Space buffs pack library auditorium for radio visit with International Space Station

Ken Filardo has been tinkering with radios since he was a little boy. But on Friday, more than five decades after his lifelong love affair with the gadgets first began, the 64-year-old engineer and amateur radio enthusiast took part in an experiment far beyond child’s play.

Shortly after 11:25 a.m., Filardo and his fellow radio buffs from the Douglas County Amateur Radio Club made contact with the International Space Station, eliciting cheers from the approximately 200 onlookers gathered in the Lawrence Public Library’s auditorium.

The project, which was facilitated through the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station educational program, was a coordinated effort between the library and the Radio Club that had been more than a year in the making.

“This is kind of the pinnacle of ham radio right here,” said Filardo, who constructed a special antenna system, to be mounted on the roof of the library, for the occasion.

Using equipment borrowed from club members’ personal collections, Filardo and five of his cohorts were able to make contact with Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi in the few minutes — technical difficulties cut the intended 10-minute chat a bit short — it took for the Space Station to travel from horizon to horizon.

In those moments, a handful of local kids chosen by library staffers stepped up to a microphone at the front end of the auditorium, one by one, to take part in a Q&A with Space Station crewmember Onishi.

Questions spanned from what astronauts like to read in space to how mental health issues are handled onboard the Space Station. One humorous inquiry (the library asked for submissions from the public) sought answers about the sensory experience aboard the vessel, in particularly its aromas.

“My first impression was (that) it smelled like a hot tub,” Onishi said, generating a collective chuckle back on Earth.

Katie Blankenship, a seventh grader at Gardner’s Pioneer Ridge Middle School, was among the small group of local kids selected to take part in the event. While the 12-year-old doesn’t claim to be much of a science buff, she enjoyed the experience.

“My mom signed me up and I thought it sounded cool,” Katie said.

Ultimately, she said, the experience did turn out to be “pretty cool.” But for Katie’s mother, Becky Blankenship, Friday morning’s event marked what she recognizes as a special moment in her daughter’s life.

The elder Blankenship has been fascinated by the cosmos since she was a kid, and relished the opportunity to communicate, if vicariously through her daughter, with the Space Station.

Katie, she explained, is autistic. Seeing her handle the potentially stressful situation — children with autism often struggle in large groups of people — with poise, Becky said, reminded her of just how much her daughter can accomplish.

“I’m super proud,” Becky said. “The fact that she was able to get up there in front of everybody to do that and speak intelligibly and clearly, and just being able to function with all the noise and the crowd, was just huge.”