How I caught "The Space Bug" and somehow started tracking satellites by radio

Sven Grahn, Sollentuna, Sweden

Trains, Locomotives and Aeroplanes

My technological preferences as a boy started with trains and locomotives and then moved to aeroplanes. An old fabric-covered biplane, a de Haviland Dragon, took me into the air for the first time and aviation seemed to be the closest to heaven that a boy could get. Spaceflight just seemed frightening after having seen the science fiction movie "Destination Moon" where the space travelers experience all sorts of horrifying adventures in their travel to the Moon. But, history had something different in store for my generation.

Catching the "space bug"

In November 1957, at the age of eleven, I finally caught the "space bug" when the Soviet Union launched "Lajka" into space. I then realized that human spaceflight and perhaps people traveling to the Moon would happen in my lifetime! My head spun with the thought: "I will live to see this happen." Just a few days earlier I had seen Sputnik 1, or what everyone thought was Sputnik 1. I had been with my father at a gas station in central Stockholm filling up his model 1954 VW "Beetle" when the bright twinkling light spot generated by the last stage of the rocket that launched Sputnik swept across the sky. It made a deep and lasting impression.

My first "hands-on" contact with space technology came in the summers of 1962-64 when I worked as a rocket assembly technician during the sounding rocket launchings from Northern Sweden in cooperation with NASA to investigate the so-called noctilucent clouds. This was a great experience for a teenager, but it ended when Sweden joined the European Space Research Organization and the makeshift summer rocket base manned by grammar school and university students was abandoned in favor of professional operations at ESRO:s new base in Kiruna in the northernmost corner of Sweden. In October 1964 I started studying for my Masters degree at the School of Engineering Physics at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. I was longing for a new "hands-on" connection with space technology.

The "Lucky Strike" of 1966

During the early years of the space age there were often newspaper reports about radio amateurs picking up radio signals from Soviet space satellites - even hearing cosmonauts talk. If radio amateurs could pick up these short-wave signals (usually near 20 MHz) so could I! In October 1964, the same month I started my courses at the Institute of Technology I bought a Lafayette HE-30 short-wave receiver paying, the (to me) astronomical sum of 30 at the local electronics shop. I was still living at home and I convinced my parents I needed to string copper wire antenna across to a concrete wall on the opposite side of our yard. The HE-30 lacked one crucial feature: an accurate tuning dial, and it also lacked the standard remedy to this in the days before digitally tuned radios - the crystal calibrator. So, I really did not know exactly to which frequency the radio was tuned. I tried to find the exact frequency 20 000 kHz, but it was not until late 1965 that I was able to pick up the U.S. time signal station WWV that transmits at exactly 10, 15 and 20 MHz. So, finally in late 1965, after a year of trying, I was able to set the dial to the most common Soviet satellite frequency on short waves, 19995 kHz. I was quite busy studying, so I did not expend much systematic effort in trying to find signals from Soviet satellites. To be successful I needed an element of luck.

My first radio, the Lafayette HE-30..all tubes...

On the 7 th of January 1966 I came home at 1.30 p.m.. My father, uncharacteristically, was home from his work as purchasing manager of a newspaper. When I came through the door he said that the radio news an hour earlier had said that the radio observatory in Bochum in West Germany had announced that they had picked up signals from a newly launched Soviet satellite. I switched on the HE-30, checked that it was tuned to slightly below 20 MHz and sat down at my desk with my textbooks. At 3 o' clock I heard something from the radio that I thought sounded just like a satellite "beep-beep". I recorded it, it faded out after 7 minutes, came back an hour and a half later and also the next day. I was pretty sure that this must be the Soviet satellite Kosmos 104 that the newspaper reported the next morning.

However, what good is it to finally hear signals from a satellite unless you can share the excitement with someone? I had read two articles in FLIGHT International about satellite tracking work done at the Kettering Grammar School. These people obviously would be able to positively identify my recordings as genuinely coming from the Kosmos satellite, I thought. So, I wrote to Geoff Perry at the address "Kettering Grammar School, Kettering, England", including a little tape reel with the recording of my signals. I got a prompt reply a week or so later recommending me to listen to Kosmos 105 that had just been launched into orbit and buying myself a good stop watch to get more accuracy into my reception reports. (I still have the old Omega stop-watch and I still use it while tracking satellites). The spring of 1966 brought a long string of discoveries. Being a new enthusiastic tracker I was glued to the radio. I stumbled upon the beacon signals from the recovery capsule of the Kosmos satellites when they were landing on the steppes of Russia, while Geoff discovered Plesetsk. I was hooked - to satellite tracking and to the "Kettering Group" - and I still am 30 years later.

Why is it so addicting to track satellites launched by a secretive society? I think the attraction lies in the fact that you get a feeling of participating in great events while being able to use use scientific method to deduce the characteristics of the satellites that we track and future twists and turns in the Soviet (nowadays a much less secretive Russian) space program. Geoff was very good at making it fun to use deductive logic and basic physics and math. I also think that Geoff and Derek (Derek Slater, the Chemistry Master) took a a certain pride (which I share) in doing all these things with relatively simple means. Our radios and computing method were almost always at "the trailing edge of technology", but I think Geoff regarded this as yet another pedagogical advantage. The use of simple methods puts emphasis on the deductive and "basic physics" part of it all. This was all the more evident to me after having visited Kettering in September of 1967 and the physics lab in (pardon me for spelling this out so explicitly) the awfully ugly edifice of the school. The few radios in the corner of the lab really epitomized what I think should be the credo of every scientist or engineer: "Do more with less".

Kettering Group Logo

The logotype of the Kettering Group

The video clip below shows my satellite tracking setup in 1966.

[Sven's Space Place]
[Space Tracking Notes]

Copyright 1996 Sven Grahn