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Reaching to the Stars


OXNARD — The group of teens chatted nervously as radio technician Dan Leichliter hovered over the satellite transceiver trying to make contact with astronauts orbiting nearly 300 miles above the Earth's surface.

For weeks members of the Oxnard-based ham radio club had prepared for this moment--a chance to chat with the crew of the space shuttle Columbia during its 16-day mission to study metals, plants and fire in space.

On Wednesday the Four Square Radio Amateur Youth club got its chance. Its four members and five prospective members stood on the auditorium stage at Oxnard High School and participated in a live radio conversation with some of the seven-member shuttle crew.

The radio transmission was a little fuzzy. First came the static, followed by whirring noises. Then as the astronauts' muffled voices became clearer, 48-year-old Leichliter, the club's technical advisor, motioned the first student to the radio.

"During the countdown did you ever get nervous?" the student asked, clutching her flash card scribbled with her questions. Greeted only with garbled noises, she fired off her next question: "Do you ever get claustrophobic?"

The radio emitted only static.

In fact, most of the responses the students received to their questions were difficult to discern.

A computerized map simulating the shuttle's flight path on an auditorium screen showed that the clearest answers came when the shuttle hovered closest to Houston. Officials at the Johnson Space Center there used a powerful radio transmitter to relay messages between Oxnard High School and the shuttle about 280 miles away.

Erandi Lopez, who just finished her junior year at Oxnard High School and recently earned her ham radio operating license for this event, was rewarded with one of the clearest responses.

"What's the most difficult thing that you got used to?" Erandi asked.

"I don't know if it's the most difficult thing, but when you're up in small quarters for a long time you have to get along with your roommates very well because there's no place to get away from them," mission Cmdr. James Halsell replied.

For many of the students--even with all the static--speaking to the astronauts was a thrill.

"Probably the only thing more exciting than this is becoming an astronaut," said 13-year-old Jay Slaten of Hale Middle School in Woodland Hills.

Schools normally wait several years to get on the waiting list to speak with astronauts during their missions. NASA prearranges radio contacts with schools, amateur radio groups and the astronauts' families.

After the original April shuttle mission had to be rescheduled for July, several schools bowed out, leaving the club with a prime opportunity to jump in.

After receiving permission to use the Oxnard High School stage, five students from Oxnard High School, one from a private school in Port Hueneme and three from Hale Middle School began preparing for the live conversation.

Though schools normally have three months to get ready for the event, the students had three weeks. They practiced mock interviews over the radio. Many scrambled to earn their amateur radio operating licenses before the interview.

They learned how much power is needed to transmit radio messages and what types of antennas are required. To earn more advanced radio operating licenses, some passed a Morse code test. All the hard work paid off, students said.

"It was really exciting," Erandi said. "I never did this before. I got my [ham radio] license two weeks ago just for this."

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