Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) today perform a number of objectives ranging from scientific experiments, station maintenance, to studies on the physiology of the human body in micro-gravity environments. With a rigorous schedule of experiments, little time each day is reserved for recreation. That said, recently the astronauts aboard the ISS viewed the newly released science fiction film, The Martian. This widely publicized event may not seem as bewildering as one would think as lately, astronauts on the ISS have been able to stay in constant contact with the public on Earth via social media. Astronaut Scott Kelly recently completed a year-long mission aboard the ISS as part of a study of the effects of long duration space flight on the human body. He regularly used Twitter.com to post images and updates to his more than 869,000 (Twitter) followers. Perhaps the first to garner the social media public’s attention was Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield who made headlines in 2013 when he posted pictures to his Twitter page and uploaded videos to the Canadian Space Agency’s YouTube Channel, documenting the day-to-day routine of the astronauts (YouTube). Public involvement and participation was enormous during this time, with Hadfield alone getting over millions of views on his posts, especially with his YouTube video covering David Bowie’s hit song, “Space Oddity,” while floating in the ISS. This video alone had six million views within days of its upload and now has over thirty million views (YouTube). The social media public is now actively involved with astronauts. Yet, the rather direct public interaction and exchanges with spacefarers 155 miles above the Earth is not really new. In fact, direct public interaction with astronauts took place years prior to the existence of Twitter and YouTube. People communicated with astronauts during space flights through the use of Amateur Radio.
Amateur Radio, or HAM radio is a way for people with proper training to legally operate powerful radios to communicate with other operators. The term HAM is not an acronym, but instead it is a derogatory term that commercial radio operators gave to amateurs in the early 20th century when they were frustrated with amateur radio operators clogging the airwaves. A HAM radio is different than a typical AM/FM radio because HAM radios allow for two-way communication either through voice or Morse code. Amateur Radio operators, colloquially referred to as HAMs, use their radios to speak to people all over the world through different radio frequencies. The different frequencies allow for varying lengths of physical distance between radios. A 2-meter frequency is best for talking around town while a 10-meter frequency is best for long distances. This changes, however, if you increase the power of the radio. A standard hand-held HAM radio operates around one to five watts power. Increase the power to fifty watts, and the signal will travel much further. The same radio frequencies used by HAM radio operators to talk to one another locally and around the globe were even used by NASA to stay in contact with astronauts in their spacecraft and on the surface of the Moon.
After a two-way communication is made, called a QSO, both HAM radio operators will send each other a QSL card. The term QSL and QSO are not an acronyms, as they are taken from early maritime Morse code communications that used a system of “Q” codes to convey long messages. These “Q” codes were three characters long starting with the letter Q. “Q” codes are no longer used, but the QSL and QSO codes have found a place within amateur radio as a way to describe a two-way communication. A QSL card, similar to a postcard, is a fun way to physically represent the contacts that a HAM has communicated with. Amateur radio operators’ call signs are also not acronyms. These are assigned to the operator after they pass a licensing test given by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Printed on the card is usually the operator’s call sign, the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) of the communication, information about the radio used, their geographical location, and sometimes a picture of the operator sitting in front of their ‘radio shack,’ (their HAM radio setup). The reverse side of the card is where one would find the technical details of the contact, such as the operator’s name, their address, a short message, type of radio, antenna, or other radio specifications. HAMs even use unique language when talking to one another. For example, saying, “73” is a friendly way to say goodbye and if a HAM says they are “workin’ DX” that means they are using their radios for worldwide contact. These two colloquialisms emerged from Morse code, and similar to the “Q” codes, have stuck with HAM radio. (Click here for a link to a glossary of HAM radio terms.)
During NASA’s Space Shuttle program, astronauts used the Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment (SAREX) to communicate with amateur radio operators on Earth. These contacts were short conversations usually just long enough to hear each other’s call sign. In most cases, the operator on the ground would only hear the Shuttle and not be able to communicate with it. The length of these conversations depended on many different things, such as radio properties, geographical location, and the Shuttle’s location in relation to the radio operator on Earth. The purpose of SAREX was to engage the public in space flight. NASA created the program so that students, children, and the general public could have the chance to talk with the astronauts without an intermediary. For more information on SAREX, click here.
HAM radios flew on twenty-five Space Shuttle missions total, from 1983 until 1999. In 1992, four of the seven astronauts on STS-45 Atlantis were licensed HAMs. Kathy Sullivan (N5YVV), Brian Duffy (N5WQW), Dirk Frimout (ON1AFD), and David Leestma (N5WQC) operated the Space Shuttle radio and made roughly 1,804 contacts with people from thirty-one different countries, including three contacts from Antarctica. David Leestma recalls, “I just had a QSO with a K1OIQ on Palmer’s Station Andrew’s Island, Antarctica…That was really a thrill to be able to get Antarctic[a] on the radio,” (David C. Leestma papers, Box 27, Folder 4). Leestma used the term QSO, which is another “Q” code for a two-way communication. The majority of these contacts, 1,067, were made with HAMs in the United States. The country to make the second-most contacts was Belgium with 314 QSL cards, as STS-45 Atlantis was the first time a Belgian citizen, astronaut Dirk Frimout, was launched into space.
Below you will find two graphs, one detailing all of the QSL cards received by state and one detailing all of the QSL cards received by country, as well as an interactive world map with pin points located where a QSL card was sent to by the crew of STS-45 Atlantis.
Click on the map below to see if anyone from your hometown made contact with the Space Shuttle!
All of the QSL cards pictured here come from the David C. Leestma Papers. This collection contains the personal papers of Astronaut David C. Leestma from his time as a pilot in the Navy, a Space Shuttle astronaut, and his work in NASA’s administration offices during the Mir and ISS programs. Also, included in this collection are Leestma’s personal journals from 1981 to 2014. While Leestma’s papers offers some great insight into the daily workings of an astronaut and a NASA administrator, his collection of QSL cards are eye-catching. The cards offer a unique, visual look into the HAM radio tradition. They also show a segment of national and international enthusiasm that existed for the space program during the 1990s. HAM radio allowed for astronauts to be accessible to the entire world. From Alaska to Antarctica, and thirty other countries in between, HAM radio allowed for public participation in the space program long before astronaut Chris Hadfield released his music video from space on YouTube in 2013.
Editor’s Note: Co-author Max Campbell is a second-year graduate student in the Purdue University Department of History. Co-author Hannah Vaughn is a senior at Purdue, majoring in History.