At the end of the month, eighth-graders at Chiddix Junior High School in Normal will get a chance of a lifetime.
Chiddix has been selected as one of 11 schools or educational centers across the country—and the only one in Illinois—where students will be able to speak with an astronaut currently on board the International Space Station.
They’ll do this through a ham radio transmission. The project was the brainchild of Dhruv Rebba, a 13-year-old eighth-grader who is one of the youngest licensed ham radio operators in the country.
Rebba is a young man of many achievements. One of the first things you notice when you visit Rebba’s home in Normal is a mantle piece full of his trophies.
He’s received awards for academics, service and leadership, as well as designing and building robots, chess, karate—he’s a 1st degree black belt—and cross country track.
It's at a desk in the corner of his family’s spacious basement where Rebba engages his true passion: ham radio operating. He earned his general operator’s license when he was 9.
“There’s so much you can learn with it. You can learn about electronic components and radio propagation and how sound waves work and radio frequencies. And there’s so many new people you can meet," Rebba said on GLT's Sound Ideas.
Rebba inherited this hobby from his father Hari, a State Farm analyst and another avid ham radio operator.
“My Dad was going to Dayton, Ohio, for a ham radio convention and I wanted to come with, and I got inspired by the convention, and later that summer I got my license,” Rebba said.
At the time, the Limca Book of Records cited him as the youngest person of Asian Indian descent ever to earn a general class license.
Rebba said the Ohio convention showed him how useful ham radios can be, even in the age of ubiquitous cellphones.
He found further evidence of that during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma as they swept through Texas and Florida, and later during Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico.
"Especially in Puerto Rico, they didn’t have much communication there, so they used ham radio a lot for communications since the cell phone towers are down," he said.
"Ham radio transmits the frequencies wirelessly, not like cell phone towers where it goes through the tower and the tower takes care of the rest through fiber optics," he explained.
Was he able to help any of the hurricane survivors through his ham radio work?
“I unfortunately couldn’t help with that because I’m not old enough. I asked but they said no … Most ham radio operators are pretty old, like retired.”
Rebba was just the right age, however, for a project called Amateur Radio on the International Space Station. The program, known as ARISS, allows a select number of students from various countries to speak via ham radio to astronauts on board the orbiting station.
“At the Ham-vention a few years ago, I met astronaut Douglas Wheelock and he said I should look into the ARISS program," Rebba recalled.
"I talked to them on how to send the application in. It took us a few tries to get accepted. We tried a few years ago and they rejected us, then we tried again and they accepted us.”
Chiddix’s second application got a boost from partnering with the Children’s Discovery Museum and the Challenger Learning Center at Heartland Community College.
Stacey Shrewsbury of the Challenger Center said the space station call represents an unforgettable experience for students.
“To be able to ask questions of those astronauts and get a real answer from them, not just something they looked up online or something they read in a book about that astronaut," Shrewsbury said.
Rebba is already working on his questions.
"Like how does the lack of gravity affect you in space, and what do you miss most about not being on earth?”
Rebba will make the initial contact with the station, but then other students from a variety of schools who attended a Summer Space Camp at the Challenger Center will also get involved.
“We will have 12 students from Chiddix and four from the Challenger Learning Center and those will be the students who will get to directly ask questions," said Dee Hopper, a science teacher at Chiddix.
"Others will be observing, and there will be a live feed so the entire school will get to hear it.”
The school doesn’t know yet the exact date or time the call will take place. NASA has said it will be sometime between Oct. 23 and 29.
The time of the call depends largely on when the space station will pass over local ham radio antennas on the ground in central Illinois.
Shrewsbury of Heartland's Challenger Center says there will only be a 10-minute window in which the students can communicate with the space station.
“That is the amount of time that the International Space Station is in range of the antenna at Chiddix Junior High School to receive that signal," she said.
There are three astronauts on board: Paulo Nespoli, an Italian, and Joseph Acaba and Mark Vande Hei, both Americans. Vande Hei is the commander and Acaba was the first person of Puerto Rican heritage to become an astronaut candidate.
NASA has struggled in recent years under budget cuts and declining public interest in space exploration.
Hopper, the Chiddix science teacher, said she hopes projects like this one that involve students will fuel an interest in space travel in the next generation.
“I think the space program is hugely instrumental to all kinds of advances in all kind of areas. A lot of the inventions we have were first invented for the space program, " she said.
"Just that sense of exploration—it’s vitally important that we continue to support it."
Rebba seemed pre-destined to bring others in touch with the stars. His name in Telugu, an East Indian language, means “Polestar."
He said one of his favorite subjects is science. However, he doesn’t think he wants to be an astronaut. He would like to work in the area of technology.
“I am interested in fiber optics and how they work," he said.
And he’ll keep communicating with people from all over the world on his basement ham radio -- and one day soon, with those above the earth.
GLT will bring you the conversation between Chiddix students and space station astronauts on the day it occurs.
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