Young 'hams' talk with astronauts

April 11, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

Seventeen Baltimore County middle school students reached out before dawn today and touched someone in outer space.

With an array of borrowed ham radio gear, the students from Deep Creek and Stemmers Run middle schools made short-wave contact with astronaut and Essex native Tom Jones as the space shuttle Endeavour streaked over the horizon in the 33rd orbit of NASA's current mission.

"N5QWL, this is Whiskey Alpha 3 Zulu, over," said Randy Hartman, 12, a Holabird Middle School student who got to start the conversation because his dad, amateur radio enthusiast John Hartman, helped to set up the hardware in the library at Deep Creek Middle School in Essex.

After several early tries with no response from Endeavour, Randy finally got through at 6:33 a.m. In the seven minutes that followed before the shuttle dropped below the horizon again and out of range, students shot 10 questions into space.

Kim Zubris, a 12-year-old sixth-grader at Deep Creek led off with a query about the mission's experiments with radar mapping.

"Can radar imaging detect natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions with enough time so that we can prepare for them?" she asked.

"Radar can help us out . . . especially looking at volcanoes," Dr. Jones answered. "We can see it get bigger before the eruption, and we can prepare for the eruption and warn people to evacuate the area."

His voice came in loud and clear over straight-line distances that ranged from 228 miles to 1,033 miles during the conversation.

Reading from a card, Nicole Buckingham, 13, a Stemmers Run seventh-grader, asked, "How is radar projected from the machine?"

"We have three powerful transmitters projected from the payload bay, and microwave pulses -- radio waves really -- bounce off the Earth and return to us," Dr. Jones replied. The waves are later converted into mapped images.

Other students took turns asking about archaeological and environmental discoveries the astronauts hoped to make. They also asked about Dr. Jones' first ride into space.

"It was very rattly and bumpy while the solid rocket boosters were burning," he said. "There was a huge jolt at liftoff."

His favorite spare-time activity in space?

"To put on some of my favorite music and take a look at the Earth going by," he said. "The combination of science and music is very beautiful, and one of the strongest memories I'll have of the flight."

Dr. Jones is a Stemmers Run alumnus whose late father, David Jones, was a guidance counselor at Deep Creek for 25 years. The 39-year-old astronaut suggested the radio interview last year to Stemmers Run science teacher and former Kenwood High classmate Sue Steele at their 20th high school reunion.

Ms. Steele could hardly contain her excitement this morning.

"I am so proud of him," she said.

She and science teacher Sherry Shwartz and reading specialist Chuck Leggore at Deep Creek made today's events the climax of three months of lessons on space science and radio communications.

When it was all over, Ms. Steele said, "I was ready to burst out in tears from excitement. I wanted all the kids to get their questions in, and they did. The signal was good, the questions were scientific. It's a great morning."

Today's conversation was arranged with the assistance of Howard Ziserman, a school coordinator for the non-profit Radio Amateur Satellite Corp., which works with NASA to arrange radio contacts with schools across the country.

From the Space Center in Hous ton came word today that a radar device had been fixed after an initial kink.

It was beaming down sepia-tinted images of the Sahara Desert and southern Italy today as Endeavour soared overhead.

Six astronauts are working in teams around the clock, taking thousands of photographs and changing data-collecting tapes while ground controllers manipulate two radar systems scanning the Earth.

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