The F-Word is the F-Word – Even in Outer Space
My Most Memorable Experience
Here's something career-related I will never forget. I was a kid fresh out of college, in my first “real job.” My title was assistant public information officer at a place called the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). It is the non-profit, national educational organization for amateur (ham) radio operators in the USA.
I wrote and edited messages for membership recruitment, generated publicity for all the good deeds ham radio operators did during emergencies and disasters and contributed to the organization’s monthly journal and their bi-weekly newsletter.
This was a great and fun opportunity since I used my writing and editing skills at a place related to my ham radio and electronics hobby. Plus, I met some very interesting and odd and funny characters at that organization. I have many great memories and stories about working in my hobby field, and this is just one of them.
Magazine cover photo featuring astronaut Owen Garriott operating his two-way ham radio in zero gravity aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. QST cover image courtesy of ARRL.
An Important Mission
One of the greatest and most exciting ham radio education and publicity events took place when I was there. Astronaut Owen K. Garriott, a ham radio operator who spent 60 days aboard Skylab in 1973, was granted permission to operate a ham radio station aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia during mission STS-9 / Spacelab-1 in November 1983.
For the first time, ordinary people on Earth were able to communicate directly with an astronaut flying in space. This was a tremendous opportunity to expose the benefit of this obscure technical hobby. This joint NASA-ESA mission accomplished several goals, including proving the value of ham radio as a backup communication system on space flights, getting schools involved with local ham radio clubs to help teach science, electronics and space technology, culminating with a live conversation with Garriott in space. Garriott made many two-way radio contacts with several international dignitaries.
My assignment during this mission was to gather, edit and report news information about Garriott’s ham radio activities to the worldwide press at the NASA-Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. Because the ham radio activity was perceived as a “non-critical” part of the true mission, Garriott operated his ham radio station during his break times.
This exciting event and the mission filled with many firsts includes two of my most memorable experiences: The first ham in space and a very small "sidebar event."
The Sidebar Setting - Like a Scene in a Movie
At the NASA public affairs office (PAO) newsroom - all reporters from all over the world were assigned their own workstations: A desk, a telephone, a chair and a lamp. We used 300 baud modems and FAX back then. I had a small electric typewriter. It amused me that several professional news reporters used Radio Shack Model 100s connected to a telephone line.
During space missions, live video and sound are continuously broadcast to the ground stations, and most of the audio and video is not shown on the news. Transcripts of all conversations are recorded and printed and distributed the following day. The PAO had TVs and a sound system all over the facility - continuously feeding everyone the live audio and video from the spacecraft.
Transmitted audio from the spacecraft is controlled by a switch, with two selectable functions: Push-to-talk (PTT), in which the person speaking pushes a switch to transmit his voice, or voice-activated transmit (VOX), which is handy when the person speaking must use his or her hands to perform some task. It is the same as “hands-free” mode on a cell phone.
If you watched the 1995 movie “Apollo 13” starring Tom Hanks, you may recall the scene where Captain Jim Lovell and Fred Haise had a loud argument about something, and they were caught with an “open mike” (“hot” or turned-on microphone). The function switch was in the VOX position, and everyone on the ground, including all the NASA officials and management, heard the argument clearly.
Beware of the Hot Mike
This happened in real life during the SpaceLab 1 mission, and I was there to see and hear it in person.
One day, German astronaut Ulf Merbold was performing an experiment. . . . all of a sudden, he yells, "AH, F***k it!" over the communication channel. (His knee kicked a switch accidentally and he had to start over.)
The entire newsroom went totally quiet for a half a second - and then everyone broke out in loud laughter.
Can you imagine a room with hundreds of people from all over the world - all laughing at the same thing at the same time?
That was a precious moment, and it is my most memorable experience.
The next morning, I rushed to the press room to get the daily transcript of all the space to ground transmissions. And, sure enough - the un-edited phrase was there in black and white, and in print. That transcript is buried in some file box in my garage. I must find it, since it is a souvenir I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Who knew my ham radio hobby could turn into such an enormous achievement?
After this first event experience, I participated in two additional SAREX missions, “on loan” from my later employer. Basically, it became a “paid vacation” and a chance to meet others in the space business.
About Wayne Yoshida
Wayne Yoshida is a technical writer and education advocate with sales management experience. Wayne currently works in the alternative fuel vehicle (AFV) industry and has worked for a wide variety of high technology companies, including aerospace and defense, photonics, lasers and opto-mechanics, two-way radio, telecommunications and a non-profit, educational organization. His personal passion for electronics and Amateur Radio opened many doors to some very interesting personal and professional experiences. Working as a ham radio consultant for the NASA Johnson Space Center during Space Shuttle mission STS-9 is his most memorable experience. Connect with him on LinkedIn and beBee, and for a look into his personal passions, follow his blog.