Application for a Contact, Planning, Preparation, Contact Details

How Schools are Selected for SAREX Contacts

Ulitmately, schools are selected for a scheduled SAREX contact by the astronauts themselves. This can be the result of a proposal submitted to the ARRL or by a crewmember specically naming a school. The latter often occurs when a crewmember wishes to speak to his or her alma mater, or to a school at which a family member is a teacher or student. In these cases, the school is often informed with little foreknowledge of the opportunity. The number of these "crew-picks" are limited on each flight to give schools without such an advantage an opportunity to participate. A crew pick school often has only two months to prepare for the event. With the school year and lesson plans already in progress, this usually leaves little time for an involved educational program centered around the contact. If you find yourself the unexpected recipient of such a gift, Section 6, Applications, and Section 7, Resources, of this guide may provide you with ideas which can be quickly developed and put to use.

The ARRL Application and Educational Proposal

The most common means of selection is the ARRL SAREX Contact Proposal Process. Every educational institution in the United States, and abroad in countries which hold a third-party traffic agreement with the United States is elligible to submit an application to the ARRL for a SAREX contact. If your school is interested in a scheduled radio contact for a future SAREX mission, your school completes a SAREX school application and submits it to the ARRL along with an educational proposal. ARRL collects applications and proposals, and then forwards them to the SAREX Working Group who makes the final selection in collaboration with the astronauts.

The Educational Proposal

Educational Proposal Requirements The Educational Proposal is the most important part of your school’s application for a SAREX contact. The more details you can provide, the better. However, each proposal must must address the following areas:

To help prepare you for writing the proposal, review the following list below and develop answers for each item. From this information gathered, you will be able to develop a proposal that covers all the basic requirements stated above:

Educational Proposal Evaluation Criteria

While there are no set guidelines for proposal scoring or evaluation, each one is considered on its own merits. A strong proposal will have most of the following characteristics. You should review your proposal in light of these items before submitting it to the ARRL.

Characteristics of a Strong SAREX Educational Proposal

SAREX school applications are available by sending a business-sized self- addressed stamped envelope to ARRL, or email your request for an electronic version of the application to Applications may be returned to ARRL by mail or email.

Selection Notification

The selection notification comes in several steps. The first notification comes from the ARRL when your proposal has been received. It is then forwarded to AMSAT for evaluaton. When your proposal has been selected for evaluation your school will again be contacted by the ARRL or and AMSAT representative to determine continued interest in a scheduled SAREX contact. This may be two years after you have subimtted your proposal. The information on your applciation form will be reviewed and updated at this pre-selection notification. Following this notification, and provided that your proposal is accepted, it will then be sent to NASA for review and scheduling. Mission planners, the flight crews (astronauts), and others become involved in reviewing the applications for inclusion on a specific mission. NASA requires school selections be made and forwarded to them for inclusion in the flight planning process approximately seven months prior to launch. Final notification comes after NASA has listed your school on a Shuttle Mission. An official from AMSAT will then contact your group's representative to inform you of selection for a contact during a specific mission. Your group will then receive an information packet in the mail, including a letter from AMSAT verifying your selection and the mission. Shortly after you receive this packet, you will be contacted by a member of the AMSAT SAREX Flight Operations team who has been assigned to work with your group to coach you through the process. This person is the AMSAT Technical Mentor. The Technical Mentor's duties and interaction with your team is described in a later section of this guide.

SAREX Countdown

Briefly, the major steps of a SAREX contact, in order, are as follows:

The first step in preparing for a scheduled SAREX contact is done long before you are notified of selection. It is done when the proposal and application are prepared. You start the process by assembling your local team to begin initial planning and organization. If you are a teacher who is not a ham, you must locate a qualified ham operator to handle the technical side of the contact. If you are a ham who is not a teacher, you must locate a teacher who is willing to support all educational aspects of the event and to be the liasion between your group and the school. If you are a teacher who is also an amateur radio operator, you will merely need to locate the necessary support people to help you draft your plan and carry it out later. You will need to assess your school's interest and desire to participate in the program. If you have a ham radio license, you need to honestly assess your ability to accomplish the technical tasks required to establishing a successful SAREX contact. This guide is designed to assist you with this assessment. Read it through carefully and make sure you understand all the requirements and steps involved. If you need further assistance, contact the ARRL or AMSAT at the addresses and telephone numbers listed at the end of this guide.

