Arsenal’s amateur radio club sends out signals to world
Redstone Arsenal’s Ham Shack is the place to be if you want to talk to lots of different people.
But this Ham Shack isn’t a socialite’s favorite lunch spot or a party lover’s nighttime hangout.
Rather, it’s the place to be if you are into the serious business of amateur "ham" radio.
Located in a nondescript cement building surrounded by antennas and isolated from other Arsenal activities just southwest of the Martin Road/Rideout Road intersection, the Ham Shack refers to the Michael Kalange Memorial Station, amateur radio call sign WA4NZD. It is the headquarters of the Marshall Amateur Radio Club.
Also known as building 4622, the Ham Shack is where technical types from throughout the Arsenal gather on a regular basis to communicate with other amateur radio enthusiasts around the world, experiment with the latest technology in amateur radio, participate in national and worldwide amateur radio contests, and test and maintain their capabilities in case they are called on to provide emergency communications for the Arsenal.
"Part of the function of a club is to bring in interested people and teach them about what the club is focused on. A lot of people are getting into amateur radio because it’s cool to communicate with other people all over the world and because it’s neat to be able to help out in an emergency," said Alan Sieg, a COLSA Corp. employee who works for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and who helped to restart the club after it had been on inactive status for several years.
"It’s fun to come out here and play with the radios and experiment with them, and to show other people how they work. This is real-world science you can do in your basement. But to have a facility like this takes it to another level."
Although most of the Marshall radio club’s members do have working amateur radios set up in their homes, they also enjoy the camaraderie of gathering at the Ham Shack.
"This is a neat group that has the same interests that I do," said Ottis Airhart, an employee of the Program Executive Office for Aviation who has been a ham radio operator since 1998.
Rob Suggs, who works for NASA’s Engineering Directorate, said the Marshall radio club has given him a chance to indulge his interest in scientific experiments and international communication.
"I’ve been a geek ever since I was a kid and I became interested in astronomy," Suggs said. "The idea of ham radios just seemed to be a good hobby for someone like me that likes geek activities."
Since becoming a ham operator in 1973, Suggs’ long list of contacts includes ham radio operators in Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Argentina, Mexico and such U.S. states as North Dakota and Texas.
"We can talk to people all over the country. We are all over the world," he said.
The Marshall radio club first organized with the call letters WM4SFC in 1971, during the Apollo days. It began operating special events to commemorate various NASA achievements, and thousands of amateur radio stations made contact with WM4SFC during the last Apollo mission. About 9,000 contacts were made during the Skylab missions in 1973.
More than 2,000 contacts were made with more than 30 countries during the two-day special event celebrating the launch of STS-1. One especially meaningful event was made in 1983 with STS-9 when astronaut Dr. Owen Garriott (W5LFL) became the first "ham in space" and logged more than 350 two-way contacts. About 10,000 ham operators sent in reception reports to document their contact with Garriott.
Ham radio operators who made contact with the Marshall radio club during those early days received a certificate confirming their contact. Today, the club continues to send out postcards to ham radio operators who make contact with the Ham Shack.
One member who has seen the club’s membership ebb and flow through the years is club president Don Hediger, a member since 1984.
"This club started in the early 1970s, but NASA reductions-in-force in the late 1970s and then in 1990s were times when the club went inactive," Hediger said.
"For about 10 years in the mid- to late-1990s we were not active. About three years ago we reactivated."
That’s when Sieg – whose own call sign is WB5RMG – discovered the amateur radio station. It was neglected and in disrepair. With some hard work, the station was returned to operable condition and received a new call sign – WA4NZD.
Today, the Marshall radio club has about 15 active members.
"This time, we’ve not only reactivated with new membership, but we’ve also reconnected with emergency management on the Arsenal and we are considered a backup for communications," Hediger said. "We actually participated in an emergency exercise this past summer to show what our capabilities are. We’re definitely a communications unit."
That test, which occurred on June 14, involved a severe weather exercise conducted by Marshall Emergency Management. As part of the exercise, the radio club staged two radio operators at the Ham Shack, much like they would if it had been an actual tornado watch event.
When the Marshall Emergency Management Office notified storm spotters via their commercial radio system, the Ham Shack operators also received notification and responded by establishing the Marshall Amateur Response Network on their amateur radio system, which included both the amateur radios at building 4622 as well as personal handheld radios that provided real-time contact with the club’s members. The network made contact with 14 other radio stations, including the Marshall EOC, the Huntsville-Madison County EOC and Fox Army Health Center.
The simulated exercise demonstrated the Ham Shack’s ability to receive an emergency weather report on their ham radio channel and then relay that message to the EOC over the commercial radio service. It also demonstrated the Ham Shack’s independent communications with other radio stations in the area.
"Above everything else, we support public service communications," Sieg said. "The exercises we do and the competitions we participate in help us exercise our skills with ham radio so that when we are needed in an emergency we can go fully operational very quickly.
"The whole thing is about communications – some just for fun, some for practice and some for preparing for an emergency. Having the ability to communicate when no one else can is the driving force of this hobby and this club."
Today’s technology allows ham radio operators to communicate beyond the traditional amateur radio set-up of four transceivers, amplifiers, and a computer for logging and for digital modes. Now, they can also use their call signs on handheld radios that allow them to communicate from nearly anywhere.
Ham radio stations each have their own call signs. Station operators maintain a reception report, which is a log of the different operators they make contact with, and the different states and countries where they reach out to with their communications. Countless lists of those communications can be found at the Ham Shack, providing a glimpse of the station’s historical significance.
Often, in a home environment, ham radio operators are limited by the size and number of antennas they can post. That is not an issue at the Marshall radio club’s location, where there is plenty of room for any number of antennas.
"You can never have enough antennas," Sieg said. "Each antenna gives you more capability. Our antennas can pick up frequencies from all over the world. With the antennas here at the club we can direct and focus the signal."
The Marshall radio club does face some challenges. Its members want to refurbish the 100-foot antenna tower just outside the Ham Shack. It could provide multi-band high frequency radio signals if it was cleaned up and refurbished. But members lack the ability to lower the antenna to work on it.
And there are always opportunities to add more radio capability. On a recent night at the Ham Shack, club members were comparing the reception quality and operations of two different types of radios. The club recently received funding from the Marshall Activity Center to purchase a new radio. Yet, more funds are needed to continue to upgrade the club’s equipment.
There is always an activity or something going on at the Ham Shack these days. Although they officially meet the first Thursday of each month, the Marshall radio club’s members are free to use the Ham Shack whenever they have time and a yen to talk to someone on the other side of the world.
"Some of us are really into talking to lots of different places and participating in contests. Others of us are really interested in building antennas and seeing what kinds of new capabilities they will give us," Sieg said.
"There’s something for anyone who is interested in ham radio. And we all enjoy sharing our specialties with each other. What someone doesn’t know, someone else is likely to be an expert in."
Editor’s note: The Marshall Amateur Radio Club is accepting new members. To learn more, visit its website at http://wa4nzd.wordpress.com or email Alan Sieg at "firstname.lastname@example.org.