blank Saint Helena Island Info Exploring Space

Exploring Space

To the stars and beyond

blank Saint Helena Island Info Exploring Space

That’s one small step for a man
Neil Armstrong,
first step onto the Moon, 21st July 1969{1}

What could St Helena possibly have to do with space exploration?

This page is in indexes: Island History, Island People, Island Detail

Exploring Space Saint Helena Island Info

Below: Studying Space from St HelenaSpace TreatiesOther ContactsOur 16th Century AstronautRead More

At first glance it might be thought St Helena has very little to do with Space. Communication with the island is hard enough terrestrially, so how could we have contributed to exploring space? And yet…would you believe St Helena actually created the world’s first Astronaut…in the 16th Century‽‽‽

Studying Space from St Helena

People have been studying the stars from St Helena since Edmond Halley came here in 1677, and many important astronomers have visited including Nevil Maskelyne in 1761 and may others listed on our Astronomy page. Recently Steve Owens visited in 2012 to assess our ‘Dark Sky’ rating (favourably).

And in the late 1970s and early 1980s the RAF had a satellite tracking station (‘Geodetics’) at High Knoll Fort, “busily engaged in the tracking of satellites, rabbits and anything else that moves, but they are being very secretive about their success rate on all items{a}, operating until April 1984.

So St Helena has certainly been used for space exploration from-the-ground.

Space Treaties

Space treaties Saint Helena Island Info Exploring Space

Strangely, despite our apparent lack of current space exploration capability, St Helena is actually a signatory to a number of international Space Treaties:{b}

  • We are signed up to the ‘Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies’ (usually known as the ‘Outer Space Treaty’) which means we undertake not to place weapons of mass destruction in orbit around the Earth, install them on the Moon or any other celestial body, or otherwise station them in outer space.

    As far as we know we don’t have any weapons of mass destruction, or for that matter any means of launching them into Space, but it’s perhaps comforting to know that if we had and could, we wouldn’t.

  • We are also signed up to the ‘Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects’ (‘Space Liability Convention’). As such we undertake that if we ever did launch something into Space, and it fell back to Earth and landed on somebody’s head, we would pay them compensation.

    Again, nice to know if, perhaps, one of the St Helena’s Day fireworks were to be unexpectedly successful in achieving cruising altitude.

Why did we bother signing up to these treaties? Well, the short answer is - we didn’t. Britain signed up to them for itself and “all its overseas territories”, which includes us. It also includes other places so if you are planning on placing weapons of mass destuction on Mars, you can’t do it from Pitcairn Island either. By the same mechanism we are also signed up to the ‘Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons’ and the ‘Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction’, which we think means we can eradicate our own fruit-flies with pesticides, but we can’t help you with yours. Sorry.

Other Contacts

In 2006 two of our Amateur Radio operators, Bruce Salt (ZD7VC) and Garry Mercury, both made radio contact with the astronauts onboard the International Space Station. The story is told below.

But perhaps none of the above is as important as…

Our 16th Century Astronaut

According to the story ‘The Man in the Moone’, published in 1638 by Bishop Francis Godwin, the first human to fly into space was actually a resident of St Helena. The story goes like this:

Adapted from an article by Trevor Hearl, published in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{2}. Number 19, Summer 1999{3}

The Man in the Moone Saint Helena Island Info Exploring Space

In 1568 a Spanish aristocrat by the name of Domingo Gonsales joins the Duke of Alba’s army to fight in the Netherlands. After some adventures he gets himself into trouble and flees to the East Indies, where he becomes wealthy and eventually sets sail for home, hoping with his wealth that his past indiscretions will be forgotten. Sadly (for him) he falls ill on the way home - perhaps, as many did in those days, from Scurvy - and is left on St Helena to recover or die, accompanied only by a servant/slave Diego (described in the book as a ‘Black Moor’).

St Helena is described in the story as “a Miracle of Nature; the only Paradise I believe on Earth. A veritable Eden for healthfulness of Air and fruitfulness of Soil, producing all necesaries for the life of man - excellent fresh water, divers handsome walks planted on both sides with Orange, Lemmon, Pomegranate, Almond-trees and the like, which bare fruit all the year; Garden Herbs, with Wheat, Pease, Barley, and most kinds of Pulse, but it chiefly aboundeth with Cattel and Fowl, as Goats, Swine, Sheep, Partridges, wild Hens, Pheasants, Pigeons and wild Fowl beyond credit. In February and March huge Flocks of a kind of Wild Swans [Geese] appear who like our Cuckoos and Nightingales go away at a certain Season and are no more seen that year.”.

Despite this abundance, however, the story states that Diego has to live in a cave on the other side of the island from where Gonsales resides because “had we dwelt together, Victuals would not have been so plenty with us”. This seems unlikely and was either a simple plot device (as will become apparent) or was perhaps related to 16th Century sensibilities about masters and slaves co-habiting. Either way, in the story it transpires that as Gonsales recovers he finds it tiresome to communicate with his servant so far away. Although the logical thing to do would be to move the servant closer, or move closer to the servant, instead Gonsales decides to train geese to fly messages between them, with such apparent success that soon he is able to persuade the geese to work in small teams to carry packages between the two men; thereby inventing 16th Century air-mail. And naturally his ambitions soon extend…

The story tells us that Gonsales devises a chariot, pulled by 25 geese, which is capable of carrying himself. His test flight, across the bay from what we now know as Ladder Hill to Mundens, chosen so that “the worst that could happen was only falling into the water”, is a complete success. He is delighted with his invention and immediately makes plans to return to Spain and show off his creation, leaving, the story says, on the annual sailing on Thursday, 21st June 1599.

