ONE small step by a Wanborough wireless fan led to one giant leap for Swindon radio when he became the first Briton to contact a space station.

And it took place almost 20 years before another amateur hit the headlines this week for doing the same thing.

Radio ham Donald Shirreff, who died in 2010, was believed to be the first amateur radio enthusiast to successfully make contact with astronauts aboard an international space station more than 19 years ago.

In 1996, former MI5 agent Donald, then 77, took an unusual approach to his retirement and set his sights on contacting cosmonauts aboard Russian space station Mir.

The Oxford University graduate made contact with Mir when they were in range of his Lower Wanborough farmhouse, thanks to a 40-foot telephone pole he put up in the garden and his trusty Spectrum Sinclair computer.

The father-of-three then spent two months chatting with Russian astronauts Yuri Gidzenko and Serges Avdeev and German flight engineer Thomas Reiter aboard the vessel.

Donald’s son David said: “It didn’t surprise me when he got in touch with them.

“ It was such an exciting time.

Once he set his mind to something, that was it, he would achieve it.

“He was a one-off, he was quietly in the background doing extraordinary things, constantly asking questions. He wasn’t afraid to be different.”

The recollection comes as fellow radio ham Adrian Lane, from Gloucestershire, hit the headlines this week for talking with the International Space Station from his shed.

David said: “It’s great that another person has got in touch with a space station but Dad managed it first, he was just incredible.

“He used primitive tools but he still managed to keep up a dialogue with the astronauts.”

Dedicated Donald didn’t let time or language constraints hold him back, enlisting the help of Russian friend and translator Ivanna James to join him on his nightly 3am calls to outer space.

David said: “He just asked them how the weather was, how much they were talking to Russia.

“It was great for both of them because it was their leisure time.”

Donald’s highlight was talking to British astronaut Michael Foale when he travelled as a guest aboard Mir.

“That was the ultimate for him, he was delighted he got to have a chat with Michael because it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

David said.

Second World War veteran Donald lived in Lower Wanborough for more than 40 years.

After leaving the signals regiment of theArmy he worked on espionage and security cases for intelligence services MI5 and MI6 before honing his analytical skills as a lecturer in economics at Park Grammar School.

Yet mysteries of the night skies continued to captivate Donald who also spent time lecturing in Astronomy.

“He wasn’t into aliens, it was the technology that interested him. He was ferociously intelligent.”

David said.

Donald’s son-in-law Jonny Walker also paid tribute to the man he called quietly inspirational.

“The intelligence of this man transcended everything and showed no bounds,” he said.

“He was underrated and understated. We miss him terribly.”