“Been a while since I’ve been up here at daylight,” Sasha Maldonado ’18 says. “Usually I’m around here at midnight.”
“Here” is Site 530, a radio station out in the Stanford foothills — the kind of remote location that requires GPS coordinates to find. About a third of the way up to the Dish, there’s a gravel road that splits off from the paved trail, leading to a squat white shack. The rainclouds from earlier in the day have parted, and the setting sun illuminates a herd of deer on a hillside.
“Welcome to W6YX,” Maldonado says.
The Stanford Amateur Radio Club — often referred to by its call sign, W6YX — is a collective of radio and technology enthusiasts. In contrast to commercial radio, which transmits music, sports or news to a wide audience, amateur radio refers to the use of radio waves for the exchange of messages between operators. (The activity is also called ham radio, a once-derisive term that has been reclaimed by the community.) They’re amateurs in the traditional sense of the word — experienced and competent at what they do, but doing it recreationally rather than professionally. Amateurs principally transmit messages for their own entertainment or as part of a competition with others, though they may also put their skills to use to support emergency services.
According to information from the Federal Communications Commission, there were 819,017 radio amateurs in the United States as of May 5.
We go inside the station and are greeted by president Grant Ayers and treasurer Tane Tatum. Ayers is a Ph.D. student in computer science; Tatum is a masters student in aeronautics and astronautics. Of the three, Maldonado has been in W6YX the longest, having been introduced to the group by a friend in his freshman year. Ayers got licensed last year after learning about W6YX from a professor, and Tatum — one of the group’s newest members — joined last September.
Ayers gestures toward a cluster of shelves in the far corner of the main room. Boxes of analog tapes, containing atmospheric recordings from NASA missions, are practically overflowing off the shelves into stacks on the floor. Several of the boxes are marked ISEE-1, from a satellite sent into orbit more than 40 years ago.
“This was used as a storage facility for a long time,” Ayers says, surveying the clutter. “Technically, it still is.”
We go into the adjacent room that houses the very high frequency (VHF) / ultra high frequency (UHF) work station. There are three monitors on a desk, one of which displays an array of red graphs that look like bell curves. Ayers explains that the graphs pertain to satellites and their path as they pass by the station.
“Orbits are super predictable,” Tatum adds. “It’s just pretty basic physics: You know where the satellite is, where it’s going, and you can just track forward and predict where it’s going to be for the next however long.”
One of the graphs catches Ayers’ eye, and he pulls up a map of its orbit. The satellite, Saudi-OSCAR 50 (SO-50), is expected to pass almost directly over the station in eight minutes. Unfortunately, the monitor suddenly freezes, prompting Ayers to restart the computer.
While we wait, Maldonado and Ayers delve into W6YX’s history. It’s uncertain exactly when the group was founded, but it has been around since at least 1924, when the group became affiliated with the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). This would make W6YX one of the oldest voluntary student organizations (VSOs) on campus.
Past members of the station include Hewlett-Packard co-founders William Hewlett B.A. ’34 ENG ’39 and David Packard B.A. ’34 M.S. ’39, former Dean of the School of Engineering Frederick Terman B.A. ’20 EE ’22 and U.S. Under Secretary of State Herbert Hoover Jr. B.S. ’25.
Though the group is a VSO, faculty and community members are welcome to join as associates. Even so, W6YX is a small group, with Maldonado putting its numbers of students and associates at “a couple dozen of each.”
The computer reboots, so Ayers turns to another monitor and repositions an antenna outside the station to track SO-50. The antenna must point at the satellite — it can be programmed to automatically follow the satellite’s path — and tune into its uplink (Earth to satellite) and downlink (satellite to Earth) frequencies. This allows W6YX to transmit signals to, and receive them from, the satellite.
With everything ready to go, Maldonado picks up what looks like a walkie-talkie — an analogue for amateur radio in and of itself — and speaks into it.
“This is KC3ESZ at W6YX, grid CM87,” Maldonado says, identifying himself with his FCC-assigned call sign, the station’s call sign and his location according to a worldwide coordinate system called the Maidenhead Locator System.
“W6YX,” he repeats, “anyone out there?”
Seconds later, a crackling voice responds in kind with a call sign and location. It’s the first of four people that W6YX will make contact with in the time what they’re within SO-50’s range.
