Canadian astronaut celebrated Naismith anniversary by amateur radio

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 by Neil Carleton

Sunday, November 6, was the 150th birth anniversary of Dr. James Naismith, Almonte native and inventor of basketball.  Although Canadian astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk wasn’t able to be here in person to help celebrate, his voice arrived by amateur radio.  To honour Dr. Naismith on his birthday, the Almonte Amateur Radio Club (AARC) operated special event stations at the Mill of Kintail gatehouse, close to his birth place at nearby Bennie’s Corners.Naismith Event 31 On Air November 6 2011 Bob Wade Photo

Dr. Thirsk, radio amateur VA3CSA, is no stranger to Almonte.  Almost 800 students from all three elementary schools gave him an enthusiastic welcome when he visited R. Tait McKenzie Public School on October 1, 2002.  It was a community campaign following my school’s successful amateur radio contact with the International Space Station (ISS) on November 23, 2001.  Students, teachers, parents, town councilors, and many other residents wrote or e-mailed to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) requesting a visit of an astronaut.  A call came one day asking not to send any more letters, an astronaut would be coming to Almonte.


 Hands were up everywhere during the first assembly in the R. Tait gym for primary classes, kindergarten to grade 3.  Using a basketball and a diagram of a space shuttle, Dr. Thirsk explained how an astronaut travels in space.

After his primary presentation, as some classes were leaving through the front doors of the school, a kindergarten student saw a bright red box about eye level with the word ‘pull’.  It was a memorable moment for parents and bus drivers when Dr. Thirsk joined them in front of the school, to shake hands and talk, while R. Tait students and staff assembled on the soccer field to the sound of fire alarms.

At his second presentation for junior and intermediate classes, grades 4 to 8, you could have heard a pin drop, even though the gym was packed with naturally active students.  Dr. Thirsk captivated his audience with spectacular images of our fragile planet, and his first hand experiences of space travel in 1996 on space shuttle Columbia, Mission STS-78.

When the CSA established an amateur radio station so astronauts could talk with students, my class was selected in 2007 for the first school contact in the country. The volunteers of the AARC sprang into action on the scheduled day as I was on medical leave before surgery.  One by one, the students stepped up to the microphone in Almonte and had their questions about space answered by Dr. Thirsk at CSA headquarters.

On November 6th, Dr. Thirsk was attending a family event on Vancouver Island.  Although separated by three time zones, he was happy to take part in the Almonte event if arrangements could be made for him to use a local amateur radio station.

 Here in Almonte, we all know that volunteers make the world go around.  Rest assured, it’s the same in the fair city of Victoria.  When asked for assistance, the Westcoast Amateur Radio Association (WARA) made it happen.  Alan Mallett radio amateur VA7AWM, and WARA’s Public Service Coordinator, met Dr. Thirsk with a radio equipped vehicle of the Victoria Emergency Management Agency.  Overlooking beautiful Saanich Inlet, it was a fine morning on the west coast for an amateur radio contact with special event station VA3AAR in Almonte.

Naismith Event 67 VE3NCE Listening To VA3CSA Bob Wade Photo

 During our on-air conversation, Dr. Thirsk explained to everyone listening at the Mill of Kintail gatehouse that James Naismith had been on his mind lately.  He spoke highly of him, and paid tribute to Dr. Naismith as “a great Canadian worthy of our respect and homage.”  It was a special moment to be joined during our anniversary event by a remarkable Canadian through the wonders of amateur radio.

His six month mission in 2009, as Flight Engineer on board the International Space Station (ISS), was a milestone.  Dr. Thirsk was the first Canadian to stay in space on a long duration mission.  As well as performing scientific experiments during Expedition 20/21, from May 27 to December 1, 2009, his responsibilities in orbit included the repair and maintenance of the station, and being the crew’s medical officer and a robotics specialist.

Naismith Event 75 VA3CSA Wearing Mission Suit CSA Photo

 Thank you Dr. Thirk for helping us to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of James Naismith, Almonte native and inventor of basketball.

 AARC volunteers, operating on shifts during the 24 hour event, spoke with 241 radio amateurs on all seven continents.  While propagation conditions on some bands allowed our signals to reflect off the ionosphere and reach distant locations, other frequencies were more challenging at times.

When the special event was over, and the equipment had been packed up for home, club members had made contacts with stations from Antarctica to Austria, Croatia to Cuba, and Iceland to Ivory Coast.  It was already tomorrow near Sydney, Australia, when I talked with a radio amateur who was morning mobile in his car.

Along the way, AARC volunteers also spoke with amateur radio operators across Canada, and the around the globe in Brazil, Dominican Republic, England, France, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Poland, Russia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, U.S.A., Venezuela, and WalesSome knew about the inventor of basketball, and for many it was their introduction to Dr. Naismith and his home town. Naismith Event 50 VA3GMP November 6 2011 VE3NCE Photo

Thank you to Brian Jackson, radio amateur VE6JBJ in Airdrie, Alberta, for assistance with Dr. Thirsk’s contact.  To the volunteers of the WARA in Victoria, your support was appreciated very much.  To Jeff Kietzmann in Germany, radio amateur KD7OXT, thank you for your help in setting the stage for our special contact with Palmer Station.  Thank you Bede McCormick, ZL4KX from New Zealand, for your participation in Antarctica.

A special event of this magnitude was possible because of our great partnership with the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority.  A special thank you to Suzanne McFarlane, Community Relations Coordinator, and Stephanie Kolsters, Mill of Kintail Museum Manager.