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Ham Radios in Space

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Ham Radios in Space

NASA's Space Amateur Radio Experiment is connecting students and ham radio operators on Earth with astronauts in Earth orbit.

see captionAugust 19, 2000 -- For most amateur radio operators, it is the thrill of a lifetime to receive a "CQ", or general call, from an astronaut in space. But for some, like former astronaut Dr. Owen K. Garriott, call sign W5LFL, the thrill comes from receiving a response from "hams" down on Earth.

Garriott, who has been an amateur radio operator for over 40 years, was the first astronaut to take a ham radio into space, pioneering the way for an increasingly well developed amateur radio space program.

"It was my good fortune to take the first amateur radio into space on STS-9 in November 1983," Garriott said. "In my spare time only, I managed to hold up an antenna to the window and to talk to amateurs on Earth."

This contact was the first communication between astronauts and people on the ground outside of "official" channels, which are usually reserved for presidents and heads of state.

Above: Owen Garriott pioneered the use of ham radio from Earth orbit during his "spare time" on shuttle flight STS-9. Now, the Space Shuttle frequently carries amateur radio equipment into space where astronauts communicate with students on Earth below. [more information]

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Hams, as amateur radio operators are often called, use radio transmitters and receivers to talk to other hams all over the globe, as well as to those in space. There are more than 1.5 million licensed hams worldwide, including more than 400,000 Americans.

Every radio amateur must be licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In order to obtain a license, a ham must pass an examination, which includes questions about radio theory, rules and regulations, and International Morse Code. There are three grades of licenses, each at progressively higher levels of proficiency: Technician, General and Amateur Extra. The minimum license required to operate on the frequencies that communicate with the shuttle is Technician.

Once the examination is passed, the FCC issues the amateur operator's call letters. The first letter indicates nationality. In the United States, the first letters are A, K, N, or W.

see captionGarriott had originally proposed the idea of taking a ham radio into space on his first space mission, Skylab 3, but was unable to due to timing and other complications. Ultimately, though, he persisted and was able to obtain permission to fly a small hand-held transmitter/receiver aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.

Left: 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.

"When in orbit over land, I could make a CQ, which is a general call, and see who responded," Garriott said. "I used a well-designed, hand-held antenna, known as a 'cavity antenna', which could be velcroed to the window. It was about 24 inches in diameter and looked somewhat like a large aluminum cake pan. The transceiver then connected to the antenna."

In addition to the general calls, Garriott had made a few plans to send out a call to specific Earth-bound hams at prearranged times and dates.

"I had specified particular times and frequencies beforehand," Garriott said. "Among others, I was able to speak with the Amateur Radio Club in my hometown of Enid, Oklahoma, with my mom, with Senator Goldwater, and with King Hussein, who was an avid ham."

Since that first voyage into space, NASA has continued to see the usefulness of bringing ham radios into space, and astronauts have been able to speak to hams on earth on dozens of shuttle flights, as well as on the space station MIR.

see caption"There has been substantial amateur radio activity in space since I first brought one up," Garriott said. "There is now a program called SAREX that is allowing for more and more activity."

The 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. Students in hundreds of different classrooms across the country are able to ask the astronauts questions about space flight and the experiments being conducted on the mission. It also allows for communication with amateur radio operators on the ground.

Above: Now that's a ham rig! ("Rig" is ham radio slang for an amateur radio operator's transceiver and antenna.) This photograph of the Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian Mir space stations was taken by Nikolai Budarin from a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on July 4, 1995. During this mission astronauts answered questions from school students over amateur radio. [more information]

SAREX is sponsored jointly by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation (AMSAT) and NASA. Students and amateur radio operators can attempt to contact astronauts flying on a SAREX mission through voice, packet (computer) radio, or television, depending on what equipment is flying on the shuttle and on what equipment is available on the ground. According to the ARRL web site, SAREX missions are planned to begin again during the fall of 2000, and schools can apply to be contacted during the space flight.
In addition, in 1997, NASA approved plans to include amateur radio equipment as part of the payload of the International Space Station (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station or ARISS). Since astronauts will have more time in space while on the ISS, more opportunities for ham radio contacts will exist.

"Shannon Lucid used a ham radio while on MIR," said Garriott. "NASA saw how using an amateur radio would be a good thing for astronauts to do in their spare time on the space station."

see caption

Above: Onboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, astronaut Linda M. Godwin (right) talks to students (left) via the Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment (SAREX). The payload commander, as well as several other STS-59 crew members spent some off-duty time using the amateur radio equipment to communicate with "hams" and students on Earth.

And certainly hams on the ground are eager for contact with the astronauts. Specially designed shuttle "QSL" cards, which are postcards used by hams to confirm two-way contact or reception of a signal, are among the most prized in a ham's collection -- even to a king.

"(King) Hussein regarded his 1983 contact with Owen Garriott, W5LFL, on board Space Shuttle Columbia, as a high point in his amateur radio career," reported ARRL Executive Vice President David Sumner in a special bulletin following the death of Jordan's King Hussein, JY1.

Schools interested in learning more about SAREX and how it can work with their academic programs should visit the ARRL web page:

Web LinksSpace 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 will extend the SAREX program to the International Space Station

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