The sophomore astronomy student at the University of Iowa built a communication station on the seventh floor of the building there and helped assemble an approximately 20-foot rooftop antennae. The devices were used this summer to make contact with the station — a 460-ton, continuously crewed platform that took 10 years and more than 30 missions to assemble.
"That was pretty enthralling, I guess would be a good word," McCurdy said.
Initial attempts to communicate with the space station were not successful, prompting McCurdy to try to connect with the satellite as early as 4 a.m. to maximize his chances based on the space station's orbit, which NASA tracks online.
McCurdy said he tried the next day, sending a data packet that contained his geographical coordinates and a brief message: Hello from the University of Iowa. Viewing the space station's website, which logs all messages sent to the satellite, McCurdy confirmed his message was received by the station that orbits about 240 miles above the Earth.
"It was quite exciting," McCurdy said.
McCurdy said he worked on the project five days a week for two months before contact was made in July with the space station.
University of Iowa astronomy professor Phil Kaaret said the ground station was acquired for about $10,000 with a grant provided by the Iowa Space Grant Consortium.
As a requirement of the grant, Kaaret had to name a qualified undergraduate student to complete work at the station. As a standout first-year student in his astrophysics course, McCurdy was tapped for the program and given a fellowship issued by the department of liberal arts and sciences for him to remain on campus working on the project over the summer.
"Intellectually, the most challenging part was that I have no background in any of this," McCurdy said. "So there was a bit of a learning curve on that front."
Even physically, the project posed challenges as McCurdy and several others carried 17-foot pipes up the building's stairwell.
Following the success of the communication with the International Space Station, McCurdy has tried several times to reach a small satellite known as a CubeSat built by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder. As part of an educational program to bolster participation in STEM projects, NASA's CubeSat Launch initiative provides small satellite payloads to fly on upcoming rocket launches. The satellites weigh about 3 pounds and measure about 4 inches long.
"It's a way to get into space at lower costs, and also get a little student involvement," Kaaret said of the CubeSat program, which he is in the process of launching at UI. "And so we're going ahead and trying to do those things."
The Colorado CubeSat, which was launched as the university's Colorado Student Space Weather Experiment, houses an energetic particle telescope meant to measure the flux of Solar Energetic Protons and Earth's radiation belt electrons.
"We're just listening for a signal that it transmits," Kaaret said of the CubeSat. "And if we actually get one, then we report what we received to the people who built it."
McCurdy tried as recently to send a radio wave signal to the Colorado teams's CubeSat, but both groups recently have been unable to communicate with the satellite, which according to the project's website has been cycling between "science" mode and "safe" mode, the latter of which does not send out beacon signals.
"So it's just not a good time," McCurdy said. "The angle that the satellite is at just isn't very good at picking up signals."
McCurdy said he's always been interested in astronomy, but until 11th grade at West High, he intended to study medicine like his parents, who both work for University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
Around that time, however, the Iowa City native said he found himself enjoying advanced math and physics courses more than expected, which eventually led to declaring his major in astronomy.
"It's always been a subject that I've been fascinated with since I was a little kid," McCurdy said.
McCurdy said that although he isn't sure exactly what professional field he'll pursue after graduation, he hopes it allows him to build more structures in an experimental environment.
"From this experience of building the ground station, I really enjoyed that, so I'd like to go into a field that's a little more hands-on."
In the meantime, McCurdy said, he'll continue to work with the Van Allen Hall ground control station as Kaaret pushes to get Iowa its first CubeSat launched into space.
"While I may not be working on it full time for (Kaaret), . it'll always kind of be in the background," McCurdy said. "So as long as I'm at the university, I think I'll always be the person to talk to about it."