Italy's Amazing Amateur Space Watchers
by J.D. Ratcliff
With homemade electronic equipment, two young Italians are keeping tabs on Russian satellites and making some startling discoveries
There is an eerie possibility that a long-dead Russian astronaut is today hurtling silently through space at thousands of miles an hour - the victim of a Soviet space shot that went wrong. His body perfectly preserved by intense cold, he may be a lonely wanderer in space for centuries to come.
Evidence that such a macabre voyager may exist comes from an exciting new band of hobbyists: amateur space watchers. Like the early ham-radio operators, these talented enthusiasts build their own equipment, often creating for a few hundred dollars - out of such cast - off junk as chicken wire, used pipe, second hand radios - instruments that would cost a government hundreds of thousands. Their eavesdropping on astronauts and their satellite - tracking achievements are impressive even to professionals.
Of the many amateur tracking stations now scattered over the earth, one of the most striking and complete is located in the peaceful little village of San Maurizio Canavese, 12 miles outside Turin, Italy. Although much of the equipment is either homemade or dates back to World War II, it looks thoroughly efficient. Inexpensive kitchen clocks on the wall give Greenwich Mean Time, local time in Moscow, Cape Kennedy and Turin. Operators wear white lab coats. The tracking console faithfully copies the one at Cape Kennedy - ingeniously modeled after photographs and scaled down to one fifth size.
The builders of this remarkable station are two brothers, Achille and Gian Battista Judica - Cordiglia. They got interested in radio as a hobby in 1949 while living at Erba, near Lake Como. Achille was 16, Gian only 10. When they tried to wheedle funds from their physician father to build a shortwave station, he reacted as most fathers would - "Don't waste time when you should be studying." They had better luck with their mother. The U. S. military was then selling off surplus radio equipment at the knockdown price of five cents a pound. The boys bought 300 pounds. After rebuilding it to their own needs, they were soon conversing in code with newfound friends the world over.
In 1959 the family moved to Turin. Satellite launchings had begun, and the boys were fascinated. "There was a new world out there," says Gian, "and we wanted to be a part of it." They decided to concentrate on Soviet rather than U. S. space efforts, because Russia was closer, and because the Russians were secretive, never publicizing shots in full technical detail as the United States does. They installed crude listening equipment in an old World War II German bunker, and shivered through the winter of 1960-61 while they perfected their apparatus. Achille spared all the time he could from medical school; Gian signed up for a correspondence course in engineering, so he could study at the station with his headphones on.
Better quarters came the next year when their father took over a convalescent home in a rambling 16th - century villa at San Maurizio Canavese. Now the boys christened their station Torre Bert (Torre for tower, Bert for Villa Bertalazona, the original name of the convalescent home). They already had a number of striking achievements to their credit. They could listen to conversations between astronauts and ground stations for a few fleeting seconds as the space vehicles passed over Turin. But they wanted to listen longer and to be able to track satellites. This meant they must have a "movable dish" antenna, which could follow objects across the sky and scoop up even the faintest electronic signals from space.
Governments spend millions for such things installed in elaborate layouts - Britain spent $4,500,000 at Jodrell Bank, the U. S. Air Force 15 million at Tyngsboro, Mass. A Turin contractor offered to build a dish antenna for $3200. The boys checked their Torre Bert bank balance - $30. The only solution, of course, was one they had become accustomed to: build their own.
From junkyards they came back with pipe for the antenna framework, an auto steering wheel that could be used to turn it, and truck bearings to carry the ton - and - a - half contrivance. With extraordinary ingenuity they built other equipment: a 4 - by - 12 foot screen that would light up to show the position of a satellite at any given moment; a second screen to follow moon shots; a listening console with three secondhand recorders to tape messages from satellites. In sum, it was a remarkably faithful model of the tracking control room at Cape Kennedy, the far off wonderland of their dreams.
Lacking a library or funds to buy technical journals, the young space watchers had to invent much equipment already in existence, but about which they knew nothing. One example was a filtering device to screen out unwanted noises coming in from space. They also developed methods of determining whether a signal came from the ground or from a moving vehicle. But one of their biggest achievements, which required superb detective work, was determining the frequencies of Russian tracking stations. At present they know the frequencies of six of them and can tune in at will.
