How amateur radio fanatics launched the world’s first private communications satellite

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There is more more than 1,600 CubeSats orbiting the Earth, of which more than 1,000 will be launched in 2020 alone. But while these inexpensive little satellites made space more accessible to college classes, small businesses, and more, their precursors date back to the start of the space age.

Discover OSCAR 1 – the first small private satellite in space.

Groups like the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation (AMSAT), an international confederation of amateur radio operators, have been flying small private satellites for years, long before the first CubeSats flew in 2003.

“CubeSats actually started with AMSAT, but unfortunately they didn’t get a lot of credit for it,” said Lance Ginner, former Lockheed satellite technician and amateur radio enthusiast. Reverse.

Ginner would know. He was there at the very beginning, 60 years ago, for the design and launch of OSCAR 1, which made history in many ways. It was:

  • The first small satellite
  • The first private non-government spacecraft
  • The first spacecraft to hitchhike on another launch

It took time, entire working lives, but virtually everything that made the commercial small satellite industry of the 2020s possible was there in embryonic form on a launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base on December 12, 1961.

OSCAR 1 and AMSAT, “from my point of view,” says Ginner, “absolutely invented the genre.”

OSCAR 1, the first amateur satellite in space. Lance Ginner

What is amateur radio?

Amateur radio, often referred to as amateur radio, derives its name from a derisory term for clumsy telegram operators in the 19th century, called “ham-fisted”. The name reflects that technicians are, well, amateurs, often experimenting with the form in a legally permitted manner.

Operators broadcast on several wavelengths using commercial equipment. It is a space for amateurs a few notches above the citizens’ group radio in terms of range and distance signals can travel. Radio amateurs often talk to each other on the same frequency. It is one of the first major technological subcultures of the 20th century – and one that was poised for the space revolution.

The beginning of amateur space radio

An amateur radio operator active as a teenager, Ginner was 21 when he accepted a technician position with Lockheed Missiles and Space Company in Sunnyvale, Calif., In 1960.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but I was extremely lucky,” Ginner says, “because the space industry was just getting started. “

The Soviet Union had launched the first satellite and man-made spacecraft, Sputnik 1, three years earlier, and the United States followed suit with Explorer 1 in 1958. The first crewed space flights would take place in 1961.

Among the many ham enthusiasts working in the space and electronics industry in what we now call Silicon Valley, the idea to jump into the action was born. Hams at Lockheed introduced Ginner to the concept of attaching a small satellite to the Agena-A spacecraft Lockheed was building for the Air Force. “It really intrigued me, and I was just in the test area where we tested the [Agena], “he says.” That’s when I got involved.

This involvement was not limited to helping to design and build what would become OSCAR 1. It was a plunge into the depths of national security policy.

“Just taking a walk was all political,” says Ginner. “Just huge conversations that got beyond me when I was 21.” The Hams wanted to attach a civilian-made spacecraft to a US Air Force spacecraft performing a classified reconnaissance mission. It took heavyweights to make this happen, like Republican Senator Barry Goldwater and Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay.

“It was a big step for the Air Force to let us jump on their mission,” Ginner says, though he hardly waits. “We started building the satellite before we actually got the clearance.”

Ginner and his ham-loving colleagues have dubbed their satellite Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio, or OSCA. The group of hams that built it in their garages and in their spare time was called Project OSCAR.

OSCAR 1 installed on board its launcher. Lance Ginner

What is OSCAR 1?

OSCAR 1 was a metal box, slightly curved, measuring 30 by 25 by 12 centimeters and weighing just under 10 pounds, a design born out of the crude need to hitchhike wherever she could on an Agena spacecraft from the Air Force.

“As you can see, in some photos it kind of fits into a little storage hole near the engine,” Ginny says. “So the shape was determined by where we could put it. ”

There was some discussion about whether to try to deploy OSCAR 1 or keep it attached to the Agena, Ginny says, but Project OSCAR ultimately wanted to have a free-flying spacecraft. “I think the Air Force probably liked that as well, because they didn’t want us to continue taxiing on their classified payload.”

Like Sputnik, OSCAR 1 would be a beacon, transmitting only a repetitive signal. Sporting a two-foot antenna to transmit a simple Morse code message, “Hi” on the 144.98 megahertz frequency using a two-meter wavelength, OSCAR 1 did not broadcast with much power. Semiconductor electronics, especially transistors, were just starting to become an alternative to much larger vacuum tubes, Ginner says, and “at that time there weren’t any transistors that really produced power. energy at this frequency. We are talking about tens of milliwatts.

Ultimately, Hams’ social network with daytime jobs at Silicon Valley companies turned out to include hams from Fairchild Semiconductor International, which provide transistors the company was developing that weren’t yet on. the market or even named.

OSCAR 1 aligned with other sats of the time. Lance Ginner

Launch of the first small private satellite

When the time came to launch OSCAR 1, the OSCAR Project Hams put together the 1961 equivalent of a live broadcast event. “How do you get the word out to the world? Ginner said. “We had a huge facility at Foothill College with [high-frequency radio] communications and networks. All this before the Internet, of course.

It worked. OSCAR 1 successfully drove a Thor-DM21 Agena B into space on December 12, 1961, split up and began transmitting to the delight of enthusiasts around the world. In the process, he beat Telstar 1, the world’s first commercial spacecraft, in the span of seven months.

“It was easy to receive. You could pick it up quite easily, ”Ginner says. “Back then you wanted to catch every pass. So every hour and a half or so, you’re in the ham shack, following this thing and counting the rhythm of the beeps.

They learned a lot from those beeps, Ginner says, in part because their beat was synchronized with a temperature sensor. “Satellite thermal control was very, very new,” he says, and they took their best shot, painting OSCAR 1 with metallic scratches but not quite nailing it down. “The temperatures on OSCAR 1 were pretty hot and we changed that design for OSCAR 2. OSCAR 2 lasted longer and the temperatures were, you know, a lot more benign. “

OSCAR 1 eventually transmitted for about three weeks, its batteries running out on January 1, 1962 – “there were no solar panels at the time,” Ginner notes – and it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere more late in the month.

OSCAR’s legacy

The OSCAR project would ultimately fly five similar satellites with capabilities gradually extended to space. For example, OSCAR 3 was a transponder that sent and received amateur radio signals. The project was eventually integrated into the new AMSAT organization founded in 1969.

AMSAT took the concept and used it, launching more than 100 subsequent OSCAR satellites of different designs over the following decades. The most recent satellite launched in June, MIRSAT-OSCAR 112.

“AMSAT is still pretty big,” Ginner says. “They are doing cutting edge engineering, which is as good if not better than what can be done in the private sector.

OSCAR 1 may look quaint in the age of mega-constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink, but the original small satellites remain the forerunners of much of the commercial space industry today. And some of them are still there, like AMSAT OSCAR 7.

“What’s really cool is that the amateur community is big enough to listen to the old satellites, and sometimes they come back on the air,” says Ginner. AO 7, as it calls it, was launched in 1974 and ceased to operate in 1981.. ”

Ginner’s memory of the OSCAR project was also rekindled. When you are preparing to speak with Reverse, he realized that this would be the 60th anniversary of the launch of OSCAR 1 on December 12th.

“My grandson is now the same age he was when this all happened,” he says. “It was a good race.”


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