W6TNS, whose shack was built from the sliced-off front end of a classic Mercedes Benz thought. So, he wrote up a persuasive essay for CQ Magazine that asserted that hams were being left out of the space race despite their obvious ability to build satellites with an assumed ease. All they lacked, if anything, was a partner with a missile in tow for blastoff.

In no time, the idea began to pick up speed.

Finding a missile-toting likeminded ham with a desire to help out with the mission set itself right when the team of satellite-savvy hams, who had by this point adopted the Project OSCAR Association moniker, decided to team up with Air Force Chief of the Space Instrumentation Section at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A ham himself, the Air Force chief set aside space on the Discover 36 KH-3 Corona surveillance satellite in the aft of the payload (where a ballast was normally kept) for the candidly-titled OSCAR-1 (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio) satellite to hitch a ride on its history-making space debut.

While that might all sound glamorous, the location of the builds didn’t take place in the high-tech aeronautical environment you might think. Instead, it got a humble start in the garage and basement of longtime ham Chuck Towns, K6LFH, who when broached about participating in the build responded only with “You’re crazy!” Then, “When can we start!” And surprisingly with the help of sponsors, the entire project came in at the absurdly low cost of a mere $63. Now that’s getting a heck of a lot of bang for the proverbial buck—if you ask us!

And here’s what those 63 well-spent dollars got us on OSCAR-1:

  • The satellite carried a simple battery-powered beacon transistorized VHF transmitter with a beacon signal and monopole antenna
  • The wedge-shaped body was only 10 pounds with a lightweight magnesium skin and frame
  • Gold-plated body with passive thermal management
  • Transmissions were made on the two-meter band using an electronic keyer that varied the speed of the signal based on the temperature of the satellite
  • The Morse code cypher for laughter, “HI,” was used
  • Absorptive paint used on the exterior absorbed heat to prevent the interior mechanics from freezing along with insulation on the interior for added protection

Launched on December 12, 1961, the OSCAR-1 piggyback launch was a full-out success. Once in orbit, a bolt released and a spring purchased for a single dollar at Sears ejected the world’s first non-governmental satellite into independent orbit where it remained for 22 days. And it began transmitting to Earth-bound hams below almost immediately without stopping until its batteries died on day 20, reaching more than 570 hams from 28 countries during its approximately 280 orbits.

The mission was ultimately a success—but not just in technical terms. The Project OSCAR team had proven that amateur radio could hold its own in space and that civilian groups could play nice with the military and government contractors. Valuable data on thermal management systems was obtained and used on the subsequent design of OSCAR-2, the first amateur radio repeater with a launch date of March 9, 1965, built much like the first but with more batteries. And there would be a third OSCAR as well, that unlike the first two with beacon transmitters had a complete two-meter ham station capable of receiving messages and replying back to Earth.

Project OSCAR is still around today with a similar purpose but a new name: AMSAT. It’s a volunteer-run organization that has launched multiple amateur radio satellites and is still running them today. These satellites currently orbit Earth, helping to solidify amateur radio’s continued space presence along with groups like ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station) who facilitate contact between students and astronauts on the International Space Station.

And, to think, it all started with little more than a heck of a lot of determination, enthusiasm, and a $63 investment.

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