Happy Columbus Day: A Day to Celebrate Explorers Past & Present-The Launch of Expedition 25

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Pre-Dawn Rollout of the Soyuz Spacecraft (Photo Victor Zelentsov -NASA)

Here I sit at the airport in Moscow reflecting on the amazing events of the last two weeks and excited that after two months on the road (Germany, Russia & Kazakhstan), I’m heading home! In a strange coincidence, I should land in Houston at the same time that the Expedition-25 crew docks to the International Space Station. While I wait for my plane I’m starting this post to document the experience of launch week at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The week was filled with activity and tradition.

On the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010, Expedition 25’s Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft rolled from the assembly building to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. It was an incredible sight to see this powerful rocket being pulled by rail against the back drop of the chilly Kazakh desert steppe at dawn. I estimate the trip from the assembly building to the launch pad took roughly an hour. After the spacecraft arrived at the launch pad, it was rotated to the vertical launch position. I was extremely impressed with the speed and efficiency of the entire operation.

This was the first rollout of the new TMA-01M spacecraft. The TMA-01M is a modified Soyuz spacecraft that features upgraded avionics and a digital cockpit display. It provides big improvements in the crew’s interface with the spacecraft.

Soyuz Spacecraft Rolls to the Launch Pad (Photo: Victor Zelentsov – NASA)

Soyuz Spacecraft Rolls to the Launch Pad (Photo: Victor Zelentsov – NASA)

The last full day before launch was a busy one. The prime and backup crews went before the State Commission. After brief comments by senior leadership of both the Russian and American space programs, each crew member had an opportunity to say a few words. I tried to express my sincere feeling that it was a great honor to be a part of the backup crew for Expedition 25. Both the prime and backup crews are very experienced and capable and I learned a lot from them.
After the State Commission we had a press conference with media from all over the world. We also got to meet (through the quarantine glass) the two Russian students who designed the mission patch for this launch. They were both beaming. After the press conference, we participated in one of the many Russian pre-launch traditions, watching the traditional pre-launch movie. With the crew watching from behind the quarantine glass, we all watched the Russian movie “
White Sun of the Desert” (“Белое солнце пустыни”) This film, which was released in 1969 and set on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea (Turkmenistan today), has been watched before every launch in recent history. This film has nothing to do with space travel but is an entertaining blend of action, comedy, music and drama. I’m not exactly sure why or when this tradition started but one of the stories I heard is that this film was watched by the first crew to fly after a Soyuz spacecraft disaster which took the lives of a Soyuz crew during re-entry. Since there were no problems on the subsequent flight, there was a desire not to change anything (even the choice of the pre-flight movie).

The crew started out Launch Day with breakfast at 8:00am and then had free/nap time until about 8:30pm. Prior to the pre-launch meal, Scott Kelly, Scott’s Flight Surgeon Steve Gilmore, and I took a stroll through the Cosmonaut Grove so that Scott could enjoy his last sunshine, fresh air and cool breeze for the next six months. Earlier in the week, Scott Kelly and Oleg Skripochka planted their trees in the Cosmonaut Grove following the tradition of every space traveler who has left Earth from Baikonur since Yuri Gagarin. Sometime during our stroll through the Cosmonaut Grove it dawned on me that it might be interesting for people to be able to follow all the pre-launch preparation by sending out pictures of the “play-by-play” via Twitter. So with Scott’s permission I started to document as much as I could. I didn’t want to pass up this rare opportunity to give everyone a behind the scenes look at our time immediately prior to launch from an astronaut perspective.

After dinner, we met with senior leadership of the Russian and American space programs and prior to leaving the quarantine facility, each crewmember signed the door to his quarantine room and then received the traditional pre-flight blessing from a Russian Orthodox Priest.

One Side of the Story: Scott Kelly Receiving His Blessing Note: Paparazzi in Background (Photo: NASA)

Other Side of the Story (Photo: Ron Garan

Before boarding the two cosmonaut busses (one for the prime crew and one for the backup crew – keeping with the you can’t put all your eggs in one basket mindset), we passed through lines of people who gathered to say their good-byes and wish the crew well.

Scott Kelly Waving to Friends and Family (Photo: NASA)

Scott Kelly’s Friends & Family (Photo: Scott Kelly via Ron Garan’s iPhone)

At 11:00pm, we began the 45-minute drive via police escorted convoy through the pitch-black desert to the launch complex. The atmosphere on the bus was serious and quiet. After arriving at the launch complex, the prime crew suited up in their Sokol spacesuits, conducted leak checks, and then had an opportunity to say a few words (through the glass) to space program management and to the crew’s launch guests.

