NFA students talk with astronaut aboard International Space Station
Norwich ― Static over the airwaves at Norwich Free Academy’s historic ham radio station, W1HLO, in the top floor of the Cranston Building quickly cleared, as freshman club member Clark Dziavit called, “NA1SS, NA1SS, NA1SS, this is WIHLO.”
The tiny packed room silently breathed relief and excitement as NASA Astronaut Josh Cassada’s voice returned the call: “W1HLO, this is NA1SS. Have you loud and clear.”
Cassada added: “Doing great. Welcome aboard the International Space Station, Norwich Free Academy. I’m excited to talk to you.”
A parade of students, coached ahead of time on where to stand for their question during the 10-minute interview, asked rapid-fire questions ranging from how astronauts eat, what experiments they do, how they spend free time, how they stay clean and even how they go to the bathroom.
Cassada, on his first mission aboard the ISS, answered NFA senior Christopher Dubicki of Bozrah’s lead-off question on how he became an astronaut and what advice he would give to interested students. Cassada said he studied physics in college and grad school, became a Navy pilot and started his own company before he was selected by NASA in in 2013.
“I’ve always done some things that I found very interesting,” Cassada said. “My one recommendation is to do things that you love. And it sure beats working for a living.”
Cassada said the crew on the ISS have 200 to 400 experiments going on at any time, including physics, biology, chemistry and material science experiments, both outside and inside the space station.
“It’s amazing!” Cassada said.
Cassada described one quirky aspect of daily life in zero gravity for 11th grader Kylie Bishop of Norwich.
“Nothing stays where you left it,” Cassada said. “You can go ahead and put something in a bag, but if there’s anything else in that bag, when you open it up, everything goes everywhere. Sometimes you think you just set something down just for a second, you turn around and it’s gone. It will eventually come back, but it will take you a while to find it.”
Monday’s 10-minute interview with the ISS astronaut, broadcast live to all NFA classes and to the public on NFA’s YouTube channel, was the culmination of a year of planning between the NFA ham radio club, officially the Amateur Radio and Engineering Club, and Amateur Radio International Space Station, ARISS. They calculated ISS routes, dates and times when it would be close enough to make contact.
NFA launched months-long lessons on space, astronomy and related topics in preparation. Students entered the “Ask an Astronaut a Question” contest, and Monica Egan, head of the NFA Science Department, selected the 20 winners. Sixteen had time to ask their questions Monday before the ISS moved out of range.
Club advisor, Anthony Girasoli, NFA director or information technology, was thrilled with how smooth the event went, crediting the dozen student club members for their year-long preparation. Girasoli said he has known for years that NASA makes connections with high school ham radio clubs. But NFA did not have the powerful equipment to make the connection.
Girasoli obtained a $10,000 grant from Amateur Radio Digital Communications for equipment that can communicate with amateur radio satellites to make connections all over the world, and ultimately to the ISS.
Student club members ran wiring through the third-floor Cranston ceiling to new antennae installed on the building roof. Former NFA student and 2022 Norwich Regional Technical High School graduate Jake Benjamin of Franklin remained a member of the NFA club even after he transferred to Norwich Tech.
Now owner of an IT company, Countryside Broadband, Benjamin helped install the main and back-up antennae on the Cranston roof.
“It’s crazy,” Benjamin said prior to the ISS connection. “It’s unheard of. I’m very excited to see how it goes. I mean, a school talking to them.”
Charlie Sufana, mentor for Amateur Radio International Space Station, said schools have been connecting with astronauts through ham radio since December 2000. To date more than 1,500 connections have been made.
“We try to average about one contact per week, but there are some weeks where we have none and some where we could have two or three contacts,” Sufana wrote in an email to The Day. “It just depends on what is happening on the ISS and the orbital mechanics that are in play.”