Tag Archives: space

All the Best and 73s!: A Record of Amateur Radio Aboard STS-45 Preserved within the David C. Leestma Papers

STS-45 QSO Card

This is the QSL card that NASA sent out to HAM radio operators who made a contact with the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

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.

HAM Radio QSO Card

This QSL card comes from Indiana and features the Space Shuttle. 4/1/1992

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.

HAM Radio Operator and his cat.

Here is an example of a QSL card. Pictured is a HAM radio operator and his radio shack, along with his feline friend. 4/1/1992

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.)        

Husband and Wife HAM radio operators

This QSL card shows two call signs that of a husband and wife team from Alaska. 3/30/1992

Husband and Wife HAM radio operators

This is the reverse of the QSL card from Alaska. 3/30/1992

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.

STS-45 Crew

Crew of STS-45. (L-R Back Row: Byron K. Lichtenberg, Michael Foale, David C. Leestma, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Dirk Frimout. Front Row: Brian Duffy, Charles F. Bolden, Jr.) 6/11/1992 (Courtesy of NASA)

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.

QSL Card from Palmer Station, Antarctica

This is the only QSL card to come from Antarctica. 3/30/1992

HAM Radio QSO Card from Belgium

This is one of the 314 QSL cards that came from Belgium during STS-45. 3/29/1992

HAM radio QSO card

This card comes from California and features an operator and his shack. 3/29/1992

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!

United States QSL Cards Graph

This graph shows the number of QSL cards received from each state.

International QSL Cards

This graph shows the number of QSL cards received by country.

QSO Card Map

Click on this image to view an interactive map of the QSL cards!

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.


  1. http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/station/reference/radio/sarex.html
  2. http://www.arrl.org/what-is-ham-radio
  3. http://www.arrl.org/eavesdropping-on-apollo-11
  4. http://www.arrl.org/ham-radio-glossary
  5. http://www.arrl.org/ham-radio-history
  6. http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/station/reference/radio/sarex.html

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.

Space Exploration For All: The Eugene A. Cernan Papers

The Barron Hilton Flight and Space Exploration Archives within Purdue Archives and Special Collections contains collections from many distinguished astronauts. Neil Armstrong, David Leestma, Jerry Ross, and Janice Voss have all left their mark on Purdue and humankind. Yet the Eugene A. Cernan papers cast a long shadow of their own. Comprised of 74 boxes organized into 11 series, the collection houses materials which span Cernan’s entire life, from his birth certificate to a letter written to his fellow Boilermakers just last year. It’s enough to keep anyone busy. I would know—I helped to organize it for almost a year.

What exactly is in all those boxes? Some items are simply cool to behold, like the mapbook of the lunar surface[1] and one of Cernan’s spacesuit gloves, worn during Apollo 17 and still covered in grey-like moon dust.  If you’re looking for the kinds of technical minutia that will help you build your own lunar module, you might be disappointed. Sure, there are reports for several Apollo missions, as well as a transcript of Cernan’s log from Gemini 9.  The real value of Cernan’s collection is how it brings NASA’s iconic programs back to Earth. It brings space exploration closer to us, without all that expensive rocket fuel, by provoking questions about who an astronaut like Eugene Cernan really was.

Gene Cernan, front row and center, was a member of Purdue Fijis while a student at Purdue

Gene Cernan, front row and center, was a member of Purdue Fijis while a student at Purdue

Astronauts were not born in their spacesuits, so how did they grow to fit one so nicely? Cernan played sports throughout his youth and engaged actively in the communities at Proviso East High School in Maywood, Illinois and at Purdue University. Between athletics, the Naval ROTC, joining the Purdue chapter of Phi Gamma Delta, and editing two yearbooks, Cernan must have hardly had a moment to himself throughout his education. He even majored in Electrical Engineering, whose students today only have time to sleep while their code compiles. Cernan later got a Masters in Aerospace Engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School while also serving in the Navy. Cernan’s ascent, it seems, started long before he climbed aboard a rocket, or even joined NASA. It took drive and effort and recognition, but also choice. I’m no scientist, but launching into space appears to involve momentum.

