Space Station calls home to Bowie

High school students communicate with astronaut via amateur radio

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Click here to enlarge this photo
Barbara L. Salisbury⁄The Star
At left, Amanda Zuniga-Hernandez, 15, waits in line to ask a question while Bowie High School math teacher Art Colton (far right) holds a CB so that Eric Hurst, 15, can ask Commander Bill McArthur, an astronaut on the International Space Station, a question via an amateur radio link Friday.

For the first time in school history Bowie High School students were able to speak with an astronaut while he orbited the earth Friday, when 10 students asked astronaut Bill McArthur on the International Space Station two questions each.

The live communication between the students and McArthur lasted about 10 minutes.

Math teacher Art Colton facilitated the exchange between the students and McArthur when he applied to NASA’s Amateur Radio on the International Space Station department in October of 2002.

The school was notified of their selection in November and a technical mentor was assigned to the school whose job was to make sure the radio equipment was installed, tested and operational, taking three months to complete.

‘‘Once the students heard the news it was pure excitement,” Colton said, ‘‘The expression in their eyes was the kind that every educator wants to see.”

In January a site survey was conducted, which installed the Goddard Amateur Radio club antenna on the roof of the school, with the Bowie Amateur Radio Club providing a second antenna for backup purposes.

According to Amateur Radio operator Robert DiRosario the students were using a very high frequency (VHF) to communicate with McArthur, which allows communication on a broader range than high frequency.

‘‘This type of event gives the school possibly more curriculums with science, electronics and engineering,” HAM operator Dave Taylor said.

Principal John Birckhead said that with this type of event provides the students with different kinds of opportunities.

‘‘This is a very good thing for the students,” parent Michael White said. ‘‘Having the students exposed to things like this only helps their development.”

This is the first time in 10 years that a Prince George’s County school was granted the opportunity for students to directly communicate with an astronaut in orbit.

‘‘Mr. Colton has done an excellent job,” Birckhead said. ‘‘This type of event creates all kinds of opportunities for the students.”

Student Karl Nguyen asked his questions in Russian and McArthur replied back in Russian.

‘‘How do the northern lights look like from out in space,” Nguyen said. McArthur replied ‘‘It’s a beautiful sight.”

According to Hugh O’Donnell of Goddard Amateur Radio Club, having this type of coordination between NASA, the school and astronauts takes a lot of planning and can take from nine months to up to a year.

Since 1983 the Shuttle Amateur Radio Expedition (SAREX) has been providing schools all over the country the opportunity for live communication with astronauts.

‘‘It was a real pleasure,” sophomore James Brown said. ‘‘Being one of the few to be chosen is once in a lifetime.”

For any aspiring astronauts McArthur answered Brown’s question said get the most out of school. The worst part about being an astronaut for McArthur is the long duration of his flights.

Colton compiled students from Bowie’s student-athletes, computer graphics, and art classes, amateur radio club, and science fair winners.

Those selected were Brown, Karen Roberson, Joe Block, Amanda Zuniga-Hernandez, Eric Hurst, Joy Taylor, Myka Fantroy, Kate Monks, Eric Lamison-White and Nguyen.

‘‘With this event if we could have planted a seed to possibly pursue a career in the sciences and humanities we have accomplished something,” Colton said.

Colton has been a math teacher at Bowie High School for six years and is a licensed amateur radio operator.

Due to the Columbia tragedy the event was postponed for about two years.

For more information on getting started in amateur radio call 860-594-0200 or visit⁄hamradio.html. Bowie High School is located at 15200 Annapolis Road

Email Marcus Ngbea at