Earthlings and astronauts chat away via ham radio


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The International Space Station cost more than $ 100 billion. A ham radio is available for a few hundred kroner.

Perhaps this partly explains the appeal that one of humanity’s greatest scientific inventions communicates with Earth via technology that is more than 100 years old. But perhaps there is a simpler explanation for why astronauts and ham radio operators have been talking and talking for years.

NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock was only a few weeks into his six-month mission on the space station when feelings of isolation began to come in.

Wheelock would be separate from loved ones except for communication via an internet phone, email or social media. At times, the stress and excitement of serving as the station commander could be intense.

One night, as he looked out through a window on the ground below, he remembered the space station’s ham radio. He figured he would turn it on – see if anyone listened.

“Any station, any station, this is the International Space Station,” Wheelock said.

A stream of voices sprang out of the airwaves.

Astronauts on board the space station often talk to students via ham radio, which can also be used in emergencies, but it is scheduled to perform. Some, like Wheelock, spend their limited free time getting in touch with amateur radio operators around the world.

“It allowed me to … just reach out to humanity down there,” said Wheelock, who interacted with many operators known as “hams” during that stay at the space station in 2010. “It became my emotional and a truly visceral, connection. to the planet. “

The first amateur radio transmission from space dates back to 1983, when astronaut Owen Garriott took to the airwaves from the space shuttle Columbia. Garriott was a licensed ham who back on Earth had used his home equipment in Houston to chat with his father in Oklahoma.

Garriott and fellow astronaut Tony England pushed NASA to allow amateur radio equipment aboard shuttle flights.

“We thought it would be a good encouragement for young people to be interested in science and technology if they could experience this,” said England, who was the second astronaut to use ham radio in space.

An almost entirely voluntary organization called Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, or ARISS, is now helping to arrange contact between students and astronauts on the space station. Students prepare to ask questions one after the other into the ham radio microphone in the short 10-minute window before the space station flies out of range.

“We try to think of ourselves as planting seeds and hope we get some mighty oak trees to grow,” said Kenneth G. Ransom, ISS Ham project coordinator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Typically approx. 25 schools worldwide each year, said Rosalie White, international secretary treasurer at ARISS.

“Not too many people can talk to an astronaut,” she said. “They get the importance of it.”

The conversations are also a treat for the astronauts.

“You talk to someone and look straight down at where they are,” said NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold II.

Over the past 10 years, ham radio has become more popular, say experts with about 750,000 licensed amateur operators across the United States (not all of whom are active in the air). Helps create this interest: emergency communication.

“Ham radio is when all else fails,” said Diana Feinberg, section leader in Los Angeles for the American Radio Relay League, the national association for amateur radio. “Unlike other forms of communication, it does not require any kind of switched network.”

But for some hams, the lure is an opportunity to connect with people all over the world – or even over it.

During his 10-day shuttle mission in 1983, astronaut Garriott spoke to about 250 hams worldwide, including King Hussein of Jordan and Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Garriott died in 2019.

“From my perspective, even from a young age, it was very clear how globally inspiring that moment was,” said his son Richard Garriott. “People from Australia and America, just about everywhere, had tuned in and it touched them clearly. No matter what their station was, no matter how physical they were, they all became part of this global experience.”

It is not surprising that Richard Garriott followed his father’s example with a 2008 flight to the space station as a private astronaut. During his free time on the 12-day mission, the younger Garriott made contact with so many hams on the ground – including his father – that the two pieces of paper he brought to make contacts were filled up during his first day on the radio. .

“Any moderately populated land mass regardless of time of day or night, you would find an ample group of enthusiasts ready to get in touch,” he said.

What drives this desire for contact? Amateur radio operators love a challenge, especially when it comes to remote or unusual locations.

“We always talk on amateur radio with people we don’t know,” England said. “If we did not enjoy the adventure of meeting other people that way, we probably would not have been amateur radio operators.”

Amateur operator Larry Shaunce has established a handful of contacts with astronauts over the years, first in the 1980s when he reached Owen Garriott as a teenager.

Recently, Shaunce, 56, contacted NASA astronaut Serena Auñón Chancellor in 2018.

“Hi, this is Larry in Minnesota,” he said after Chancellor Auñón acknowledged his call.

“Oh, Minnesota!” she replied, adding that she could hear him “super clear” up in the room and that he must have good equipment.

“It’s always exciting when you talk to someone in the room,” said Shaunce, an electronics technician at Albert Lea, Minn. “You just never know. I’m monitoring the frequency all the time.”

James Lea knows it can hit or miss reaching the space station. He and a friend once pulled over near a farm in Bunnell, Fla., When the space station flew overhead.

The couple was sitting in a truck with an antenna on the roof and the radio equipment in the cab. After a few attempts, they heard Chancellor Auñón answer, “Hello, Florida. How are you?”

Lea, 53, a filmmaker and engineer, recalled that he and his friend “were sitting in the middle of a cabbage field. The fact that she came back to him was a little incredible.”

Lea’s daughter Hope has been trying to reach the space station for years, but has never received an answer. She got her ham radio license at the age of 8. Now 14, Hope is thinking about becoming an astronaut and going to Mars, her father said.

David Pruett, an emergency physician from Hillsboro, Ore., Attempted to contact the space station using a multi-band amateur radio with a magnetically mounted antenna placed in a pizza pan to improve performance. Working from his dining table, he made many fruitless attempts. But one day, the space station came close to the west coast, and Pruett sent the call again.

“November Alpha One Sierra Sierra,” he said, using the amateur radio call sign for the space station.

Seconds of silence stretched after Pruett’s identification: “Kilo Foxtrot Seven Echo Tango X-ray, Portland, Ore.”

Then came a crackle, so astronaut Wheelock’s voice. At the end, both signed with “73” – him lingo for “kind regards.” Remembering the first conversation in 2010 makes the hair on Pruett’s arms stand up.

“It was absolutely incredible,” Pruett said. “Press that microphone button and call the International Space Station and then release the button and wait, and then you hear this little crackle and you hear Doug Wheelock come back and say, ‘Welcome aboard the International Space Station’ – it’s just amazing . “

Pruett and Wheelock had a total of 31 contacts, one when Pruett was stuck in a traffic jam in Tacoma, Wash.

“I feel like I made a friendship with him,” said Pruett, 64, who chronicled many of his contacts on YouTube. “I can only imagine that their workload is very tight and they have some precious free time, but I think it was very generous of him to donate as much of his free time to amateur radio operators as he did.”

Wheelock remembers Pruett well.

“David was one of the early contacts I had,” he said. “He was one of the first voices I heard as I approached the west coast.”

Wheelock’s other ham radio contacts made a similarly deep impression on him – including a man from Portugal with whom he spoke so many times that Wheeler and his astronauts once serenaded him with “Happy Birthday to you.”

Wheelock also contacted some of the first responders working to rescue the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days in 2010.

“I just wanted to give a word of encouragement … to tell them that there is someone over who cares what they do and what’s in their way,” he said.

During a six-month mission from 2005 to 2006, NASA astronaut William McArthur spoke via ham radio with 37 schools, creating more than 1,800 individual contacts in more than 90 countries.

“It’s just an infinitely small percentage of the world’s population, but it’s much more than I think I could have touched directly in any other way,” he said. “I wanted to share with people who might have been random, who might not have a particular connection or insight into space exploration.”

It also allowed for some variation in his interlocutors. During his mission, McArthur’s main crew member was Russian cosmonaut Valeri Tokarev.

“I love him as a brother. We are very, very close,” he said. “But still, it’s another person for six months.”

Ham video premiere on the space station

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