Field Day 2014 – ISS Contacts, the Backstory

fd2014-4Ah . . . the feeling of success. I was walking on air Saturday morning, June 28th, at about 11:30 a.m. In less than 10 minutes into the official start-time of Field Day, the main purpose of all the Satellite Station prep-work and station setup was accomplished. We had finally done something we had been hoping to do year after year, every year, ever since adding a Sat Station to Field Day: we had finally actually made contact with Astronauts on the International Space Station!

To all “in the know” about VHF setups, and shooting signal toward the sky instead of earth, the truth is that contact with the ISS is a very easy thing. They fly by quickly of course, and you need to track their movement, but they are at an altitude of between 200 and 280 miles which for space communication is basically ‘right in front of you’. It’s easy to send signals to the ISS. What’s hard is finding someone there willing to talk. Well, thanks to the crew on the ISS, that was no issue this year. Reid Wiseman manned the ham station on board like a pro, and navigated through what would have to be the world’s greatest pileup imaginable.

But through all of that we made contact. Not once, but multiple times, and boy was it good. But it wouldn’t have happened without the admittedly unplanned and, well, rather lucky, events that lead up to that eventful moment. We could easily have been one of the folks who missed it.

As the years have gone by I have played with the Satellite station each year, trying to improve it. It’s not a setup I leave assembled all year long, it’s a series of equipment and parts I put together a week or two before Field Day, then disassemble and reassemble at the site. Since I’ve done it a number of times, assembly takes about two hours, as I find the various parts I need tucked away around my garage and backyard. This year I didn’t have much time to “play Satellites” before Field Day, and actually I did not put the station together for a pre-test until Wednesday, June 25th, just a few days before go-time. Thankfully everything seemed to work the same as before, and I decided to try adding a preamp and cavity filter on 2 meters, to improve reception.

As Field Day approached, John Charco (N6FBA) sent me an e-mail titled “Possible ISS voice contacts for Field Day 2014.” It was something he had been forwarded from someone else, and quiet honestly my reaction was like, “oh, I’ve heard that before,” and I didn’t pay it much attention. John had also asked that I teach a class at Field Day if possible, for the bonus points, and could I please put together some handouts or something that he could forward to the ARRL as “proof” that a class actually existed.

I thought about what I’d like to discuss, and decided to focus on the Sat’s themselves. How they work, and don’t work. I put together some pages for a handout, and popped them off to my printer, and while thinking about that decided to make a few copies of the e-mail John had sent about the possible ISS activity, just to have something to display at the site. When we set things up on Friday, I taped a list of Satellite pass times up for display, and added John’s e-mail to the wall outside the trailer.

All looked good on Friday, and a few of the folks at the site joined me for a few tries at some Satellite passes late in the day. The station sounded good, and we heard ourselves clearly in the headphones, but for some reason no one else was playing Sat’s at that time! We didn’t hear anyone else using the birds, for three passes, on different Satellites, on Friday. It was weird, and frustrating, and for a moment I had to ask, “are we hearing ourself so well because of some sort of cross taking place here at the station?” To prove to ourselves that our voice was indeed leaving the station and being received on return, I turned off the computer control of the radio and allowed the Doppler shift to run amok, letting our voices shift up frequency as we talked into the mic, listening to our own voice return. Sure enough, what we were hearing was indeed shifting. All was good, but where was everybody? We heard no one, and even though I had other listeners with me Friday night, we didn’t make contact with anyone. So much for a Station demonstration. It was a bit of a letdown.

From our Friday tests, we also decided that the addition of the preamp was not that useful. It brought up the noise floor too much, and the cavity filter, though working quite well, simply couldn’t do anything to improve the actual increase in noise floor that came from the preamp itself. The station sounded best when we simply dropped back to “barefoot”: no amp or preamp, and allowed the receiver of the good-ol Yaesu 736R do all the work. I took the extra parts home with me Friday night. The station was ready.

Saturday morning started nice and clear. I got back up to the site just a bit before 10am, and joined everyone else as the 11am start-time approached. Analyzing the Satellites, and the ISS, we saw that the ISS was going to pass over at just about 10 minutes after 11am, so a contact (if we got one) could actually count for Field Day. It turned out that all the other Satellites were not going to actually have any useful passes until much later in the day. The first useful pass was a minimal one at about 1:30 p.m., then nothing much until 4:30 p.m. Satellite operation was going to be an “afternoon-evening” event. Nothing much to do until then. Well, I suppose we could try the ISS, though they’ve never been on the air in other years. At least it was something to do. JV came by, and took a seat at the station, trying on some headphones from the neat little headphone breakout box I had available. It allowed four headsets to plug in for people to listen. Nice addtion to the station, if anyone cares.