One amateur gives his location as grid CN85; I consult the Maidenhead Locator System, wistfully noting that this corresponds to the Portland metropolitan area, where I’m from. That wistfulness blooms into full-on nostalgia when I run his call sign later and find that he lives just up the road from where I went to elementary school.
While Ayers and Tatum look for incoming satellites, Maldonado explains the licensing process. There are three different exams for the three license classes: Technician, General and Amateur Extra. Higher license classes allow one to access a greater range of radio frequencies, but the exams get progressively more difficult. All three exams cover the same pool of topics, including regulations, operating practices and safety. (Sample question: “How is the cathode lead of a semiconductor diode usually identified?” Answer: “With a stripe.”)
I ask Maldonado about what draws him to amateur radio — a habit he describes as generally being “an older person’s thing.” He initially says that there’s value in getting younger people excited about the practice. Then, after some thought, he expands on his answer: If amateur radio goes extinct, the radio frequencies on which it operates may be sold off to telecommunications companies.
“We’re competing with cell phone companies and broadcast companies for use of these radio waves — continued usage is the only thing that keeps the hobby alive,” Maldonado says. “It is sort of the electromagnetic wilderness, where it’s preserved for collective use, but only so long as people use it and use it well.”
Ayers leaves for the night, so Maldonado and Tatum offer to show me the Earth-Moon-Earth station, a short walk away from the main facility. The temperature has noticeably dropped since sunset, so we’re relieved when we reach the station, which looks like a military-grade equipment shelter. (It is.) Behind the station, there’s a massive satellite dish that, at eight meters in diameter, is about as tall as a giraffe. We go inside the station, turning on the space heater before the computer.
This station is where the club engages in an activity fittingly called Earth-Moon-Earth bounce, where they reflect signals off the moon as if it was a giant satellite. This is one of the ways that radio amateurs and stations will compete with each other, striving to exchange the most moon-mediated messages with others during a set amount of time.
In one contest last summer, W6YX spent hours fixing a donated satellite dish, only to discover the night before the event that rats had chewed through some crucial wiring. (According to Ayers, they were ultimately able to fix it, and placed second in the competition.)
But we won’t be doing any Earth-Moon-Earth bounces tonight. The moon won’t be visible for at least another hour, so Maldonado and Tatum decide to call it a night. Besides, everyone’s got work to do; Maldonado is building a laser driver with a friend, while Tatum has rocket propulsion homework. Maldonado steps out of the station and back into the cold. He pauses as he walks back to his car, turning to look at the streetlights of Silicon Valley, forming a constellation far off in the distance.
One month later, Ayers invites me back up to Site 530. W6YX has several new members, some of whom have just been licensed, and they have decided to host their monthly meeting at the station. (Meetings are usually held, appropriately, in the David Packard Electrical Engineering Building.)
The VHF / UHF antenna is only picking up a handful of satellites tonight, so Ayers and some other senior members set up the high frequency (HF) operating position in the main room. HF waves have a smaller frequency than VHF or UHF waves; this gives them a greater wavelength, which in turn allows the waves to travel further.
We find an amateur out in Minnesota, so the new members pass the microphone around to talk to him one by one. What was meant to be a quick demonstration becomes a 16-minute conversation as he tells us about everything from his struggle to make contact with Indonesia (though he has heard from Australia and New Zealand) to his moon bounce setup. We even pull up his profile on QRZ.com (think of it as Facebook for radio amateurs); there’s a photo of him on a tractor, which, he informs us, has been retrofitted with radio equipment. Finally, he signs off with a cheerful “73,” radio lingo for “best regards.”
Ayers describes the whole exchange as a “typical conversation” between amateurs, who talk about everything from what kind of gear they use to recent surgeries. My phone vibrates and an email notification flashes on the screen; I marvel at how effortless it seems in comparison.
As with my last visit, the night ends with another visit to the Earth-Moon-Earth station. While it’s too early to see the moon, we all cram inside the station to see how a moon bounce is done. A senior member manipulates the eight-meter satellite dish, which groans in protest as it turns to face the heavens while the new members look on in awe.
As I leave the station, I say to Ayers, “73.”
“73,” Ayers replies with a smile.
I look up at the night sky as I turn to go. There are stars and satellites twinkling up there, but I don’t know how to tell them apart.
Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.