Space radio monitoring stations appearing in the media during the early space age

Sven Grahn

The SOHIO station

At the Standard Oil (Ohio) SOHIO Research Laboratory, in Warrensville Heights, Ohio the staff operated a satellite tracking station as an extra-curricular activity and called it Project Moonbeam.

The satellite trackers at SOHIO used radio interferometer methods to track early U.S. satellites on 108 MHz (18). Two Yagi  antennas were mounted on an east-west line. The director of the tracking station during the period 1958-1964 was Dr A.L. Jones. He was succeeded by Robert Thompson, who ran the station from 1964 until it ceased operations in May 1965. In 1963  Dr. A.L. Jones and his associates at the SOHIO Research Laboratory in Cleveland received the Aviation Week and Space Technology Laureates Award for achievements in operating a private satellite tracking station which provides so much valid data on Soviet space flights.

Mr. Thompson told Popular Mechanics (11) that the station tracked all of the Vostoks and Voskhods on shortwaves. From other reports we know that the SOHIO station picked up

It seems that the SOHIO tracking station eventually acquired a steerable 28-foot dish antenna that was donated to the Ohio University Radar Hill Laboratory, operated in the 1960s and 70s by the Avionics Research Group of the Department of Electrical Engineering.

Haverford College, Pennsylvania

Dr. Thomas A(lonzo) Benham (1914-2006) at Haverford College in Pennsylvania was an early radio tracker in the U.S. (He graduated from Haverford in 1938).  I first read about him in the transcripts of the U.S. House of Representatives hearing on Lunik-1 in May, 1959 (16) where he described how he used radio equipment in his home to track the Sputniks and early U.S. satellites. He used a Hammarlund HQ-120X communications receiver (0.54-31 MHz, manufacturing started in 1938) and a half-wave dipole antenna oriented north-south for 20 MHz and a frequency converter and az-el steerable antenna for 108 MHz, which was used for early U.S. satellites. He also described how he failed to pick up Luna-1 on shortwaves despite being able to receive Sputnik-3 (at 0430 a.m. local time on 3 January 1958) at the same time.

Professor Benham was a blind (since the age of two) teacher of physics with a keen interest in electronics during the early Sputnik era. He had his own recording company through which he published science recordings, TABEN Recordings (Thomas A BENham = TABEN). One of these records has survived to this day. The record "Voices of the Satellites" from 1958 contains recordings of Sputnik-1 and (purportedly) -2, Explorer-1,-2 and -3 as well as Vanguard-1. The recordings are narrated by Dr Benham and are quite fascinating to listen to (17). From the record we can learn that Dr Benham:

The picture on the right shows Professor Benham's children listening to signals from space.

George Caplan wrote (24)"When I was in junior high school, I would ride my bicycle to Haverford College and help Professor Thomas Benham. I was in his WWII radar trailer when he heard signals from one of the satellites. I think its was Sputnik, but I might be wrong about that. I painted the roof of that trailer, and I helped him with other things. (I sometimes helped him use his table saw. Remember: He was blind!)"

The Wilhelm Foerster Observatory, Berlin

In the early space age reports of reception of signals from Soviet space vehicles and analysis of their missions (e.g. 13) often came from the Wilhelm-Foerster-Observatory (abbreviated WFO here). In 1953 the Wilhelm-Foerster-Institute had become the Wilhelm-Foerster-Observatory and the first scientific director became Adolph Kunert. The new observatory building, conceived by Hans Bassen, was finished in 1963 at the top of the 78 m high "Insulaner", which was raised from remnants of WWII. This "mountain" is placed in Berlin-Schoeneberg near the city train station Priesterweg. located on a 75 meter high mound in Berlin.

The WFO and its satellite tracking station was led by Harro Zimmer for more than 20 years. Mr Zimmer, later became a science broadcaster for RIAS-Berlin (Radio In American Sector) and Deutsche Welle. He also participated on the Viking mission in the Physical Properties Team (1976). The satellite tracking station co-operated with SAO, NORAD, USAF and other US agencies. WFO received element sets from NORAD through its AIG 7064 network (AIG=Address Indicating Group) via teletype until October 1977.

