In line with World Space Week, we share the story of two Trinity College students who helped create the first Australian-built satellite, and saw it successfully launched into space. (And, yes, it’s still up there.)
In 1967, Steve Howard (TC 1965) sat at his desk in Upper Clarkes and reached for the soldering iron he’d ordered by air mail. In quiet concentration, he fused wires to connectors, assembling a series of little boxes to create a larger one. One of the smaller pieces was stuffed with a scrap of Trinity notepaper – put there by fellow Trinitarian Owen Mace (TC 1965), who had earlier been tasked with ensuring the box’s contents didn’t vibrate when shaken.
Steve’s corridor companions took little interest in the contraption sitting on his desk. To the untrained eye, it looked like an innocuous box devoid of remarkable features. That ‘box’, however, was destined for great things – it was the first Australian-built satellite, and it would one day be launched into space.
For engineering students Steve and Owen, building a satellite had become an all-consuming side project after they joined the Melbourne University Astronautical Society in 1965. One of the society’s chief ‘space nerds’ had made the lofty proposition that the group build a satellite. It was uncharted territory for Australia, but the fact that this particular student was studying law and not engineering infused the project with optimal parts conviction and naiveté. His engineering contemporaries, while slightly more attuned to the complexities of such a feat, had youthful enthusiasm on their side and, backed by fond childhood memories of Sputnik, the project was deemed a goer.
Though the concept was bold, it wasn’t the group’s first experience with satellites, given they had been listening to American weather satellites through self-made radios for some time and were adept at researching, recording and printing transmitted images – providing a valuable service to the Bureau of Meteorology before the bureau invested in its own equipment. (The high-tech action took place in an unused heating duct in Melbourne University’s physics building, with an antenna affixed to the walls of the lift well.) So, really, making a satellite seemed like a logical next step.
Young and naïve didn’t mean witless, for the group was acutely aware that there was little point building a satellite if there was no plan to launch it. So, there was a plan – they’d reach out to the Americans.
In October 1965, the group penned a letter to Californian radio group Project OSCAR, which had successfully built and launched satellites through the US Air Force. In crude summation, the request was along the lines of: ‘Hello, we are a group of students from the University of Melbourne and we plan to build a satellite. Would you help us launch it?’
To which they received a reply some weeks later: ‘Yes’.
‘It was a very simple, innocent world in those days,’ says Steve. ‘The modern-day complications like insurance and legal liability just didn't exist.’
With a launch plan in place, it was time to create. The satellite – which would go on to be known as Australis OSCAR 5 (or AO5 for short) – was resourcefully cobbled together with donated parts, with the shortfall covered by what was considered a hefty sum of $1400, bestowed by the Wireless Institute of Australia. ‘We were students,’ says Owen pragmatically, evoking the threadbare lifestyle of an undergraduate.
As materials were collated and designs were drawn, Owen assumed the role of project manager while Steve got to work on the orientation and stabilisation system, coming up with a novel solution that drew on the Earth’s magnetic field. Dozens of others touched the project during its various stages as it was polished to completion.
After an 18-month build, the big question was whether the thing would work. For a group of space fanatics, presenting a technical failure to the US Air Force would be like tripping in the final straight of the 400 metres at the Olympics. Much of the satellite’s effectiveness hung on untested technology, and in the pre-Google era, the group had relied on a lean collection of not particularly useful library books to guide their project, along with a good dose of lateral thinking.
Steve was quietly confident though. He’d run the sums and studied the theories and, while admitting that their collective understanding of such theories was primitive, concluded that the satellite’s systems would work. When the moment of truth came, he was right, though that moment would take a while to arrive.
The next step post-completion was getting the satellite to America. ‘We thought, wouldn’t it be fun to deliver this ourselves?’ says Owen. So – as near-broke uni students – they approached the newly founded Potter Foundation for help, and the resultant donation made the trip possible for Owen and two other group members. In June 1967, their precious cargo was bundled onto a plane bound for California.
Upon arrival, the students had anticipated that their satellite would be tacked onto a US Air Force launch facilitated by Project OSCAR, but the Americans had a change of mind. ‘If you think about it, this was a foreign satellite built by a bunch of students, planned to go on a highly classified launch,’ says Owen. Though it sounds preposterous that this would have even been considered, the possibility wasn’t completely out of line – even given the prevailing disquiet over the Cold and Vietnam wars.
‘[While in America] we were taken into a room where someone was winding a big fibreglass tube,’ recalls Owen. ‘I said, "Oh, that looks interesting, what is that”?’ It was a Polaris intercontinental ballistic missile. ‘Can you imagine that! If that's not classified beyond top secret and then some...,’ he trails off, still perplexed and impressed by the trusting nature of the Americans at that time.
This disappointing false start saw the satellite shelved in a garage, but in 1969, a newly founded group of amateur radio operators in Washington called AMSAT (shorthand for ‘amateur satellite’) heard of the dormant Melbourne-made satellite and made plans to launch it. Despite their ‘amateur’ badge, AMSAT had a direct line to NASA – and when you know the right people, things get done. On 24 January 1970, Australis OSCAR 5 hitched a ride on a NASA rocket – the first amateur-built satellite to do so – and triumphantly found its rightful place in space.
AO5 began transmitting signals to thousands of amateur radio operators around the world, and the delighted members of the Melbourne University Astronautical Society tracked the satellite’s first orbit from the roof of the physics building.
The satellite continued to send signals in the ensuing weeks, proving the effectiveness of a string of innovative systems, from telemetry to command to orientation. ‘We didn't intend to do any ‘firsts’,’ says Owen. ‘We just did stuff that we thought would be fun and interesting.’
Now, every night around 9.30 Melbourne time, Australis OSCAR 5 passes overhead. While some may classify the now-inoperative satellite as space junk, its eternal orbit serves as a reminder that ignorance and enthusiasm can be invaluable on the journey to discovery and success. And for Owen and Steve, that little piece of Trinity notepaper gives a clue as to where the journey started.
Owen Mace and Richard Tonkin (a.k.a. the law student) published Australis OSCAR 5 in 2017 to document their story, with a second edition released in 2020. Visit atfpress.com
By Emily McAuliffe