St. Stephen’s Students Made Radio Contact with ISS Crew on Monday, October 3, 2022

Congratulations, Mr. Charlie (KG5QNO), Lab Guru, da Vinci Lab for Creative Arts & Sciences!

St. Stephen’s students spoke with NASA Astronaut Bob Hines aboard the International Space Station via direct radio contact. An immersive STEM activity, lessons leading up to the landmark event included the construction of a Yagi antenna on top of the da Vinci Lab for Creative Arts & Sciences, a progressive radio curriculum, tracking exercises with Pico balloons, and research on life in space.

Source: CI Storytelling

As the students of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Houston gathered in a classroom one morning this fall, they eagerly awaited the chance to ask an astronaut their special question. But instead of a former astronaut coming into the school to visit with them, they spoke to a current astronaut 254 miles up in space on the International Space Station.

Through Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, the program that connects students to astronauts, 10 children who are in kindergarten through eighth grade were able to make radio contact with NASA astronaut Bob Hines by a high-gain Yagi antenna built by St. Stephen’s teacher Charlie Larrabee.

The questions ranged from inquiring how cold the station was to if the astronauts can eat ramen in space, with one child even asking if it feels cool to do a backflip in space. The answer? Yes, it does.

Such a monumental event takes lots of planning, according to Larrabee, with the preparation for the day taking almost a year to complete. In that time, the students learned about radio and space technology. As only a handful of schools are chosen every six months, it was a big honor to participate in the event.

“I’ve watched these on YouTube from various schools and those are cool, but actually being in the room was amazing,” Larrabee said. “There’s a sort of tension of you don’t know if the contact is going to be made, or how long it’s going to last. It was very exciting.”

Unlike most other participating schools, Larrabee decided to build the antenna from scratch by himself. Once it was built, it lived on the roof above the classroom. Due to the nature of how the space station orbits through space, the students only had 10 minutes to ask their questions.

“It just felt like the impact of the event would be much more meaningful,” Larrabee said. “I was actually controlling the radio with my knee. So when I push my knee down on the pedal, that’s what starts the radio transmitting and the kids can start talking. We’re kind of collaborating.”

Having the opportunity to participate in this event goes hand in hand with the extensive STEM program offered by the school. Students are able to work on various projects including robotics, coding, 3D design, electronics and woodshop.

“It’s a really, really awesome community building activity in addition to the makerspace learning that the kids are doing,” Larrabee said.

For students and parents who are interested in admission to St. Stephen’s, the school now has applications open for the 2023-24 school year.

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Thank you, NASA Astronaut Bob Hines! 

We would also like to say a special thank you to some of the people who helped us get ready for the event, including ham operators Gene (K5YFL), Jeff (W5JEF), and Walter (K5WH). We would also like to thank members of the BVARC and NARS radio clubs, who have been very helpful and patient in helping our students get on the air with Houston’s local repeaters.

Thank you, ARISS!

This event was part of the ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station) Program, which promotes learning opportunities as part of the STEM initiative. More information on the ARISS program can be found at www.ariss.org

More information on Amateur Radio can be found at www.arrl.org/what-is-ham-radio 

The da Vinci Lab’s Yagi Antenna
By Mr. Charlie Larrabee

July 2022

Low Earth Orbit satellites (like the ISS) travel very fast relative to our position on the ground. Therefore, we will have a short period of time to talk with the astronauts onboard.  It is likely that we will have about ten minutes, give or take a little bit.  Everything has to be ready ahead of time, so our students can have the best experience possible as they talk to our astronauts!

In order to maximize our contact, ARISS has requested that we set up a high-gain Yagi antenna.  In addition, the antenna has to be able to point at the station during our entire contact!  In order for this to work, we have installed a 2-dimensional rotator.  That is, we have a robot arm that can turn our antenna in azimuth (like a compass), as well as in elevation (like a sextant). The rotator has to be quite strong, as it is turning an antenna that is ten feet long!

One of the most challenging parts of the project so far has been the motor control.  Motor control means that the motor (our rotator), has to be connected to a computer which tracks satellites through the sky.  The computer knows exactly when and where a satellite is above us, but it needs to be able to communicate this to the rotator.  That’s where motor control comes in.  We have TWO special boxes to do this, one which plugs into the computer with a USB cable, and a second which sends the electrical power up to the rotator.  There are lots of wires, of course!  It is a delicate dance between the systems, with the computer on one end providing small data signals, and the electric motors on the other end, needing big power and guidance.

It has been my delight to be able to share this build process with my students as the station comes together.  We spent much of the spring semester with our rotator and Yagi antenna in the classroom, observing how they work.  Now that they have been moved up to the roof, my students will have a better understanding of how and why the antenna moves.

The da Vinci Lab

The da Vinci Lab for Creative Arts & Sciences at St. Stephen’s is both a program and a place, led by Mr. Charlie Larrabee, Lab Guru. The diverse curriculum in the da Vinci Lab (after school) and the da Vinci Classroom (during the school day for Kindergarten through 8th-grade students) includes: 

  • A progressive radio curriculum, including Fox Hunts, Slow Scan TV, and Morse Code; 
  • Core computing skills such as typing, internet safety, and basic coding; 
  • Wood shop skills such as taking measurements and making drawings, cutting and fastening, as well as finishing wood; 
  • Electronics, including motors, circuits, wearables, sensors, and coding; 
  • Sewing featuring fabric design, cutting, and stitching;
  • Ceramics construction and finishing methods; 
  • 3D design, including slicing models and creating designs for 3D printing, 3D scanning, Mesh Mixer, and TinkerCad. 

ARISS

ARISS is a joint venture by NASA, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), and the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation (AMSAT) to facilitate communication via Amateur Radio between astronauts aboard the International Space Station and schools and communities around the world. ARISS programs excite and motivate students in a one-of-a-kind presentation and exchange.

ARISS program goals are:

  • Inspiring an interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects and in STEM careers among young people.
  • Providing an educational opportunity for students, teachers, and the general public for learning about wireless technology and radio science through Amateur Radio.
  • Providing an educational opportunity for students, teachers, and the general public for learning about space exploration, space technologies and satellite communications.

Amateur Radio

Amateur, or “Ham,” Radio, is a popular service and hobby in which federally licensed participants operate communications equipment. There are over 700,000 licensed amateurs and nearly 2,300 ARRL-affiliated Amateur Radio clubs in the United States. Hams talk to each other across town, around the world, and even into space without the need for normal communications infrastructure, such as cell phone networks or the internet. Amateur Radio is regularly used during natural disasters to help local emergency and service agencies (such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and state and local governments) respond when normal communications methods are disrupted. The Amateur Radio community is a great source of electronics experimentation, public service, and fun.