Very little was known at that time in international media about this observatory (I am sure German media gave the observatory reasonable coverage). Still, there is no comprehensive account of the observatory's activities. The only major article I know about is a newspaper article written by the news agency AP back in 1966. The picture on the right is taken from an old newspaper clipping with this article (14). In the article the 31-year old director of the operation, Harro Zimmer is interviewed. He explains that the observatory was able to pick up shortwave signals from Soviet space vehicles even when they sat on the launch pad (9). Many years later I contacted Mr Zimmer about this fascinating statement and he explained:

"After a quick look on my old papers here a short description of our observations. At first a remark: In the sixties and early seventies we had ..... no exact information about the lift off time. But the scheme in general in a retrospective interpretation: T - 5 minutes strong FSK signals on 19.995 MHz. T +/- 0 the transmission stops and was registered again T + 06-09 minutes later with intensity and frequency fluctuations." (10)
The WFO seems to be the only non-government monitoring station in the West that actually heard voice from Vladimir Komarov when he piloted the ill-fated Soyuz-1.

The WFO was well-equipped for really serious space tracking work (See note about NOGOTON receiver, 12):

An examle of the kind of satellite tracking work that the WFO did is described by Harro Zimmer in a contribution to the list server SeeSat-L:

" ... for 1971-067C, #5382, LOADS 2 (Low Altitude Density Satellite) or better known as CANNON BALL 2. Around that time (1972) as I was the head of an US government supported satellite tracking station in Berlin we were engaged in this program. This heavy 65 cm spherical satellite (mass 364 kg) dipped at perigee deep in the atmosphere 100 +/- 05 km -  was a difficult object for optical tracking. As I remembering correctly there were some observations from Russell Eberst. We had done mainly radio tracking. There was a radio beacon on board (136.53 MHz) [SG's comment: also on 136.86 MHz] ..."

The Enköping Monitoring Station, Sweden

The Swedish Telecommunications Agency's reception and monitoring station at Enköping outside Stockholm often figured in national reporting about early space exploits. In fact the station often realyed very intersting stories about Soviet space events.  It also made headlines internationally.

Here is a description of the fate of the station that Christer Streiffert one of the last to work at the station sent me:

"The radio station at Vallby outside the town of Enköping near Stockholm was established in 1938 by the Royal Telegraph Administration (as it was them called). It was exclusively e receiving station. The site was manned around the clock and it was used for telegram traffic to other countries. Transmitters were located elsewhere in the country and remote controlled from Enköping. In addition monitoring activity intended to check compliance with radio regulations of all radio traffic in Sweden was located here. At the time this meant all frequencies below 30 MHz. In the 60's commercial aeronautical short-wave radio traffic also was handled by the station, i.e. telephone calls to Swedish airliners around the world were handled through the site. Gradually telegram traffic ceased as an operational activity and the aeronautical  traffic became remotely controlled from Stockholm. The only activity left was the monitoring service, and in the 90's even that moved to Stockholm with the equipment being remotely controlled from Stockholm. "

The station was now managed by a new entity, the PTS, Sweden's equivalent of the FCC, created after the Telecommunications Administration had been converted into a corporation, and  telecommunications in Sweden deregulated. The building has now (2002) been sold to a company that now runs a fruit winery in the old station building. The radio equipment is still there but the PTS now rents the space for the radio gear from the wine maker!

The pictures below were taken by myself when I drove out to the site, about 45 minutes from my hone, on 7 August 2002.

Here is an excerpt from Mikael Börjeson's web site describing how the Enköping station picked up Sputnik-1, that momentous day many years ago:

" ... September 1955 - With Härnösand Radio in progress to be closed, my parents and I move 500 km south, to Enköping and my father starts working as chief radio signal controller at Enköping Radio, in Vallby, 10 km outside the town of Enköping.

Oct. 1957 - Doing his normal duty as radio signal controller, in the night of Oct. 5, my father was randomly scanning around the short frequency bands when his attention was called by a weak signal with a strange fading pattern. After a few minutes of experienced analysis he classified the the fading pattern as a very unusual doppler-effect, probably caused by a "radio transmitter orbiting around the globe" at high speed. The "Sputnik", launched by the Soviets 1957 Oct. 4, was discovered in West - by my father. Bringing the message out, political and military reactions were immediate, especially in the United States. The Soviets percieved capability of "hitting anywhere from above" in fact became a main trigger for launching the United States military research program ARPA. The organizational foundation for the Internet, now being the main professional interest and occupation for me. ..."