As their station grew in complexity, it became clear to Gian and Achille that help would be needed for its operation. Fifteen space enthusiasts, mostly in their early '20s, were recruited. The boys' sister, Maria Theresa, a pert and pretty teen - ager, got one of the most difficult assignments. She was to learn Russian so she could translate messages from manned Soviet flights. She is now fluent in the language.
Next, the boys wanted to organize electronic coverage of the entire earth. Gian's fiancée, Laura Furbatto, was given the job of enlisting other amateur space watchers scattered around the world - from Tahiti in the Pacific, to Angola in Africa, to Argentina in South America. Thus the 17 - station Zeus amateur network was born, hooked together by shortwave radio. Now, when the operators of the little Italian station discover that the Russians are going through a pre - launch rehearsal, they alert the other Zeus stations so that they can be ready to start tracking when the time comes.
Normally on a 12-hour schedule, Torre Bert goes on 24 - hour alert when Soviet ground stations become active. Every team member has his assigned post: two men monitor voices and signals and make tape recordings; two work the dish antenna; and one of the most talented members of the team, a math wizard, operates a hand - cranked calculating machine to figure speed and orbital path. (Professionals use electronic computers.) The team's accuracy is such that they were able to predict, 12 hours in advance, that Russia's Lunik IV would miss the moon by 5000 miles. The actual miss: 5281 miles.
Most man-carrying satellites circle the earth in 90 to 120 minutes. By the time the second orbit begins, the busy little station has already calculated its basic tracking information, and the screen on the wall lights up, showing minute to minute location.
In its short span of life, Torre Bert has plucked some remarkable messages from space. On November 28, 1960, for example, there was the cryptic message: "SOS to the entire world." It came from a moving space vehicle and was repeated three times. Amateurs in Texas and Germany picked up the same message. Three days later Russia admitted a launch which had ended in failure - but did not mention a man aboard.
On May 17, 1961, the voices of two men and a woman were heard in desperate conversation - "Conditions growing worse why don't you answer? ... we are going slower... the world will never know about us . . .” Then silence. The same words were picked up in Alaska and Sweden. Their meaning? No one will know until the Russians choose to talk.
Perhaps the most moving message of all was a wordless one made early in February 1961. Tapes, which I myself heard at Torre Bert, recorded the racing beat of an over - exerted heart (the hearts of all astronauts are monitored automatically) and sounds of labored breathing. The Judica - Cordiglia brothers took the tapes to famed heart surgeon Dr. A.M. Dogliotti. His verdict: "This is the heart of a dying man." The brothers are firmly convinced that the Russians have spent freely of human life to achieve their space successes. Accumulated evidence indicates that there may have been at least ten deaths.
The young men of Turin spent a long time admiring the U.S. space program from a distance before they finally got an opportunity to see it last year. Italian TV put on a space-quiz program with a $3000 prize. The Judica - Cordiglia brothers won in a walk and promptly bought plane tickets for America. Visiting space centers in Alabama, Florida, Maryland and Texas, they deeply impressed American space scientists. "They have done a remarkable job," says Harry J. Goett, director of the Goddard Space Flight Center. At Cape Kennedy the brothers played tapes they had made of John Glenn's conversations with the ground. Professional spacemen were mystified. The United States never announces radio frequencies until after a flight for fear of causing traffic congestion on the particular wavelength. How had the boys determined this one? Easy, the Judica - Cordiglias said; they had seen a pre - flight picture of the Glenn capsule and had figured the frequency from the size of the capsule's antenna !
The future? The busy little tracking station will be only a hobby for Achille, who now has his medical degree and hopes to specialize in space medicine. But for Gian, a hobby has become a career. "The further you go with this, the stronger is the urge to continue," he says. He hopes for a job offer from the United States. Meanwhile, he and his fellow space watchers around the globe are keeping their eyes on the sky and providing the scientific world with its most striking example of amateur ingenuity.
Reprint from the Reader's Digest issue of April 1965. The same document was translated in several other languages and reprinted in the annual "Youth Album" of the editor, including in the French edition "L'album des jeunes" released in 1969.