by Stewart Gross
On December 5th, 12 members of the Council Rock High School South Amateur Radio Club (ARC) spoke with Dr. Andrew Morgan on board the International Space Station (ISS) for a period of almost 15 minutes as he orbited 200 miles above the Earth, at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour.
The ARC participated in this as a part of Project ARISS, Amateur Radio on the International Space Station.
This is a program in which astronauts who are licensed to operate ham radios agree to speak to ham radio operators throughout the world on their “free,” non-scheduled times.
Astronauts work on a 24-hour earth schedule assigned to them by their country’s space agency (in Dr. Morgan’s case, NASA) to establish a “normal” circadian rhythm, given that they experience sunrise and sunset every 45 minutes in space.
CR South ARC director, Gerald Fetter, commented that, “This gives amateur radio operators the once-in-a-lifetime experience of communicating with astronauts in outer space.”
For the CR South ARC, this was a second-in-a-lifetime opportunity that was awarded to them, the first time being back in 2014.
According to Gerald, who is also the Assistant Department Chair of the Science Department at CR South, being selected a second time is “extremely rare for this program.”
The equipment that the ARC used for the 2014 transmission was donated by Gerald Fetter’s mentor, Steve Machulski, from Toledo, Ohio, who was assigned to him by the ARRIS program. Council Rock ARC’s latest space communication used radio equipment that was donated by the Warminster Amateur Radio Club.
While students from ARC were engaged in their historic communication, an elementary school STEM club in Virginia, and a ham radio club in Ontario, Canada were also listening in on the transmission.
Gerald called the event, “the highlight of my 26 years in teaching.”
He followed by saying, “I’ve never seen kids so vested in doing something. Kids kept antennae tuned, operated radios and corrected for the ‘Doppler effect’ in order to make the radio transmission a success.
Dr. Morgan’s flight itself was also a historic celebration.
He was launched July 20th, 2019, which was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission landing on the moon.
The launch itself points-out the political evolution of space exploration.
During the Cold War “Space Race,” the US was trying to beat the Russians to the moon and establish technological supremacy.
With the Space Shuttle program over, Dr. Morgan was launched from Kazakhstan with Russian cosmonauts.
Gerald is happy to see the international cooperation that now exists in the space program, noting that “astronauts and scientists are sharing scientific discoveries across countries that help all people, despite differences in political systems.”
He teaches two astronomy classes that include 60 students.
The astronomy students learn “to navigate the night sky using a portable planetarium that they borrow from the Bucks County Intermediate Unit.
They also learn the history of space travel from pre-Mercury and Sputnik aeronautics through present day space programs,” according to Gerald.
He formed ARC when he personally became an “Educator Astronaut” in 2003.
Mr. Fetter applied to go into space much like the first teachers in Christa McAuliffe’s era did. This was formerly known as the “Teacher in Space Program.”
He made the semi-final cut of 200 candidates out of 16,000 teachers who applied nationally, then took a year sabbatical from teaching and trained for space flight with the final 200 “Teacher Astronaut” candidates at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
There he met Barbara Morgan, who controlled the robotic arm on the ISS and was Christa McAuliffe’s back-up for the tragic Space Shuttle Challenger mission in 1986.
Although Gerald was not lucky enough to be selected as one of the 30 finalists, he joined the other 170 semi-finalists who trained with him in the “Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers.” He used the resources from this network to start the astronomy program in Council Rock School District in 2004 when he returned to teach.
The origin of all of this is Gerald’s dream. “Everybody wanted to be an astronaut when we were kids. But it was not a reachable goal. Only the best test or fighter pilots used to do it.”
Now, in the age of large crews, not every astronaut has to be a lead pilot.
“Being an astronaut is more attainable than when I was a kid.”