Earthlings and astronauts talk via radio ham

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

The International Space Station cost more than $ 100 billion. You can get a ham radio for a few hundred dollars.

Perhaps this partly explains the appeal of the existence of one of the greatest scientific inventions of mankind, which communicates with the Earth technology more than 100 years old. But there may be a simpler explanation for why astronauts and ham radio operators have been talking and talking for years.

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

Wheelock would be separated from loved ones, except for communication via internet phone, email or social networks. Sometimes the stress and tension of serving as a station commander could be intense.

One night, as he looked out the window at the Earth from below, he remembered a radio station with a space station. He decided to turn it on – to see if anyone was listening.

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

A flood of voices flew out of the air.

Astronauts on the space station often talk to students via a radio station, which can also be used in emergencies, but these are predicted appearances. Some, like Wheelock, spend their free time making contact with radio amateurs around the world.

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

The first amateur radio broadcast from space dates back to 1983, when astronaut Owen Garriott went on the air from the Columbia Space Shuttle. Garriott was a licensed ham who, while still on Earth, used home equipment in Houston to talk to his father in Oklahoma.

Garriott and fellow astronaut Tony England pushed NASA to allow amateur radio equipment on ship flights.

“We thought it would be a good encouragement for young people to take an interest in science and engineering if they could experience it,” said England, who was the second astronaut to do ham in space.

An almost voluntary organization called Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, or ARISS, is now helping to organize contacts between students and astronauts on the space station. Students prepare to quickly ask questions, one after the other, into the radio station’s microphone for a short 10-minute window before the space station takes off.

“We’re trying to think of ourselves as planting seeds and hope to grow some powerful oaks,” said Kenneth G. Ransom, ISS Ham project coordinator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Typically, about 25 schools around the world are selected each year, said Rosalie White, the international secretary of treasurers at ARISS.

“There aren’t too many people to talk to the astronaut,” she said. “They understand the importance of that.”

Conversations are a treat for astronauts as well.

“You talk to someone and look down where he is,” NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold II said.

In the last 10 years, radio ham has become more popular, experts say, with about 750,000 licensed amateur operators across the U.S. (not all of whom are active on the air). We help realize that interest: emergency communications.

“Ham radios when everything else fails,” Diana Feinberg, head of the Los Angeles department for the American Radio Relay League, the National Amateur Radio Association, said. “Unlike other forms of communication, it doesn’t require any switched network.”

But for some hams, attraction is an opportunity to connect with people around the world – or even above it.

During his ten-day transportation mission in 1983, astronaut Garriott spoke with about 250 hams around the world, including Jordan’s King Hussein and Arizona, Senator Barry Goldwater. Garriott died in 2019.

“From my perspective, even from a young age, it was very obvious how globally inspiring that moment was,” his son Richard Garriott said. “People from Australia and America, from almost every corner, have adapted and it’s clearly touched them. No matter what their station was, no matter where they were physically, they all became part of this global experience.”

Not surprisingly, Richard Garriott followed his father’s example on a flight to the space station in 2008 as a private astronaut. During his free time on the 12-day mission, the younger Garriott made contact with so much ham on earth – including his father – that the two papers he brought to record the contacts filled up during his first day on the radio.

“Any moderately populated land mass, regardless of the time of day or night, you would find a plentiful group of enthusiasts willing to make contact,” he said.

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

“We always talk to people we don’t know on amateur radio,” England said. “If we hadn’t enjoyed the adventure of meeting other people that way, we probably wouldn’t be radio amateurs.”

Amateur cameraman Larry Shaunce made a handful of contacts with astronauts over the years, for the first time in the 1980s, when he reached Owen Garriott as a teenager.

Recently, Shaunce, 56, made contact with NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor in 2018.

“Hi, this is Larry from Minnesota,” he said after Auñón-Chancellor recognized his call sign.

“Oh, Minnesota!” she replied, adding that she could hear him “super clearing up” in space and that he must have nice equipment.

“It’s always exciting when you’re talking to someone in space,” said Shaunce, an electronic technician from Albert Leo in Minn. “You just never know. I keep watching the frequency.”

James Lea knows that getting to the space station can be hit or missed. He and a friend once stopped near a farm in Bunnell, Fla., As a space station flew over them.

The couple was sitting in a truck with an antenna on the roof and radio equipment in the cabin. After several attempts, they heard Auñón-Chancellor reply, “Hey, good morning, Florida. How are you?”

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

Leah’s daughter Hope has been trying to get to the space station for years, but has never received a response. She got a license for radio hams at the age of eight. Now, at the age of 14, Hope is thinking about becoming an astronaut and going to Mars, her father said.

David Pruett, an emergency physician from Hillsboro, Oregon, tried to contact the space station using a multi-band amateur radio with a magnetic antenna placed in a pizza pan to improve performance. Working at the dining room table, he made many fruitless attempts. But one day, the space station approached the west coast, and Pruett hung up again.

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

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

Then came a crackle, then the voice of astronaut Wheelock. In the end, they both signed with “73” – ham lingo for “best regards”. Recalling the first conversation in 2010, Pruett’s hair is still rising.

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

Pruett and Wheelock had a total of 31 contacts, one when Pruett got stuck in a crowd in Tacoma, Wash State.

“I feel like I made friends with him,” said Pruett, 64, who recorded many of his contacts on YouTube. “I can only imagine that their workload is very small and that they have precious little free time, but I think it was very generous of him to donate as much of his free time to radio amateurs as he did.”

Wheelock remembers Pruett well.

“David was one of the early contacts I made,” he said. “It was one of the first voices I heard as I approached the West Coast.”

Wheelock’s other radio contacts with Ham left deep impressions on him – including a man from Portugal with whom he spoke so many times that Wheeler and his fellow astronauts once segregated him with “Happy Birthday”.

Wheelock also made contact with some of the first responders to work to rescue 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days in 2010.

“I just wanted to give a word of encouragement … to let them know that there’s someone above who cares about what they’re doing and what’s in their way,” he said.

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

“It’s just an infinitesimally small percentage of the world’s population, but it’s a lot more than I think I could directly touch any other way,” he said. “I wanted to share with people who may have been random, who may not have had a special connection or insight into space exploration.”

It also allowed for some variety in his conversation partners. During his mission, McArthur’s main crew member was Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev.

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


Premiere of a ham video on the space station


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