Cernan was a pilot in the United State Navy before joining NASA

Cernan was a pilot in the United State Navy before joining NASA

Eugene Cernan is human, but when did he become superhuman? Newspaper records abound in the collection and honed in on every last detail of Cernan, his family, his colleagues in spacesuits, and the missions he participated in. As much as it mattered to the nation what exactly his missions would accomplish, it mattered how Cernan trained and what he ate for breakfast. It mattered how his wife, Barbara Cernan, felt about her husband’s chances. It mattered whether his daughter, Tracy Cernan, was worried or excited about her father’s mission. It definitely mattered when Cernan broadcast expletives to the entire nation because ‘Snoopy,’ the lunar module, rolled unexpectedly above the moon during Apollo 10. And it mattered not only that Cernan and his colleagues landed safely after each mission, but also how they subsequently engaged with the nation through interviews and tours. The Space Race was won beyond Earth’s atmosphere by a relative few, but it’s impossible to imagine everyday Americans as mere spectators. NASA’s space exploration programs were cultural as well as scientific or political endeavors, and culture only takes on meaning when it is shared among people.

What (conceptual) space in terrestrial American society do astronauts play? Astronauts were and are icons, and the Cernan collection shows it. Telegram after telegram, letter after letter from celebrities, politicians, and business leaders. No fewer than seven sitting presidents corresponded with Cernan to varying degrees. Photos join the correspondence and show Cernan meeting some of those presidents, playing in charity golf tournaments with Bob Hope and Jimmy Demaret, showing NASA facilities to Barbara Eden, taking part in international tours, carrying the Olympic torch, and waving with Neil Armstrong at Ross-Ade’s fifty yard line at a Purdue football game. Astronauts have long been seen as a representation of the best of humanity.  They helped the nation better understand its own potential. The Eugene Cernan papers shows this process was personal, not ethereal.

Earth rise. NASA image, from the Eugene Cernan papers

Earth rise. NASA image, from the Eugene Cernan papers

How do astronauts make meaning of their experiences? A central piece of the Cernan papers records the research and writing process of Cernan’s autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon. Cernan didn’t write the book based on memory alone, but rather reconstructed and reflected upon his experiences using hundreds of personal records which Purdue now houses. For feedback, he called upon the vast array of friends and acquaintances gathered over a lifetime of accomplishment. Their support was later joined by scores of fan letters. In crafting his reflections, Cernan grounded his individual experiences firmly in the broader machinations of society, situating himself as a person who became an astronaut who became a celebrity.

Smarter researchers than me will find the answers to these questions flowing incorporeally through the many pages and artifacts of Cernan’s collection. Which brings us to the heart of the matter: not what the collection offers, but why it exists at all.

During a visit to Purdue’s main campus last year, Cernan observed what’s become of his papers when the Cernan and Armstrong collections were opened for research.[2] I imagine (and I stress the word ‘imagine’ here) that when just about everyone else in the room is clamoring to speak to you, it’s difficult form a cogent thought let alone have a moment of genuine reflection. But the revered Purdue alumnus did reflect, and he had a lot to say. One thing in particular stuck with me: the Cernan papers are here within Purdue Archives and Special Collections to be viewed. This collection could have ended up in the Smithsonian. But it didn’t. Instead Cernan’s papers made their final touch down about a thousand feet from Harry’s Chocolate Shop.

Chicago Tribune editorial 'Astronauts are only human'. From the Eugene A. Cernan papers

Chicago Tribune editorial ‘Astronauts are only human’. From the Eugene A. Cernan papers

Captain Cernan donated to people: to thinkers, to doers, to Boilermakers. Everything from the dusty glove to his boyhood scrapbook is here to help us better understand Cernan’s life and by extension humanity’s first (and last—er, most recent) steps on the moon. If this collection makes anything clear, it’s that those steps were a shared experience on individual and deeply touching levels.