The Enköping station and the media

The Enköping station appeared in media coverage of Soviet space events many times during the early space age. Below, I have summarized the most important instances.
Picked up on short-waves until 0300 UT October 25 (1)

15 May 1958, 2132 UT
16 May 1958, 0747-0751 UT
19 May 1958, 0520-0533, 0701-0716, 0844-0858, 1405-1414 UT. (4)
16 May 1960, a.m. 15-20 minutes per pass. (23)
28 July 1958, 1311-1314 UT, 1504-1509 UT. (2)
11 October 1958, 0855-0901 UT, 1321-1335 UT, 1655  UT (3)
3 Jan 59, 19.993 MHz,: 0024 UT, 0058-0118 (at least) UT, 0314- UT
Many observations of beacon on 19.995 MHz, See separate article.
Beacon picked up 1 Dec 1960. (5) until 1937 UT, the returned 2238 UT (6)
Many observations of beacon on 19.995 MHz, See separate article.
Vostok-3 and 4
Plenty of voice picked up. See separate article.
Vostok-5 and 6
Beacon and voice picked up. See separate article.
Beacon picked up throughout 12 Oct 1964 until 1845 UT.(7)
Beacon and voice picked up. See separate article.
Beacon on 20.009 MHz picked up. (8)

The reception of Explorer-4 on 28 July 1958 was unusual, since most receptions had been made on short-waves. However, Explorer-4 was picked up on 108 MHz on two passes, the first at 20 degrees maximum elevation and the second at 13 degrees maximum elevation from the monitoring station. Explorer-4 had been launched from Cape Canaveral at 1500 UT on 26 July 1958 in to an orbit between 257 km and 2213 km at an inclination of 50.2 degrees. The map below shows the ground track for the satellite during receptions on 28 July 1958.


  1. Swedish daily Expressen, 26 October 1957
  2. Swedish daily Expressen, 29 July 1958
  3. Swedish daily Expressen, 12 October 1958, p.6
  4. Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet, 20 Dec 1958, p.8
  5. Swedish daily Aftonbladet, 1 Dec 1960, p.1
  6. Swedish daily Stockholms-Tidningen, 2 Dec 1960, p.1
  7. Swedish daily Aftonbladet, 14 Oct. 1964, p.7
  8. Swedish daily Aftonbladet, 26 April 1970, p.7
  9. I have always wondered how that was done. The spacecraft is enclosed in its shroud and the transmission antennas all folded up. Probably, there as a "finger" mounted on the inside of the shroud that touched the rolled-up antennas on the spacecraft and was connected to the outside of the shroud via a ceramic feed-through. A normal long wire or other short-wave antenna could then be connected to the feed-through transmission line.
  10. E-mail from Harro Zimmer, 8 Aug 2002
  11. "The Russian Spacemen who weren't there. Part 2", Lloyd Mallan, Popular Mechanics, July 1966.
  12. NOGOTON was the trade name for the Norddeutsche Gerätebau radio factory in Delmenhorst.
  13. Flight International, 25 June 1968, Harro Zimmer identifies Kosmos-198 as a completely new kind of space vehicle
  14. Newspaper clipping from unknown paper supplied by George Aaron Bailey.
  15. Voices of satellites, TABEN recordings, 1958.
  16. Hearings before the Committee on Science and Astronautics and Special Subcommittee on Lunik Probe, U.S. House of Representatives, eighty-sixth Congress, First Session, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., 1959. The hearings were held during the period May 11-29, 1959.
  17. The record by Dr Benham has been made available to me through the gracious efforts of George Aaron Bailey.
  18. Pierce, Donald E., "Simplified Gear Provides Much Data", Missiles and Rockets, March 16, 1959, pp.29-33.
  19. "Polyot Maneuvering Claim Questioned", Aviation Week, 11 Nov 1963, p.29.
  20. "Problems with Voskhod 2 Flight Cancels Rendezvous", Aviation Week, 29 March 1965, p.24.
  21. "Vostok 5 may have separated too early", Aviation Week, 24 June 1963, p.35.
  22. Aviation Week, 20 August 1962, p.36.
  23. Local Swedish Daily Enköpingsposten, 17 May 1960.
  24. E-mail from George Caplan, 8 June 2012. 

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