“How big is the space station and do you have enough room to dance?” a Grade 3 Grey Mountain Primary School student asked Chris Hadfield via the do-it-yourself magic of ham radio.

“It’s huge,” Hadfield said. “It’s the size of five hockey rinks. Yes, there is room to dance, but I need someone to dance with.”

On April 13, 2013, 13 Whitehorse students posed questions about life aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to Canadian astronaut Hadfield in real time.

Yukon Amateur Radio Association (YARA), and the international volunteer group Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) made this radio transmission possible. The radio operators who facilitated the call were VY11SS-Ron (Whitehorse), VY1CAM-Catherine (Whitehorse), VE1ISS-Wayne (Nova Scotia) and 1KISLD-Claudio (Italy).

According to ham operator Ron McFadyen (VY11SS-Ron), the Grey Mountain conversation with Hadfield was the most successful call placed to space with ARISS. This is remarkable, because due to the position of the space station in relation to Whitehorse, it is extremely difficult to contact it. But by forming a telebridge with 1KISSLD-Claudio in Italy, who had the space station in orbit directly above his house at the time of the call, the radio transmission went off without a hitch.

McFadyen is a former CKRW and long-time CBC radio journalist, the founding president of YARA and recipient of several awards for ham radio-related community service, including a Diamond Jubilee Medal.

McFadyen, who received his ham license in 1976, is excited about further possibilities for amateur radio in schools.

“Young people need to realize that through the ham radio systems in place in the Yukon, people can talk for free across the territory,” he says.

He also notes that using ham radio in combination with computers opens up and whole world of communication and, if teachers and students are interested, YARA could help create ham radio stations at school.

In this way, McFadyen and YARA offer to become an “Elmer” — a ham radio mentor who helps people pass their licensing exam.

YARA President Terry Maher (VY1AK) started operating in 1970 with a novice license, a limited bandwidth and knowledge of Morse code.

“We’re all old,” says Maher of the 30 YARA members. “Since the advent of cell phones and texting there is less interest in ham radio. But it is a great way to talk to people, it’s fun and you can learn about electronics.”

YARA is currently seeking new and younger members, Maher says. “Scholarships to learn about ham radio are offered through Radio Amateurs of Canada (RAC) and American Radio Relay League (ARRL).”

It’s old technology that has everyday applications.

The Yukon government still relies on ham operators during disaster and emergencies. During the Yukon-wide communication blackout in early October 2012, ham operators established an early communications system.

Recently, emergency communication services were provided by amateur radio operators in Calgary during the flood and the Boston bombing.

“When all else fails, call the ham operators,” says McFadyen.

However, despite everything they do, there are some things they won’t. Foul language, talk of religion and politics or jumping uninvited into conversations, are not allowed on ham airwaves.

Ham operators self-police amateur frequencies and report airwave infractions to Industry Canada and the Federal Communications Commission in the United States.

YARA, founded in 1976, offers surplus radios to members for a nominal fee. Members can also receive special operator emergency training, not to mention fame and respect from beyond the grave.

Yukon ham radio operators drive vehicles with license plates “VY1” on them. Deceased ham operators’ call signs are designated by “SK,” standing for “Silent Key,” a reference to the key required to tap Morse code.

Leave it to inventive ham operators to communicate respectful signals beyond both space and death.

To learn more about ham radio operating drop by the YARA coffee discussion group in Whitehorse, every Saturday at 9:30 a.m at the A&W.

For information about amateur radio license, courses, equipment and all things ham radio go to the YARA website: www.yara.ca.

Watch the full conversation between Grey Mountain Primary School and ISS Commander Chris Hadfield on YouTube, the video is called “The Hadfield Contact Audio GMP 2013 Grey Mountain Primary, Yukon.”