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The Columbia space shuttle breaks up upon re-entry. Debris lands over hundreds of square miles — often rugged and rural territory where cell phones are out of the question and even police radios are often out-of-range and useless. In this case, as during weather disasters and other calamities year in and year out — officials turned to ham radio operators for help.

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According to the national membership association for amateur radio, the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), ham radio volunteers are currently assisting federal, state and local officials and relief organizations in Texas in their search for shuttle Columbia debris and the remains of the crew members. Amateur radio operators must pass rigorous tests to receive a license and a call sign from the Federal Communications Commission — clearing them to broadcast radio, TV or data signals on frequencies set aside for their use.

ARRL officials say local efforts following the Columbia disaster have been a great success.

“Ham radio has proven to be the only reliable communications options during the recovery effort,” according to Tim Lewallen (call sign KD5ING) of the Nacogdoches, Texas, Amateur Radio Club.

“The communications systems used by other federal and state organizations cannot penetrate ‘The Pine Curtain’ as we know it in East Texas,” he said. “The dense forests and hilly terrain just swallow up most radio traffic, and even county sheriff and county fire department radio systems have serious blind spots.” According to Lewallen, federal authorities have requested that every survey team have at least one amateur radio operator along to help keep the recovery efforts coordinated and organized.

In South Texas, there are requests for hams that are still needed to assist in the search effort — with an urgent need for operators in the San Augustine County, where substantial debris remains to be recovered. Local coordinators say two-to-four dozen operators are needed each day and they expect the need to continue for the next three weeks.

Hams are using local amateur radio clubs’ repeaters — which are receiver-transmitter combinations, usually installed on top of tall buildings that take low power radio signals and re-broadcast them at elevated power to a large area. Dallas County volunteers are being told they should use high-powered radios in the recovery effort because handheld “walkie-talkies” don’t have the necessary range. It’s also recommended they bring four-wheel drive vehicles, portable GPS (global positioning systems) and even laptop computers with mapping programs if they’re not familiar with the area.

Area residents with VHF scanners can listen in on the recovery effort. In the Dallas area, activities can be monitored on 146.96 MHz; in Nagodoches on 147.32 MHz, in St. Augustine on 146.74 MHz, and on a portable repeater in East Texas on 146.66 MHz. Yesterday, a Dallas resident who’s been listening told MSNBC.com there were several reports of “hazardous materials” being found and that “demolition experts” were called in to assist in the recovery.

Public service communication has been a traditional responsibility of the Amateur Radio Service since 1913. Today, disaster work is highly organized and implemented principally through a number of different ARRL groups including the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, or R.A.C.E.S. — an organization of ham radio operators who volunteer their time and equipment to provide supplemental communication to local, county or state agencies during times of crisis or disaster.

Three of the Columbia astronauts were licensed amateur radio operators: Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla, KD5ESI; David Brown, KC5ZTC; Laurel Clark, KC5ZSU. They aren’t alone — many people associated with the space program have been active in amateur radio, including businessmen Dennis Tito, KG6FZX, and the three astronauts still circling the earth in the International Space Station — Commander Ken Bowersox, KD5JBP, Don Pettit, KD5MDT and Nikolai Budarin, RV3FB. Even astronaut hopeful Lance Bass of ‘N Sync is a ham — KG4UYY.

The three current space station astronauts are manning NA1SS. the first permanent amateur radio station in space. Use of NA1SS has been temporarily curtailed. Last week, the astronauts were scheduled to make radio contact with high school students in Germany. The session was postponed. But, according to the ISS governing group, space station contacts are expected to resume later this month.

Gary Krakow is licensed ham radio operator W2GSK.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

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