SRJC contacts Internation Space Station

Ken Kutska, Assistant A&E Editor

Who would have thought that in Santa Rosa, there is a place you can broadcast to the heavens? Santa Rosa Junior College is the only college in the world with a ground-based radio station able to contact outer space; one of only three in the country, and nine in the world. On Jan. 24 it made contact with the International Space Station (ISS).

During the contact students from the El Dorado County School System, representing six schools, asked questions of ISS-orbiting astronaut Commander Daniel Burbank. With support of government agencies like NASA, students from the third, fourth and fifth grades submitted questions such as what foods do astronauts eat, do they get to talk to their families, is it lonely in outer space, how long can you stay before you have medical problems and other questions about daily activities.

SRJC was responsible for providing the signal so representatives from the school could ask one question each. There are six astronauts stationed on the ISS: one Dutch, two American and three Russian. In the 10 minutes of contact, Burbank answered questions quickly because the station could only be in contact for a short period. Some of the answers were short to conserve time.

From the SRJC ground station it is possible to transmit a signal so schools and other entities can contact the ISS, space shuttles and the MIR space station — precursor to the ISS. Before the ISS, in 1983, a program called Space Shuttle Experimentation (SARX) made it possible to talk from the ground to space. Construction on the ISS began in 1999 and the first shuttle launched in 2000. Since the American space shuttle program shut down, astronauts have traveled to the station through the Russian Space agencies on the Soyuz rocket at their installation in the Baykonur Cosmodrome, Southern Kazakhstan.

The program is part of an international effort to allow schools throughout the world to broadcast with the support of agencies like the European Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency, Russian Space Agency and Japanese Space Agency.

Schools don’t get accepted just because they want to be involved with this STEM program; each school is screened and goes through a nomination process. NASA has a department of education that schools can apply to if their administrators want to pursue the program. NASA takes great priority in determining the best applicants, considering which schools it will benefit the most.

Roughly 250 people gathered at the El Dorado County Office of Education, including students and teachers. Jeremy Myers, deputy superintendent of the El Dorado County School System, moderated the event to orchestrate the order in which kids asked questions. Questions get introduced through the support of teachers, who at times hold contests with their students to decide on which questions to ask.

The government accepted 30 questions from students for a 10-minute broadcast. There was time for Burbank to answer about 20 of the questions because contact with the space station is only possible when it is on the horizon relative to SRJC’s antennae.

The broadcast system is located across from the Earth and Space Science office in the Geology/Study Session room in Lark Hall. The project at SRJC is run by a group of amateur radio operators and engineers who monitor and operate the various signals and antenna.
Before any contact takes place, each piece of contact equipment has to be checked and rechecked to make sure that the equipment is working properly; a tedious process, but a necessary one. If one piece goes bad then contact can be lost. Since the program started there has only been one failed contact.

On the Santa Rosa end of the broadcast, Section Manager Bill Hilldendahl, from the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) and National Association for Amateur Radio San Francisco section, took charge of making sure the antenna array stayed in line with the space station for the duration of the contact.

Tim Bosma, broadcast analyst and SRJC’s Director of Purchasing and Graphics Services, who’s also a member of the ARRL, moderated the dialogue from SRJC and was in charge of making sure nothing went wrong with the communication equipment. Bosma has been involved with the program for many years. “I’ve been interested in amateur radio since I was thirteen and have always been interested in space,” Bosma said. “When they announced that they were going to do the program, I got interested and have been a part of the program ever since.”

SRJC student Braden Mailloux, an amateur radio operator, maintained the computer equipment so it didn’t malfunction during the broadcast. The two computers tracked the ISS as it traveled through the horizon for the antenna.

Don Dalby, a Science Equipment Technician for the earth and space science department, helped get everything up and running beforehand so there weren’t any problems with the phones or other devices.

The station at SRJC can make contact a couple times a month, or go a few months without any contact, depending on what other nations have planned and if other stations are making the contact.

Former SRJC President Dr. Robert Agrella helped initiate the project for the school. Through various community dignitaries, SRJC beat out schools like Stanford to win the school the right to establish a station on the Santa Rosa campus. The station can connect other lower-powered stations all over the state to outer space.

A general broadcast happens a few times a year and the next one is planned for 4:30 a.m. Feb. 4.