Restless, I stood up and walked outside. At just about 11 a.m., I went out front and decided to read the e-mail John had sent in detail, taking it off the wall and bringing it indoors to sit back down. Wait a minute. This says the operation, if it does occur, could be using the packet station instead of the original voice frequency. I looked at my computer control. It was set for the wrong uplink! It was set for a frequency 25khz away. Madly rushing, I jumped to work. Where is that frequency stored in the software? For ISS operation, the software used is not the same as for normal Satellite contacts. The ISS uses uplink and downlink both on 2-m. It does not use two VFO’s, it’s not full duplex, and the file of frequency information is not the same. Four minutes to the pass! There! It’s in the file called Doppler.SQF. I changed it quickly, popped back to the normal software mode, quickly watching the computer take control of the radio, and the frequency had not changed! Oh man, what now? Reading the help file (a massive document many pages long) I got down to the specific spot about ISS operation where there is a one-line statement: that the frequencies use for voice will be read from the third frequency list for ISS operation. The frequencies need to be listed in a specific order: packet first, split 2-m/440 second, voice third. I changed a different line, popped back to normal operation, saw the computer take radio control, grabbed the mic from JV quickly and “kerchunked,” similar to what you would do to check to see if you have the right offset programmed for repeater operation. The radio displayed it’s transmitted frequency. Not the same as the one I programmed in, but. Oh, I see, it’s correctly shifted by the computer for Doppler compensation. Is it right? Is it right??

Two minutes. The ISS is 3 degrees below the horizon, coming up fast. Open the squelch wide. I heard the computer control of the rotators kick in, they began moving on the roof to track the pass. It’s still below the horizon, but did you just hear something? JV and I both had headphone on. There! A voice? . . . and then Wham! A loud voice! NA1SS! Calling! JV responded immediately, giving out K6MMM. We waited. Static . . . . Then NA1SS responded to someone else. Still concerned if we are on the right frequency my heart was in my mouth. When the other exchange was done JV tried again. Static . . . Wait . . . Then, “The Mike Mike station, please come again.” Ah! We’re there! JV made the contact, using K6MMM, and NA1SS replied with, “I hear you, loud and clear.” We had done it! We had done it!

We just sat there. Stunned. Four or five years, and we did it. Just like that. We were where we were supposed to be, with just the right tool for the job, at just the right time, and they were on the air. Ten minutes into Field Day, and we had just made the 100 point bonus points for a Sat station, by contact with NA1SS, onboard the ISS. For a few minutes we were just 9 year old kids, babbling with excitement. Did you see that? Did you see?

It takes 90 minutes for the Station to go around the world, and 90 minutes is plenty of time for a crowd to gather. The word was out. We had made contact. Of course, everyone wanted to do a QSL with the ISS. Would they be back on the air? Will it work? I was skeptical. The rumors I had always heard was that the crew onboard ISS didn’t really have time for this. That if they did spend the time to work Field Day, they usually do a quick “meet and greet” pass, then get back to work. We’d know in 45 minutes. Around they came again, this time coming up out of the ocean further south. The pass showed that their first contact with shoreline would cover southern California, and us. Up they came. Voices heard! They were on the air twice! Don (K6GHA) put out his call and got an immediate response. I grabbed the mic from him and put out mine. Same thing. I passed the mic to someone else (Rich maybe? KE1B?). Bam! Another fast contact. The mic passed around as the coverage of the ISS increased. Soon they were covering most of the western states, working as many stations as possible, and we quit trying. The pileup at their end must have been tremendous. Anna (K6NN) was persistent, and toward the end of their coverage when the ISS was well to the east of us sure enough we heard that she too had finally made it through. Huge success.

Now around 2 p.m., my prediction program showed that they’d come around again and still be covering quite a bit of the U.S and Canada. Sure enough, they worked a third pass, and a few more of us made individual contacts, and then it was over. Three successful passes, with contacts made on all of them. And it would not have been possible without John having sent me that e-mail.

Field Day itself was almost anticlimactic after that. When Sat passes became effective at about 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, we used the station for contacts from then until about 10 p.m. and then called it a day. Thankfully, there were no “good passes” throughout the night. No point to stay up all hours. I went home with the expectation of getting some sleep and waking at 4 a.m. to come 14338638747_9a1f1f6c59_oback up early (5 a.m. Sunday) to catch a few more useful passes before the official stop-time of 11 a.m.

But I didn’t sleep hardly at all.

I wish everyone luck on receiving QSL cards from NA1SS, and want to thank John for being one top of the information regarding the potential for contacts, and doing his part in forwarding that on to me. It would not have been possible without him. And I want to thank everyone else for their support (for how many years?), as we have had this hope in the back of our minds. The ISS is an easy target, but maybe not so much. It takes some luck, and on Saturday luck was with us.

Thanks to Donald (AE6RF) for the Field Day Site Photo