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On leaving AMSAT

Hi Folks:

First of all, I apologize for the length of this post.  In my own defence, 
let me say that I very rarely post to this group.

I think Joe raised a very interesting question concerning the membership 
drop in AMSAT.  As I read Gunther's response (which was also quite 
thoughtful) it dawned on me that I was one of those who had left.  Well... 
not really, since I still pay my annual membership, but for all practical 
purposes I have indeed left the organization.  It's been a long long time 
since I turned on my 736 and this summer I've given some thought to selling 
it (along with the antennas and rotors).  I'm not sure whether I've left 
AMSAT or AMSAT 's left me.... I don't suppose it makes a lot of 
difference.    And that's not a criticism, just an observation.  For those 
of you who are relatively new to AMSAT, I used to have a fairly heavy time 
commitment to the organization, including being editor of the AMSAT Journal 
for a number of years in the 80s.

To be honest, the thing about AMSAT (and most other ham organizations that 
I join) that attracts me is the "Gee-Whiz" factor.  I like to be involved 
in things that are new, capture my imagination, and allow hands on 
participation in things that have a flavor of new technology about them. 
OK, I'm a technology junkie, and I view ham radio as an opportunity to 
continue my self-education.   I loved AO-10 and 13 because it was a 
significant challenge to get on them.  I learned a lot about power budgets, 
feedline loss, polarization, preamps, and a lot of other things I'd never 
before thought about.   I think my interest in AMSAT peaked during the 
period of the Microsats and especially the UoSat and KitSat digital 
satellites.  There was a very interested community of people who were on 
those satellites, many of whom were also developing ground station software 
at the same time.  We all used to go to the AMSAT meetings, hang out in 
bars together and talk about what to do next with these satellites.  None 
of the people who did this were actually involved in the design or launch 
of the satellites; we were just its heaviest users.   When someone 
developed some interesting new software, it would be uploaded to the 
satellites and we'd all have it running within hours or days.  Now in the 
current Internet environment this may not seem all that impressive, but 
then it was, and it created a sense of camaraderie that was truly 
remarkable at the time.  Frankly, I've never been much interested in 
operating the FM satellites, the ARISS "telephone-assisted" operations, or 
even LEO SSB transponders.  It's not that there is anything wrong with 
these satellites, they just don't have a big enough "Gee-Whiz" factor to 
interest me.

As AMSAT became less technologically interesting, I found myself attending 
more TAPR meetings and fewer AMSAT meetings.  Sometime after that I got 
awfully heavily involved in working with PIC microcontrollers... again the 
reason was that there was an extremely high "Gee-Whiz" factor.   It almost 
seemed that if you could imagine it, you could implement it with a 
PIC.  Over the past few years, however, TAPR has become dominated by the 
APRS and emergency communications folks and I've found myself attending the 
annual meetings somewhat less frequently.    Now it's true that the "Gee 
Whiz" factor in TAPR may well be revived in the context of digital voice, 
software defined radios, and continuing work on HF digital modes, but it's 
not clear at this point what direction this will take.

Frankly, it seems to me that the folks that are doing the most interesting 
work (from the standpoint of a "Gee-Whiz" junkie) are in the HF QRP 
community.   These days QRP Quarterly is the most interesting periodical 
that I'm reading and I detect the same excitement there as I did in AMSAT 
in the late 80s or TAPR in the 90s.  I've yet to attend their "Four Days in 
May" event, but I hope to do so next year.

I'm not sure what the significance of all of this is to AMSAT.... but I do 
know that Joe is asking one of the right questions.  Yes, AMSAT membership 
fell by 4000 since AO-13.   In fact, the decline is more serious than that 
because AMSAT has signed up a lot of new members in the intervening 
years.  An even more interesting question might be, "Of the 8000 members 
that AMSAT once had, how many of those individuals are still members."  The 
answer is undoubtedly significantly less than 4000.  OK, some of those 8000 
died.  But I'm pretty sure that of the bunch of digital ops that used to 
meet at the AMSAT meetings, there aren't more than 2 or 3 left who are 
still members.   They didn't leave because of a de-emphasis on digital 
operations (though that's an interesting question too), they mostly left 
because the "Gee-Whiz" factor had gone.

The bottom line is that in order to retain these members, AMSAT must once 
again become a place where people are routinely engaged in "Gee-Whiz" kinds 
of things and (this is important) they must look for opportunities for hams 
to contribute (and I don't mean money!) without building 
spacecraft.  Consider this:

When Chris Jackson wrote WISP was he an AMSAT insider?  Had he ever 
contributed to the construction of an orbiting spacecraft?

Was Brooks Van Pelt an AMSAT insider when he developed the Kansas City 
Tracker or the DSP-12?  Had he ever contributed to the construction of an 
orbiting spacecraft?

When Wayne Roth wrote SATSKED, was he an AMSAT insider?  Had he ever 
contributed to the construction of an orbiting spacecraft?

How about Mike Owen and NOVA?

There are many other examples, but the point is, it has always been nearly 
impossible for most of us to become involved in actually designing or 
constructing satellites (note I didn't say "impossible", I said "nearly 
impossible.")  But there still were lots of opportunities for folks to 
develop both software and hardware that made a significant contribution to 
the Amateur Satellite Program.  It's not that everyone has to be a Jackson, 
or a Van Pelt, they just have to understand that there is absolutely no 
reason why they can't do this, if they decide to do so.  In considering the 
proposed satellites currently under development at AMSAT, one question that 
might be worth asking is which of those projects provides a better platform 
for experimentation and development for individuals outside the usual 
community of AMSAT developers.   Frankly, it is hard to see how FM 
satellites or ARISS provides these kinds of opportunities.

Well, enough.   This fall I've got to decide whether to renew my membership 
or not.   Most likely I will.  However, I'd have to confess that it's not 
because of a strong sense of commitment to the organization, but rather 
because I support a lot of organizations that I think are doing worthwhile 
things regardless of the strength of my interest in their current 
activities.  Other people are not in a position to do this and that may be 
where some of the 4000+ members went.

John Hansen  W2FS  (ex-WA0PTV)

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