Tarwater kids connect with astronauts - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Tarwater kids connect with astronauts

November 8th, 2021 development
Tarwater kids connect with astronauts

By Ken Sain
Staff Writer

For more than a minute Tarwater Elementary School students were calling the International Space Station and all they got back in return was static.

Organizers said this is normal – and expected. They only had a brief window to make their call. They had to wait until the ISS appeared above the horizon before the radio signal would reach them.

“November-Alpha-One-Sierra-Sierra, November-Alpha-One-Sierra-Sierra, this is Whiskey-Seven-Mike-Radio-Foxtrot, Whiskey-Seven-Mike-Radio-Foxtrot, calling for a scheduled school contact, do you copy? Over.”

Only static came back.

They repeated that process about a half dozen times before a faint reply could be heard. They asked if the ISS was ready for questions. When they said yes, the students cheered.

So many things could have gone wrong that would have disappointed the students. But nothing went wrong and 10 students were able to quiz Astronaut Shane Kimbrough about his current six-month stay in space.

Principal Diane Hale said the first challenge to making that call last Wednesday was COVID-19. The school was approved to be one of a handful to get to speak to the ISS last year but had to cancel because campuses were shut down.

They reapplied for this year and were one of only seven U.S. schools approved to contact the space station.

Jim Davies was one of the HAM radio operators who helped connect the school to the ISS. He said it was not an easy process.

“At the last second, one of our wires was loose and we weren’t able to transmit,” Davies said. “The smallest thing could go wrong and we don’t make the contact. When I first heard them come back it was a sigh of relief.”

The ISS travels at 17,500 miles per hour, so the window for talking to an astronaut onboard was only about 10 minutes before it would be below the horizon and the radio signal lost.

The 10 students chosen represent grades kindergarten through sixth grade. Still, Hale said all students had a chance to participate.

“The questions come from a bank from our whole school,” Hale said. “We’ve been collecting them for several months, then we had a committee that chose the favorites.”

Wednesday’s presentation was quite the production. Chandler Unified School District plans to post the video to its YouTube page.

In addition to the questions and answers with Kimbrough, the show included several videos and a performance by the school’s choir.

The choir sang “ISS Is Somebody Singing” –  written by Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield while he was living on the station. He had some help from the Canadian pop band Barenaked Ladies in writing the song.

As the choir sang, students came out of several nearby classrooms to listen. Hale said everyone on campus has been looking forward to this event for months.

One of the videos played before contact was made had two children who are HAM radio operators explaining how they would be talking to the ISS.

They needed a big antenna and then had to know the course the space station would take. A computer had to keep the antenna pointed at the station the entire time. The students had to constantly adjust for the Doppler effect. They needed equipment to boost the signal. And of course, the entire process had to be cleared with NASA.

HAM radio operator Lionel Mongin made the event possible. His daughters and son attend Tarwater and he approached the school, letting them know about the program.

Davies said they practiced making this contact for more than a month in order to avoid any problems.

If something went wrong, then there would be 10 very disappointed children looking at them, Mongin said.

“It was a lot of pressure on us,” he said.

Luckily, the space station answered the call.