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In 1901 Guglielmo Marconi communicated across the Atlantic with a radio device using high power and giant antennas. Once radio communication was proved by private citizen to work, Congress approved the Radio Act of 1912, which required amateurs to be licensed and established regulations for how radio communications would work. In 1914 the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) was founded to represent the interests of amateur radio operators before federal regulatory bodies. Today, the ARRL provides technical advice and assistance to more than 160,000 amateur radio enthusiasts in the United States.

Amateur Radio, called ham radio, has become a globally popular hobby. Ham radio is a service that brings people, electronics and communication together. The word “ham” goes back to 1908 when the first amateur wireless station was launched at the Harvard Radio Club. The amateurs who formed the club were Albert S. Hyman, Bob Almy, and Poogie Murray. At first they called their station “hyman-almy-murray”, but then abbreviated it to ham. From then on, the hobby became ham radio. Today, there are approximately three million hams globally, with 750,000 in the United States. Hams use a variety of equipment and modes of communication to bounce signals off the ground, ionosphere, and the Moon.

Hams are active in nearly every country of the world and from ages less than 10 years to more than 100. Hams have basic knowledge of radio technology and operating principles and must pass an examination to receive an FCC license to operate on radio frequencies known as the “Amateur Bands.” These bands are radio frequencies allocated by the FCC for use by ham radio operators. Not only is ham radio fun, social, and educational, it can provide a lifeline during emergencies when traditional communications are often knocked out. Emergency relief efforts in both Lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon were augmented by volunteer amateur radio operators in the weeks after the attacks.[i]

Hams talk across town, around the world, or even into space, all without the Internet or cell phones. One of the most exciting opportunities for hams is to chat with astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). A ham with a few hundred dollars of equipment or less can connect to ISS, which cost more than $100 billion.[ii] Astronauts and ham radio operators have been talking to each other for years. Science X™, a leading web-based science, research and technology news service, published “Earthlings and astronauts chat away, via ham radio”. The journalist explained why such chats take place,

NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock was just a few weeks into his six-month mission at the space station when feelings of isolation began to set in. Wheelock would be separated from loved ones, save for communication via an internet phone, email or social media. At times, the stress and tension of serving as the station’s commander could be intense. One night, as he looked out a window at the Earth below, he remembered the space station’s ham radio. He figured he’d turn it on—see if anyone was listening.[iii]

Wheelock made a broadcast on an assigned ISS frequency to see if anyone was there. He quickly got a flood of responses from hams who were monitoring the frequency. Astronauts speak with students on a scheduled basis, but some use their time off during evenings or weekends to engage with any hams. NASA set up a ham radio station on the ISS to encourage young people to get interested in science and engineering. The almost-all-volunteer organization called Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) arranges contact between students and astronauts so the students can ask rapid fire questions during a brief 10-minute window before the space station, travelling at roughly 18,000 miles per hour, flies out of range. Astronaut Ricky Arnold II said, “You’re talking to someone and looking right down at where they are.”[iv] Astronaut Owen Garriott, during his 10-day shuttle mission in 1983, spoke with about 250 hams all over the world, including King Hussein of Jordan and Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Read the full article including quotes of the exchanges between hams and astronauts is here.[v]

Epilogue: I got my ham radio license in 1959 at age 14. More on that and my plan to talk to an astronaut to come.

[i] “New York City Arecs Members and the Attacks of September 11, 2001,”  New York City Amateur Radio Emergency Communications Service (2011), http://www.nyc-arecs.org/911.html

[ii] JR Minkel, “Is the International Space Station Worth $100 Billion?,”  space.com (2010), https://www.space.com/9435-international-space-station-worth-100-billion.html

[iii] Samantha Masunaga, “Earthlings and Astronauts Chat Away, Via Ham Radio,”  PHYS.ORG (2020), https://phys.org/news/2020-12-earthlings-astronauts-chat-ham-radio.html

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.