One of the parameters of the Station’s orbit around the Earth is the beta angle, which determines the direction from which the Sun’s rays will hit us. We don’t usually bother too much about this parameter because it doesn’t affect our day-to-day life, except in certain situations: when the beta angle is very elevated, as it has been these past few days, we spend long periods in sunlight. Daytime becomes relatively long, while the nights are very short. This makes it difficult for us to look out of the Station and see our planet at night, because the Earth is in shadow while we are still in the light. As a consequence, it is pitch black outside. It’s like looking out of the window at night when you have the lights on in the room and there’s not one streetlight lit outside.
Lately, after making the final evening report to Houston and the other Control Centres, I’ve got myself all prepared to take a few photos but found that nothing was visible in the sky. We’ve been travelling immersed in completely black space.
That’s when I thought about using one of the pieces of equipment in the European laboratory Columbus, an instrument that is sometimes a little neglected by us astronauts: the amateur radio set. Now, I must confess to all amateur radio enthusiasts out there that I have never been into amateur radio. As a military pilot, I was trained to use the radio professionally, following the mantra of the 4Cs – Clear, Correct, Concise Comms [Communications], which was repeated at the start of every mission. It was radio contact seen as a means, never an end unto itself. In fact, sometimes when we flew very complex missions, the interference caused by blissfully unaware radio enthusiasts ‘exploring’ our frequencies inevitably led to a great deal of bad tempered frustration!
So you can imagine my doubtful amusement when, a few weeks ago, I sat at the radio for the first time, looking to establish some kind of ‘contact’ between the Station and Earth…
I set the radio to the ‘random’ contacts frequency, and without knowing what to expect, I put on the headphones. Physically, the International Space Station was still many kilometres away from the coastlines of Europe, but our horizon stretches out beneath us for thousands of kilometres and the various European ground stations could already see us. My ears were immediately overwhelmed by a cacophony of unidentifiable sounds and noises, voices, screeching and white noise. Then suddenly, a voice surfaced above the other sounds; it was a young man, in my mind barely more than a boy. He was calling the ISS American radio call sign (NA1SS) and repeating his own call sign. I was taken aback by the emotion that rose in me as I tried to reply to the call, using the Italian call sign (IR0ISS). But my excitement was nothing compared to the sheer astonishment and disbelief I heard in that voice, thousands of kilometres away. Speaking English with a beautiful Portuguese accent, the radio operator on the other side of the signal only managed to say a few words – “I don’t know what to say… This is a dream come true for me!” – before our conversation was interrupted and buried by swarms of other calls.
For around 15 minutes as we passed over western, central and eastern Europe, I tried to reply to dozens of people who were sending their messages into the ether with the hope that, thousands of kilometres away, the Space Station antennae would pick up their signal and that I’d be able to decipher what they were saying. From different countries, through different radio sets, but all with the same desire, these people – up until moments ago complete strangers – started to take shape in my mind. They became members of one family, scattered over thousands of islands and in contact with each other through nothing but these ‘messages in a bottle’, sent out with no certainty at all but with the faint hope that somebody somewhere would pick them up. Messages sent out with stoical patience, without even knowing who in that infinitely vast ocean of ether would be able to listen to their call. Men, women, young and old, experts and complete beginners – they have all wrapped me in a warm blanket of friendship and gratitude, oblivious to the fact that I’m the one who should be thanking them for opening up the doors to an experience that began with that young man in Portugal, and that crossing space and time, reaches the heart of each and every amateur radio operator even before it reaches their ears.