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Spacefligth - January 2002

Space for Amateurs
The role of enthusiasts in space exploration and development
By Clark S. Lindsey
Reprint of article in Spaceflight Magazine - British Interplanetary Society - January 2000
(Hypertext links added here to selected text & images.)

Most people today believe that the space arena is exclusively for government agencies and giant aerospace companies. The suggestion of amateurs carrying out space projects seems almost ludicrous because of the huge costs involved.

In fact, amateurs do carry out real and substantial space related projects. Amateurs build and operate satellites, they communicate with space station crews via ham radio, they launch high power sub-orbital rockets, and they make discoveries in astronomy. A long time space enthusiast, Dennis Tito, has even kicked off the era of space tourism.

The broad definition here of "amateur" includes those people who pursue space interests outside of government and commercial organizations. So it includes not just hobbyists but also students pursuing thesis projects and activists in not-for-profit space advocacy groups. Note also that many of those in technical hobbies like building satellites are actually engineers and scientists in their "day jobs" but in their spare time they take part in amateur activities for fun.

Everything initially went smoothly with the powerful 640-kilogram communication satellite. The Ariane 5 launched from Kourou, French Guiana in the fall of 2000 put the spacecraft right on target for its intended orbit and telemetry signals soon came in strong and regular. But then, during a firing of the motor to boost the craft to a higher orbit, the satellite fell silent. Had the motor exploded, nullifying in an instant the decade long struggles of an international development team?

NORAD radar scans, however, indicated the satellite remained in one piece. Perhaps it had simply gone into a temporary safe mode. The dates for two automatic resets passed without any sign of life. Many days of fruitless attempts to contact the satellite passed and hope faded that it would ever awaken. Finally, on Christmas day, a transmitter on the spacecraft responded to a ground command. The satellite eventually returned to nominal status with telemetry remaining steady and systems stable.

Is this the heroic tale of a government or commercial spacecraft saved by an army of professional ground controllers? No, the same small group of talented amateurs that designed and built AMSAT AO-40, formerly known as Phase 3-D (see figure 1), also carried out its rescue.

Early Amateurs

Space enthusiasts have long made significant contributions to its exploration and development. In the pre-World War II period, proponents of space travel met great skepticism and ridicule. Government funding for rocketry was virtually non-existent. So enthusiasts decided to take matters into their own hands and form societies to build rockets and develop space flight techniques and technology. William E. Burrows in his space history book This New Ocean [1] states:

"...ordinary citizens elsewhere delighted in the great space dream, and carried rocketry during the late 1920s and into the 1930s through a network of societies. They showed, at least for a while, that a new technology could be forged by amateurs. Like their counterparts in astronomy, archaeology, and paleontology, they made notable discoveries..."

The British Interplanetary Society (BIS), for example, was founded in 1933 and included both laypersons and a number of scientists and engineers. Arthur C. Clarke was an early member and president. The Society is well known for its many contributions to concepts and designs for reaching and exploring space. It developed, for example, the first genuine engineering design for a moon mission and many of the approaches turned out to be quite similar to those in the actual mission three decades later.

Excited by the breakthroughs in rocket design from Robert Goddard and Hermann Oberth, societies devoted to building rockets formed in countries around the world. During the late 1920’s and 1930s, they managed, on small budgets and volunteer labor, to construct increasingly powerful rockets, including sophisticated liquid fueled vehicles.

The American Interplanetary Society, for example, actually preceded the BIS, forming in 1930, but changed its name in 1934 to the American Rocket Society (ARS). (The ARS later developed into today’s prestigious American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics or AIAA.) Founded by several science fiction writers and aficionados, the group didn’t reach orbit as intended but did succeed to inspire and train many engineers who later worked for the post-war US rocket companies.

While the rocket clubs’ attempts to develop practical applications such as "rocket mail" were not successful, the amateur rockets did manage to get the attention of some governments. The German Society for Rocket Travel, which included Oberth and Wernher von Braun, made such noticeable progress that, unfortunately, the Nazis absorbed it and made it the nucleus of the team that developed the V-2 missile.

Amateur Satellites

The V-2 illustrated to the world in dramatic fashion the tremendous capabilities of rockets and they soon became the serious business of governments and aerospace industries. Huge missile programs in the US and Soviet Union quickly dwarfed anything done by the pre-war rocket clubs. By the time of the Sputnik launch and the creation of the manned space programs, the few remaining space societies focused mostly on education and promotion of space exploration rather than designing or building hardware.

Figure 1. After stacking the Phase 3-D satellite on top of the Ariane 5, a technician removes the protection plug in the motor nozzle. [ http://www.amsat-dl.org/launch/part5.htm]. Photo by AMSAT-DL, Wilfried Gladisch.

However, a new group stepped forward and initiated the most impressive series of space feats thus far achieved by amateurs. Amateur radio operators, or "hams", became involved with space from the moment they picked up the first beeps from Sputnik 1. Soon hams proposed building their own satellites and using them for long-range communication [2].