You’ll see it in the fan mail from a young woman pursuing a career in space exploration.

In Cernan’s letter to his mother, written before he knew whether he’d make it back to Earth.

In the newspaper photo showing a young Tracy Cernan pretending to radio her spacewalking father.

In Cernan’s scribbled personal notes, organizing his thoughts before drafting The Last Man on the Moon.

“In the Apollo 17 crew’s dinner menu right after splashdown. “Mare Imbrium Papaya,” for the record, sounds delicious.”

And in the photographed eyes of a young man applying for the NROTC in 1952, not yet aware of the adventures ahead of him.

The Eugene A. Cernan papers promise no more or less than any archival collection: to provide a slice of insight into the shared experiences that shape human lives. But it’s the promise that’s special—the promise of personal enlightenment through the embrace of our collective past. Eugene Cernan has opened the record of his past with this notion in mind, and it’s closer than you might think.

Editor’s Note: Essayist Brian Alberts is a graduate student within the Purdue University Department of History. He served as a graduate research assistant within Archives and Special Collections and was part of the team that processed the Eugene A. Cernan papers.

Space Age Philosophy: Wonder in the Archives

When we think of philosophy, if we think about it at all, it is very unlikely that we associate philosophy with archival research. Maybe we think of the problems of freedom, or personal identity, abstract metaphysical issues, or ethics. But philosophy and the archives seem an odd couple.

As a graduate student in philosophy and literature, I suffered from the same prejudice when I arrived in the Barron Hilton Archives for Flight and Space Exploration. Although the Flight Archives are unique for their emphasis on science and engineering, and of course for the incredible historical significance of items housed in collections such as the Neil A. Armstrong Papers and the Eugene A. Cernan Papers, I didn’t see the philosophic potential of the archives at first.

Michel Foucault, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Michel Foucault, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

For much of Anglo-American philosophy, the archives are a foreign place. The most well-known use of the archives in philosophy is probably by Michel Foucault (1926-1984), a French thinker famous for his genealogical arguments based on extensive archival research. His writings on madness and the modern prison system are hallmarks of structuralist and postmodern philosophy.

Foucault himself is often studied as a “Continental” philosopher, a representative of postmodernism in the 20th century, but his particular method of archival research is rarely discussed, and never taught as a methodology available to students of philosophy. Given philosophy’s centuries old love-affair with science, we should all be pleased to learn that the archives are a place rich with materials teeming with philosophic potential.

In this post, I want to focus on one collection in particular that displays the potential for philosophical investigation. The Archives for Flight and Space Exploration houses tremendous philosophical resources when we begin to appreciate archival spaces as a place where philosophy can thrive.


Dramatic photo of Bruce McCandless’ untethered spacewalk courtesy of NASA

Philosopher Shaun Gallagher has recently accomplished a remarkable research program looking at the relationship of astronaut experiences of awe during spaceflight to similar accounts of spiritual or religious experiences. Collections like the Neil A. Armstrong Papers, the Eugene A. Cernan Papers, and the Jerry L. Ross Papers – all house in the Flight Archives – could be used to further research in the direction first indicated by Gallagher and his team. Early accounts and rare personal reports of historic events in the history of space flight open new interpretative doors to philosophers wishing to understand human cognition when it is pushed to its limits – both in the sense of the need to perform demanding technical labors, and in the struggle to makes sense of radically new and unprecedented experiences of space.

armstrong x15 cockpit_0001

Armstrong in the X-15, circa 1960. NASA photo. Part of the Neil A. Armstrong Papers at Purdue Archives and Special Collections

Philosophers of mind and science will find much of value. In one of over 450 individual speeches contained in the Neil A. Armstrong Papers, Armstrong elaborates on the role of the X-15 as a “theoretical aircraft.” That is, the X-15 had, from Armstrong’s perspective, no practical purpose. It was designed and flown with only the idea that it could and would push the boundaries of what was humanly and technologically possible in the realm of high-speed, high-altitude flight. It was a plane built for theory, not practice. Of course, many groundbreaking advances in flight science and technology resulted from the X-15 project, though when the aircraft was conceived these advances were in no way predicted or even predicable! They were the result of chances and great risks taken by the men and women of NASA and the experimental test pilots who flew these challenging new jets.

