Space | 18. July 2018 | posted by Jan Oliver Löfken

Direct line to astronaut Alexander Gerst

Credit: © DLR
Students speak by radio with Alexander Gerst on the ISS

Working with the younger generation – getting children and young people interested in space, natural sciences and high-tech professions – is an important part of Alexander Gerst's 'horizons' mission. The ARISS calls – live radio contacts between selected schools and @Astro_Alex – are particularly popular. ARISS stands for 'Amateur Radio on the International Space Station' and is organised by Alexander Gerst, the mission team at the DLR Space Administration in Bonn and the German Amateur Radio Club (DARC). Each mission usually involves radio contact with three or four selected schools in Germany. But because it is such an unforgettable experience for the students, and demand far exceeds supply, Gerst made a personal effort to increase the number long before 'horizons' was underway. Ten ISS radio contacts have now been organised with 14 schools and three DLR_School_Labs in Germany, as well as with one school in St. Vith (Belgium). ##markend##

My task on the DLR mission team at the Space Administration in Bonn is to coordinate the contacts with the schools, the amateur radio enthusiasts and our partner agencies ESA and NASA. It began on 27 June 2018 with a joint radio link for the Werner Heisenberg High School in Leverkusen (North Rhine-Westphalia) and the Schickhardt High School in Herrenberg (Baden-Württemberg). The Kardinal Frings High School (KFG) in Bonn was next in line on 3 July.

Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
A great space cake with the ISS, celebrating the occasion of the ARISS call at the Werner Heisenberg High School in Leverkusen

Preparations for each radio contact begin months beforehand in cooperation with the schools. What should the schools include in their supporting programme? Generally there ought to be a clear tie-in with space topics. What questions will the students ask during the contact? They need to be submitted in English for approval by NASA. By when must the radio enthusiasts have installed their antennas?

The schools then receive confirmation of the contact date around a week in advance. Everything went according to schedule in Leverkusen, and the school was even given two weeks' notice. But it was an entirely different story for the KFG in Beuel. No confirmation. Enquiries were greeted with requests for patience. The sobering message then arrived two days before the event in Leverkusen: "Contact with KFG cannot be scheduled." But an alternative was still possible for KFG. We had heard from a colleague in the European Columbus Control Centre at DLR in Oberpfaffenhofen that Alexander Gerst would be completing his daily workout (2.5 hours) at the scheduled time. Would he be able to interrupt his programme for 10 minutes of radio contact? The ESA mission director called me during the event in Leverkusen. She would speak with Alexander personally during the crew conference. Hope – followed by relief. The astronaut agreed to the radio contact. Once he had given the green light, it took four hours of conversations with NASA and the ESA crew doctors to 'save' the ARISS contact for Bonn, allowing us to begin preparations at the very last minute.

Credit: © DLR
Students at the Werner Heisenberg High School with members of the DLR 'horizons' mission team

The contact date arrived on 3 July, accompanied by glorious sunshine. Waiting for big the event, I felt just as nervous as the entire school. All of us had goose bumps when the students called Gerst on the ISS and his distinctive voice suddenly responded from amidst the static.

Another eight ARISS contacts are scheduled. Next up, in mid-August, is the DLR_School_Lab in Braunschweig. An overview of all the dates is available here (in German).

We are looking forward to them! Stay tuned!

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About the author

Freya Scheffler-Kayser is a manager for the horizons mission at DLR in Bonn. She studied physics and worked in the space industry for 15 years - including a period as process engineer for the German D-2 mission in 1993 - before joining the DLR Space Administration in 2002. Since 2009, she has worked on the ISS operating programme and astronaut issues in the department for human spaceflight, ISS and exploration. to authorpage