In the late 1950s a group of California hams organized Project OSCAR (Orbiting Satellites Carrying Amateur Radio). Working in garages and basements and scrounging for parts, they managed to build the world’s first micro-budget micro-sat.

In 1961, just 4 years after Sputnik, OSCAR I rode an Air Force rocket to orbit from Vandenberg AFB, California. Pioneering the technique of "piggybacking" as a secondary payload on the launch of a major payload (in this case, Discoverer 36), the small satellite took the place of ballast and got a free lift to space. Weighing less than 5kg, the battery powered satellite transmitted a beacon that several hundred hams in 28 countries managed to pick up. The miniature spacecraft lasted for 22 days before burning up in the atmosphere.

In 1965 OSCAR III carried the first transponder on an amateur satellite and threatened to upstage Telstar I, the first commercial communication satellite. OSCAR III lasted for more than two weeks and over 1000 hams used it, demonstrating for the first time that multiple ground users could simultaneously communicate through an orbiting transponder.

In 1969 the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation, or AMSAT, organization was formed in the US and soon came to include chapters around the world. One of its initial accomplishments was to arrange a successful ride on a NASA rocket for the Australian built OSCAR 5, or AO-5, which was the first satellite to use a passive magnetic system for altitude stabilization.

Nearly 40 amateur satellites have reached orbit and there has always been at least one operational for the last 30 years or so. Groups in Britain, Russian South Africa and several other countries have built, launched and operated AMSAT satellites. AMSAT now has several thousand members and gets contributions as well from amateur radio operators who make use of the satellites for long distance communications. Donations of equipment come often from industry and government space agencies. Many university groups, such as a famous one at the University of Surrey, also became involved in amateur satellite development.

AMSAT categorizes its satellites according to "Phases". The beacon type, short-lived amateur satellites fall under the category of Phase 1. Those in low earth orbit but in higher orbits for longer life come under the Phase 2 category. Amateur satellites in highly elliptical Molnya-type orbits fall under category Phase 3.

During the slow moving period of the high altitude segment of the orbit, the Phase 3 sats provide long access times and very wide footprints, sometimes wide enough to connect hams on separate continents. The rescued AO-40, a phase 3 satellite, carries high power transmitters in several bands, including microwave, that will allow for lower cost, simpler ground stations, and broaden the use of amateur satellite to a larger range of users.

Most of the 20 or so AMSAT birds now in orbit consist of the Phase 2 MICROSATs. These 22cm cubes hold at least one store-and-forward (SAF) digital transponder. Hams can send a message to the satellite as it passes overhead and another ham on the other side of the world can later request a download of the message. AMSAT pioneered the use of SAF, which subsequently became available on some commercial satellite systems.

Other technologies pioneered by amateur satellites include the Doppler-location technique for search and rescue, low-cost medical data relay from remote locations, and satellite-to-satellite transmissions. In fact, the success of amateur satellites led to the increasing use of small satellites for scientific, commercial and defense applications. No longer is it taken for granted that only the largest possible satellite should be chosen for every application.

Space Age Hobbies

Besides communicating through their very own satellite constellation, amateur radio operators engage in a number of other space activities. Ham stations operated on several shuttle missions, for example, letting astronauts communicate with individual hams and student groups. On Mir the cosmonauts and astronauts grew very fond of their radio station, which, during their long missions, provided not only friendly chats with hams but also communications with family and friends. Following on this success, the International Space Station recently inaugurated a ham radio station as well (figure 2).

Figure 2. Expedition 1 crew member Sergej Krikalyov
at the ARISS amateur radio station in the ISS.

NASA Photo.

Even without a ham license, one can set up a low cost ground station to scan for signals from various spacecraft. A popular hobby, for example, involves receiving images from low orbiting NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency) weather satellites with a simple antenna, short wave receiver, and a PC that runs tracking and signal decoding software.

Other technical space hobbies continue to develop. Advanced amateur rocketry, for example, is making a comeback with a number of groups seeking to break amateur high altitude records. California’s Reaction Research Society sent a payload on a two-stage rocket to 53 miles in 1996, establishing the current record.

Amateurs have long made serious contributions to astronomy such as discovering previously unknown asteroids and comets. One new astronomy hobby involves using telescopes to take detailed pictures of orbiting spacecraft such as Mir, the ISS, and shuttles.

After the cancellation of NASA funding for SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), amateur groups stepped in to keep the search alive. The SETI League, for example, is an organization of amateur radio astronomers that currently operates more than 100 antenna stations in 19 countries.

A broader section of the public can enjoy a number of less technical space related activities such as collecting space memorabilia, attending space camps, and running space simulators on the home computer. Over 3 million people now participate in the SETI@Home project in which a screensaver program searches radio data for signals from our cosmic neighbors.

Space Activism

For the layperson, however, who wants to help humanity develop a robust and expanding space presence, the obstacles to the direct approach - hitching a ride on a rocket to the frontier - have been insurmountable (at least until recently). Instead, the alternative is to become a space activist. Following the approach of environmentalism and other social movements, space activists push government, industry and the public in any way possible for greater progress in space.

