OUTERSPACE AND CYBERSPACE
FOLLOWING MIR-18 FROM THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
BY BILL, N2CQR/HI8
LISTEN TO AUDIO CLIPS FROM CONTACTS WITH MIR AND THE SHUTTLE!
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It was 5 a.m. on Easter Sunday and my receiver was tuned to 145.55 mhz. This promised to be an interesting pass. The timing was right. It was noon in Moscow, so it was a good time for Norm to be on the air. On March 14, 1995 Dr. Norman Thagard had become the first American to ride into space aboard a Russian rocket. Two days later his Soyuz vehicle had docked with the MIR space station. Norm had settled in for a three month stay... and had quickly become very active on 2 meter FM voice.
Here's my satellite ground station!
The skies over my Santo Domingo ham shack were unusually clear that Easter morning and my tracking program revealed that conditions were perfect for an "eyeball contact" with the huge space station: The sun was far enough below my horizon for my skies to be dark, but it was close enough to the horizon to illuminate the MIR as it passed overhead. I would be in the earth's shadow, but the spacecraft would be in sunshine!
Right on cue, I started picking up signals from space. R0MIR was in contact with a group of schoolage hams in Carolina who had gotten up very early to talk to an astronaut in space. KD4SFF, KE4PYL, KE4WKE, KE4YCI and KD4KBO were asking Norm about life on the MIR. He told the youngsters about watching lightning from above and about the problems of sleeping in weightlessness. (He said it's better to sleep in a tethered sleeping bag because if you float around you bump into things and this wakes you up!) Mid-way through the ten minute pass, I left my tape recorder running and stepped out into my front yard. There, high in the moon-lit sky was a bright object with a steady light moving rapidly to the southeast. MIR was heading for South America at 17,000 miles per hour!
Norm Thagard's MIR-18 mission made history for the space program and provided radio amateurs the opportunity participate in a great adventure. I think the nature and length of Norm's mission created a special interest among U.S. radio amateurs. The fact that he was "up there" for several months meant that - unlike the week-long Shuttle missions - Norm's operation became a part of our daily schedules for a prolonged period. Also, the fact that he was a lone American living for a prolonged period on a foreign space station created a special desire to give him a friendly call.
All around the world hams made unusual adjustments to their day-to-day routines based on the MIR space station's orbit and the Moscow work day. (The MIR crew followed a work/sleep cycle based on local time in Moscow.) Hams went to work with orbital schedules in their briefcases... and stepped out to their cars (to their mobile rigs) to catch a MIR pass. I suspect that, like me, many were very discrete about this activity: An annouoncement to co-workers that, "I'll be back in ten minutes - I'm going out to my car to talk to an astronaut," might have led to suggestions about a need for counseling! The local newspaper here in Santo Domingo carried a story about a ham in Cuba who succeeded in contacting Mir. The headline was "Strange Occurence" and the story's tone was distinctly UFO-like. It all really was kind of "unbelievable."
Norm Thagard's easy-going operating style was another important reason for the special interest. From the earliest contacts it was very clear that we had a friendly "rag-chewer" up there - a ham who was willing to chat just as if he were located across town instead of on the other side of the Earth's atmosphere. I spoke to Norm about my job at the U.S. Embassy here in Santo Domingo; he told me how he had been attached to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow during preparations for his MIR mission. I mentioned that I'd seen him on CNN the night before - he said his "shack" was located just where the CNN interview was video taped. Frequently Norm would comment on the view from his window... and I once had the chance to tell him how MIR looked from the earth!.
Norm shared with us many interesting details about the problems of life and work in the space station. One day he told of having had to stay up late to wait for the arrival of an unmanned Progress 227 resupply vehicle. He had to cut another QSO short so that he could take a breath sample as part of his medical research. In one contact I heard Norm commenting about the problems of "getting up there" in age (he's 52) while living in orbit! It was all very familiar - friendly banter about the day's activities... but at the same time it was as exotic as outer space!
Norm Thagard's operation led to the development of an impromptu "cyberspace network" of MIR watchers and MIR listeners. On the COMPUSERVE system, discussion of MIR was concentrated in the AMATEUR SATELLITE section of the HAMNET forum. Participants included hams from throughout the U.S. (including Jim, KL7QR, in Alaska); Jan, ZS6BMN, in South Africa; Dave at HZ1AB in Dharhan, Saudi Arabia; Maggie, VK3CFI, and Bill, VK3JT in Australia. Con, W5BWF, kept up-to-date Keplerian elements (orbital data) available for us and provided reports from Texas.
Astronaut Jay Apt, N5QWL, was the most distinguished participant in our MIR cyberspace network. Jay frequently contributed reports on contacts he'd made with MIR from the Johnson Space Center Amateur Radio Club.
On April 12, Jay told us that he'd contacted R0MIR and had been able to wish his colleagues there a "Happy Cosmonautics Day." A year earlier he'd extended the same salutation to an orbiting MIR crew, but on that occasion he too was in space, transmitting from the Space Shuttle Endeavor!
