How an American teenager detected a Soviet space station launch

A 17-year-old from New Jersey found out the Soviets had launched the Mir space station before it was officially announced.

In early February 1986, Phillip Naranjo picked up a Cyrillic code on his computer. Being the head of a group called Inertial Tracking and Orbital Calculations (ITOC), Naranjo was sure that a big space launch was coming.

There was no way he could know that the USSR would launch the first module of its space station Mir, meaning 'peace' in Russian, to space in a few days.

Much like modern hackers who intercept satellite communication, Naranjo and his friends also used to listen to Soviet radio chatter. Hearing people in outer space is as cool today as it was back then.

Mir space station. Image by NASA.

Upon intercepting the message, Naranjo contacted a friend in Canada to find out that a Soviet tracking ship, Akademik Sergei Korolev, was transmitting from the Northern Atlantic.

"When a Russian tracking ship just shows up, you know something's going on," Naranjo told the New York Times in 1996.

For the next several days, he was glued to his shortwave scanning equipment that cluttered his bedroom, hoping to understand what all the fuss was about.

And to much of Naranjo's surprise, his patience paid off. On February 20, a Soviet space station was launched into orbit, confirming a hunch of something 'big' happening.

A 17-year-old senior even got to listen in on the first radio transmission two soviet astronauts relayed back to Earth from the newly launched space station.

By doing so, Naranjo learned about the launch of the Mir space station before people in the Soviet Union did. The announcement on the successful deployment of the space station came only in early March, weeks after the original launch date.

The space station outlived its country of origin as the USSR disintegrated in 1991. Due to severe funding cuts after the implosion of the Soviet economy, the space station was completed in 1996.

Funding cuts starved Mir of financial supply, and the space station was deorbited in 2001, only five years after Russians completed it. However, a replacement was already being made. The construction of the International Space Station (ISS), operating to this day, began in 1998.

Mir space station. Image by NASA.

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