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The History of Torre Bert

Sketch of Torre Bert published in the Reader's Digest in 1965-1967.

Introduction (I)

From 1957, many youngs were watching the first space missions at TV, and read the news showing the equipment used by the first ground stations to receive signals transmitted by artificial satellites. Soon they see the first manned Russian and American spacecrafts orbiting around the Earth. For some of these amateurs it was the opportunity to experiment the first equipments directed to space communication.

On April 1965, the Reader's Digest published the exciting adventure of two amateurs listening to space illustrated with the sketch displayed at right, article in which author J.D. Ratcliff explained how two young Turino, the Judica-Cordiglia brothers had set up a tracking satellite station of their own, Torre Bert, to listen to the first space communications between the Russian or American spacecrafts and the ground stations.

At the time of its release this story looked to me like a dream : with some equipment amateurs seemed able to listen to space communications, and even get telemetry sent by spacecrafts. We could work at home like did engineers at Houston ! This reality fascinated me !

Added to other readings, this new fact convinced me to become an amateur radio. In this way, if I didn't become an astronaut, I had at least the opportunity to listen to their communications and to share my passion with other fans of shortwaves !.

But time running, two decades later my dream of kid broken in parts when other echoes reached my antennas. The Judica-Cordiglia brothers hadn't realized all they claimed. Was it possible ? Now helped with my scientific and amateur radio backgrounds I had the capabilitiy to verify most of their alleged claims.

This is this investigation that I present you below. Not the complete Judica-Cordiglia brothers story that you will find in its complete version on Lost Cosmonauts maintained by my friends Giovanni and Mario Abrate, including documentaries on social medias (YouTube and Dailymotion). I would like only to highlight some facts and excercise your critical sense one more time. Report and criticals.

To read : Italy's Amazing Amateur Space Watchers

by J.D.Radcliff, The Reader's Digest, April 1965

Torre Bert and the Zeus network

In the Northern Italy, between 1957 and 1965 two young Turino brothers fan of communication but not amateur radio, Achille and Giovanni "Gian" Battista Judica-Cordiglia set up the first amateur tracking station, "Torre Bert". Their goal was to pick up the first telemetry signals and other downlinks data from the first satellites launched by Russia then by NASA.

They were eventually able to record the conversations between the cosmonauts and astronauts and their respective ground stations. They set up the first amateur world network of space tracking stations and erected not less than 21 antennas, including phased-array dipoles, and used the first mobile tracking unit installed in a break (station wagon). They were the pioneers in all fields, soon caught up by radio amateurs ! How all this adventure began ?

The Torre Bert station. At left, Achille Battista (sitting at desk) and his brother Giovanni "Gian" Judica-Cordiglia. At center and right, the tracking room. At the best time the team would have gathered up to 20 operators. Documents extracted from A. and G. Judica-Cordiglia, "L'uomo e lo spazio", vol.II, 1969.

While Jodrell Bank invested 1.6 million sterling pounds ($2.3 millions of 2000) to track satellites, that USAF spent 15 millions dollars at Tyngsboro, Mass., to build his Haystack radar (used later by NASA in his OrbitalDebris Radar Calibration System ODERACS), and that a Turino industrial built a parabolic dish at 2 millions lira ($900), our two young amateurs had only 18,000 lira or a little more than $8 of 1959 to spend. So the only solution was to build themselves their equipment and to purchase second-hand electronic devices.

With an extraordinary ingenuity they achieved their objective in a couple of years and were able to track any satellite passing nearby since the first Sputnik. In 1965, they created the Zeus network that counted 17 stations spread over the world and hooked by shortwaves. Their installation was so sophisticated that there were able to forecast 12 hours ahead that Lunik IV launched by Russian to the Moon should miss its target by 8000 km (5000 miles). In fact it flew 8497 km off the Moon.

The six-beam array used by Torre Bert team in 1965. Documents extracted from A. and G. Judica-Cordiglia's book, "L'uomo e lo spazio", vol.II, 1969 and from their private archives.

To pick up these messages Torre Bert used up to 21 antennas. The one displayed above is a six-beam array that could be tuned on 108, 137, 145.8 or 405 MHz. This assembly was made of 6 small Yagi mounted over a large ground plane antenna. If it is fed in phase and correctly tuned, it can provide a 7.8 dB gain. They used also a single helical antenna placed at center of the large ground plane. It was controlled manually using a wheel installed in the tracking room. This antenna system offered a 7.8 dB gain over a single Yagi. This gain was so low that even the Gian Battista Judica-Cordiglia considered this system as unsuited or almost to pick up space communications as it was often at the limit of the background noise. But we will see in a moment that these frequencies hide other mysteries.

During its short existence, it seems that Torre Bert recorded some sensational messages from space. But not everybody share this opinion, and personally, even having not had the opportunity to listen all tapes, some technical objections can already be presented. Below are some examples of recordings made by Torre Bert, beginning with the most famous of them, a recording of John Glenn made in 1964.

Alleged John Glenn's recordings

If by some ways the Torre Bert installation displayed some attracting but useless devices (display and vector maps) or had to manually rotate their antenna, the Judica-Cordiglia brothers had the right telemetry receivers, the suited antennas and, last but not least, the know-how to build a functionning receive space communication station. Here is an example of their skills. 

In 1964, they won a TV-game dealing with the space conquest and were rewarded in receiving a gift of 1,8 millions lira (about $830 of 2000). Our young Turino brothers took advantage of this opportunity to visit the USA. 

