ISS Astronaut Savors Random “Messages in a Bottle” via Ham Radio
Amateur Radio recently offered a means for European Space Agency Astronaut Luca Parmitano, KF5KDP, to reconnect with Earth from the ISS during a period when it was difficult to see the planet from space. His experience, recounted in his online blog, also gave him a greater appreciation for the ham radio gear aboard the station as well as for the greater ham radio community on Earth. As Parmitano explains, the space station’s “beta angle” had resulted in long periods in sunlight, putting Earth in shadow and making him feel a little isolated.
“It’s like looking out of the window at night when you have the lights on in the room, and there’s not one streetlight lit outside,” he said. “We’ve been travelling immersed in completely black space.” With no available photo opportunities, Parmitano thought about the ESA Columbus module’s ham radio gear, which he described as “sometimes a little neglected by us astronauts.”
Parmitano has used ham radio to chat with student groups on Earth as part of the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) program, but he concedes that he has “never been into Amateur Radio.” Yet he found himself sitting at the radio looking for the first time “to establish some kind of ‘contact’ between the station and Earth.” Not knowing what to expect, he set the radio in simplex mode while somewhere above Europe. “[S]uddenly, a voice surfaced above the other sounds.” It was a man’s voice calling NA1SS, the US Amateur Radio call sign for the ISS.
“I was taken aback by the emotion that rose in me as I tried to reply to the call, using the Italian call sign IRØISS,” Parmitano recalled. “But my excitement was nothing compared to the sheer astonishment and disbelief I heard in that voice, thousands of kilometres away. Speaking English with a beautiful Portuguese accent, the radio operator on the other side of the signal only managed to say a few words — ‘I don’t know what to say. This is a dream come true for me!’ — before our conversation was interrupted and buried by swarms of other calls.”
For the next 15 minutes as the ISS passed above Western, Central and Eastern Europe, he tried to reply the dozens of other callers “sending their messages into the ether with the hope that, thousands of kilometres away, the Space Station antennae would pick up their signal and that I’d be able to decipher what they were saying,” he said.
The different voices from different countries soon “became members of one family, scattered over thousands of islands and in contact with each other through nothing but these ‘messages in a bottle,’” as Parmitano characterized the radio calls.
The larger Amateur Radio community, he found, had “wrapped me in a warm blanket of friendship and gratitude, oblivious to the fact that I’m the one who should be thanking them for opening up the doors to an experience that began with that young man in Portugal, and that crossing space and time, reaches the heart of each and every Amateur Radio operator even before it reaches their ear.”