Unfortunately Gonsales’ convoy is attacked by the English off the Canaries (who knows - maybe the English had heard of Gonsales’ invention and wanted to steal it and thereby gain air supremacy, or at least prevent the Spanish from gaining it). Gonsales, of course, escapes in his flying chariot. And while flying across the sea his geese spot the moon in the sky and decide to fly him there, thus making him St Helena’s first, and so far, only astronaut.

The story was clearly popular - it was republished many times, with at least 25 versions in four different languages, including as recently as 1801.

What can we learn from the story? Certainly not much about flight or space exploration, but the description of St Helena as an “Earthly Paradise” is very much in keeping with descriptions circulating at the time. Sadly, as we now know, at the very time the events of the story are supposed to be taking place, in fact the goats, pigs and (inevitably) rats introduced by the Portuguese were busily wreaking havoc on the endemic vegetation and animal life of our island, destroying the very paradise the story describes. Such is the way with every “Earthly Paradise”…

Read More

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

By Nick Hewes, published in the St Helena Independent 31st March 2006{3}

ZD7VC Bruce Salt Saint Helena Island Info Exploring Space
ZD7VC Bruce Salt

ZD7GWM Garry Mercury Saint Helena Island Info Exploring Space
ZD7GWM Garry Mercury

Two Saint Helenians made a notable achievement earlier this month, as the International Space Station was contacted by radio for the first time ever from the Island.

Bruce Salt, of Half Tree Hollow, and Garry Mercury (better known to many as Huggy Bear) of Longwood, both made radio contact with the astronauts as they floated at a distance of 220 miles above the Island. They received a tip-off from some radio hams in South Africa that one of the astronauts - Bill McArthur - was also a keen ham operator. It was apparently Bill’s ambition to make contact with hams in 100 countries whilst he was bombing through the Earth’s orbit. By the time Bruce and Garry ‘worked’ him, he’d already notched up 107 countries!

Bill McArthur Saint Helena Island Info Exploring Space
Bill McArthur is the Commander and ISS Science Officer on the Expedition-12 crew

How did they know just when to work the Space Station? “The only time you can really make contact” said Bruce, “is when the spacecraft is directly overhead. Luckily the tip-off I received from South Africa told me the precise fly-over times, and also the times when Bill McArthur would be awake (remember, there’s no day or night in space!) and receiving signals. To be honest when we got this South African tip-off, I thought we wouldn’t have a chance of making contact. I’ve only got a very basic seven foot antenna, and Huggy Bear’s antenna is not even secured - it just leans against the gutter of his house and is tied to a ladder to stop it blowing over! 99% of radio hams who want to make this sort of radio contact would be equipped with sophisticated elevating antennae, which can be telescopically extended or retracted in order to catch the correct signal. But we had nothing like that. That’s why it’s so amazing we were able to contact the astronauts. His readability was so clear - there was no hiss at all.” I went to Longwood to meet Garry, and to ask him about his experience of this unique contact. “Bruce told me that the International Space Station was going over, and that Bill McArthur had made it known that he wanted to make as many contacts as possible whilst he was in space. On the first day I had a time window of about ten minutes. It was beautifully clear, and then you could hear it fade away, as the station slowly got out of range. It felt great to realise that our VHF contact with this space ship 220 miles away was the first ever from St Helena - my heart was pumping!” Garry’s mum, Elvina Mercury, said the radio contact had made a real impact on both Garry and on Bill McArthur, the astronaut. “Garry was thrilled to bits, and the astronaut was also thrilled to have made contact with such a distant place as St Helena” she said.

Garry said that he had been a ham operator since 1992. “It was Bruce who first got me into radio hamming” he said, “I heard him talking about it at Prince Andrew School in 1992. He then invited me to talk to a guy in the States. It was so great to meet with nice, helpful people who live so many thousands of miles away.” One of the most surprising aspects of this contact was the tiny amount of electrical energy it took to contact the space station - only 50 watts, which is less than it takes to power a 60 watt light bulb! When you consider that the radio signal had to travel 220 miles before it even reached the Space Station, it does make you wonder at the amazing sensitivity of radio equipment.

When I asked Bruce about this, he told me that he once “worked a guy in the USA who was using only a ten watt receiver. Then we experimented, and he began to reduce the wattage of his transceiver. We found that even when he was broadcasting at only one single watt of power, I could still just about make out what he was saying. It was mind-blowing, when you consider that he was 6,227 miles away!” Regarding the technical aspects of the contacts, Bruce gave me the following details. “The first contact was on Saturday 4th March at 13.02hrs (1.02 pm). I contacted him on 145.200MHz FM (2 metre band). His call sign was NAISS, whilst mine is ZD7VC, and Garry’s is ZD7GWM. We were able to give a signal report, without which any contact is rendered null and void as far as the record books go. Then on Sunday 5th March, I worked him again at 11.56 GMT.

Closing Humour Image Saint Helena Island Info Exploring Space

Laugh at funny space humour - LOL Saint Helena Island Info Exploring Space

First Saint on the moon.


Credits:

{a} St Helena News Review, 1st August 1980{3}

{b} Information from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Treaties_extended_to_Saint_Helena,_Ascension_and_Tristan_da_Cunha - thank you to the Equality & Human Rights Office for the tip-off.



Footnotes:

{1} There is some dispute over what Armstrong did actually say on this occasion. From the audio recordings it sounds like he actually says “That’s one small step for man”, omitting the “a”, which would have altered the meaning of, and spoiled the comment. Close study of the audio recordings seems to suggest that he did, indeed, omit the “a” but Armstrong himself always asserted that he said “a man” and he was a hero so we’ve decided to take his word for it.

{2} There are three ‘Wirebird’ publications that should not be confused: The Government Newspaper (1955-1966), the Tourist Office Blog (current) and the Magazine of Friends of St Helena (current).

{3} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.



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