It was written that they had the support of the U.S. Embassy in Roma, thanks to the help of their Scientific Attaché Mr Walter Ramberg who organized for them a meeting with some NASA specialists of space communications, including M.Haussman, in presence of an italianse/american translator named Alberto Rossoto.

According to some writers and a film recently released by ARTE TV, it is at this occasion that the two brothers visited NASA space centers of Huntsville, Cape Canaveral, Houston and Beltsville where they did the admiration of American engineers by the extent of their know-how. They played tapes they had made of John Glenn's conversations with Capcom recorded during the Friendship 7 mission of 1962.

On Board recording of John Glenn

during Friendship 7 mission on Feb 20, 1962

Recorded by NASA during Air to Ground loop (6 MB RAM file)

L+00:02:00 to L+00:46:03

L+00:46:03 to L+01:33:44

L+04:43:00 to landing ops

According to various sources, Haussman and other NASA officials were astounded. Harry J. Goett, director of the Goddard Space Flight Center said to their translator that "They have done a remarkable job" but was afraid that amateurs were able to discover secret working frequencies. NASA never announced the audio frequencies while the spaceflight was not ended, for fear of causing jam on frequencies or other problems. They thus asked to the youngs how they determined this special frequency in the L-band. "Easy", the Judica-Cordiglias said, "we saw a pre-flight picture of the Glenn capsule and we figured the frequency from the size of the capsule antenna !...". 

Note for the anecdote, that convinced that NASA was subjugated by the know-how of our two brothers, these latter requested to NASA the permission to get two of their secret space frequencies in exchange of what our two brothers would give them two space frequencies used by Russia. Of course, NASA engineers accepted the deal and give them what they asked, at the greatest pleasure of our two brothers. That also meant that those "secret" frequencies were not so secret as NASA claimed !

Nowadays, when we want to know at what frequencies work a satellite or a spacecraft, our first reflex is also to check the radios in the command module or to deduce from the external antenna sizes what could be its working frequency. With some habit we can easily answer to such a question, maybe not to the right frequency but close to some MHz.

At left, space docking between the unmanned spacecraft Agena and Gemini 8 flied by Neil A. Armstrong and David I. Scott on March 16, 1966, some years before Armstrong is enlisted in the Apollo XI crew. From the drawing at right we learn that the can-like antenna that we see above the craft was a 7 ft long and retractable L-band (1-2 GHz) antenna. With such information some bright amateurs built the first receiving system to capture telemetry and other signals from the first manned space missions. Documents NIX and NASA History.

Beside of their extensive work, the Judica-Cordiglia brothers claim that they recorded alleged communications of cosmonauts in distress, including a woman, or conversation that do not meet the official declarations. Here are some examples that I voluntarily shortened because the problem is not only in the content of these messages but most of all in their existence itself as you will quickly understand.

Claims of recordings of cosmonauts in distress

On November 28, 1960 Torre Bert should have picked up this enigmatic message in Morse code: "SOS TO THE WHOLE WORLD". The message was transmitted from a moving spacecraft, that was, according to the two brothers, confirmed by its Doppler effect, and was sent three times. According to Judica-Cordiglia brothers, amateurs in Germany and Texas received the same message.

Three days later, Russian recognized that one of their launch failed, but they didn't make allusion to a human passenger. A similar recording was picked up on May 17, 1961 (according to other sources the period is somewhere between 16-23 May) coming from a crew of several cosmonauts requesting assistance, among them a so-called female "cosmonaut" voice telling that there was flames and a fire around her. For the Judica-Cordiglia brothers nobody will never know what happened as long as Russian will not decide to lift the blackout over this mission.

A third message was recorded on February 2, 1961. Presented to the famous hearth surgeon Dr Dogliotti, he affirmed that we heard an "heavy breathing" and the "fast beating of a dying heart". The Judica-Cordiglia brothers were convinced that Russian didn't shrink from sacrifying human lifes to affirm their supremacy in space.

At last, but there are other recordings, on June 14, 1963 our two brothers recorded a female voice alleged to be the one of cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. They claim that it was recorded two days before the official launch as declared by the Soviet authorities.

Gian (sitting on the left image and standing up on the second one) and Achille Judica-Cordiglia brothers at work with friends in the "tracking room" of Torre Bert installed in Turino in 1965. At the best time the team would have gathered up to 20 operators. Documents Alex Tomlinson, A. and G.Judica-Cordiglia.

The Judica-Cordiglia brothers have gathered many other telemetry and audio recordings, some showing a political importance. One of them was a weak audio signal coming from ground stations, and identified a few times later as classic russian music used by Russian as a coded signal to announce the near launch of a new space mission. And indeed, two days after have recorded this melody, USSR announced the launch of a new space mission. Such information interested much NASA, as well as a russian spy that followed closely the work of our two brothers (but quite rapidly our two brothers were also protected by the italian intelligence services).

Some of these recordings display however a so poor audio quality that well smart the one that could hear an intelligible voice in some of them. The telemetry recordings on the other side are of course much clearer.

At first reading, these few examples seem to confirm that our two brothers were witnesses of a conspiration. If they are persuaded of this, like many other people having investigated this affair I am not at all convinced by their claims. Indeed, what can we conclude about these documents, and the alleged claims of the Judica-Cordiglia brothers ? This will be the subject of the next chapter.

Second part

Analysis and reactions

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