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Hamming It Up: Space to Kids Radio
05.26.06
It's pretty exciting to chat with folks who are traveling at 5 miles a second more than 200 miles above the Earth. Just ask 13,000 or so schoolchildren who have recent first-hand experience.

ISS012-E-21181 - Bill McArthur talks on station ham radio. Image at right: Bill McArthur talks on the ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station) during his scheduled amateur radio session. Credit: NASA

The 12th crew of the International Space Station, Commander Bill McArthur and Cosmonaut Valery Tokarev, made ham radio contact with a record 38 schools during its stay in space, 37 of them by McArthur. He also made more than 1,800 ham radio contacts with operators or radio clubs in more than 90 countries around the world.

"What could be more rewarding than talking to people in every part of the world over which you fly," McArthur said. "The enthusiasm of the hams who participated in Expedition 12 along with us was thrilling beyond description." Expedition 12 launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sept. 30, 2005, and landed last April 8.

The previous record for school contacts was 24, set by Expedition 10 Commander Leroy Chiao, who flew from October 2004 to April 2005.

Amateur, or ham, radio uses broad-range transmitters to allow operators to communicate on the same downlink frequency around the world -- and in space. Ham is a slang term. It began when professional radio operators often called amateurs ham-fisted. That was shortened to hams. The term stuck, though any negative connotations have long vanished.

The school contacts are made possible by Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS). Contact windows of about 10 minutes each are available with hams on Earth as the station moves at a speed of 17,500 mph.

Contacts are carefully planned and coordinated with participating schools. Some participating schoolchildren get to ask questions, all kinds of them. They range from what the crew eats to what work it does, and from what they like most about space to what they like least.

ISS012-E-21209 - Bill McArthur talks on station ham radio. Image at left: Bill McArthur talks on the ARISS on the orbital outpost. Credit: NASA

One ARISS team member is Kenneth Ransom, ISS HAM project engineer. He helps arrange the school contacts. He also helps train crews and encourages the astronauts to become licensed ham operators.

Ransom has a radio virtually identical to the one on the ISS. He uses it to train crewmembers, to troubleshoot problems and talk astronauts through any ham glitches they might encounter.

Ransom said that with McArthur in such high ham demand, he seldom had a chance to talk with the station commander by radio.

"The crew has a phone they can use to call Earth," Ransom said. "That's what they use to talk to their friends and families. I received a call from Bill at my house, and my wife came out in the yard and mentioned casually, 'Bill's on the phone,' as if it would happen any day of the week."

McArthur had interesting conversations with schoolchildren and with operators around the globe. He talked with people on small Atlantic and Pacific islands, in Antarctica and even aboard a research ship in the South Pacific.

"It's neat for schoolchildren and individuals to be able to talk to an astronaut in orbit," Ransom said. "The kids really enjoy the idea that they're actually holding a conversation with an astronaut flying overhead."

Donna Lin
NASA's Johnson Space Center