PACIFIC OCEAN --
The vast array of communications equipment aboard U.S. Navy vessels allow Marines and Sailors to see and speak to each other anywhere on the globe, but what happens when your contact is in space?
During the final week of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group’s seven-month deployment, all three ships embarked “Tigers,” family members and friends of service members on ship, to sail from Hawaii to San Diego. One Tiger, Carl Martin, brought with him a little extra equipment and an unusual entry from his address book.
Martin organized a radio phone call between two captains – one, the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island’s Commanding Officer, Capt. Jon Rodgers, and the other Navy Capt. Barry “Butch” Wilmore, the current commander of the International Space Station.
“I’m what you call an aerospace engineer of flight systems safety,” said Martin, a Houston native. “I am an employee of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and I work at the Johnson space center in Houston. I’m responsible for observing crew office issues - such as chemical risks or safety hazards. I bring that information back to the Poland Safety Review Panel through advanced communication methods. Sometimes our work requires us to relay messages to the space station, so we utilize HAM radio equipment, which gives us a direct connection to them.”
The amateur radio (HAM) equipment not only sends out messages, it also receives messages from outer space to any designated location.
“On many occasions, the space station will use this equipment to communicate with us down here,” said Martin. “In some cases, they have sent messages down to schools to sort of educate them on the equipment they use and kind of show off their capabilities as well.”
According to the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) is a cooperative venture of the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation (AMSAT), ARRL and the NASA in the United States.
Cpl. William Piercey, a radio operator with Counter Anti-Armor Team Red, Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, contributed his own military experience with radio technology to help set up the connection.
“When we are out in the field, one of the most important steps, whether setting up a defense or settling into an area with a certain amount of people, is setting up communications,” said Piercey. “When a group moves, we have to adjust our antenna to get comms back up, so it’s the same concept here. I’ll be here to keep the signal as strong as possible by moving the antenna whenever I need to, while he tries to send whatever message.”
After scanning the horizon over a specified bearing for a few minutes, Martin made contact and the two commanding officers spoke for the first time.
“As far as I know, this will be the first time for a Navy ship to contact the space station directly,” Martin said.
The two shared pleasantries and spoke about their native Tennessee, where both are alumni of Tennessee Technical University.
“We look forward to sharing some memories with you when you get back down here to earth,” Rodgers said to Wilmore. “From the crew – Marines, Sailors, and Civilians that are aboard Makin Island right now – we would say ‘sail safe’ down here, but up there I guess we’d say ‘space safe.’”
To which Wilmore befittingly replied, “Fair winds and following seas down there.”
“That was really something,” said Rodgers. “I have communicated with plenty of vessels and aircrafts throughout my career, but to speak to the ISS from a moving Navy ship - that was just plain cool.”
After approximately 5 minutes of conversation, the space station had transited out of range, and the ship was no longer able to hold communications, but the impression was lasting.
“To all those who have made this possible, I thank you,” Rodgers said.
The Makin Island ARG is comprised of the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8), amphibious dock landing ship USS Comstock (LSD 45), amphibious transport dock ship USS San Diego (LPD 22), and sails with the embarked 11th MEU.
The ARG and MEU are returning to their homeports of San Diego and Camp Pendleton following a seven-month deployment to the Western Pacific and the U.S. Central Command areas of operation.