A phone call from space

Right on our first week alone in the modules I had one of the best moments of the year, perhaps of my whole life.

Since my arrival at Halley that a significant chuck of British news was dedicated to the exploits of Britain’s first astronaut residing in the International Space Station. Curious enough, Tim Peake left aboard a Soyuz module in route to 6 months inside another set of modules, sort of, by the same time that we were crossing the Southern Atlantic, also en route for 15 months aboard another set of modules.

During that first Summer the confusion around the base was just too much but now that the peace and tranquility so characteristic of these polar Winters got installed in Halley, we were informed by BAS public relations office that Tim Peake wanted to chat with us… from space!

It took me a while until I could fully grasp the impact of those news. Around that time I was still getting myself around the idea that I was in Antarctica and Winter was really going to happen so I actually moved that event into the “processing” folder and forgot about it, well, kinda. At first I assumed that it would be just another typical, unilateral talk, mostly for publicity and PR than anything else. But only when they told us about the details that I really understood the magnitude of the situation: it was going to be and informal talk, without any script or underlining plot, between literally two of the most isolated groups of people in the world at that moment.

Actually, it wasn’t even BAS that started the whole thing. It seemed that it was Tim Peake himself that, after seeing the news about the station relocation plans, had the initiative of contacting BAS, through ESA and NASA, and setup the phone call.

Informal was without any doubt the adequate adjective for the most strange and interesting phone call that I ever had been in, to a point where some of my crew member were in their pijamas already or with food stains in their t-shirt from dinner.

After the evening meal we went into the comms office and stay there, joking among each other as it was the rule already, when the phone rung finally. There was a living and breathing astronaut on the other side of the line, separated from us by loads of satellites, transmitters  and about 400 km of altitude.

Signpost in front of antenna array - Stuart Holroyd (1)

What amazed me mostly about Tim’s attitude was his curiosity about us. During the half hour that we waited for that call, the group tried to elaborate a series or (somewhat serious) questions for him, filtering out the silliest ones if possible, because at that time we though that , for someone that was about to float around space for the next half year or so, an antarctic station shouldn’t be something that interesting. We were completely wrong. I’ll say that, in the questions department, things were actually evenly split. Each one that we place on him was counteracted by another from his side. When we asked him what was he going to have for dinner, he then next asked us how did we work our food around the station and so on.

In total we end up getting more than half an hour on the call, something that required several connections to be restablished since the ISS was losing satellite coverage constantly due to how fast it goes around the planet.

Yet Another Moon Halo

The structure of the call is also interesting by itself: from the phone in the ISS the call goes through the next and nearest available satellite. From it it is then directed to the headquarters of NASA, in Huston, Texas (through more than one satellite sometimes). From the USA it then goes, by fiber optics probably, across the country and the “pond” all the way up to the United Kingdom (where exactly is hard to say) and from there it goes finally into BAS central switching station, in Cambridge. Once in BAS, the automatic call handler detects that the destination number belongs to Hallley station (all phone numbers in every antarctic station from BAS have the same Cambridge, U.K prefix) and route the call through Aberdeen, Scotland, where the land-satellite interface takes place. The call goes back to space again and from there it is then routed to Antarctica, specifically to a satellite dome that we have installed about 100 meters from the modules, where it finally finds its way to us via a simple network cable. And all of this under less than 4 seconds!

Stuart_Holroyd-DSC_1842-160614

When they asked me if I wanted to speak directly with him, I didn’t hesitated even. I could never forgave myself if I missed the opportunity of annoying an astronaut, and live nonetheless. Its been a while since the last time that I got myself really nervous. I’m guessing that nowadays it takes talking to an astronaut to make me sweat like a teenage girl after a false positive on a pregnancy test. It wasn’t like Tim was intimidating. Actually it was the other way around. Considering the impact and importance of what he was doing, he’s a unbelievably nice and accessible person that put ourselves at ease right after the first second of that call. It was actually the perception of the event that struck my balance a bit, but in a good sense. But it was like everything. After asking him about his dinner, the rest of the conversation was strangely normal given the circumstances.

I didn’t accidentally insulted anyone and was able to maintain the number of social faux-pas to an acceptable minimum. All in all it was a good day.

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