A Front Row Seat
Space seems like a far away place that only nation states and large well financed companies dare to go and only the best funded minds can get a first hand glimpse of the goings on ‘out there’. In “Dawn, this is Golden Eagle”, Sven Grahn provides a motivational summary of a radio satellite tracker’s career and reveals how anyone with the interest and aptitude can obtain a front row seat on the goings on in space with the most modest means.
The Book’s Spec’s
The book is 222 pages long and consists largely of a chronological account of Sven’s satellite tracking history from his perspective. He avoids delving into other’s projects too much and maintains his focus to document his activity for the historical record. This is the central focus of the book.
Detailed appendixes and other tables and charts are provided to provide the reader with easy reference to historical or even possibility contemporary information if needed.
Accounts by Richard S. Flagg, Robert Christy and Mark Severance are also provided at the end of the book.
A View into the Legendary Kettering Group
The Kettering group which formed around the teacher Geoff Perry in the 1960’s at a boy’s school in England is the glue that holds Sven’s tracking efforts together for decades. Sven describes his early days and how he kitted up and began hearing real satellites both manned and unmanned making history as they orbited the Earth. Meanwhile using primitive communication methods by today’s standards maintains constant contact with other members of the Kettering group as his observational skills grow. Unlike today where communication is relatively easy to establish in the late 1960s one needed to be patient or enjoy paying large telephone bills. Sven shares many stories of how he stalked and made sense out of the signals he was hearing and placing those observations into context given his correspondence with other observers. Sven muses about how one obtained membership in the legendary Kettering group…
Today, some of the group remain active in satellite tracking but as the group has aged is the younger generation picking up the hobby? There are many barriers to becoming a satellite tracker these days unlike when Sven started there isn’t a mysterious ‘evil empire’ plotting to take over the world to create all the drama needed for a great spy novel.
Sven provides page after page of true scientific effort as he outlines his methodical and detailed approach to documenting his observations. He maintains actual audio recordings for decades and presents many modern reanalysed datasets he obtained literally decades ago providing the reader with new historical insight into the history of many fascinating missions. The graphs, analysis and insight into the various missions are without equal in published literature on these topics and provides a motivating benchmark if not a text book example on how to document and interpret satellite signal intelligence from an amateur perspective.
The fact that the methods are not the same as we use today to track and monitor satellite activity doesn’t distract from the awe I found in a story Sven shares where he and fellow tracker Dick Flagg request and interpret a photographically recorded spectrum plot from a professional radio observatory to test a hypothesis. Years later they obtain a poor quality Xerox of the data and make a stunning discovery about their quarry. The patience they demonstrate is truly awe inspiring. We use the same techniques today and seeing them play out in the age of analogue is fascinating!
Drum Beat – Soviets in Space
The volume of the book is dedicated to the manned soviet space program beginning in the late 1960s through the 1990s. Much of the information presented is extremely interesting and may already be known by any space enthusiast reader. What is new is the perspective of hearing the history of these missions from a first hand radio observer perspective to give a new context to the history, live from the front row…
The history of the early manned Soviet space station projects is nicely documented and key observations and insight are provided to help the reader build an understanding of the observations and how they build brick by brick into a complete understanding of the present Russian space program that we all see in the lime light today.
Astronauts around the Moon
Sven shares his experience of observing the Apollo 17 mission and the live monitoring of communications from the Moon. He takes the extra effort to share his primary documents of the event to ensure there is no doubt where he was aimed and what they did to accomplish this feat with tracking partner Dick Flagg. This is the earliest S-band reports Sven documents in his book. The art and science in 1972 to pull this off was somewhat overwhelming to think about these days!
China’s First Steps in Space
Sven had a professional relationship with the Chinese space program. In his writings he provides a very nice early radio observation history of the Chinese program. The details and how he made some very stunning interpretations of a spacecraft’s condition from limited radio data and un-decoded analogue telemetry are very inspirational as now-a days telemetry is encoded in essentially white noise so our only real way of knowing what’s going on is noting the behaviour of the signal and the unintentional effects that spacecraft rotation, power and lighting having on the emitted signal.
The SDR Era
Sven muses about SDRs and even carries on his work using an early model RFSPACE unit. But it is clear to see that his observational focus has become more generalized as the manned space programs of the late USSR and NASA merge. Late in the book he touches on some experiments to understand the USA’s classified satellite program. Some of those efforts are how I got to know Sven. We traded data and techniques so our modern group of observers could get a handle on various US classified military launches in true Kettering spirit.
An Informal Network…
Sven suggests that joining the Kettering group is now impossible with the passing of Geoff Perry. This in some respects is true. However, there is a new generation of observers and analysts inspired by the work of Geoff Perry and the Kettering group, I being one of them. My defining moment when I became a satellite observer was in the early 1980s when I saw a documentary on the TV show 60 Minutes about the Kettering group and how they with a short-wave receiver could monitor the Soviet space program. It wasn’t long afterwards I was sneaking into my father’s radio shack looking to take my front row seat into the space race! It took me years to develop the confidence and skills to contribute to the hobby but as Sven notes this is a live long journey not a destination.
Is satellite tracking a dying hobby? No, it is not. There will always be those that look up to understand what is going on in space. What is changing is the motivation to do so. The Space Race was a clearly defined period in history that created the perfect conditions for man to aggressively explore space for a period of time and gave many skilled minds like Sven’s a real good reason to look up. What we lack today is the spark to excite many young minds to look up, learn, interpret and share. But there are still those choosing to do so!
Once humanity decides on a destination in space there will be many bound to the Earth setting up their deck chairs in the front row to watch the show and they will likely have Sven’s book on their bookshelf.
If you want a guide on how to setup your chair I suggest you pick-up a copy of “Dawn, this is Golden Eagle”, By Sven Grahn (ISBN 978-91-88823-16-8).