The first step to accomplish after you have been notified of selection for a specific flight is to prepare your station and facilties plans. Technical capabilities and experience with Amateur Radio equipment. Bear in mind that the primary contact opportunity assigned may be either a direct contact or a telebridge contact and that the backup pass is likely to be a telebridge contact. Station and facility plans must be responsive to the uncertainty of contact type prior to assignment to a flight. The facilities plan should include the location of the contact, placement of students, audience, and media, telephone lines, power circuits, antenna and radio placement, and feedline routing. The location of any required public services, such as police, EMTs/Paramedics, etc., should be noted. These are often spelled out by local and state ordinance and school policy. The facilities plan is a blue-print or scale drawing of the actual site you will use, such as a library, gym, auditorium, etc. The station plan is a logical block diagram of the anticipated communications system to be used and should be a detailed as possible.

AMSAT School Group Technical Mentor

The School Group Technical Mentor is your primary point of contact to AMSAT for everything having to do with your school's SAREX contact. AMSAT is responsible to ensure that you, the School Group Coordinator and your group is technically ready for your SAREX contact. Upon notification that your school has been selected for a SAREX contact, you will be assigned a Technical Mentor who is a member of the SAREX AMSAT Development and Operations Team (ADOT). Your mentor will be experienced with SAREX, Amateur Space Communications and Satellite operation, as well as the Shuttle Program. He will act as your advisor and will be your point of contact to NASA and the SAREX team throughout your preparation (or "pre-flight") period up through the actual contact, and is available to you to answer questions, provide advice, act as a go-between for you and NASA, and verify your plans and station designs.

The first thing that your Technical Mentor will do with you is go over your SAREX application. Any changes, including changes in the School Group Coordinator, that have occurred since it was submitted must be noted. Your Technical Mentor will prepare an Addendum Form and submit this to AMSAT and NASA to update their records. The Technical Mentor works primarily with the School Group Coordinator and interaction with him should remain restricted to that. Too many points of contact confuse matters. Your Technical Mentor will also go over what is expected of your group and go through a checklist of items to see if there are any areas that require further explanation. He will explain the mission in terms of SAREX operation and offer tips on how to best proceed. Feel free to call your Technical Mentor any time you have a question or concern. His or her job is to help you make the most of your contact opportunity.

Once you begin working with the SAREX team, you will quickly be exposed to concepts and knowledge that you have likely not had much experience with. The language of SAREX is the language of manned space flight, and many of the terms and concepts will be new to you. This is expected and this guide and your Technical Mentor will help you to understand them, as well as suggest references to further your knowledge in these areas. Thus, the SAREX program is not only an educational experience for the students who talk to the astronauts, but also for those who are involved in planning and executing the event.

Organizing Teams

The key to a successful effort lies with organization. There are a lot of tasks to accomplish prior to the contact. During the contact, a lot of things happen very fast, so organizing your team and making sure that everyone understands his or her responsibilities is very important. In actuality, you must organize two teams. The purpose of the first team is to perform all the necessary tasks to plan and prepare for the actual contact. The second team handles the actual contact itself. These two teams are made up of the same people, its just that everyone will have a specific job to do on contact day.

Depending on the number and skills of your volunteers, one person may handle more than one task. Be careful not to spread people too thin and have one or more of your team members tasked with too many responsibilities. Further, keep your technical group and your publicity group completely separate. It is also possible to have several people qualified for the same thing. This is a volunteer community effort, so all who want to participate should be encouraged. However, the SAREX Lead should keep the team as streamlined as possible and avoid excessive duplication of effort and skills. Too large of a working group will make it cumbersome to manage and will introduce problems in carrying out a successful contact.

As soon as possible, provide your Technical Mentor with the organization of your team, giving names, calls, duties, etc., and an equipment list and a functional block diagram of your planned station. Also provide specific details on how you plan to provide exposure of the contact event to the local community. This means things like ATV coverage, retransmissions through local repeaters, etc. o You will actually organize two teams to carry out the two distinct phases of the SAREX contact. The Planning (or Preparation) Team will perform all the tasks necessary to prepare the group for the contact, and the Operations Team will take over on the day of the contact to actually carry it out. These teams will more than likely consist of the same key people, so bear this in mind when making assignments. For example, the person who will operate the tracking equipment on the Operations team should oversee and perform the setup and preparation of the antenna tracking equipment, rotors, and computers.

