"Go a little higher," Patrick Kilroy says. His friend Hugh O'Donnell hoists an antenna. "That's as high as it goes," O'Donnell says. Suddenly a Morse code beep cuts through the radio static. They quickly decode the signal, log the message and set up for another passing satellite's ham radio transmission.
Kilroy and O'Donnell participate in Goddard's 24-member Amateur Radio Club. They traveled out to that dusty field on a Wednesday afternoon to practice for the American Radio Relay League's Field Day, a 24-hour event held June 22 and 23, where amateur radio operators, known as hams, talk to as many fellow stations as possible.
"We try to do many groups around the country and communicate with each other, making two-way quick contacts, and competing with each other," Kilroy said. The league awards prizes to the hams who make the most contacts over a wide range of radio bands, including by voice, by satellite and even online.
Credit: NASA Goddard/Sawyer Rosenstein
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Before the age of the Internet and immediate digital communications, the Goddard Amateur Radio Club's station, call sign WA3NAN, broadcast space shuttle mission audio on six bands to listeners around the world for more than 20 years.
Ham radio has found its niche in the Internet age, Capon said. "When the Internet goes down, ham radio still works."
Last year's Field Day had more than 35,000 stations communicating and competing worldwide, according to the league organizing the event, but for Goddard's ham radio club, Field Day is not about winning the contest.
"Winning is important to us, but what's even more important to us at Goddard is learning how to use the radios in an emergency situation," Kilroy said.
"It's one of the few events that's a coalescing event for all the hams at Goddard," Capon said.
For this, the 99th Field Day, Goddard hams went back to their club trailers out in the field and allowed everyone attending, licensed or not, a chance to get on the air. "Whether you're a communicator, experimenter, builder, software writer, all of that, there's so many different aspects that you can find something that fits you," Capon said.