Jan. 29

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Kyrgyzstan is wedged in the mountainous wrinkles between Kazakhstan and China, created some time ago when the land mass we now call India, propelled by plate tectonics, slammed into the Asian plate.  Living there are a proud people, rich in history, who live surrounded by natural high altitude beauty.  Out of numerous Kyrgyzstan lakes, one in particular stands out; Lake Issyk Kul.  When seen from orbit, like we did from the International Space Station, Lake Issyk Kul appears as a giant eye, looking at us looking at it.  The snow covered mountains become aged-eyebrows.  The lake itself, having a fair salt concentration, does not typically freeze over, thus reflecting wintertime light in such a way as to make a pupil that seems to track us as we orbit overhead.



Located near by is Manas Air Force Base, a US establishment that logistically supports the NATO efforts in Afghanistan.  As if drawn down by this orbital eye, we found ourselves shifted from overhead in space to being there on the ground at Manas, talking to Kyrgyz students and to our troops about the exploration of space.  Expanding into the space frontier seems to cross all cultures and all places; it is on resonance with the fabric of who we are as human beings.  Real stories about this frontier tickle the imaginations of school kids and soldiers alike, and for a short time, takes everyone on a journey away from this planet to a place where you are not cold, or hungry, or at war.  After an hour or so we ended our presentation and everyone returns back to the here and now of our place on planet earth. 


If one is perceptive, you can notice a slight change in the sea of faces.  You can see it in the eyes as if it were a personification of Lake Issyk Kul, staring into your mind and into space; it is a vision of hope, for the future. 


The next day we flew from Manas in Kyrgyzstan to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan and we were greeted by another sea of intent faces.  It was here that we heard Manas was going to be closed.    



– Donald Pettit, STS-126 mission specialist



Feb. 3-4

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The last stop of our tour was Germany.  After an overnight night flight from Doha, Qatar, we arrived in Frankfurt.  We were greeted by Michael, our driver, and were promptly on our way to Ramstein Air Base.  After spending the past week at remote locations such as Bagram and Kandahar, Afghanistan, it felt somewhat odd to be driving on the Autobahn in Germany.  Once we arrived at the Air Base and checked into our quarters, it was refreshing to have some down time. 


In the afternoon, we took a side trip to Burg Lichtenberg, a nearby castle and one of the biggest castle ruins of Germany.  First we stopped at the Burg Restaurant for a delicious German meal of schnitzel and spaetzel.  After lunch, we toured the ruins.   It was amazing to be standing in the ruins of a castle that had been built in the 12th century. 


On Wednesday, we started the morning with visits to DoD schools.  We split up into three groups:  Chris and Eric headed to Sembach and Kaiserslautern Middle Schools; Steve and Don headed to Ramstein and Kaiserslautern High Schools; and Shane and I were off to Ramstein Intermediate and Middle Schools.  It was a real treat to tell the students all about our space flight and motivate them to study hard and be the best that they can be.  Someday one of them may be an astronaut, too.  Shane had a special connection with the students: he had attended DoD schools when his father was stationed in Germany.   It was a unique bond that he had with them, since 30 years earlier he was sitting right where they are now.  After lunch, we all talked to various classes at Landstuhl Elementary and Middle School. 


Our next stop was to visit the “Wounded Warriors” at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.  Along with a tour of the facilities, we had the privilege to spend a brief moment with some of the patients and staff.  What struck us most, was the “up beat” attitude of the wounded soldiers and their desire to return to their units.  For most of them, their next stop was stateside to recover, but they never stopped talking about their unit and friends that they had left in theater.  The dedication of our fighting forces is truly commendable and something that every U.S. citizen can be proud of.  We felt very humble to have the opportunity to honor them.


At the end of the day, we met with the commander of the 86th Airlift Wing, Brigadier General Bender and his senior staff.  We thanked him for the opportunity to visit the base and talk to “tomorrow’s warriors” and possibly a future astronaut.  


That evening, we enjoyed another fine German meal at the Ramsteiner Hof in town.  This gave us the opportunity to converse with some of the school teachers in a less formal setting.  The camaraderie of the evening was fitting way to end a wonderful and rewarding trip.




- Capt. Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, STS-126 mission specialist (USN)




Feb. 3

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We departed Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, on an alternate runway because the prime runway was out of service due to a C-17 Globemaster’s wheels-up landing (meaning they didn’t use the landing gear) the day before.  We flew for about five hours aboard a C-130 Hercules to Qatar.  After landing at Al Udeid Air Base, our group traveled to Camp Al Saliya.  One function of Camp Al Saliya (CAS) is to serve as a place for R&R (Rest and Relaxation) from combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. 