Planning Team

Experience has shown that the organizational structure shown in Figure 1, SAREX Planning Team Organization works well for the preparation team.

Operations Team

Many transition into this from their roles in the planning/engineering team The Contact Operations Team organization takes over on the day of the contact. The purpose of this organizational structure is to carry out the procedures developed by the planning team over the previous months. Experience has show that the organizational structure depicted in Figure 2, Contact Operations Team, works well.

For Ham Radio Clubs
Supporting a School

If your group is a ham radio club supporting a school that has been selected or is preparing a proposal for a SAREX contact, this event can be a very rewarding and involving activity. There is much to do, and literally something for everyone who wants to become involved. Every school group must have a radio amateur as a sponsor, someone who will take the responsibility for seeing that the technical matters are accomplished. If you have been asked to be a sponsor, and don't know where to turn, consider your local ham clubs. They will more than likely provide you with all the help that you need to make the event happen.

If you are the club sponsor of a school group, it works best to organize your SAREX team along the lines of the Technical branch of the organizational structures shown in Figures 1 and 2. Create a special SAREX committee, and ask for volunteers. You will likely get a great number of people signing up, but do not expect them all to stay involved. Many will be enthusiastic at first, and then as the time presses on, many will lose their enthusiasm and drift away. Early on, assess all your volunteers and determine the core group of about four to six people who have the technical ability, experience, determination, and enthusiasm to carry it out.

Above all, be professional in everything you do. Your appearance to the school and the community will be very closely scrutinized as you work to carry out the event. A SAREX contact is a once in a lifetime opportunity for a community, and you will be in the limelight every step of the way. Always see that the school gets the first recognition. Remember that yours is a support role. Do not take over from the school, but rather coach them if they appear to be struggling with the weight of the event. Work together as a team and remember that there is no one person who can claim all the credit. This is too big of an effort for one person alone to carry off. If your team has disagreements, take them "off-line" and work them out away from the public and the school group.

Control your group's interaction with the school group. You do not want everyone in your group to be feeding everyone in the school group every piece of information, including failures and problems. This will only confuse them. Deal with them confidently, and reassure them that all they need to worry about is having the kids at the radios, ready to ask questions come contact day. You should limit your group's interaction with the school group to one or two people at most. This person carries all the information between the two groups and acts as the School Liaison to the teachers and school administrators. The liaison sets up meeting with team members and school group team members when needed and monitors their conduct. Further, the liaison should meet regularly either in person or over the telephone with the school officials to keep them up to date on your team's progress and to keep up to date on their progress. Your AMSAT Technical Mentor will be in touch with both the technical coordinator on your team as well as that of the school. Let the school handle all details concerning the students. Make your only priority the technical side of things. Soon after notification of selection, you should meet with the school administration and school facilities people to determine the location of the station and places where antennas can be installed. Remember, you are in a support role, but you will be responsible for the technical details. This is rare and unique opportunity to showcase amateur radio and perhaps gain new, quality recruits into the hobby. Work together as partners and you will generate a lot of goodwill all the way around.

Practice Makes Perfect!

This cannot be stressed too much! When the day of the contact arrives, the level of excitement will be so high that you will almost be able to taste it on the air! When the contact time arrives, you will hear camera shutters clicking, and a tense hush will fall over the room. Everyone will be watching the person on the mike trying to contact the astronauts, and everyone will be straining to hear your callsign coming back from space. You will likely call several times before you finally hear it, and then the wave of relief will wash over you like nothing you've ever felt before! You will not have realized how "keyed up" you were until that moment! But you can't relax yet, the contact is just starting and now you must carry it through until the last question is asked.

Needless to say, with all the excitement and pressure you will likely feel, especially under the hot TV camera lights and under the eye of the cameras, it will be very easy to forget something, anything, even something you know as well as your own callsign. The key to minimizing this, and keeping from feeling like a fool later, is to practice. Practice everything until you know it by heart, and then practice it some more.

