The four men examined the position of the ham radio antenna, adjusted it a little north, then tried again, using a particular string of words as they tried to establish a connection.
“Whiskey, five, gulf, India, x-ray,” Brook Samuel announced clearly into the receiver.
In response, he received static electricity. Another adjustment. Another round of the call sign. More static. After about a dozen tries, broken vocals came out of the static and just as quickly disappeared.
The men stirred and became excited by the sounds.
“It was them!” one said admiringly.
More static followed and the window of opportunity passed. Their excitement was due to where the voices were coming from – hundreds of miles in space.
“It was astronauts on the International Space Station,” John Stevens said. He said they wouldn’t be back for over an hour, after which the men would get back into their places and try again.
The four men, all radio amateurs, were at the Highland Road Park Observatory taking part in the American Radio Relay League Field Day. The event is an opportunity for amateur radio operators from the United States and Canada to compete to contact the most other operators.
Amateur radio operators are amateur radio operators licensed by the FCC to operate on specific radio bands. Most astronauts are also radio amateurs and sometimes navigate 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 radio amateurs.
“It’s game time,” he added, meaning it was the time when maybe they could reach the crew by radio.
While many operators use their radio primarily as a hobby, Giammanco said, the most significant use for amateur radios is in emergency situations.
Capable of using voice, digital and Morse code, and running on a car battery, amateur radios are invaluable in emergencies when a site’s infrastructure may be crippled, Giammanco said.
With a suitcase-sized radio and a battery, operators can “talk to anyone in this world or out of this world,” he said.
Dana Browne, an LSU physics professor and amateur operator, agreed that radio amateurs are useful during hurricanes and other natural disasters because operators can contact others to warn of extreme weather conditions or the need for medical assistance. .
He said the observatory operators participating in the competition were operating under “simulated emergency” circumstances, meaning they weren’t using building power, but rather batteries.
Browne said his most interesting amateur radio experiences came when he was able to communicate with other people around the world. His most memorable conversations were with astronauts aboard the ISS, Nobel laureate Joe Taylor and the oldest living veteran of World War I.
Inside the observatory, four radios were set up with spotlights coloring in the states and regions of Canada where the operators had made successful contacts.
To successfully save the contact, operators had to save the other operator’s call sign and location.
More experienced operators could easily discern what sometimes sounded like robotic voices or sounds slightly like human voices with the naked ear.
Giammanco said a trained ear could pick up a whisper in static.
The event was open to the public and families started coming with children who got to play with some of the radios alongside an operator, receiving a card when they made successful contact.
Giammanco said he and other operators are trying to actively promote radio communication to young people, but what was once the most advanced technology is a little less appealing to a generation with cellphones and the internet.