When Russian flight controllers encountered difficulties during a recent International Space Station cargo rocket docking, NASA called on a special — although little-known — Amateur Radio team to stand by if needed. Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) Ops Team “ISS Ham Contingency Network” volunteers around the world immediately swung into action. Within 15 minutes of receiving the call from Johnson Space Center, Kenneth Ransom, N5VHO, reported the ISS Ham Contingency Network was ready to provide any necessary communication support.
“The ARISS teamwork was very effective,” ARISS Secretary-Treasurer Rosalie White, K1STO said. “Its members learned a great deal, and they impressed NASA with how quickly the system was brought up.”
During the October 26 Progress docking, NASA says, Russian flight controllers were unable to confirm whether an automated antenna on the rocket had retracted as commanded. If still extended, the antenna could have interfered with the final latching of the supply ship to the ISS. To avoid disturbing the softly docked cargo ship and to aid the crew with docking maneuvers, the ISS orientation was allowed to drift freely.
During free-drift mode, however, the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) — which handles communication between the crew and Mission Control in Houston — can be lost. That’s because the station’s solar arrays may not directly face the sun, causing a drop in onboard power.
Awakened at 2 AM, ARISS Australian team member Tony Hutchison, VK5ZAI, put out a blind call on VHF to the ISS crew, although no answer was needed at that point. Others available to cover later passes included Gerald Klatzko, ZS6BTD, in South Africa; Gaston Bertels, ON4WF, at ON4ISS in Belgium; Dick Flagg, AH6NM, and Nancy Rocheleau, WH6PN, at Sacred Hearts Academy in Honolulu; and Frank Bauer, KA3HDO, and Mark Steiner, K3MS, at the Goddard Space Flight Center’s WA3NAN. Each of these Earth stations has a track record of being able to sustain reliable communication with the ISS.
The call-up marked the first time that NASA had asked for such Amateur Radio assistance since the initial crew came aboard the ISS in November 2000. Ransom says that by remaining available to ensure solid communication while Mission Control staff dealt with the docking issue, the ISS Ham Contingency Network provided Mission Control with an additional layer of security.
Once the antenna retraction problem was resolved, the contingency network stood down, but NASA’s request and the ensuing ham radio activity did serve as a valuable drill, ARISS said.
NASA says Expedition 14 Commander Mike Lopez-Alegria, KE5GTK, and flight engineers Mikhail Tyurin, RZ3FT, and Thomas Reiter, DF4TR, opened the hatch to the supply ship October 27 to unload supplies.