Like many in the camp, we watched part or all of the Super Bowl live Monday morning from 2:00 to 6:00 a.m. local time.  On Monday morning, we spoke with the commander of CAS and then went to the DFAC (Dining FACility) for a presentation at lunch.  At the DFAC, we had a “Meet & Greet” where we signed photos and got the chance to personally talk with the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.


In the afternoon, we returned to Al Udeid Air Base where we received a tour of the flight line (where the planes are parked) and briefings from the Expeditionary Wing and the Combat Air Operations Center. 


Several hundred airmen attended the Coalition Compound Theater for an STS-126 briefing and question and answer period.  Afterwards the crew participated at a “Meet & Greet” at the open air Memorial Plaza.  Hundreds of people from various military branches and coalition countries participated in the event. 


Our time in Qatar was very beneficial in understanding the support role of operations being conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Our crew was well received, and this gave us the chance to salute our service members in a job well done.


–Col. Eric Boe, STS-126 pilot (USAF)



Jan. 30 – 31

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Our crew departed Bagram, Afghanistan, in the afternoon on 30 Jan.  We flew on a metroliner (small prop plane) for about an hour and a half and arrived at the Kandahar International Airport, Afghanistan.  It was a very different place than anywhere we had been.  The base was run by Canadians and Brits.  There were many other coalition partners there as well including the Dutch, Romanians, Germans, French and Polish.  We checked into our rooms, then headed to the DFAC (dining facility) for lunch.  Our escort was CPT Analise Thompson, West Point class of 2004. 


Our first stop after lunch was a logistics battalion from Fort Bragg, NC – “the Superchargers.”  They were really nice folks and our crew had a great time interacting with them for about an hour. 


We then left for the flight line where we talked with Task Force Wings – an Army aviation task force consisting of Blackhawk, Chinook, Apache and Kiowa Warrior helicopters.  I ran into several old friends in their headquarters.  We debriefed them on our space flight for about 30 minutes. 


Afterwards, I had the privilege of presenting a flown Army Aviation Association of America (AAAA) coin to a very deserving Warrant Officer – CW3 Rob Forney.  Rob is a Maintenance Test Pilot for the new UH-60M helicopters.  AAAA is very excited about this and will put the pictures in their magazine as well as highlight this event at the annual AAAA convention in May. 


These soldiers gave us a quick tour of the Apache, Chinook and Kiowa Warrior.  We then moved down the flight line to the Air Force unmanned aerial vehicle wing.  We showed our mission video and answered questions with these fine airmen and officers.  What a great day for our crew.  It was extremely rewarding for me to personally thank our service members for the work they are doing and the sacrifices they are making for our country. 


After breakfast the next morning, we heard our flight was delayed several hours.  We toured the “boardwalk,” which was a recreation area for the troops with a hockey rink, volleyball courts, Tim Horton’s doughnut shop, French pastry shop and even a beauty shop.  CPT Thompson quickly found more units for us to visit.  We went to the Sea Bees (Navy construction battalion) and Army engineers first. 


They were wonderful and have a tough task ahead of them.  They are responsible for building a new city on the airfield for about 25,000 troops who are expected to arrive in the spring.  We talked with them for about 45 minutes.  We learned a lot about what they are doing and the challenges they face.  After a short visit to the MWR (Morale, Welfare & Recreation) facility, we went back to the flight line to see the Predators and Reapers (unmanned aerial vehicles) and meet several of their pilots and maintainers.  As we learned, this is an amazing capability which we are exploiting on the battlefield. 


After a quick lunch, we headed to the flight line again to depart for Bagram.  Our flight was delayed an hour or so.  The reality of war hit home while we were waiting when the Medevac UH-60 departed to pickup casualties from an IED (Improvised Explosive Device).  A Canadian vehicle struck an IED – 1 killed, 1 badly wounded.  A tough way to end our incredible trip to Kandahar.  We departed on a CASA 235 headed back to Bagram. 


– Lt. Col. Shane Kimbrough, STS-126 mission specialist (US Army)




Jan. 28

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After two days of travel, the crew has reached their first stop: Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan.


Here the crew gave two presentations about their 16-day mission and went to see troops in their work areas. They were also able to visit students at a local school and a wounded soldier.


Some of the highlights for the crew included riding around in armored humvee vehicles, touring the aircraft on the base flight line, meeting with the base leadership and interacting with hundreds of troops.


Pictures and more detail to come soon …