Jay's most memorable posting came on April 14. On that date, MIR had a pass over Houston an hour or so after local sundown. Jay told of how he had sat out on his dock and watched MIR pass overhead. What made the event very special was the fact that Jay had that day been assigned to a mission that would take him to the MIR: In August 1996 Jay will fly on Space Shuttle mission STS-79, a mission that will dock with the Russian space station. The COMPUSERVE system carries many reports from amateurs who've observed orbiting satellites, but reports from people who will soon visit their observation targets are very rare!
Communication on the cyberspace network was almost as much fun as the direct 2 meter activity. At my location, MIR passed by only 2 - 4 times a day for a maximum of about ten minutes each pass - not exactly a lot of air time! The computer network provided compensation. Here it was possible to compare notes on MIR contacts with hams from around the world. There was a lot of mutual support. At one point Jan, ZS6BMN, in South Africa was looking for a MIR contact. He posted a message saying that he feared Norm might not realize that there were hams in South Africa listening for him. In his next QSO with Norm, Jay Apt passed the word that there were ZS stations listening. Soon the bulletin board contained a report on a nice contact between Jan and R0MIR. Thirteen year-old Toby, ZR6BBK, also benefited from this cyberspace support - he logged a contact with MIR shortly after ZS6BMN. Jan was pleased to give Norm a new country - Norm told him that as a youngster he had operated as K4YSY but had never been able to work ZS-land!
In early May 1995, the MIR's crew got the space station's packet radio system back on the air. This was a very important development, because other than the Shuttle flights and the telemetry beacons from DOVE, the MIR provides the only regular opportunity for hams equipped with standard packet equipment to carry out digital space communication. Soon 145.55 was buzzing with the sound of MIR packets. The packet operation gave earthbound hams a real sense of "connection" (in more ways than one!) with the MIR operation. In mid-May the MIR crew had to engage in several lengthy space walks to reconfigure the station in preparation for the June arrival of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. At one point, the crew had difficulty in reconnecting one of the solar panels that had to be moved. For a few days they had had to leave it lashed to the side of the space station, unconnected. Jay Apt posted a message explaining that this had caused a power deficit on the station and had obliged the crew to shut down the packet system's laptop computer. A few days later I was listening to the BBC while driving to work (SWL mobile) and I heard a report that the space walk to reconnect the panel had been successful; I knew the packet system would soon be back on the air. I felt very "connected" to the MIR mission.
On May 6, 1995, Jay Apt posted a message on the COMPUSERVE system reporting on a contact he'd made with Norm. During the radio contact, Norm had commented that he was begining to feel a bit cut off from current events - he wasn't getting much in the way of news reports. Jay asked if someone with a good packet radio system might volunteer to upload (literally!) news reports for Norm. N6JLH in California came to the rescue; Jay later reported that this station had done a great job in getting news up to our man on the MIR. _____________________________________________________________ __
The Dominican Republic was a good location for contacts with MIR. Sometimes as the space station headed northeast over the Atlantic, a look at the tracking program would show that I was probably the only "satellite ground station" in MIR's footprint. Once I found Norm calling CQ... with no one answering! On these occasions I could call R0MIR without worrying about denying another ham a "first QSO" with Norm. My station was very simple - I used an old Yaesu memorizer transciever with 10 watts out. My antenna was a 5 element Quad made out of scrap lumber, refrigerator tubing and a TV rotor. Later I acquired an old Radio Shack 2 meter hand held radio that allowed me to monitor MIR from work - at the appointed moment I'd discretely take a ten minute "MIR break" and step out to the Embassy's tennis court. I suppose onlookers thought I was making a routine cellular phone call.
Here's the antenna that I used to work Mir: scrap lumber, PVC, and refrigerator tubing!
MIR will continue to provide exciting "space DX" in the months and years ahead. NASA plans seven Shuttle-MIR docking missions between 1995 and 1997 as part of preparations for the construction of the International Space Station (begining in 1997). Ham astronauts and scientists will continue to take up residence in the MIR. During the docking missions, earthbound hams can use their tracking programs to predict passes during which it will be possible to see the MIR and the Shuttle approaching for rendevous! The upcoming EUROMIR mission promises to be very interesting: German space explorer Thomas Reiter is set to spend 135 days aboard MIR beginning in August 1995. Thomas is studying for his ham license and plans FM voice and packet operations on the 70 centimeter and 2 meter bands. Stay tuned!
On July 3, 1995 the Space Shuttle Atlantis was docked with the MIR and the combined MIR/Shuttle crew was engaged in a press conference. I was listening to a simultaneous HF retransmission of the event (provided by WA3NAN). I was very pleased to hear Norm comment on how his ham radio contacts had helped him cope with his long trip away from home. That evening, after consulting the tracking program, I sat out on the front porch and watched Atlantis/Mir float across Santo Domingo's sky. The next day, the two spacecraft seperated and Norm was on his way home. Atlantis returned to the Kennedy Space Center on July 7, 1995. Mission accomplished! FB!
One of my last voice contact with the Mir was on April 22. I had just finished watching a TV presentation of the movie "The Right Stuff" (the story of the Mercury Astronauts). Embued with enthusiam for man's adventure in space, and thinking of the dramatic word's spoken by mission control as John Glenn blasted into orbit, just as MIR was about to slip below my northern horizon, I wished Norm 73 and closed with... "Godspeed Norm Thagard!"
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