Scott Kelly Speaks to the Commission (Photo: Ron Garan’s iPhone)

The Crew of Expedition-25 Reports to the State Commission (Photo: Ron Garan’s iPhone)

Shortly after 2:00am, the crews boarded their respective buses to the launch pad. In keeping with other pre-launch traditions, the busses stopped prior to the pad, then after a short delay, the backup crew was permitted to board the prime crew bus to say our goodbyes. The Soyuz rocket on the pad was an interesting sight. The normally grey colored rocket was now all white from ice that formed on the exterior of the rocket from its super-cooled load of fuel. Steam poured from the spacecraft as liquid oxygen boiled off and was vented. It was obvious that this rocket was ready to go somewhere very soon. After the prime crew was dropped off at the pad, the backup crew then switched buses, signifying that they were now prime for their assigned mission.

After riding the elevator to the pointy end of the rocket, the crew climbed through the access hatch and down into the Soyuz descent capsule to strap in and begin the 3 hours of preflight checks. We then rode out to the viewing area located about a mile from the launch pad to wait for launch.

Expedition 25 Soyuz Commander Alexander Kaleri of Russia, bottom, NASA Flight Engineer Scott Kelly of the U.S., center, and Russian Flight Engineer Oleg Skripochka wave farewell from the bottom of the Soyuz rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, Friday, Oct. 8, 2010. (Photo Credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi)

The launch was spectacular. At 5:10:32am, the 32 rocket engines of the Soyuz first stage lit up the night sky as they roared to life. After what seemed like an eternity, the rocket lifted off the pad to the cheers of all the spectators who gathered in the cold desert morning to witness the send off. After approximately 8 ½ minutes, the crew was in orbit.

Launch of Expedition 25 (Photo: NASA)

The Soyuz Spacecraft Leaves a Trail of Fire After Launch (Photo: NASA)

It was an amazing experience to witness a Soyuz launch for the first time. In addition to the excitement and historical significance of watching a launch from the same pad as Yuri Gagarin, I couldn’t help but think that in just a few months I’ll be strapped to that rocket making the same trip. I truly realize how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to travel to space and will do my best to share that experience as best I can.

Building Better Computers With Tears of Wine

With the Maragoni Convection Experiment at the Japanese Space Agency in Tsukuba, Japan From L-R: Matsumoto-san, Ron Garan and Kinefuchi-san (Photo: Ron Garan’s Phone)

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I’m presently in Japan for a last training session with the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) before my mission to the ISS in March.

Today Dan Burbank and I received training on the Marangoni Convection Experiment that will be conducted on the International Space Station. The experiment is named for Italian physicist Carlo Marangoni, who studied surface phenomena in liquids and published the results of his experimentation in 1865. His work included the study of the flow of liquid caused by differences in surface tension. Today we call this flow the Marangoni Convection effect.

Surface Tension
Did you ever wonder how some objects that are denser than water can rest on the surface of the water, or how some insects and reptiles can run on the surface of water? This is made possible through surface tension. Surface tension is a property of a liquid that allows it to resist an external force. Surface tension is possible because in a liquid, each molecule is pulled equally in every direction by neighboring molecules, resulting in a net force of zero. The molecules at the surface do not have other molecules on all sides of them, and therefore are pulled inwards. This creates internal pressure forcing liquid surfaces to contract. Surface tension is responsible for the shape of liquid droplets. Droplets of water tend to be pulled into a spherical shape by the cohesive forces of the surface layer. In the micro-g environment of the space station, drops of liquids form nearly perfect spheres.

Tears of wine show clearly in the shadow of this glass of wine (Photo credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marangoni_effect)

Surface tension is also responsible for the phenomenon called tears of wine which appear as a ring of clear liquid, near the top of a glass of wine, from which droplets continuously form and drop back into the wine. It is most obvious in wine which has high alcohol content and is also referred to as wine legs, curtains, or church windows.

Tears of Wine
Tears of wine form because alcohol has a lower surface tension than water. In regions of the wine with a lower concentration of alcohol there is a stronger pull on the surrounding fluid than in the region with a higher alcohol concentration. The result: liquid tends to flow away from regions with higher alcohol concentration. This can also be demonstrated by spreading a thin film of water on a smooth surface and then allowing a drop of alcohol to fall on the film. The water will rush out of the region where the drop of alcohol fell.

