That Time I Talked To a Space Station

I’ve told this story a few times recently in my Facebook groups. It reminded me that the average person doesn’t ordinarily make radio contact with cosmonauts in orbit around the earth. In light of my recent discussion of space and ham radio as they relate to Arecibo (Rust In Pieces), I figure I’ll share that story here.

I’ve been a licensed amateur radio operator since I was 15. I’ve been a space nut my entire life. Of course, it makes sense to combine the two. I’m not the only one who’s done it. In 1983, Owen Garriott brought the first ham radio into space with him aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. When he wasn’t hard at work being an astronaut, he made contact with hams on the ground.

The first ham radio in space.

Of course, the Soviet Union couldn’t let America have all the fun, so their cosmonauts started to do the same. They even issued special callsigns to their cosmonauts aboard the Mir space station. Sergei Krikalev was U5MIR.

Today you can simply go to a website and see where the International Space Station is anytime you want. Before the worldwide web was a thing, there were simple satellite tracking applications you could get to do this. Simply input the Keplerian elements for the satellite you want to locate (basically where it is when, where it’s going, and how fast), and it would tell you when the satellite would be overhead. Fifteen-year-old me was tracking Mir, figuring that with my home station setup I should be able to at least hear the space station while it was overhead for 10 minutes.

Indeed, right on schedule, I heard U5MIR fade in as he came over the horizon, answering calls from the ground. I had a decent but fairly basic base station (a Kenwood TR-7950 2-meter radio, putting 45 watts to a Ringo Ranger 2 antenna mounted to the chimney), not at all set up for working satellites. That didn’t stop me from calling him, though, even though I was realistic about my chances of getting through. Imagine my surprise when he answered “KA1ULT, 5 by 9.” That’s all it was, but that had come from space, from a Soviet cosmonaut! I wasn’t sure it was real, but when I mailed in my QSL card (basically a postcard confirming that the contact happened), I received one back, just like the one in the top picture. There was no question then — I’d contacted a space station!

Krikalev would go on to have the most unique experience aboard Mir. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 while he was in orbit aboard Mir. He had no country to return home to, nor did the newly independent republics have a way to come get him. Ham radio was his primary means of communication to get news about what was going on down there. Eventually they brought him home, but it took a while. He was in orbit for 311 days, twice as long as his original mission. It’s a fascinating story. Since then he’s flown on the Space Shuttle and was part of Expedition 1, the first crewed mission to the International Space Station. Today he’s Vice President of the S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia.

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