This applies to the Contact Operations team and the students alike. The Contact Operations team should have someone with a handie talkie (HT) pretend to be the astronaut and have him simulate the entire contact. Simulate failures and practice switching to your backup station. Practice loading the tracking software and tracking various satellites across the sky. Put your entire team through its paces until everyone knows his or her job by heart. Then....switch places and have everyone practice someone else's position. Every person on the contact team should have a backup who knows their job as well as they do. Cross-train all the primary team members so that anyone can do any of the jobs during the contact. If only one person knows how to run the satellite tracker, and that person gets the flu is sent out of town on business the day before, your team will lose valuable time trying to figure out the system, and might possibly lose the contact.

The person opening up the contact should rehearse their lines, until they know them by heart. Then, have them written down on an index card and have that card in hand or nearby when actually trying to make the contact. The students should practice asking their questions, exactly as they are written over and over until they know them by heart also. When the contact is in progress, and it is time for them to ask their question, they should have it in hand, on a 3"by5" index card and read it from there when they are asking. Finally, bring everyone together, the students and the Contact Operations team, and have a dry-run of the real thing where a ham on a handie talkie pretends to be the astronaut, and the students ask him their questions. Use the actual station for the contact and have everyone in their places, doing the jobs they will do on the day of the actual contact. The practice and experience will be invaluable, and will help everyone to know what they need to do. It will also help prevent mistakes from occurring during the actual contact.

Maximizing Media and Community Exposure

A SAREX contact generates intense interest by the media. You should contact all of the local media and invite them to cover your event. Contact the local media when you have submitted your proposal and inform them of your plans. At that time, you can discuss the event with them and determine their level of interest. You may be able to work with them in getting the word out to other media outlets in your area with which they are affiliated. Once you have been notified of your selection, contact them again and tell them. They will then likely show a considerable interest in your effort. One month in advance of your contact, prepare a press release and then mail or FAX to each of the TV and radio stations, and newspapers in your area. The press release should come from the school, on school letterhead. A sample press release can be found in Appendix B.

Early in your planning, you should develop how you intend to handle the press when they show up to cover the contact. One recommended way is to assign a press liaison from your group who greets each media representative and shows them to a predetermined area where they can set up their cameras and recorders. This area should be out of the way, but with a clear view of the activity around the radios. The press liaison should have an assistant or two to help the media locate electrical outlets and other things they might need. The goal is for the Media team to completely handle the press and leave the Technical team and the SAREX Lead free to focus on the upcoming contact.

Recording the Event

You will no doubt want to record the event so that you can look back on it later. Have team members dedicated to this effort. One person should use a camcorder to videotaping all the pre-contact activities, including the Operations team setting up the equipment, the actual contact, and the excitement afterwards. The other person should be taking 35mm photographs of the entire precontact, contact, and post-contact activities. A nice touch would be to make enlargements and copies of each student as he is talking to the crew and present it to him or her as a token of appreciation. A copy of the video tape could also be given to each participant. One aspect of SAREX contacts that is often overlooked, or only marginally handled is getting the audio to the students, parents, and officials in attendance. While many radios have a line-level output, they do not capture the transmissions coming from your station. This means that if you rely solely on the output of your receiver as the source for the audio, everyone will miss the student's questions! There are several ways to handle the audio distribution, and these should be integrated with making an audio tape of the contact for later playback and analysis.

One approach is to use a Personal Computer with a sound card, such as a Sound Blaster. These cards handle stereo audio, and the radio receiver can be placed on one channel to capture the astronaut's transmissions, while either a microphone placed with the transmitter's mike, or the output of another radio, tuned to your uplink frequency can be fed into the other channel. Software often provided with the sound card can be used to mix the right and left channels so that they are in proper volume balance, and then this stereo audio signal can be taken from the sound card's line-out jack to a Public Address (PA) system. An alternative to software mixing would be to take the audio to the PA system, split the right and left channels and input them to different inputs on the PA system. The mixing can be done at the PA system control panel. However, most sound cards come with a basic stereo mixer program, and with the mixing performed on the computer, you can also run a program which captures the audio and saves a digital copy on disk. Again, most sound cards come with a program to make such a recording on the PC.

