HAM Radio 101

Hams You Should Know: Margaret Iaquinto, VK3NQQ, SK, the Amateur Who Talked to Russian Cosmonauts from Her Kitchen Table

What do ham radio, piloting aircraft, and folk dances have in common? All three were hobbies acquired by amateur radio enthusiast Margaret (King) Iaquinto, VK3NQQ, SK, a New Haven, Connecticut native who became the first ham to communicate with an orbiting space station by packet radio.

During her lifetime (February 27, 1945 to July 21, 2014), VK3NQQ didn’t just collect hobbies—she collected quite a few degrees as well. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Russian from Boston University, studied Slavic linguistics at the University of Chicago, and obtained her master’s in education from Chicago’s Roosevelt University, using her skills to work as a reading specialist at local schools and later as an IT instructor. And in 1976, her skillset grew even further when she earned her Technician license and the callsign WN1ZFX.

However, WN1ZFX was quicky replaced when Iaquinto married, moving from her Connecticut hometown to Australia to join her new husband. She immediately applied for her Australian amateur radio license, earning the call VK3NQQ. And she would be no idle ham. Iaquinto worked stations across the globe primarily using Morse code, her favorite mode, and also joined the Ballarat Amateur Radio Group, a local club for amateur radio operators where she was one of only a few female members. 

But her most notable act was her communication with Russian cosmonauts. In 1990, VK3NQQ made contact with Musa Manarov, U2MIR, onboard Russian space station Mir. She chatted with Mir almost every day seated comfortably at her kitchen table, outside on her handheld while her two boys, Ben and Josh, played in the yard, or even using her handheld while stuck in traffic on long commutes.

VK3NQQ enjoyed putting her linguistic skills in Russian from her collegiate days to use, and U2MIR greatly enjoyed the company and hearing news from the western world that was censored in Russia due to Soviet rule and the Iron Curtain. They chatted about all sorts of things. Hear VK3NQQ’s son Ben discuss his mother’s hobby and her unlikely friendships with cosmonauts in space firsthand on this audio recording from The World. And VK3NQQ got everyone in on the fun, often inviting students from her high school to speak with the cosmonauts—not unlike the educational programs that ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station) offers students today.

It was when VK3NQQ helped U2MIR set up a packet radio station on Mir, though, that she truly gained some acclaim. It was the first time that a computer-to-computer connection had been made between an amateur radio operator on Earth and a cosmonaut in space. U2MIR returned after 175 days, but VK3NQQ continued her cosmonaut chats, speaking daily to Sergei Krikalev, U5MIR, during the tense ten months that he was stranded in space during the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was on a mission that started in May 1991 when the Soviet Union was still intact. They discussed things of a personal nature and how politics were playing out in Russia and the western world so many miles below. Their friendship would even earn VK3NQQ an invite to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas in 1994 for a shuttle mission training session once U5MIR returned from his lengthy orbit.

Margaret Iaquinto, VK3NQQ, would go on to win the Ron Wilkinson Achievement Award from the Wireless Institute of Australia for her successful packet radio communication with the Mir Russian Space Station. She is the only female operator to win the award. In 2006, she was recognized as the IT Teacher of the Year from the Victorian Information Technology Association.

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