Friday, August 19, 2005

An out-of-this-world (by proxy) VE session

One of the things that I decided to do when I became a ham was to find ways to give back to the ham community. I've done some public service work, and even served for a while as the District Emergency Coordinator for Bergen County ARES. But one of the most rewarding things that I've done is to become a Volunteer Examiner (VE).

If you're a ham, you probably already know this, but for those who might not know: The way ham licensing works is that the FCC has delegated the responsibility for testing for new and upgraded ham licenses to hams themselves. This isn't quite the same as the wolf guarding the henhouse, as there are numerous safeguards built into the program, and an individual ham can't just pass a buddy through. In a nutshell, in order to give an exam, a ham has to pass a test to become a VE that's given by a Volunteer Examiner Coordinator, and the FCC deals with the VEC's, not the individual VEs. I am a VE for the ARRL VEC having taken their open-book exam a few years ago, after I upgraded my license class to Amateur Extra. A team of 3 or more VEs is required to order to give an exam session (commonly referred to as a "VE Session"), and there are other requirements as well. (The link to the ARRL VEC above gives lots and lots of details about this, if you're interested.)

Anyway, the VE team that I work with when I help test consists of members from, and is sponsored by, the 10-70 Repeater Association, a radio club that I belong to. Normally, they run a session once a month or so, which works out fine to test most folks who are ready to get a new or upgraded license. On occasion, the team goes "on the road" to accomodate groups or individuals who, for various reasons, can't attend a "regular" session. In the past, the team has done "road" sessions for the US Power Squadron, helped test a group of new hams at the end of a series of radio classes at Montclair State University, and even went to a "senior living" center to test a great group of guys who'd taken up ham radio as a hobby after (in some cases, many, many years after) retirement.

Recently, we got to do a "road show" for a very special candidate. Dr. Gregory Olsen, as of this writing, is scheduled to be launched into space aboard a Soyuz rocket on October 1 as the world's third "space tourist" through an arrangement with Space Adventures, Inc. The Soyuz capsule will dock with the International Space Station (ISS), and Greg will spend eight days on the ISS before returning to earth. One of the things that NASA and the Russian space agency like to have their astronauts (including "space tourists") do while at the ISS is to make ham radio contacts with schools (as part of the ARISS program) as well as individuals, as time permits. Since the "space tourist" doesn't have any official duties, they tend to have a bit more free time than the "regular" astronauts and try to accomodate when possible. Of course, you need to have a license to operate the radio station, even in space. Most of the career NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts already have their license, but it turned out that Greg did not have a license. This is where I, along with fellow VE Paul Elder, W2PWE, and VE Team Coordinator, Joyce Birmingham, KA2ANF, come in.

Joyce has been doing VE session for many years (I think she told me it was 12 years?), and is well-known by the folks at ARRL Headquarters, so when NASA asked the ARRL VEC folks if there was a VE team in New Jersey in the Princeton, NJ area (Greg lives in Princeton), they thought of her immediately. (As an aside, in case you're not familiar with New Jersey's geography, River Vale, where I live, isn't exactly "near" Princeton, but it was close enough. More on that shortly.) Joyce contacted me and asked if I'd be willing to take a trip down to Princeton to do the testing, and when I heard a bit of the background, I jumped at the chance. I've been a fan of the space program for as long as I can remember, and the chance to meet an astronaut (or cosmonaut) was something that I just couldn't pass up.

It turned out that Greg was going to be in NJ for just a few days, getting a little time off from his training in Russia. There were a lot of calls back and forth between Joyce, the ARRL guys, some NASA folks, and Greg, and finally a session was set up for Friday afternoon at 5 PM. I checked the directions, and figured that I'd just hop on the turnpike (which is about 2 miles from where I work), take it down to exit 9, then jump on Route 1. I figured it'd take maybe 90 minutes, but to make sure that I was there on time, I figured I'd leave at about 3:15. Amazingly, nothing major happened in the office, and by 3:15 I was actually in my car driving out of the parking lot.

I was on the turnpike heading south when I heard the bad news: There was apparently a very serious accident around exit 8A (well south of where I was going), and traffic was starting to back up. Well, I figured that as long as it didn't back up as far as exit 9, I'd be OK. Driving south, the traffic was moving surprisingly well for a Friday in August, but then I heard more bad news on the radio: The accident was so bad that they'd closed the turnpike in both directions at exit 8A, and the traffic was really starting to build up. I got past exit 11 with no trouble, and was coming up on exit 10 when I heard on the radio that southbound traffic was backed up past exit 10. Being just about there, I figured I'd jump off at exit 10 and work my way south if it was backed up, but as I came up to the exit, it looked fine, so I kept going. Oops.

