At 7.15 pm on Monday, 25 January 1991, my telephone rang and a voice at the far end said: "Would you be interested in set­ting up an Amateur Radio experiment linking to the Soviet Space Station Mir?" I was delighted to help and so began some of the most hectic months of my life.  The back­ground to this remarkable telephone call was pieced together over the days which followed.  The ‘JUNO Mission’ was the operation to put a British astronaut on to the Soviet space station Mir.  A national competition was organized to find a poten­tial astronaut.  It attracted 13,000 appli­cations and by November 1989 these had been reduced to four finalists from which two, Helen Sharman and Tim Mace, were selected.  They began astronaut training in Moscow the following month, in time, one of them would be chosen to go to Mir.

Our school, Harrogate Ladies' College in the north of England, was chosen to coordinate the Amateur Radio link as we had become well known for our train­ing of students to take the Radio Amateurs Examination.  Amateur Radio is a fascinating hobby where enthusiasts all over the world transmit to each other on licensed frequencies.  They often build some of their equipment and experiment with antennas and the properties of radio transmission.  There are many aspects to this hobby.  Some like simply to chat to their friends in the next town or across the world by voice. Others use morse code, computer data, or even special television formats to transmit their messages.

By 1991 30 girls at the school had achieved their transmitting licenses and we had built a fully equipped Amateur Radio station in the school which included transmitters for world-wide operation and Amateur satellite transmissions.

 

Mission Impossible?

At the beginning of February 1991 I started to plan for the spaceflight in May.  We invited nine other schools from across the UK who had Ama­teur Radio stations to take part in the radio link.  At first there seemed little chance of success in getting the project off the ground since there were two major obstacles which seemed almost impossible to overcome.  Firstly, neither Tim Mace nor Helen Sharman held Amateur Radio licences.  I contacted the government authority which issues radio licences, the Radio Communications Agency (now Ofcom).  Would they be prepared to grant a licence to a non-amateur for this very special occa­sion and how about unique callsigns never before issued?  After a pause at the other end of the telephone line came the message "We'll ring you back in a few days".  True to their word a call came through -''Yes, for this very special event we shall amend the rules and grant the licences and special callsigns."  Helen Sharman was allocated the callsign GB1MIR, Tim Mace GB2MIR, and the ‘JUNO Schools’ GBOJUNO to GB8JUNO. Helen and Tim's licences were granted on the basis that they would receive amateur radio training (which took place in Moscow).

The second problem turned out to be much more difficult to solve.  The Soviet company NPO Energiya was organizing the experiments for the JUNO mission.  Could we persuade them to allow the Brit­ish astronaut to take time from their busy schedule to talk to school pupils?

I had been given the name of Boris Ste­panov who was in charge of Amateur Radio training of Soviet cosmonauts.  I began sending messages to Boris outlin­ing our plan and asking for his help in per­suading NPO Energiya to consider our case.  Boris was very willing to help but warned that such things take time.  How right he was!  By April we had the UK schools planning in place but as yet no con­firmation from Moscow that we could go ahead with our transmissions to MIR.


Star City

On the 12th of April I received a message to say that it may be worthwhile if I could go to Moscow in person to meet Boris.  I needed no persuading to make the trip but had only a few days to make the arrangements as I had to catch Boris on his return from Austria on the 22nd.  Initially I was told that a visa to permit my visit would not be possible to arrange at such short notice but eventually was given the vague hope that if I presented myself at the Soviet consulate in London the day before my flight, I might possibly stand a chance of getting one.  I did so, and after hours of queuing I was finally handed the vital piece of paper.

 My all-too-short weekend in Moscow was a most exciting times.  In contrast to the drab surroundings of a very misty and wet Moscow the friend­liness of many of the Russian people I met was amazing.  I took the opportunity of seeing the usual tourist sights of Red Square and the Moscow State Circus on the Saturday whilst on a walking tour of the city.  On Sunday morning I still had a day to kill before the meeting with Boris on Monday and so I called Helen Sharman in Star City on the off chance that she might be able to speak to me (Star City is a pur­pose-built town about 40 kilometres outside Moscow where past and future cosmonauts live and train).  Helen answered my call and said that she would like to come down to Moscow for a meeting but she and Tim were now restricted to Star city as part of their pre-flight quarantine regulations.  However, if I could make it to Star City, she would ensure that I was admitted by the guards.

I set off on Sunday evening on a crowded train which very slowly ground its way through the Moscow suburbs into open countryside and on to Star City.  After some negotiation at the guardroom, I was allowed in and there was Helen waiting to meet me.  After walking through the wooded outskirts to the cosmonaut town, we reached Helen's apartment block.

