Space Shuttle Contact

Naparima College‘s Direct Voice Contact With Space Shuttle Columbia,

Dev Gosine, 9Y4DG

Vice Principal- Naparima College

        When the news of Space Shuttle Columbia’s (NASA designator STS-58) successful launch broke, I started tracking it and religiously ran printed schedules for its Caribbean passes. After studying the data for some time, I noticed that the satellite track  during the midday (EST) was from north to south. On closer examination, I realised that as the US was losing its window of communication with the satellite, mine was just opening up. This meant if the astronauts were at their amateur radio station, I would hear them and probably be able to contact them.

On the night of November 03, 1993, – after making contact with the shuttle several times during the week on voice and packet radio (digital communication), the idea struck. I telephoned the principal of the college and asked him if he would like to make history. Confused by the question, I explained my intention and his support did not require much negotiation. After the telephone discussion, I faxed his office all the “relevant” information I had on the shuttle mission and its “Space Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment” (SAREX) program. This information was passed on to the students during the morning “parade”. Everyone was excited about the next few hours which were about to unfold.

The plan I had was to take some students to my home and using a telephone link-up and a speaker-phone at school, I would relay the entire proceedings throughout the school using its public address system. The “acquisition of signal” (AOS) of the shuttle was determined by a satellite tracking program, “Instant Track” and was calculated to be 12:47 pm.

I decided that the students should be selected from the Upper Sixth Form classes as they would have a better appreciation for the technology that awaited them. These students would have had both the theoretical and practical training from the Advanced Level Physics course.

Not wanting to appear too autocratic, the students were nominated and voted upon by their classmates. The criteria for nomination were intelligence, having an outgoing personality, and having good diction. After three students were voted in, the questions to the astronauts were then selected – again by nomination and voting….my only insistence was that the questions be realated to some part of the Physics syllabus. (At that age, students could be quite “creative” !!)

At about fifteen minutes before “high noon”, we were homeward bound. One could not help but notice, as we were leaving the school compound, the mixed feelings by the students. On our way we stopped at the newspaper office to pick up some reporters and camera-men. We arrived at my home at about 12:20 pm. I gave the “guests” a brief explanation on the automatic antenna tracking system which would point to any satellite once it is over the horizon and the OSCARS (Orbitting Satellites Carrying Amateur Radio) including the PACSATS (Packet Radio or Digital Communication Satellites)

Around 12:30 pm we established the telephone links with the school and did the preliminary testing of audio levels with the school’s audio-video technician. At 12:35 pm we went “live” via the telephone link-up. With the satellite tracking software ““Instant Track”” displaying a “real time” track of the Space Shuttle Columbia, a student gave, via the telephone link-up, the satellite’s current position as it left the Hawaiian Islands, passes over California, Texas, Georgia and Florida, while counting down the time remaining for the acquisition of its signals.

One minute before acquisition of signals, the antennas automatically pointed at the horizon where the Shuttle was expected to begin its ascent. Seconds before the calculated AOS, I heard Space Shuttle Columbia’s Bill Mc. Arthur. I recognised him from a voice contact the day before. With 150 W of power into a 15 dBd gain antenna (approximately 4 KW effective radiated power), I called, “KC5ACR this is school station 9Y4NC”. The suffix “NC” represents Naparima College. The satellite had just come over the horizon and I heard Bill having quick contacts with ham radio operators from Georgia and Florida.

I made my second call, “KC5ACR this is school station 9Y4NC”. The reply came almost immediately. “9Y4NC, this is KC5ACR you are loud and clear”. I told him I had a few students who would like to pop some questions to him, but I would wait for another minute or so as there may be other hams from the US waiting to call him. The US was just losing Columbia’s signals as displayed by “Instant Track”.

When “Instant Track” showed that the Space Shuttle had left the US shores, I re-established contact and introduced the students. Bill then requested that Stephen Gajadhar ask his first question.

“KC5ACR this is 9Y4NC, during this mission, how many fuel burns are necessary to maintain the orbit and attitude (orientation in space) of the spacecraft” asked Stephen. Bill replied, “9Y4NC, this is Space Shuttle Columbia KC5ACR, on this mission we did one major fuel burn, but several minor ones to maintain the attitude, next question please Shameed”.

Shameed Abraham then asked, “KC5ACR, this is 9Y4NC, what is the temperature of space outside the spacecraft ?”. Bill replied ” 9Y4NC, from KC5ACR, the temperature of space just outside the space craft is about minus one hundred degrees Celcius, but at the poles it is minus two hundred degrees Celcius, next question please Lester”.

Lester Ramoutar then asked ” KC5ACR, this is 9Y4NC, what is the forward velocity of the space craft ?” Bill replied, “9Y4NC this is Space Shuttle Columbia, the forward velocity of the space craft is seventeen thousand five hundred miles per hour, or about five miles per second.”

Excited by the moment, one of the other teachers who accompanied me,

Mr. Nazim Mohammed, then asked about the orbital period of the spacecraft, and was told that the time taken to orbit the earth was about ninety minutes.

After being photographed by the reporters we returned to school, where we were told that the students who remained there were at the edge of their seats, all sharing an experience of a life time – a historic direct (point to point) voice contact by their school mates with Space Shuttle Columbia – STS-58.