Right after a slight curve, traffic came to an almost dead halt. At that point, I think I was under a sign that said that it was about 2 miles to exit 9, so I figured it'd take me 15 or 20 minutes to get to the exit, then I'd be ok. Wrong. It took about an hour, I think, to get to the exit. After I finally got off, it was still a nightmare, because lots of other folks had decided to get off at exit 9 as well. If you've ever taken that exit, you know that it's one of those toll plazas that's a mess with traffic coming in from multiple directions and spreading out to several highways on the other side. Naturally, it seems like about 95% of the people there are in the wrong toll both lane and have to cross 8 lanes of traffic to get to the road they want. Now imagine what it's like with multiple times the normal traiffc, with most of them having never been through the mess before and winding up crossing all eight lanes of traffic multiple times. The most amazing thing was that I didn't see any accidents, though moving at some fraction of a mile per hour any accident would have been little more than a fender bender. I finally got of the merge from hell, and made it onto Route 18, which then goes into Route 1. That was slightly better than the turnpike, but not by much.

I'd finally made some progress on Route 1 and had actually starting moving at highway speed when Joyce called my cell phone. They were even farther back than I was, having taken the Garden State Parkway and gotten off at Route 1 directly. (On a Friday? In August? I don't know what they were thinking.) She'd spoken to Greg who figured that (given that it was now about 5:15) he'd meet us part of the way up Route 1, so that we'd have less distance to drive. That was fine, except that it turns out that I was already past where we were supposed to meet. I jumped of Route 1 at some relatively small road just north of Princeton, and figured I'd just pull into a driveway, turn around, and make a left back onto the highway and head back north. Another mistake.

What I didn't realize when I exited the highway was that apparently this road was some kind of major outlet from somewhere (maybe folks who work in Princeton?) and there was a mile (at least) of traffic trying to get on to Route 1. I told Joyce this, and fortunately, she was pretty familiar with the area. We started loosing cell phone coverage, but we were able to find a local repeater, and Joyce managed to talk me through Princeton (the town) and Princeton (the University) and back to the highway another way. Whew.

I finally arrived at the hotel at about 5:45, making my travel time there about 2 1/2 hours. As I pulled in, wondering if I'd recognize Greg, I saw a bright red Mercedes with the license plate "SENSORS" (he founded Sensors Unlimited, Inc.) and as I was heading inside, I saw a guy wearing a Sensors Unlimited golf shirt. Using my keen powers of deduction, I went up and introduced myself and have him an update on where the rest of the team was.

I then spent the next 40 minutes or so talking with Greg, answering some questions about how the exam process works, telling him when he should expect his license, talking about ham radio in general, and chatting about the space program. It was a lot of fun for me, and while I felt bad for him, having to cool his heels while waiting to take the test (which makes a lot of folks nervous; I know that I was), it was a great chance for me to get to chat with him, something that I wouldn't ordinarly have been able to do.

About 40 minutes after I arrived, Joyce and Paul got there, along with George, KC2GLG, who'd was acting as our official photographer. We got to business pretty quickly, setting up shop in a back corner of the hotel lobby. Normally, we test in quieter and more private surroundings, but since Greg was our only candidate and he didn't mind, we found a spot, had Greg fill out the required paperwork, gave him his test, and basically stood around for 10 or 15 minutes as he went through the test.

I somehow wound up doing the first grading "pass" over his paper (each of three VEs are required to make sure that we all get the same score), and while I was pretty sure that he would pass, as I put the scoring template over the answer sheet, I was pleased to see that there were few incorrect answers. (Because of privacy concerns, I can't say how many he got right and how many were wrong, but suffice it to say that he passed.) I breathed a sigh of relief as I finished, passed the answer sheet and scoring template to Paul, who confirmed my results, as did Joyce. Whew.

After we gave him his results, we asked him if he'd like to take any other of the elements (there is 1 element for morse code, at least for now, and 3 written elements), and he (unsurprisingly) declined. We finished filling out his paperwork and then George took a bunch of pictures. We were just about to send Greg on his way when Joyce realized that in our haste to get things under way, we'd forgotten to collect the required testing fee ($14), so we asked him for that, and, finally, he was able to leave.

We had a bit of post-session paperwork to do, then we headed back to the cards (Paul drove back up with me so I'd have some company for the trip back). Fortunately, the trip back was very smooth, and I wound up getting home at around 9:30 or so.

The ARRL wrote up a nice article on what we did which as of this writing, they have up on their website along with a couple of photos, including one that includes yours truly. While this wasn't quite the same as "playing radio", I really did enjoy the unique opportunity that I had.