Shortly before my visit Helen had learned that she had been selected as the primary astronaut and Tim Mace would be the back-up in case of illness.  Tim joined Helen and myself and we spent a fascinating evening hearing of their experiences during training and talking of our planned experiment.  I handed over a packet of 250,000 pansy seeds to be exper­imentally exposed to the space environ­ment and Helen and Tim's amateur radio licences.  

They found it amusing to read the licence clause which read "Station to be established in 'Earth Orbit', this licence to be available for inspection by the authorities at the station address"!

The meeting with Boris the next day went well and although he could not give absolute confirmation to all our plans, he indicated that we were to be allowed to have some of Helen's time whilst in orbit to perform the Amateur Radio link.

 

Tracking Mir

The timing of the JUNO launch was slightly delayed until Saturday 18 May, with Helen due to return one week later.  At the "JUNO" schools excited prepa­rations were taking place.  A competition was held at Harrogate Ladies’ College to come up with interesting ques­tions to ask Helen.  The winner was Katy from Ripon in Yorkshire with the question "If you had no clock on board Mir, what would give you a sense of time in space?"

 Our transmitting antennas were set up to track Mir across the sky by linking them to a computer. The program to do this takes mathematical equations and applies them to figures called Keplerian Elements which are provided by organi­zations such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) who measure the exact position of spacecraft.  Unfortunately, just before Helen joined Mir, its rocket motors were fired to lift it into a slightly higher orbit so our data fig­ures were now wrong and new ones could not be obtained.  We had to make many tests and calculations to give us an approximate tracking path.  Since each pass was only about ten minutes long, an error of a few minutes would be disas­trous.  Even worse, our rotator control burned out on the day of launch.  This involved dismantling the antenna system in record time to replace it!

Six national and local television and radio crews wanted to be with us in Harrogate for the first contact with Helen.  As our radio room in the school is quite small, we had to knock a large window through a brick wall in order for the crews to point their cameras into the "shack" (this is what Radio Amateurs call their radio room).

Six of our girls at Harrogate Ladies' College held Amateur Radio licences at the time, Debbie, Olivia, Nadia, Pippa, Kerry, and Anna-Karin. We had arranged a rota for them to be on call to communi­cate with Helen and to pass her over to the other schools.

 

GB1MIR Calling

On Monday 20 May we were informed that Helen would probably make first contact on Wednesday but that we should be pre­pared to listen on the Tuesday passes just in case she became available.  The television and radio crews arrived on Tuesday morning to set up their equip­ment and we checked and double-checked our arrangements.  The first passes at 3 pm and 5.30 pm came and went with no sign of Helen's voice.  We were disap­pointed but finally at 8.37 pm we heard Helen calling us in Harrogate "GBOJUNO this is GB1MIR calling".  The atmosphere was electric, television cameras started to roll as we made our call back to her "GB1MIR, GBOJUNO calling, hearing you loud and clear Helen. . ."  Helen replied but then lost our transmission.  What was wrong?  She was a strong signal but she was having difficulty hearing us even though we were using a powerful beam antenna and moderate transmitter power. The problem lay in those approxi­mate calculations we had performed to track Mir.  Our antenna was only a few degrees in error but she was receiving much background interference from Ama­teur Radio stations across Europe and our signal was not getting through.  We adjusted our tracking but by this time the pass was over.  Good news however was that she had made contact with one of the other schools.

The next pass at 10.12 pm was much better.  Katy asked her question and was thrilled to hear Helen say "That was an ace question.  We have 16 sunrises and sunsets on Mir in 24 hours so one earth day is like sixteen to us."

Over the next three days, Helen was available for less than half of the 12 passes we had hoped for. The background noise for her was very high but despite this she managed to make contact with six of the nine ‘JUNO’ schools and a number of children had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of hearing an answer to their question direct from an astronaut in space.  She talked about her training, weightlessness and what it was like to wake up in space feel­ing that she was sleeping upside down!

Our school also had the experience of being cel­ebrities for a short period of time.  When not on duty in the "shack", the girls were always in demand by television, radio and newspaper reporters.

We have been asked on several occasions since Project JUNO, what was the point of our Amateur Radio link?  The answer is the encouragement and scientific stimu­lus it gave to hundreds of school children who heard direct communication between schools and the first UK astronaut.  It also stimulated many more girls at Harrogate Ladies’ College to join their fellow pupils in obtaining an Amateur Radio licence and join in with the further four contacts we made over the following years with astronauts and cosmonauts.  By 2012 over 200 girls at the school had passed the examinations to obtain their own Amateur Radio callsigns.

Richard Horton G3XWH