Most activists work within one of the many space advocacy organizations. Examples include the BIS, the National Space Society, and the Space Frontier Foundation. These organizations promote space with magazines, conferences, and other outreach efforts. Many groups also pursue political action, which typically means seeking more funding for government space programs but now often involves fighting for special legislation such as tax breaks for startup space companies.

Some activists, frustrated with the slow pace of space development, have decided to take a more direct, hands-on approach. They attempt to design and build hardware themselves, or to fund the efforts of others, and to initiate space enterprises.

For example, the highly successful Lunar Prospector mission, which detected signs of water ice on the lunar poles, actually began as an activist project supported by the Space Studies Institute and the Houston Space Society in the late 1980s [3,4]. With member donations and proceeds from sales of posters and a special space music CD, the project made considerable progress, including the development of an alpha particle spectrometer experiment designed by Dr. Alan Binder. The project reached an advanced design and specifications stage and even got an offer from the Soviet Union for a free launch on a Proton rocket.

However, the project fell short of the $2 million or so in funds and donated hardware needed to complete the spacecraft. Fortunately, Dr. Binder later led a collaboration to win a NASA Discovery contract to carry out the project. Although the activist groups were no longer directly involved, the design progress made from their efforts gave the project a solid base on which to build. Also, when NASA funding problems threatened the Discovery program, activists campaigned to save it and the Lunar Prospector mission.

The Mars Society began in 1998 and is led by the energetic Mars exploration proponent, Robert Zubrin. While urging Congress to fund a robust NASA Mars program, the Society also carries out a number of projects itself to develop techniques and technology for Mars exploration. For example, in the summer of 2000, volunteers assembled a prototype Mars habitat on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic where the stark landscape is believed to be about as close to the surface of Mars as any place on earth. Each summer, a new group of volunteers will return to the base to continue development of the facilities and to test equipment for life support, recycling and other tasks. The Society is also developing a similar project in the American Southwest.

One space enthusiast, Dennis Tito, did possess the resources to hitch a ride to the frontier. It was, however, a space activist, Rick Tumlinson, one of the founders of the Space Frontier Foundation and of MirCorp, who first proposed the space trip to Mr. Tito and convinced him to do it [5].

Synergies in Amateur Space

It seemed quite appropriate that Tito, the amateur astronaut, relied on the space station’s amateur radio system to make calls to his family back on earth. Generally, though, the various amateur activities have not interacted with each other. The AMSAT projects, for example, took place mostly within the amateur radio community where satellites were seen as an exciting but also practical way to supplement their hobby and not as a step towards settlement of the solar system.

Interesting interactions, however, among the various amateur activities are starting to appear. For example, the Mars Society’s Australian chapter has begun a project, along with several other Australian space and university groups, to build a satellite with an AMSAT bus to provide low cost store-and-forward communications among the Society’s various bases, such as the one on Devon Island, and their support facilities. Here we see low cost amateur satellite technology in support of the worldwide research efforts of an activist organization.

In the not so distant future, more such synergies may develop in which many amateur efforts combine to create very powerful space projects. For example, an amateur nano-sat, funded by a publicly supported activist organization, could be sent into orbit around the Moon to return data and imagery for student research projects. Sending spacecraft deeper into space might present communication challenges but perhaps the antennas of the amateur SETI projects could be borrowed to communicate with spacecraft sent to an asteroid or even to Mars.

Space for Everybody

Most people believe that space is an arena where they can be spectators but not players. Governments and commercial companies certainly dominate space activity and will do so for the foreseeable future. Only they possess the resources to create the infrastructure of transportation, habitats, and other technologies required to make access to space possible and life there sustainable.

Nevertheless, private individuals outside of government and industry can still find meaningful ways to participate in space exploration and development. Amateurs have made substantial contributions in highly challenging areas such as rocketry and micro-satellites and activists have successfully influenced government space policy and encouraged, and sometimes even initiated, commercial space ventures.

As the space infrastructure expands and transportation costs fall, we will see more and more opportunities for hobbyists and the general public to participate, either directly or vicariously, in space endeavors. Greater public participation can in turn lead to greater support for government space programs and to more market opportunities for companies as with, for example, space tourism.

Of course, it is not crucial that a hobby affects the course of space history. Whether it’s as complex as building a satellite or as basic as backyard observation of passing satellites, what’s important is that these activities are fun, educational and give a sense of participation and presence on our last great frontier.


1. William E. Burrows, "This New Ocean – The Story of the First Space Age", 1998, Random House.

2. Keith Baker and Dick Jansson, "Space Satellites from the World's Garage -- The Story of AMSAT," National Aerospace and Electronics Conference, Dayton, Ohio, 23-27 May 1994. (http://www.amsat.org/amsat/amsat-na/amhist.html).

3. The Lunar Prospector Team – Houston Space Society website (http://www.houstonspacesociety.org/lpt.html)

4. Greg Worden, Lunar Prospector, Spacecause News, June/July 1995, Num. 95-4.

5. Neal E. Boudette, "Space Buffs Attempt to Make Their Mir Tourist Venture Fly", Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2000.

© 2002 by Clark S. Lindsey

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