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Students make First Contact with the ISS

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Students make First Contact with the ISS

Last month a group of Chicago students talked to astronauts on the International Space Station via amateur radio.

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ARISS logo"What emotions did I feel when I got into space? I'll tell you after an 8 and half minute ride on a big rocket you feel really relieved to be in outer space!"
--ISS commander William Shepherd to a Chicago 7th grader

January 30, 2001 -- The days of painting Styrofoam planets are probably numbered at the Luther Burbank School in southwest Chicago after students there received a call from space.

It wasn't a hail from alien creatures, but the radio transmissions were nonetheless electrifying to students and teachers who, with the aid of a local ham radio operator, made "first contact" with the crew of the International Space Station (ISS). Participants in the long-distance radio chat --the first of its kind between students and the ISS-- say science education at the Illinois school may never be the same.

The voice of Rita Wright, Burbank teacher and project coordinator, was full of pride and joy as she recounted the exchange on December 21, 2000. With more than 250 people assembled in the school's gymnasium, the excitement of receiving a radio call from the International Space Station was palpable.

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"The air was thick with the enthusiasm and anticipation," she recalled.

The students were able to talk to the astronauts thanks to a program called "Amateur Radio International Space Station," or ARISS for short. ARISS was created in 1996 to design, build and operate radio equipment that connects ISS crewmembers in space with eager students on Earth. ARISS is sponsored by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation (AMSAT) and NASA.

Listen to the entire Burbank-ISS conversation

Frank Bauer, chief of the Guidance, Navigation and Control Center at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, says the cardinal goal of the program is "educational outreach." Bauer also holds a volunteer position with AMSAT as vice president of the human spaceflight division where he helps develop radio hardware to fly on the space station.

Hams, who must be licensed by the FCC, number more than 1.5 million worldwide. The first ham "rig" in space flew on board the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1983, under the watch of astronaut-ham Owen K. Garriott. Since then, astronauts with amateur radio licenses have flown on more than 24 shuttle missions.

see captionLeft: This is U.S. Astronaut Owen K. Garriott - W5LFL - aboard the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia STS-9. He is holding a Motorola two meter FM ham radio walkie talkie. [more]

"The beauty of the space station," says Bauer, "is that it's up there all the time." Free from the restraints of a shuttle launch date, hams on Earth can expect more frequent communication from the space station crew in between tasks and meals. In addition to scheduled contacts with schools, astronauts still make random contacts with earth-bound hams; to date they have contacted thousands of hams around the world.

Wright, a math and science teacher in southwest Chicago for 31 years, received word in August 2000 that they had been accepted for a December contact with crewmembers aboard the ISS. Bauer, along with a team of AMSAT volunteers, worked closely with the school in preparation for the momentous occasion, essentially importing a full radio station into the school to facilitate direct communication.

On December 19, the scheduled date for contact, Wright says, "we were a bundle of nerves." Rightly so it turned out. When technical problems rendered their initial communication efforts futile, Wright says she experienced a "role reversal" with the students.

"I plunged down further than the kids…They were telling me 'it was just an experiment' and 'we're pioneers.'"

The students' optimism prevailed on December 21 when they established a crackly but inspiring radio connection with space station Commander William "Shep" Shepherd. "It was a once in a lifetime opportunity ... something the students will never forget," says Bauer.

see captionGiving students first-hand experience with the space program invigorates their interest in science and technology -- a goal championed by NASA and something the entire nation can appreciate, Bauer added. But the project did more than just galvanize the students.

"There was so much enthusiasm and support from all the teachers, the parents and the community," remarks Wright. "[In all my years of teaching] nothing has brought the community together like that." It's also refreshing, she says, to walk down the halls and hear space talk in lieu of idle chatter.

"We were ecstatic ... so thrilled, and still are."

Right: The arrow indicates an amateur radio antenna on the International Space Station that astronauts are using to chat with students on Earth. [more]

Since "first contact" at the Luther Burbank School, students in Virginia and New York have also spoken with the astronauts via amateur radio. Ultimately, says Bauer, they hope to schedule one school a week.

To receive an ARISS application simply visit this URL. Fifty schools are currently waiting for a contact date. In the meantime, schools with hams can participate by eavesdropping on other schools as they talk to the astronauts; and teachers can coordinate relevant lesson plans.


Web Links

Space Amateur Radio EXperiment - SAREX is a long-running program to use amateur radio equipment on board the Space Shuttle to involve students in exchanging questions and answers with astronauts in orbit.

Amateur Radio on the International Space Station - ARISS extends the SAREX program to the International Space Station

American Radio Relay League -- home page. ARRL is a sponsor of ARISS

The Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation -- home page. AMSAT is a sponsor of ARISS


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