In early December 1961, a United States Air Force rocket took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying a special payload. The main payload was a Corona surveillance satellite, but tucked just aft of that spacecraft was a tiny package of homebrew electronics stuffed into something the looked like a slice of cake. What was in that package and how it came to tag along on a top-secret military mission is the story of OSCAR 1, the world’s first amateur radio satellite.
The Sputnik Crisis
The late 1950s were a tumultuous time in a lot of ways, but the 1957 launch of Sputnik by the Soviets really kicked things into high gear. In a single day, humanity had been transformed into a space-faring species, a fact anyone could witness just by looking into the sky around sunset as that polished sphere orbited the planet. And you could listen in, too – Sputnik’s 20 and 40 MHz beacons were easily picked up on shortwave sets. Amateur radio operators all over the world tuned to Sputnik’s beacon. In fact, the first re-broadcast of Sputnik’s signal to the general public was courtesy of the Columbia University amateur radio club; members recorded the signal and played the tape over the university’s FM station, beating NBC to the punch.
The “Sputnik Crisis” that ensued was a catalyst for a lot of the changes that led to the world we know today; after all, one of the agencies created to deal with Sputnik was the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, which later became DARPA and led to the Internet. But Sputnik also had immediate effects, two of which would combine to make an amateur radio satellite a reality within a few short years. First, Sputnik provided focus for a struggling American space program; beset by a very spectacular series of public failures, Soviet success provided the impetus for the Americans to start getting things right on space delivery systems. And three weeks of listening to the simple shortwave beeps as Sputnik orbited inspired some hams to dream an audacious dream – to build and launch their own satellite….READ MORE
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