Our Astronaut Friend Is Now Gone

This year on tax day, 4/15/19, the amateur radio community lost one of its most famous members, Owen Garriott, W5LFL, who died at his home in Huntsville, AL at the age of 88. He became famous when he was the first ham to communicate with other hams from space, aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on December 1, 1983.

I was living in Los Angeles at that time, in a neighborhood called Little Hancock Park, just south of Hollywood. My ham station was in a room above our detached single car garage. The ham community in Los Angeles had a very good relationship with the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, probably many who worked there had ham licenses. Very early in the Space Shuttle program, JPL got permission from the FCC to broadcast the live shuttle audio on ham radio repeaters in the Los Angeles area. That meant we could all listen to the complete shuttle audio for those flights using our hand-held transceivers, about twice the size of a large modern smartphone today.

Just being able to listen to the Shuttle audio was cool enough. But in 1983 we got word that the Columbia was going to have a ham aboard and he might make an attempt to talk with hams on earth from the spacecraft while in space. Of course exact timing was known for every single pass of the Shuttle over any given location on the earth. So when we got word of the date and time that he would be passing over, we were ready with our hand-held transceivers below.

The frequency Garriott used was a VHF frequency that works for line of sight FM radio communications. As the Shuttle went by overhead, there were no obstructions of any kind between the space shuttle and the rest of us hams on the ground below. The pass would only last for a minute or two. So we had to have an exact time set on a clock, with our HT’s set to the pre-announced frequency when he came overhead. I was ready when the time came and I was quite shocked at how loud and clear his signal was!! I called him with my two watts of power and I was pretty sure he responded to my call sign, as well as to the call signs of many other hams in the LA area. It was a very very exciting time! And in no time at all, he was gone past our horizon.

It had not occurred to me for an instant to try to record one of these passes. But it did for Steve Yates, AA5TB, in Fort Worth. He made two recordings, which can he heard here and here. And now Owen Garriott is gone from this life. And sadly the Columbia space craft he was aboard back in 1983 was the same one that exploded during re-entry on 1 February 2003 as it returned from space, killing all seven astronauts aboard. We will always remember Garriott and the Columbia as vivid and exciting memories. RIP W5LFL!

This was written in and posted from MarsEdit, my second MarsEdit posting. Ron