Victory is bittersweet

From left, Patrick Neelin, Paul Je, Gino Cunti and Kevin Luong, with their professor Mark Rector, are overcome after their successful contact with the space station.

From left, Patrick Neelin, Paul Je, Gino Cunti and Kevin Luong, with their professor Mark Rector, are overcome after their successful contact with the space station.
photo by joana draghici

Joana Draghici
News Reporter

The four students who made history with a ten minute conversation to the International Space Station recently learned the college has suspended their program.

The telecommunications team successfully contacted the ISS on Tuesday. They were the first college-level students in the world to successfully build and use the equipment needed to contact space.   

One of students, Paul Je, couldn’t believe it when he was told his program may be on the chopping block.

“I’ve only heard that the program has been put on hiatus,” he said. “But if it were getting cancelled it would be really unfortunate. We all worked so hard and the program’s great.”

Associate Dean of the School of Applied Technology David Alcock said the decision to suspend the program was made 18 months ago. “It was a very good program. It wasn’t a quality issue, it was the fact this program could not attract students.”

It was around the same time the suspension was decided that the telecommunications team approached their professor with the idea. Mark Rector was skeptical.

“I thought it was pie in the sky,” said Rector, an electronics professor and Operation First Contact coordinator. A year and a half later, he was counting down to first contact.

Alcock explained enrolment numbers for the program have been dropping for some time, and the school offers two alternative programs that incorporate telecommunications.

But this past Tuesday, the three-year wireless telecommunications program had a room filled with students, faculty, and representatives from every major Toronto media outlet at a standstill as the countdown to first contact began.

 “This is going to be history in the making, so standby,” said Rector as his students Gino Cunti, 34, Patrick Neelin, 26, Kevin Luong, 22 and Je, 34, braced themselves for their moment of glory.

“T-minus 6, 4, 3, 2, 1.  We’re live,” Rector said seconds before 12:29 p.m.

These were the words Cunti was waiting to hear.

“NA1SS, this is VA3JUV checking in from Humber College scheduled contact, do you copy?” Cunti asked.

Only static filled the room.  A slight flinch on Cunti’s face showed his anxiety.  With countless hours of work teetering on a 10-minute window, Cunti tried again.  

“NA1SS, this is VA3JUV checking in from Humber College scheduled contact, do you copy?”A faint voice broke through the static.

“Hello? I have you a little bit weak, can you try again,” said Sarah Mangus, an astronaut on board the ISS, travelling 400 km above the Earth’s surface and moving at a speed of 27,000 km/h.  

Spectators cheered as they witnessed the students make history with Operation First Contact.

They spent the 10 minutes asking Mangus a of list questions, ranging from space debris, radiation and if the soil on Mars and the moon could be used for agriculture.

Rector told Mangus this was the highlight of his teaching career and thanked NASA for the opportunity to be so proud of his students.

After signing off, the four students realized the magnitude of their accomplishment.  Je was so overwhelmed he broke down in tears.  

“Oh, I was so nervous,” he said.  “I talked to the astronaut Sandra Magnus.  When I heard her voice I was like ‘oh my God I hear her talking.’ I am so proud to have represented Humber College at this Institute.”  

Neelen said he couldn’t sleep all night. “That first five or six seconds I’m like, it’s not gonna work, it’s not gonna work, oh my God, it worked, yes.”  

 “The moment of the accomplishment, we’re still living it, I’m very happy at this point,” said Cunti.

NASA representative Steve McFarlane praised the team’s work.

“These guys made amateur radio look really good, they didn’t buy it off the shelf they made their own stuff and they made it work,” he said.

“They built their own transmitters, which has never been done.  That’s a very risky thing to do because everything has to be very precise, and wow, it came out just perfect,” McFarlane said. 

Rector said his team’s work is more remarkable given its budget. “NASA does this all the time with $100 million budget and hundreds of engineers.  I had four students and myself.  It just shows you with ingenuity, time and effort what you can do with 4000 bucks,” he said.

Despite the mass exposure the event garnered, Alcock said the decision to suspend the program was a rational one and won’t be revisited.

“This decision was made a while ago. You don’t take these decisions lightly,” he said. “Once you suspend one of our programs you don’t ramp it back up over one positive piece of publicity.”

The founder of the Telecommunications Hall of Fame Lorne Abugov said the four students and Rector will be honoured Oct. 29 at a gala in Ottawa.  The students will be presented scholarships around $1000 each for their achievement.

“Canada has a very proud legacy of success in telecommunications, what these students accomplished today was fantastic,” Abugov said.

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