In the 145 years since Carlo Marangoni first published his observations, we have yet to fully understand and model the phenomena we call Marangoni Convection.

In the micro-g environment of the space station, the Marangoni Convection effect can be isolated from other factors such as gravity induced sedimentation and buoyancy convection.

Even in the absence of significant gravity, the Marangoni effect still leads to a pull of a liquid from an area of high temperature (low surface tension) to an area of low temperature (high surface tension).

This unique orbital experiment will help unlock the underlying natural laws of the Marangoni Convection effect.

In The Japanese Space Center payload control room in Tsukuba, Japan. In the monitors behind us you can see the Marangoni Convection experiment behing conducted live on the space station From L-R: Dan Burbank, Kinefuchi-san, Ron Garan and Matsumoto-san (Photo: Ron Garan’s Phone)

Improving Life On Earth
A better understanding of the Marangoni Convection effect can have numerous applications including:

  • Improved silicon chip manufacturing which can lead to faster, more powerful and smaller computers
  • Improved capability to handle small volumes of liquids which can lead to advancements in new drugs, DNA examinations and analytical chemistry
  • Improved methods of removing heat from electronic devices
  • Higher quality materials
  • More efficient welding techniques which provide stronger welds using less material
  • Advancements in micro and nano-technology

Happy New Year From the Home Stretch

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Happy New Year Everyone!  The start of the New Year brings me into the home stretch of my 2 ½ year road to the launch pad. January will be my last full month in Houston before leaving for 1 week in Germany, 5 weeks in Russia, 2 weeks in Kazakhstan, and finally 2 days locked in a Soyuz spacecraft prior to arriving at the International Space Station and beginning a 6-month mission.

Expedition 27 Crew
Expedition 27 Crew: Ron Garan, Paolo Nespoli, Sasha Samokutyaev, Cady Coleman, Andrey Borisenko, Dmitry Kondratyev Image courtesy of NASA

My Soyuz crewmates, Sasha Samokutyayev and Andrey Borisenko will arrive in Houston next week. This last month in Houston will consist of space station systems training, a few days spent underwater in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab  practicing for space walks, refresher training on some of the experiments we will be conducting, and emergency procedure training (practicing our actions in the case of a fire, air leak etc.). Hopefully we will also have a few joint training sessions with the STS-134 and STS-135 crews with whom we should have the opportunity to spend some time onboard the Station.

In addition to all the training required to prepare for a flight, there’s a great deal of administrative things that must be done prior to leaving the planet for 6-months. Taxes, for instance…although I’m sure I qualify for being “out of the country”.

Sasha, Andrey and I are presently scheduled to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft at 7:42pm CT on March 29th (00:42 GMT on March 30th, 4:42am Moscow time on March 30th, and 6:42am Baikonur time on March 30th which is 52 minutes before sunrise in Baikonur). This is less than 2 weeks prior to the 50th anniversary of the first human space flight. We will launch from the same launch pad where Yuri Gagarin began his historic flight that marked the beginning of the space age. I am really looking forward to being a part of such an historic anniversary, and I can’t think of a better place to observe the occasion than the International Space Station, where I will be living and working with crewmates from 4 different nations.

Expedition 28 Crew
Expedition 28 Crew: Satoshi Furukawa, Mike Fossum, Ron Garan, Alexander Samokutyaev, Sergey Volkov, Andrey Borisenko Image courtesy of NASA

When Sasha, Andrey and I arrive onboard the Space Station, we will be greeted by the other members of the Expedition 27 crew: ISS commanderDmitri Kondratyev, US astronaut Cady Coleman, and Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli. We will spend about 2 months sharing the incredible experience of living and working in space with those guys before they climb into the Soyuz spacecraft that they launched in and return to Earth. A few weeks later, a new Soyuz spacecraft will arrive with Russian Cosmonaut Sergey Volkov, US astronaut Mike Fossum, and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa. We will then spend 4 months with them, before returning to Earth in our Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft in late September.

I will do my best in this time leading up to heading to Baikonur, the pre-launch time in Baikonur and during the orbital mission to share the experience as much as I can through this blog, Twitter and by sending down as many pictures and videos as I can. Additionally, we have many interactive events planned that will hopefully allow people to not only follow the mission but be a part of it.

Please stay tuned to Fragile Oasis as we put in place all the tools we need to share the mission with everyone.