Text Size

One Small Radio Call for a Ham
A student speaks into a ham radio microphone

Volunteer amateur radio operators help students make contact with the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA

It was one small radio call for a ham; one lasting conversation for students, astronauts and others.

A little more than 10 years ago, astronaut Bill Shepherd, the first commander of the International Space Station, was part of a historic call.

On Dec. 21, 2000, Shepherd used amateur radio (also known as "ham radio") to participate in the first Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, or ARISS, contact from the space station, with students from Luther Burbank School in southwest Chicago. A local amateur radio operator brought his equipment and helped the students contact the station.

During the conversation, Shepherd answered questions from the students about such things as what it was like arriving in orbit: "What emotions did I feel when I got into space? I'll tell you, after an 8-1/2-minute ride on a big rocket, you feel really relieved to be in outer space!"

Rita Wright, the Burbank teacher who was the school's project coordinator for the connection, wrote of the experience: "It was an exciting time for all of us. Our ARISS contact awakened our community to the adventures and thrills found in space exploration. The contact sparked an interest in careers in space-related subjects and a sharper interest in the study of astronomy and the design and building of the tools of exploration. The event did bring this K-8 school together as no other event ever did."

Wright said the school is honored to have a place in the history of the International Space Station, and that the school has a plaque commemorating the occasion that ends with "We are forever attached to the International Space Station and Commander William M. Shepherd, like one of her solar panels reflecting the light of knowledge gained through the courage, exploration, and efforts of team Alpha 1."

Students sit around ham radio equipment

Making ARISS contacts is an engaging activity for a variety of students and can be used to inspire interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Image Credit: NASA

ARISS is a joint venture between NASA; ARRL, the American Radio Relay League; and AMSAT, the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation. (ARISS also works with space agencies representing other nations that are partners in the space station.) ARISS depends on the support of amateur radio operators who volunteer their time, equipment and expertise to help schools connect with the space station. ARISS was established in 1996, before the first space station modules were launched, to make it possible for students on Earth to be able to talk with astronauts and cosmonauts on the space station. (Students are also able to talk to the space station crew through downlinks conducted via the station's space-to-ground communication channels.) "The sky is the limit with how educators can tie STEM lessons to a live radio contact with an astronaut," said Rosalie White of the ARRL.

ARISS is supported within NASA as a K-12 education project of the agency's Teaching From Space office. "Teaching From Space facilitates education opportunities like ARISS that use the unique environment of spaceflight and other flight platforms to increase student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," explained Cindy McArthur, the NASA manager for the Teaching From Space office.

A student examines electronic equipment and spacecraft models

Schools support ARISS connections with other NASA-related educational activities. Image Credit: Rosalie White

During the first 10 years after Shepherd's conversation with Burbank School, almost 600 successful contacts have been made through ARISS between the space station and amateur radio users in 40 countries. Those contacts have allowed thousands of students to talk to crew members on the station. Tens of thousands of students, faculty and parents have been involved in preparing for, participating in or attending ARISS events. An ARISS contact even appeared in the IMAX 3D movie "Space Station."

One of the highlights of the ARISS program was the deployment, during a spacewalk, of SuitSat-1, an automated amateur radio rig that was placed in orbit inside a Russian spacesuit that was being discarded from the space station. Students could track SuitSat-1 as it deorbited and follow its "internal health," such as its voltage and temperature. ARISS will take the idea even further with ARISSat-1, a new amateur radio satellite that will build on the lessons learned during SuitSat-1 and add additional educational features.

By the time ARISS was formed, there was already a long history of amateur radio communications from NASA spacecraft. Astronaut Owen Garriott was the first person to fly a "ham rig" in space on the STS-9 space shuttle mission in 1983. Because the space station always has a crew and is always in orbit, it provides more opportunities for student contacts than the shuttle.

White stressed that educators don't need to know much about amateur radio to get involved in ARISS; the organization provides assistance to make the process easy for schools. Teachers who are interested in an ARISS event for their schools should visit the Amateur Radio on International Space Station website.

Bill Shepherd's first ARISS contact with Burbank School lasted about 10 minutes. The ensuing conversation between students and astronauts has lasted 10 years.

Related Resources
› Amateur Radio on International Space Station   →
› NASA Teaching From Space -- ARISS
› Students Make First Contact With the ISS   →

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services