I recently contacted Astronaut Douglas Wheelock on board the International Space Station with a simple ham radio attached to a small magnet mounted antenna inside our home in Appleton, WI. While a ham radio license is required, it is not difficult to obtain. Ham radio clubs in your area can help you obtain one. Contact the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) or visit ARRL.org to obtain more information. The radio equipment required is not overly expensive in my opinion. While I made my contact with a radio in the $750 price range, a simple 2 meter ham radio in the $200 price range would be just fine as well. The antenna I used was a magnet mount antenna attached via magnet mount to our 4 drawer office file cabinet. The antenna is in the $50 price range. If you do not have a file cabinet any large metal object would probably work as well. Many people use kitchen cookie sheets. A stove would work and a wood stove would be excellent.
My first contact with him was on 10/11/2010. Was it worth the effort… well… YEAH!!!
• My 2 meter ham radio used 50 watts but you can do the job with a HT (hand-held radio) and 5 watts. People have used hand-held ham radios and as little as 5 watts. If you go the portable radio route then a satellite antenna (a hand-held beam antenna) is suggested.
• One thing that is required is the ability to transmit on one frequency and listen on another. Sound like basic repeater functionality? Yeah – but the distance between the receive and transmit frequencies is much greater than on standard repeaters. Read further for details on frequencies. No tones are needed for the International Space Station (ISS). Tones are required for other amateur radio satellites.
• Very helpful in my estimation is the ability to track, or predict, when the International Space Station (ISS) will fly over, what direction it will come from and go to, and what height (angle) it will be in the sky. There is no one best method. Your choice will depend on your budget, resources, etc.. I had a PC and internet connection and I downloaded the FREE “Ham Radio Deluxe” program that includes a satellite tracking program. Get your Ham Radio Deluxe software FREE and get to know it. I used the software to alert you, even via digital voice, when to make your attempt. There are web-based alternatives – do a Google search for “satellite predictions” and “satellite tracking” for many more alternatives.
• Know the correct frequencies. Visit AMSAT,org to find the information on various satellites and how to work them. For specifics on the International Space Station (ISS) go to their section. Specifically, read everything from this section http://www.amsat.org/amsat-new/ariss/#freqs through the bottom of the page.
• Set-up your radio. Ham radio repeaters use special silent tones in some instances. This allows multiple repeaters to use the same frequency without interfering with each other. The ham radio operator transmits a silent tone on the specific frequency to signal which repeater s/he wants to operate with. The International Space Station (ISS) uses no tone. Learn to say your call sign in proper, standard phonetics. Remember that you are talking to trained professionals. They will NOT appreciate and may not even understand any “cutesy” personalized phonetics. Also learn to transmit your CITY quickly after your call sign. The city will help others know that the astronaut wants YOU to tell them the rest of your call sign in case they miss part of it.
• Lastly, do have some patience. They may be busy. You may be busy. Remember that ham radio on the International Space Station is generally done in their spare time. Good luck busting your first space pile-up!