The recorded sound file will be large, depending on the settings used to record it, and there will be long periods of silence on each channel as the questions are asked on one channel, and the answers received on the other. These can be later combined into a mono signal to save disk space. However, it provides you with the most flexibility if you make a stereo recording with the uplink on one side and the downlink on the other. A sampling rate of 11 Khz for a stereo recording (.WAV file format) of 15 minutes duration will produce a disk file about 22 Megabytes (MB) in size.

A configuration that has been sucessfully used to make both a digital and analog tape recording, as well as provide audio to a PA system uses the audio from the primary contact radio receiver (downlink) on the right channel, and the audio from another radio tuned to the uplink on the left channel. These were fed into a SoundBlaster card on a PC, where the mixer software was used to equalize the volume levels as well as make a digital (.WAV) sound file of both sides of the contact. The audio was then taken from the sound card's line out jack (stereo), and fed to the line-in jacks a stereo cassette recorder deck to make the analog tape. The audio was then taken from the stereo cassette deck's line-out jacks and fed to the PA system. The right channel was fed to the first input of the PA system, and the left channel was fed to the second input. This afforded additional balance control at the PA system to overcome room accoustics and compensate for any deficiencies in the sound card mixer software A third input of the PA system was used for a microphone to make announcements to the audience over. The Comm Officer and Track Officer were given a monitor speaker to hear the contact by using the speaker output jack of the SoundBlaster card and placing the computer's multi-media speakers at their adjoining operating position.

All of this equipment was controlled by the Science Officer, with help from an assistant seated next to him at the Operations Console.

Finally, another reason for making audio, video, and photographic records of the contact is to send copies to the ARRL and AMSAT. They are very interested in collecting photographs and video tapes of SAREX contacts.

Contact Mechanics

The basic format for a SAREX contact is the same regardless if it is a direct or a telebridge contact. The students are assembled at the radios and ask questions of the astronauts about their life and work in space. Typically, there are educational activities which precede the actual contact, and following the contact, the press and media present will interview the students and members of the school administration and SAREX team. Many schools make the event into a general assembly, where the entire student body is drawn together into an auditorium or other suitable area to watch and participate in the entire event.

The most efficient way to conduct the actual contact is to have the students line up, single file in front of the moderator, in order determined by the teachers beforehand. Since the pass length will be under 10 minutes, only a few students will get to talk and ask questions. Therefore, select about eight students for this honor. The Communications Officer, moderator or a student ham establishes contact with the shuttle by calling it. Once contact is established, the moderator takes control of the radio mike, holding it and working the PTT switch. The student at the head of the line asks ONE question, and then moves to the back of the line while listening to his answer. When the answer is complete, the next student his or her question and so on. Each student selected to talk should have a three questions on index cards, ready to go. The school is responsible for selecting the students to talk and the questions themselves.

Do not worry about things like saying "Thank You" at the end of each answer, nor should you be concerned about being perceived by the astronaut as being less than fully attentive. Social graces, while important to us all down here on the ground add overhead to the contact and cut into the time that your students could be spending asking questions and learning. The astrounauts are used to the terse radio procedures used to convey a lot of information in a short period of time. They are familliar with military radio protocol where the emphasis is solely on getting the information acorss rather than Emily Post ettiquite. Space to ground communiucations in real-time such as SAREX has an ettiquite all its own and wasting time with anything unnesecary to accomplishing the task is the height of rudeness! They know that you are interested and attentive, and they want to accomodate as many students and questions as they can in their brief time with you. A simple "Thank You", said after LOS at your station is understood to be present, even if they never hear it.

However, there is one very important word that must be used at the end of every question. Forgetting this one word is the only breech of ettiquite you can commit! This word is "OVER", and is used to tell the astronaut that you are done talking and its time for him or her to answer your question! Its standard radio procedure, and if static has consumed part of your signal to the astronaut, especially at the end, the crewmember will likely hear that word and know immediately that you are now listening. Its a very good idea for teachers to make sure that the word "OVER" is written after every question on the index cards.

Coordination with NASA Flight Controllers

During the contact, the NASA flight controllers and SAREX Mission Controllers will need to be on the telephone with you to know how your contact is going. If you are having problems with establishing contact, they can sometimes intervene for you and call up to the Shuttle to determine the nature of the problem. They will also have the exact latest information you might need to make your contact a sucesses.

