Midshipman Charles Taylor tried once, twice, three times yesterday to contact the space shuttle Atlantis. "5WQC," he repeated into the microphone. "This is W3ADO. W3ADO." He got nothing but static in reply.
At the advice of Walter Daniel, an adviser to the midshipman amateur radio club, he changed tactics, adding, "United States Naval Academy" to the call. No luck. Suddenly, the voice of an amateur radio operator at the University of Maryland crackled through the speaker, trying to reach the shuttle. Then another.
Part of the shuttle experiments during this mission involves amateur radio communications with ham operators on the ground. The mids, with two of their own graduates on board, had a call scheduled for 4:25 p.m., when the shuttle's orbit would take it into radio range.
Taylor tried again. "N5WQC, this is W3ADO, the United States Naval Academy, calling on schedule." Still nothing.
As Taylor, the club president, kept trying, other anxious mids watched the computer screen,where a white dot representing the shuttle traced a path from northwest to southeast on a brightly colored map of the world. A white circle around the dot defined the shuttle's radio "footprint," the area where communication could be established.
The trailing edge of the circle moved closer to the white "X" that marked Annapolis. Taylor called more frequently, interrupting every time he heard another ham operator start a call.
The mids, who have bounced ham radio signals off the moon and once sent up a weather balloon, have been preparing for this experiment for weeks.
Waqar Khan, an exchange student from Pakistan, assembled an antenna from parts he found in a storage closet and mounted it on the roof of Rick over Hall, where it looks likesomething that picked up TV signals in the '50s.
The aluminum antenna, about 10 feet long with 16 rods mounted at right angles, is not"all that powerful," he said. "But it is powerful enough to pick up the low-frequency radio waves from the shuttle."
Other midshipmen had computer programs to track the shuttle's flight or set up communications with a Yard Patrol boat anchored in the Severn River just farenough away to avoid interference. They ran a wire from a hand-held antenna across the boat's radio mast and back down to the deck, virtually turning the entire vessel into an antenna.
A year ago, the radio club managed to broadcast video pictures to the shuttle as it passed within range, but could not make voice contact. A year before that, their computers talked to each other. This would be the first timethey tried to talk to the astronauts.
But this also would be the most difficult of all, because they would have to compete with 10,000other ham operators around the country, said Bob Bruninga, a retiredNavy commander who runs the academy's satellite earth station.
"Before, there were only six clubs that knew what the frequency was," he explained. "But now anybody with a ham license knows the frequency.And they can call with just a little hand-held radio. All you have to do is listen for all the other operators in your area and try to start calling."
Thursday and Friday afternoon would be the best times to make calls from Annapolis.
On the huge tracking screen that hangs over the banks of radio and computer equipment, the trailing edge of the circle was almost over Annapolis. Taylor tried one more time, but had no luck.
The mids were down for a few seconds, but quickly switched their computer program to track Mir, a manned Russian space station that would be in radio range in five minutes.
Taylor began the calls again, and soon the voice from the University of Maryland club chimed in. Then, a voice thick with a Russian accent came through the speakers, acknowledging the call from the Maryland operator.
Well, sure, Taylor was disappointed he didn't get to talk to the astronauts or the cosmonaut. "But they have a lot more important things to do up there than talk to us. I'm ready to come back tomorrow and try again."