The four men examined the position of the ham radio’s antenna, adjusted it a bit to the north and then tried again, using a peculiar string of words as they tried to make a connection.
“Whiskey, five, gulf, India, x-ray,” Brook Samuel annunciated clearly into the handset.
In response, he received static. Another adjustment. Another round of the call sign. More static. After about a dozen tries, broken voices came out of the static and just as quickly disappeared.
The men stirred and became excited at the sounds.
“That was them!” one said in awe.
More static followed and the window of opportunity passed. Their excitement was due to where the voices were coming from — hundreds of miles away in outer space.
“That was astronauts on the International Space Station,” said John Stevens. He said they wouldn’t be back around again for more than an hour at which time the men would set back up and try again.
The four men, all ham radio operators, were at the Highland Road Park Observatory participating in the American Radio Relay League Field Day. The event is an opportunity for ham radio operators in the United States and Canada to compete to contact the most other operators.
Ham radio operators are amateur radio operators licensed by the FCC to operate on specific radio bands. Most astronauts are also ham radio operators and sometimes browse the air talking to people on the ground.
At 1:30 p.m. in Baton Rouge, it was after dinner for the crew aboard the ISS, said Jim Giammanco, one of the ham radio operators.
“It’s play time,” he added, meaning that was the time when they might be able to reach the crew by radio.
While many operators use their radio mainly as a hobby, Giammanco said, the most important use of ham radios is in emergency situations.
Able to utilize voice, digital and Morse Code, and to operate off of a car battery, ham radios are invaluable in times of emergency when a location’s infrastructure may be crippled, Giammanco said.
With a radio the size of a suitcase and a battery, operators can “talk to anyone in this world, or out of this world,” he said.
Dana Browne, LSU physics professor and ham operator, agreed ham radios are useful during hurricanes and other natural disasters because operators can contact others to warn of severe weather or the need for medical assistance.
He said the operators at the observatory participating in the contest were operating under “simulated emergency” circumstances, meaning they were not using power from the building, but rather batteries.
Browne said his most interesting ham radio experiences came when he was able to communicate with others around the world. His more memorable conversations were with astronauts aboard the ISS, Nobel Prize winner Joe Taylor and the oldest living World War I veteran.
Inside the observatory, four radios were set up with projectors coloring in the states and parts of Canada where the operators had made successful contacts.
To successfully log the contact the operators had to record the call sign and location of the other operator.
The more experienced of the operators could easily discern what sometimes sounded like robotic voices or sounds bearing a faint resemblance to human voices to the naked ear.
Giammanco said a trained ear could pick up a whisper in the static.
The event was open to the public, and families began coming in with children who were able to play with some of the radios alongside an operator, receiving a card when they made successful contact.
Giammanco said he and other operators try to actively promote radio communication to young people, but what was once the most advanced technology is somewhat less appealing to a generation with cell phones and Internet.