(TNS) – The International Space Station cost more than $ 100 billion. A ham radio can be bought for a few hundred dollars.
Perhaps this explains in part the appeal that one of mankind’s greatest scientific inventions communicates with the earth through technology that is over 100 years old. But perhaps there is a simpler explanation for why astronauts and amateur radio operators have been speaking and speaking for years.
NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock was only a few weeks in his six-month mission on the space station when the feeling of isolation set in.
Wheelock would be apart from loved ones except for communicating over an internet phone, email, or social media. Sometimes the stress and tension of serving as the station’s commander can be very high.
One night, looking out of a window at the earth, he remembered the space station’s amateur radio. He thought he was going to turn it on – see if anyone was listening.
“Every station, every station, that’s the International Space Station,” said Wheelock.
A flood of voices rose from the waves in the air.
Astronauts aboard the space station often talk to students on amateur radio, which can also be used in emergencies. However, these are planned performances. Some, like Wheelock, spend their limited free time contacting amateur radio operators around the world.
“It allowed me to … just reach out to humanity down there,” said Wheelock, who interacted with many operators called “hams” during that 2010 stay on the space station. “It became my emotional, and a really visceral, connection to the planet.”
The first amateur radio transmission from space came in 1983 when astronaut Owen Garriott of the Space Shuttle Columbia went on air. Garriott was a licensed ham on Earth who had used his home equipment in Houston to chat with his father in Oklahoma.
Garriott and fellow astronaut Tony England urged NASA to allow amateur radio equipment on board 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 became the second astronaut to use ham radio in space.
An almost exclusively voluntary organization called Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) is now helping to arrange contact between students and astronauts on the space station. Students prepare to ask questions one at a time in the amateur radio microphone for the short 10-minute window before the space station flies out of range.
“We’re trying to think of ourselves as seed planters and we hope we can grow some mighty oak trees,” said Kenneth G. Ransom, the ISS Ham project coordinator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Typically around 25 schools around the world are selected each year, said Rosalie White, international treasurer at ARISS.
“Not too many people can talk to an astronaut,” she said. “You get the importance of it.”
The conversations are also a pleasure for the astronauts.
“You talk to someone and look exactly where they are,” said NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold II.
Over the past 10 years, experts say amateur radio has grown in popularity, with around 750,000 licensed amateur operators in the U.S. (not all of which are airborne). Help in promoting this interest: emergency communication.
“Ham radio is when all else fails,” said Diana Feinberg, Los Angeles director of the American Radio Relay League, the national association for amateur radio. “In contrast to other forms of communication, a switched network is not required.”
For some hams, however, the appeal is the opportunity to connect with people around the world – or even beyond.
During his 10-day shuttle mission in 1983, astronaut Garriott spoke to about 250 hams around the world, including King Hussein of Jordan and Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Garriott died in 2019.
“From my perspective, it was very obvious from a young age how globally inspiring this moment was,” said his son Richard Garriott. “People from Australia and America had tuned in everywhere and it clearly affected them. No matter what their station was, no matter where they were physically, 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 spare time on the 12-day mission, the younger Garriott contacted so many local hams – including his father – that the two pieces of paper he brought with him to record contacts filled up on his first day on the radio.
“Any sparsely populated land mass, regardless of time of day or night, would find a large group of enthusiasts willing to make contact,” he said.
What drives this desire for contact? Amateur radio operators love a challenge, especially when it comes to reaching remote or unusual locations.
“We always talk to people we don’t know on amateur radio,” said England. “If we hadn’t enjoyed the adventure of meeting other people this way, we probably wouldn’t have been amateur radio operators.”
Amateur operator Larry Shaunce has made a handful of astronaut contacts over the years, the first time in the 1980s when he reached out to Owen Garriott as a teenager.
More recently, Shaunce, 56, made contact with NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor in 2018.
“Hello, this is Larry in Minnesota,” he said after Auñón Chancellor confirmed his callsign.
“Oh, Minnesota!” she replied, adding that she could hear him “super clear” in space and that he must have nice equipment.
“It’s always exciting when you’re talking to someone in space,” said Shaunce, an electronics technician in Albert Lea, Minn. “You just never know. I monitor the frequency all the time.”
James Lea knows that reaching the space station can be a hit or a miss. He and a friend once stopped near a farm in Bunnell, Florida when the space station was flying overhead.
The couple sat in a truck with an antenna on the roof and radio equipment in the cabin. After a few tries, they heard Auñón Chancellor reply, “Hey, good morning Florida. How are you?”
Lea, 53, a filmmaker and engineer, remembered that he and his friend were “sitting in the middle of a cabbage field. The fact that she came back to him was kind of incredible.”
Lea’s daughter Hope tried to reach the space station for years but never got a response. She received her amateur radio license at the age of 8. At age 14, Hope is considering becoming an astronaut and going to Mars, her father said.
David Pruett, an ambulance doctor from Hillsboro, Oregon, attempted to contact the space station with a multiband amateur radio with a magnetic antenna that was placed in a pizza pan to improve performance. He worked from his dining table and made many unsuccessful attempts. But one day the space station approached the west coast, and Pruett made the call again.
“November Alpha One Sierra Sierra,” he said, using the ham radio callsign for the space station.
Seconds of silence stretched after Pruett’s identification: “Kilo Foxtrot Seven Echo Tango Roentgen, Portland, Ore.”
Then there was a crackle, then the voice of the astronaut Wheelock. In the end, both signed “73” – Ham jargon for “Sincerely”. If you remember the first conversation in 2010, the hair on Pruett’s arms is still high.
“It was absolutely incredible,” said Pruett. “To press that microphone button and call the International Space Station and then let go of the button and wait, then you hear that 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 of which was when Pruett was stuck in traffic in Tacoma, Washington.
“I feel like I’ve become friends with him,” said 64-year-old Pruett, who recorded many of his contacts on YouTube. “I can only imagine their workload is very light and they have little free time, but I think it has been very generous of him to donate as much of his free time to amateur radio operators as he is.”
Wheelock remembers Pruett well.
“David was one of the first contacts I made,” he said. “He was one of the first voices I heard as I approached the west coast.”
Wheelock’s other amateur radio contacts made similarly deep impressions – including a man from Portugal with whom he spoke so often that Wheeler and his fellow astronauts once sang “Happy Birthday to You” to him.
Wheelock also contacted some of the first responders who were working to rescue the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days in 2010.
“I just wanted to give a word of encouragement … to let you know that there is someone above you who cares about what you are doing and what is on your way,” he said.
During a six-month mission from 2005 to 2006, NASA astronaut William McArthur spoke on amateur radio to 37 schools and made more than 1,800 individual contacts in more than 90 countries.
“That’s only an infinitely small percentage of the world’s population, but it’s a lot more than I think I could have touched directly any other way,” he said. “I wanted to share with people who might have happened by chance, who might not have a special connection or insight into space exploration.”
It also allowed a certain variety among his interlocutors. During his mission, McArthur’s main crew member was Russian cosmonaut Valeri Tokarev.
“I love him like a brother. We’re very, very close,” he said. “But it’s still a different person for six months.”
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