Every stage of the X-15’s development is covered in the archives. From early documentation of its design, to the simulator training that prepared pilots for the X-15’s demanding environment at extreme altitudes, to the reports that document the pilot’s experience of sub-orbital flight in a flying machine that had no precedent in human history.

Armstrong strapped into a flight simulator during the X-15 program, circa 1960

Armstrong strapped into a flight simulator during the X-15 program, circa 1960

The photo to the left, part of the Neil A. Armstrong Papers at Purdue’s Archives and Special Collections, gives a sense of the experimental nature of the X-15 flights. Here we see Armstrong in a simulator, hoping to be as prepared as possible to face relatively unknown flight conditions, and to test the predictive capabilities of science and engineering. Philosophers have pondered over the predictive powers of science since at least the 1600s, and here in the Flight Archives, we see how strong those powers are. Using available mathematical models, together with mountains of data gathered via weather balloons and other high-altitude aircraft, experimental pilots like Armstrong dared to fly under dangerous conditions with only the confidence that the numbers were correct – to a point – and that these pre-flight results were sound enough to risk life and limb to confirm in experience. Subsequent first hand analysis of in-flight experiences reveal the intricate feed-back loops of hypothesis formation, experimental confirmation or refutation, and hypothetical conjecture that lead to ground-breaking advancements in space age technologies that we now take for granted as commonplace.

Thus, not only are philosophers offered a previously unknown level of behind-the-scenes access to the historic US space program, they are also now able to observe the process by which scientists and engineers worked together across many disciplines in order to accomplish some of humanity’s greatest feats of technical know-how: like landing the first people on the moon and returning them safely to Earth.

Armstrong prepares experimental equipment on the lunar surface during his historic moonwalk in 1969, photo courtesy of the Flight Archives

Armstrong prepares experimental equipment on the lunar surface during his historic moonwalk in 1969. NASA photo. Neil A. Armstrong Papers at Purdue Archives and Special Collections


The confrontation between human beings, their environment, and the technologies that enable us to explore this environment and adapt to its most extreme conditions raise deep philosophical questions about the exploratory nature of humanity and our quest for knowledge. This quest has led us far from home, and continues to prod us toward unknown worlds.

These invaluable resources provide a glimpse at science in action at a time when new discoveries in physics and engineering were routinely put to the test in do-or-die circumstances. The huge volume of professional communications and scientific reports contained in the Neil A. Armstrong Papers would themselves keep philosophers occupied for years to come.

Since my time in the archives, and particularly my work processing the Neil A. Armstrong Papers, I have grown accustomed to the idea of the archives as a place for philosophy. Only a brief review of some of the collections housed at Purdue’s Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections would be enough to convince many skeptics that, indeed, philosophers could benefit from exposure to just a fraction of these materials.

I know I will be incorporating archival resources into my own philosophical projects in the future – hopefully expanding work I’ve already conducted on the philosophy of mind. I invite my fellow philosophers to join me as we all search out new and exciting opportunities for the simple awe and wonder with which all true philosophy begins.

More information on the work of Shaun Gallagher can be found here: http://chdr.cah.ucf.edu/spaceandspirituality/

More information on the Neil A. Armstrong papers can be found here: https://apps.lib.purdue.edu/archon/index.php?p=collections/controlcard&id=149

Editor’s note: Essayist Donovan Irven is a doctoral candidate in the interdisciplinary program for Philosophy and Literature at Purdue University.  He is also the graduate assistant for the Barron Hilton Flight And Space Exploration Archives within Purdue University Archives and Special Collections.