HAM Radio 101

Hams You Should Know: Owen Garriott, W5LFL, SK, the First Ham to Operate from Outer Space

Take a moment to remember Owen, W5LFL while participating in the upcoming Perseid Meteor Shower and ARRL EME events.

If shooting for the stars is the ultimate goal, astronaut Owen Garriott, W5LFL, SK, has been there, done that, and upped the ante for everyone else, casually accumulating astrological world records for long stays in the thermosphere and acclaim as the first ham to make radio contact from space—among a slew of other accomplishments. 

A professor at Stanford University, Garriott decided on a whim in 1965 to apply to become a scientist-astronaut at NASA, saying that he did so “the same way one would apply for any government position.” But this particular position required the NASA selectee to undergo a year of Air Force training and obtain certification to fly jet planes. He did both, then entered into orbit to study the long-term effects of human weightlessness—with a 59-day trip—that set a new world record for length of time spent in space, doubling the previous stats. And that was just his first trip.

In 1983, he returned to space for a ten-day mission on shuttle Columbia with more great things in mind. He put his Amateur Extra license to use and became the first astronaut to operate an amateur radio station from space using his station’s call sign, W5LFL. Garriott made contact with more than 250 earthbound hams using a simple Motorola handheld 2-meter radio. Among his many contacts was his mother in Enid, Oklahoma, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater (K7UGA), and Jordan’s King Hussein (JY1). 

Listen in on a few of the calls made by Garriott with these original recordings from his second trip (call one, two, three).

His contact with Earth from the thermosphere would also be the catalyst for later radio transmissions on shuttle flights, space station MIR, ISIS, and a precursor to educational amateur radio programs like ARISS, designed to allow students to communicate with astronauts in space. A legacy most fitting since Garriott credits his own interest in all things astronomical to his third-grade teacher:

“Now, my third-grade teacher, for example, a very fine lady named Miss Bess Truitt, just happened to also be the poet laureate of the state of Oklahoma. But one of the things that she had in her class was an orrery, which is a word that I had no idea what it meant when I was in third grade, but it’s a little device that has a whole planetary system in it. It has the sun at the center, of course, and then all the planets, and the moons of the Earth, and the moons of Jupiter, and so forth. You turn a little crank, by hand in those days, and they all rotate. I thought, ‘gee whiz,’ so that’s really what the solar system looks like. Fascinating. It got me started thinking about it all the way back as early as the third grade.”

The next year, as a fourth-grader, Garriott would return to his third-grade classroom to teach new students about how the orrery worked. It was, to him, remarkable. But planets weren’t Garriott’s only hobby—radio was also top of the list. Garriott recalled:

“When I was in junior high school, I can remember quite clearly that my father came home one evening and said, ‘Say, son, would you like to go to this adult class a friend of mine is going to be teaching about electronics—how radios, and transmitters, and things work?’ I thought, ‘Well, sure.’ You know, a chance to go with my dad and learn what the adults are doing, participate with this older group. I thought that would be fun. So, we went to this radio theory class for about three nights a week for a semester or so. When we all got through that satisfactorily, my father then said, ‘Well, you know, this fellow is going to also be teaching a code class on Thursday nights. Would you like to come along and learn how to send Morse code and become a radio amateur operator?’ So, I thought, ‘Well, we’ve got half of it done. Let’s do that, too.’”

Garriott and his father completed the code series and obtained amateur radio licenses in 1945—Garriott earning his at the ripe-old age of 15. He would then go on to earn multiple electrical engineering degrees including a doctorate, later working as an electrical engineer on several Navy destroyers. He credits his father with his career trajectory saying, “So, starting off in a technical area, thinking about science, and working with my father at his suggestion about learning to become a ham, I’m sure helped direct me into the area of engineering, which was both my undergraduate degrees and eventual graduate degrees, as well.”

He earned a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship for his undergrad that he describes as “a very nice sum, about half the amount for me to go to college.” Laughing to his interviewer, he went on, “That is to say, 50 dollars a month.” Not a bad deal in comparison to current costs.

Garriott would also work as the Director of Science and Application at Johnson Space Center, the Space Station Project Scientist for NASA, and as vice president for a space engineering program at the university level. He also authored Introduction to Ionospheric Physics with Henry Rishbeth and Homesteading Space: the Skylab Story with fellow astronaut Joseph Kerwin.

The planetary pull Garriott found so fascinating in third grade stayed a passion of his for his entire life, and it’s a passion that can be shared when you follow in his gravitationally-challenged footsteps and participate in some space-related amateur radio events of your own. After all, according to Garriott, “Anyone who runs out of something to do must have had a failure in their imagination block up there somewhere. Because, if there’s nothing else, you can look out a window which would absolutely fascinate me for weeks on end.”

Determined to do you one better than an outward window gaze and introspection, we suggest you participate in these astronomically-inspired and incredibly awesome upcoming amateur radio events instead.

  • Perseid Meteor Shower

The 2022 edition of the 144 MHz Meteorscatter Sprint Contest will take place from August 12, 2022 at 15:00 GMT to August 14, 2022 at 14:59 GMT. It’s the ideal opportunity to see a sky set ablaze with meteors (or shooting-stars) as they set fire to the night sky. Named after the constellation Perseus (that the meteor trail appears to radiate from), the annual event occurs when Earth passes through a trail of cosmic debris left by comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle—with stunningly beautiful results. And extra fun added in when hams get to bounce radio signals off the craggy solar system rocks that are left in the wake. Details below:


If you’re too busy to take the time off needed for an actual trip to the moon, don’t fret, the ARRL EME event is just around the corner to provide you the opportunity to bounce radio waves off that big ol’ “rock” in the sky instead. The event takes place in 48-hour periods over the course of four weekends from August to November this year. Check out dates, times, and hit up the link to get involved below.   

  • August 27-28 and September 17-18—2.3 GHz and up
  • November 12-13 and October 15-16—50 to 1296 MHz
  • Visit the ARRL EME website for event rules, registration, and additional details

Still gazing out that window? Mix things up and head to DX Engineering instead to get your hands on a 2-meter handheld radio like the one Garriott used during his ten-day space trip. Or read more firsthand tales from Garriott that are chock full of personality and humor in this interview he did for the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project Edited Oral History Transcript.

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