NORWICH — Norwich Free Academy the students had an extraordinary day on Monday.
The students made radio contact with NASA astronaut Josh Cassada, who is in the middle of a six-month mission on the International Space Station. The conversation at the end of the school day lasted about 10 minutes, but it was the culmination of more than a year of work by students and staff at Norwich Free Academy.
The Norwich Free Academy Amateur Radio and Engineering Club, call sign W1HLO, was responsible for carrying out this conversation. The club’s advisor is Anthony Girasoli, who is also the school’s director of information technology. He said that after students expressed interest in speaking with an astronaut, the school applied for and was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Amateur radio digital communication organization to upgrade equipment, and asked to speak with amateur radio at the International Space Station.
“We always wanted to do something unique, and that was always a goal to strive for,” he said.
The amateur radio club, or amateur, has always done challenging college-level projects. Other works carried out by the club include launching a weather balloon and establishing an amateur television station, Girasoli said.
The whole school is interested in the space project
Materials about astronauts were incorporated into the whole school’s science curriculum to prepare them for Monday, and they could develop questions to ask Cassada, Girasoli said.
The amateur radio club has also created promotional material to pique students’ interest, Deziavit said.
Junior Julia Sujecki and freshman Clark Deziavit are new members of the school’s amateur radio club and were both intrigued by the prospect of talking to an astronaut from space.
Before the contact, the two students were nervous.
“We have to make that first try,” Deziavit said.
Sujecki called it a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“I’m very excited and would like to learn more about space and become an astronaut,” she said.
Establish radio contact with the space station
To prepare, Girasoli had to map all possible signal obstructions to create an optimal path, and the students had to practice with their equipment until the hour before the chat.
On Monday, while a few dozen people were standing in the ham radio room in the Cranston building, the whole school could hear the conversation from the AP and the YouTube stream.
Once everything was ready to roll, Girasoli explained to everyone that the two robotic antennas in the Cranston building would still be pointed at the International Space Station. There was a lot of noise at first, but after Girasoli and Deziavit called for a few minutes, they heard the call sign of the space station.
“Welcome aboard the International Space Station,” Cassada said. “Norwich Free Academy, I’m delighted to talk to you.”
Wide range of questions for astronaut Josh Cassada
With some oversight from NASA, 23 questions were chosen, ranging widely from different aspects of being an astronaut and living in space. Most students had a chance to ask their questions before the International Space Station moved out of range.
The first question was asked by senior Christopher Dubicki, wearing a NASA sweatshirt. He asked about Cassada’s journey to becoming an astronaut and what he would recommend to someone who wants to become an astronaut.
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Cassada opened up about his winding career path, studying physics, becoming a Navy pilot, starting a business, and then becoming an astronaut.
“I’ve always done things that interest me, so my only recommendation is: do things that you love, and that’s better than working for a living,” he said.
Other students asked about supply management and experiments going on right now. Cassada said there are more than 200 in progress.
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Other questions were more about life in space, Cassada mentioning special training to prevent health problems in space, the crew all having medical training and having to use a “special system” during the toilet use.
“When you open a bag, everything floats out,” Cassada said to laughter from listeners. “You can imagine going to the bathroom, you have to be very careful.”
After about 20 questions, the International Space Station moved out of range and applause radiated from the small room for a job well done.
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Both Deziavit and Sujecki encouraged their comrades to join the amateur radio club.
“It gives you a lot of opportunities to do things you’ve never done before,” he said. “You can use fancy radios to talk to different people around the world, and now we’re using radio to talk to an astronaut.”
“You can also learn Morse code and learn how to build a robot,” she added. “If you love building and you love space, I definitely recommend it.”
Girasoli hopes it will inspire students to look into astronomy or other sciences. Although it may be difficult for the club to beat that, Girasoli hopes to have a radio telescope installed as the club’s next big project.
“I want people to see the amazing things we do here at the NFA,” he said.