Direct Contacts

For direct contacts, you must have a telephone at the control point of your station. SAREX flight controllers at mission control in Houston will call this number about one-half hour before the scheduled contact and stay on the phone with your team until after your contact is complete. A secondary telephone line must also be available for backup or any other necessary phone calls that need to be made. As the time for the contact approaches, you must keep the primary telephone line clear for the incoming call from Mission Control, and once Mission Controllers call, the primary line will be in use until after the pass is complete. The second phone line will allow you to make and receive necessary calls during this crucial period. Additionally, should mission controllers be unable to contact you on the primary line, having a secondary line gives them an alternate number to call. If your school has a switchboard and the call from mission control must pass through this switchboard, you must have someone present at the switchboard to take the call and transfer it to your telephone at the control point.

Telebridge Contacts

In telebridge contacts, SAREX flight controllers are on-line on the telebridge and will communicate with your group through the bridge. However, you still must have a telephone at the control point for any necessary communications with the SAREX team or your own group that cannot or should not be done over the bridge. Again, this means two telephone lines are needed: one to link to the telebridge itself, and the second one for auxiliary calls and backup purposes.

Contact Readiness FAX - The C-24 FAX

You must prepare and submit a FAX containing the information shown in Table 1, Contact Confirmation Readiness FAX, 24 hours before your contact. If you don't do this, your school will be dropped from its slot, and your contact will not happen. You must send this FAX to both the Johnson Space Center and AMSAT. You will be provided the names and FAX numbers to send this FAX to by your technical advisor prior to shuttle launch. This information is mostly for double-checking critical information one last time to verify that everyone has worked everything out and that nothing important has been overlooked. Therefore, this FAX is VERY IMPORTANT and if it is not sent, NASA will assume that you are not ready for your contact and another school could be rescheduled in your place. Contact opportunities are a very valuable commodity and if it can't be confirmed 24 hours prior to the pass that the time will be used as planned, it will be used for another event without hesitation. It is your responsibility to see that this FAX is sent.

Contact Frequencies and Telephone Numbers

Depending on whether yours is a direct or a telebridge contact, your Technical Mentor will provide you with the necessary information. Certian considerations apply, depending on the type contact your group will be making.

Direct Contact

If your contact is a direct contact, your AMSAT Technical Mentor will provide you with the confidential downlink frequencies several weeks before the flight. These are the frequencies for your receiver. You will get a primary and a backup frequency. The contact will initially open up using the primary frequency. The backup frequency is available in case interference is encountered. Upon obtaining these frequencies, you should begin to monitor them in your area to determine if they are already in use by other amateurs for input to repeaters, digipeaters, packet clusters, etc. You should also discreetly check around with other hams who are likely to know if there are any infrequent users of these frequencies likely to be on the air during your pass. One example would be a group retransmitting NASA Select air to ground audio.

Your Technical Mentor will provide you with the confidential uplink frequencies several days prior to the contact. Again, you will receive a primary and a back up frequency. This is the frequency for your transmitter. This frequency must be kept confidential, and disclosed only to those who have an absolute need to know, such as your control operator and the technical operations team. If this frequency becomes known outside your group, you can be guaranteed of interference from other stations. It is an unfortunate fact that there exists radio amateurs who will not care that your prearranged schedule is for the students. Many, in fact, may not know that the event is taking place. Nevertheless, the desire to talk to the shuttle is very high among the majority of the amateur radio community, and there are those who will make the attempt regardless of their adverse impact to the students. The astronauts will be listening only for your station, and will not acknowledge other stations, but that will not prevent other stations from flooding the frequency with calls and packet connect requests.

If this occurs, the astronaut will usually politely ask all other stations to standby, and if the frequency is still not quiet enough, he will inform you that he is switching to the backup frequency. He will not read that frequency over the air. He will simply state that he is moving his receiver to listen for you on the other frequency. It will be up to you to follow him there. The downlink (your receiver) frequency usually will not change, unless you request because of interference on your end.

Telebridge Contacts

If your contact is a telebridge contact, you will be required to call the telebridge operator at Darome Telecommunications one-half hour prior to your contact time. This will be a toll call and your group is responsible for the cost. This call will tie you into the telebridge and begin the activities for your group. Your Technical Mentor will provide you with the procedure and telephone number for tying into the telebridge several days prior to flight.

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