By JEFF CLEMETSON | La Mesa Courier
La Mesa resident Kerry Banke jokingly describes himself as “a geek before the term ever came up.” Now retired from his job at Qualcomm, Banke is doing what one would expect a “geek” to do in retirement — work on a special project for NASA involving his lifelong hobby as a ham radio operator.
“Most of my career has been in research and development and electronics as an electrical engineer,” he said. “My connection with NASA began back in ‘94 when I was asked to join a group called ARISS — Amateur Radio on the International Space Station. We arrange for students at schools to be able to talk to the astronauts on the International Space Station using ham radio. They get to ask questions and get answers from the astronauts.”
When Banke joined ARISS, it was just a handful of people. Today the program is international, serving students all over the world. Once a school signs up for the program, it is typically a one-to-two-year wait before an ARISS representative comes and hosts an event. Banke said over the years he has personally brought the ARISS radio to 26 schools around Southern California including Parkway Middle School in La Mesa in 1994 — the first year of the program.
Because of his involvement with ARISS, Banke was asked by NASA to help out with another project — updating the ham radio aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
“It was aging and acting up, as electronics do after some period of time,” he said. “So we started a project to replace it with more advanced and newer equipment.”
In 2015 NASA began the project and the JVC Kenwood company volunteered to build new ham radios for the ISS.
“But they have very special power requirements,” Banke said. “The space station is powered by a large solar panel array, so it’s not just your standard AC house power. What I got involved with was building a special power supply that converts the space station power to the levels that are required by our ham radio equipment.
“When we started out, we thought this would be a reasonably straightforward project,” he continued. “But it turns out doing something that is connected to power on the International Space Station, there’s a lot of safety concerns and there’s lot of hoops you have to go through and paperwork to satisfy NASA that it’s going to be safe both for the crew and the space station itself.”
Banke developed the equipment — called a multi-voltage power supply — in his garage and took prototypes to Houston for five weeks of testing.
“We didn’t pass the first tests all the time, either,” he said. “I had to go back a second time and prove that we made all the necessary modifications and corrections.”
Banke was successful in his creation and the first unit went up to the ISS on March 6, launched on Space X 20.
Banke is also building another unit for a ham radio for Russian astronauts who also have a ham radio program.
“So as soon as this COVID settles down and we can take this unit to Russia, they’re going to send one up for their crew to use as well,” Banke said.
In the meantime, Banke is still keeping busy with ham radios hosting Zoom meetings of the San Diego Microwave Group — a group of ham radio enthusiasts which has met at his home once a month (and now temporarily online) for over 22 years now.
“It’s really a technical group,” he said. “We’re not so interested in just communicating with each other, but we’re more interested in the technical aspect of it — developing our own equipment and testing it and such.”
Banke described the group as aging because as more technologies have developed over the years, young geeks become more interested in what’s new.
“When I got my first ham radio license in 1961, long distance telephone calls were kind of expensive, and if you wanted to have fun being able to talk around the world, really ham radio was kind of magic at that point,” Banke said, adding that even today ham radios play an important role among advanced communications technologies.
“Ham radio still has its part to play both from technological advancement, but also from a safety standpoint,” he said. “The thing about ham radio operators is, during a disaster like [Hurricane] Katrina and such, if we lose the cell phone infrastructure, it can be gone for quite some period of time whereas ham radio operators mostly know how to resurrect their system after a disaster like that. It is usually just a matter of hours that they can start communicating again.”
It is that safety that makes ham radios an important part of the ISS.
“Our system has been used as backup a couple of times over the last 20 years and that’s why we get support from the NASA communications department, because they use us a secondary backup,” Banke said.
For information on the San Diego Microwave Group, email Kerry Banke at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information about ARISS, visit www.ariss.org.
—Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.