In writing about radio experimentation from space, the most difficult task is that of acquiring information firsthand. Everything on the internet is just in bits and pieces or in the form of a .pdf to be used in an educational setting. Individual accounts, however, are scarce. So, when thanks to a comment left in our previous article, we managed to get in touch with Louis McFadin, W5DID – we felt that it was a special moment.
Louis, we might add, who is still an active OM today, worked for NASA in various capacities, many of which themselves dealt with “ham radio” experimentation conducted from space, as with SAREX. It seemed appropriate, considering his kind disposition to being interviewed, to try to tap into those aspects which on-line material is not able to address in more detail.
Before talking about your work, let’s talk about your passion for radio: how did you end up with an amateur license ?
I have been interested in ham radio since high school. We had a ham radio club at my high school and they stirred my interest. My father was always working on radios and electronics. That also was an inspiration to me.
You worked for NASA from 1967 to 1995. What was your role exactly, and what led you to work at the Agency?
I have been interested in space travel since I was a small boy. We lived in west Texas and I used to move my bed outside during the summer so I could watch the stars until I went to sleep every night. I loved all the radio programs about space travel. I promised myself that I would go to space someday. Well, I din’t get to do that but many things I made have gone to space.
I worked in many roles while at NASA. I started working as an engineer designing instrumentation systems for the Apollo program. That lead to designing experiment systems for Apollo and the Lunar Orbit Experiments. I was the project manager for one experiment on Apollo 17 and another on the Apollo Soyuz program.
How and when did the idea of experimenting with Amateur Radio from space take shape?
And what was the most exciting?
When I got a chance to work on the first ham radio for manned space, I really got into it.
I think that first hand set Owen Garriot W5LFL took up was very exciting. Then Tony England’s ham station was even more exciting since it included SSTV and Packet along with voice.
What was the biggest challenge in dealing with ham radio from space?
The difficulty convincing the NASA managers to take it on board.
How would you judge the contribution from amateur radio entities, like ARRL, to the experimentation process?
The ARRL has always been very supportive of what we were doing. They even provided funds to help purchase the materials.
In terms of VHF/UHF, just about everything has been experimented with: voice, packet, sstv, and so on… We never had HF from the Shuttle, Mir or the ISS. Why?
HF is a very difficult thing to do from the Shuttle or Space station. It requires a long antenna and high power. It also takes a ham radio operator that is willing to tune around and search for stations. Most Astronauts and Cosmonauts only want to make a quick contact and then get on with other duties. There are also safety concerns with transmitting high power. We have had many discussions about that. Right now the demand for return in the educational benefits doesn’t support “rag chewing” like hams want to do.
You worked with several astronauts throughout your career. What kind of attitude have you noticed when it comes to ham radio experimentation?
Attitudes vary, some are very excited and really enjoy it. Some don’t mind talking to schools but have very little interest otherwise. Some don’t want to be bothered with it.
ISS astronauts are taking advantage of ham radio to talk to schools and answer students‘ questions nowadays. If you were working still, what kinds of new experiments would you suggest?
I would suggest doing some scientific experiments such as in the HF propagation area. There are many other things that could be tried.
Are you still active as an amateur operator? How would you judge the changes to our hobby during all these years?
Yes I have a fully capable satellite station. I get on the Amateur satellites when I can.
As someone who spent right at thirty years at NASA, how did you feel when the Shuttle program ended, earlier this year?
I felt we should have had a replacement capability before ending the Shuttle program.
Photo credits: Fabiano Moser PY5RX
Thanks to the precious work of Francisc Grunberg, YO4PX, owner of the amateur radio focusized blog http://yo4px.blogspot.com/, our W5DID interview has been translated into Romanian and can now be read in that language by browsing at http://yo4px.blogspot.com/2011/10/louis-mc.html. Franscisc, further than a professional translator, is an experienced OM and it can be interesting, especially for the ones among us considering every right nothing but natural, to read about the “race with obstacles” he had to undergo to obtain his license during the “iron curtain” Romanian years. On this matter, he wrote three articles: “Dictators and Amateur Radio” (published on the April 2010 issue of “CQ” magazine – http://www.southgatearc.org/articles/yo4px/dictators_and_amateur_radio.htm), “Errare Humanum Est” (out in June 2010 on “World Radio Online” – http://www.southgatearc.org/articles/yo4px/to_err_is_human.htm), and “The Race With Obstacles” (http://www.southgatearc.org/articles/yo4px/the_race_with_obstacles.htm).