The hundreds of students who were gathered in the Hopewell Public School gym didn’t make a sound.
They listened through loudspeakers to a radio operator in Honolulu trying to connect them with the International Space Station as it passed over Hawaii.
But the operator kept sending her call out into space without getting any answer: “This is WH6PN Honolulu calling for a scheduled contact. Do you copy? Over.” She repeated the message five times, waiting several seconds in between.
Finally, there was a staticky voice on the other end: “We hear you loud and clear.” It was Italian astronaut Paulo Nespoli.
The operator in Honolulu quickly connected Nespoli with the Hopewell gymnasium. “Go, Hopewell!” she said. The school only had ten minutes.
Hopewell was taking part in a program that allows students to speak with an astronaut for a few minutes using amateur radio. The program is run by an international partnership of amateur radio operators called ARISS — the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station.
On April 13th, around noon, as the space station passed over the Hawaiian islands, it become reachable by amateur radio in Honolulu during a ten minute window. After that, the station, which travels at about 27 thousand kilometres per hour, would be out of reach. From Honolulu, standard telephone wires relayed the radio transmission first to Virginia and then to Ottawa. In Virginia, sponsor Verizon Wireless retransmitted the signal, allowing it to be listened in on by other radio operators around the world. Hawaii was chosen as a transmission point for Hopewell for scheduling reasons — the space station happened to be passing over the American islands when Hopewell was available for the call.
Two ARISS volunteers who are also husband and wife, Steve and Lori MacFarlane, coached the school through the event. Lori stood on the gym’s stage with a microphone while about 15 students were whisked in and out of a chair next to her to ask astronaut Nespoli a question.
“Hi, my name is Thomas. Did you feel nervous when lifting off on the shuttle, and what did it feel like?” asked the first one up.
Nespoli cheerfully answered that he was nervous but not too much. And that the shuttle ride lasted only eight minutes and felt like a rollercoaster.
Other students asked Nespoli about sleeping and disposing of garbage in zero gravity, and about how it felt when he looked out a window onto the Earth for the first time. Nespoli answered poignantly: “Our planet Earth is really beautiful and very colourful, and the rest of the sky is black. I felt that it was priceless and delicate.”
“What is the best part of being on the space station?” asked a student called Noah.
“I made my dream come true being up here and working here,” Nespoli answered.
ARISS aims to foster kids’ dreams. “It makes them believe that anything is possible,” said volunteer Steve MacFarlane. Steve’s motto is “A nation’s best measure of success is in its children’s opportunity to dream.” The program also tries to encourage kids to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Lori MacFarlane remembered one girl who got to talk to an astronaut who never seemed to fit in with her peer group but who was so excited for the contact that she went out and bought a whole new set of clothes for that day.
Steve and Lori have became the champions of the program in Canada, bringing contact with the space station to more than 30 schools across the country. ARISS exists in eight other countries as well.
In Canada, ARISS relies on funding from the Canadian Space Agency as well as corporate sponsorships from First Air and Air Inuit. With more funding, Steve hopes to bring the program to isolated places like Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. He and all the other program organizers are volunteers.
Steve said he finds that most teachers don’t believe making contact with outer space is possible. “When you go into a school and say ‘Do you want to do this?’ they look at you and they call security right away,” he joked.
At Hopewell, it was a challenge to pick the kids who got to ask the questions from the many who wanted to, according to teacher Monique Sack. “This was like winning the lottery for us,” she said, and likened it to Christmas or Easter. Each class ended up sending one delegate, whom they chose in most cases by drawing a name out of a hat.
The lucky few who got to make contact seemed to relish the chance. “It was incredible to think that someone in outer space could speak to an ordinary student in a school,” said Tristan Dearden. “I just thought it was amazing,” he said. “I know that when I go home today and have dinner, my dad will ask me ‘What did you do today?’ so that’s when Ill say ‘I talked to an astronaut in outer space.’”
“I’d do it any day,” said Noah Killeen. He still didn’t think he’d ever be an astronaut, he didn’t rule it out entirely.
Rachel Shaw was a bit unnerved by the diet in outer space. “It’s really gross – the macaroni – you have to squeeze it out of a tube,” she said. Shaw also couldn’t imagine reducing the amount of fresh fruit that she eats, as she discovered astronauts must do. And yet, she was still inspired by the event: “I really want to go into space now. I really want to, like, float,” she said.
As it stands, there are so many schools waiting to make a connection with the space station that each can only do it once. But Steve MacFarlane says that all anyone needs to listen in on astronauts making their own radio transmissions is a regular radio scanner, purchasable at an electronics store for about 100 dollars. Set it to 145.800 megahertz when the space station is overhead. Outer space is remarkably near.