In 1957, the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, humanity’s first artificial satellite.
The launch began the space age as countries raced to be the next to get a human-made object into orbit. But the satellite also inspired a generation of kids whose horizons suddenly expanded beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
For Dr Owen Mace, an 11-year-old boy about to start boarding school in Geelong, it sparked an obsession with space that would lead him to join the Melbourne University Astronautical Society (MUAS), and eventually, to building and launching Australia’s first satellite.
“I was a complete nerd. But I arrived at university and there was a group of people who were just as absorbed,” says Dr Mace.
Dr Mace was one of a group of 20 University of Melbourne students who met weekly as the Astronautical Society to discuss satellites, antennas, electronics and all things space.
“We’d discovered how to listen to various satellites and receive weather pictures on the behalf of the Bureau of Meteorology.
“When someone asked ‘why not build our own satellite?’ – we thought ‘sure, why not’.’’
The fact that no one in Australia had made a satellite, let alone launched one, wasn’t an issue.
Told by the ‘grown-ups’ that it couldn’t be done, the group did what all young 22 and 23-year-olds do – they ignored them.
“People we talked to all scoffed at us, they thought we were ridiculous,” says Richard Tonkin, another student who was involved in the project.
“When asked if it was an ‘official project’ we happily replied no – we were just doing it, and we did.”
Realising that there was no point simply building a satellite, it needed to be launched, the group wrote to one of two countries that had successfully launched satellites at that time – the United States.
“Australia had not demonstrated a satellite launching capability at that stage and the only countries that had launched satellites were the Soviet Union and America,” says Dr Mace.
“Obviously, the ‘baddies’ were not a consideration, even if we could speak their language, so an American launch was the only feasible option.”
Fortunately, the California-based Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio (OSCAR) organisation had already launched three satellites and was embarking on its fourth. They were happy to try and called the group’s bluff.
“The replied to us and said if we built it, they’d try to launch it. And that’s all we needed, we went ahead immediately,” says Mr Tonkin.
But the project needed a name.
The group wanted to ensure the project’s roots were reflected, so in 1965 Project Australis was born, with its headquarters in the rooftop garret of the Natural Philosophy building at the University of Melbourne and a postal address care of the Student’s Union.
With virtually no budget, it was time to get this ‘hare-brained’ idea off the ground.
“Everything had to be donated, so Richard and I undertook a publicity campaign in the press, radio and television,” says Dr Mace.
But even so, resources were limited, so the group improvised.
“An oven in students’ digs was used for the high temperature tests and we still wonder if the Glaciology Department was aware that its freezer was purloined to check its operation at low temperatures,” says Mr Tonkin.
“Long before rules and regulations were developed in regards to flying balloons in commercial air space, we launched weather balloons from the roof of the Old Physics building to test transmitters, a command system and telemetry.”
By mid-1967 Australis had been built and tested.
Armed with Australis, Dr Mace, Mr Tonkin and another fellow undergraduate student, Paul Dunn, boarded the plane for a long flight to California.
“Once there we were met with incredible hospitality and saw amazing technology sites including the Apollo modules being made and the first manned one,” says Dr Mace.
“I ended up missing a week of school, but as my Professor had said, that trip taught me more about engineering, technology and life than they could teach me in a year.”
Despite the welcome reception, Australis wasn’t launched this time round. Much to Dr Mace’s disappointment, a satellite from the Weapons Research Establishment – now known as Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Group – was rushed to fly first.
“I still maintain the US Air Force was tiring of flying secondary payloads and no doubt baulked at the notion of a satellite built by students from halfway around the world,” says Dr Mace.
“We returned home to Australia, our satellite unlaunched, to wait for another opportunity.”
After laying dormant in a garage for over a year, in late 1968 a group at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Washington D.C. adopted Australis.
“We were back! Despite being in the midst of the Apollo moon landings in 1969, NASA management agreed to launch Australis. It helped that many of those managers were also amateur radio operators and had briefly read about the story of Australis in the general and amateur radio press,” says Dr Mace.
After this renewed interest, things sped up. The batteries in Australis were refurbished and tested to ensure it would survive the launch and it was ready to go.
On Friday 23 January 1970 at 11.31am California time, Australis was launched as a secondary payload on a Delta rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
“It came up over the horizon, we were waiting and waiting and suddenly, it was there, it was working. We did it,” says Mr Tonkin.
“In orbit, our baby became Australis OSCAR 5, or AO5 for short.”
Australis OSCAR 5, the first student-built satellite, operated successfully and orbited for over six weeks until the batteries exhausted.
One member of the team continued working with AMSAT, the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation and built a complex command system that continues to operate today – the longest surviving earth satellite command system, amateur or professional.
And according to Dr Mace, for the former students involved in the project, it has had a truly lasting legacy.
“A little part of the University of Melbourne is still circling overhead every couple of hours and will continue to do so for another hundred thousand years, give or take a few.”
2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the Australis OSCAR 5 launch. Melbourne School of Engineering is hosting a celebration event with speeches from Victoria’s Lead Scientist, Dr Amanda Caples, and Deputy Head of the Australian Space Agency, Mr Anthony Murfett. To register, please go to the event website.
Banner image: John Monro, Paul Dunn, Richard Tonkin and Geoff Thompson with Australis.