A Tale of Two Homecomings – Part II

Cross posted on fragileoasis.org

Last week, Andrey Borisenko, Sasha Samokutyaev and I were given a wonderful welcome at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, just outside of Moscow. 
Our day began with an official debriefing of our mission to the International Space Station that began with a launch aboard a Soyuz spacecraft on April 4, 2011, followed by docking to the ISS two days later.  The mission’s accomplishments were discussed, and the heads of various departments gave an overview of the mission’s events. Andrey, Sasha and I also had the opportunity to say a few words. 
After the debrief, the three of us were escorted outside the gates of the Training Center where we were greeted by several hundred people as we placed flowers at the base of the majestic statue of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. We had come full circle – just prior to our mission, Andrey, Sasha and I paid our respects at Gagarin’s tomb, and then a few weeks later, strapped ourselves into a rocket bearing his likeness and his name, honoring his pioneering flight fifty years earlier.
Andrey, Sasha and I sharing a quiet moment at the statue honoring Yuri Gagarin outside the Cosmonaut Training Center on a beautiful fall day in Star City Russia
A marching band led us back inside the training complex for the public welcome ceremony – with hundreds of well wishers, Russian military officers and cosmonauts in formation, many of the instructors, technicians and support personnel who were directly involved in our mission, and who contributed to its success – all lining the route. 
At the public ceremony, the heads of many different organizations took the podium, recounted the successes of the mission and presented us with gifts and bouquets of flowers. Again each of us had the opportunity to say a few words. I thanked the Russian Space Agency, Star City instructors and the public for their great support during the mission, and praised the talent and professionalism of my Russian crewmates. One of the things I stressed was how impressed I was by the fact that from the moment we arrived in orbit, Andrey and Sasha performed as seasoned space veterans even though this was their first spaceflight.
After the public ceremony, a reception was held in the facility where the cosmonauts live during their rehabilitation after space flight. Leaders of the Russian Space program, local dignitaries, family members of the crew, and veteran cosmonauts each took turns toasting the success of the mission.
Words cannot describe how wonderful it was to hear all the heartfelt words of congratulations and support. What an amazing thing it is to be able to toast the accomplishments of the many nations of our international partnership. Many of those present commented on what a great example of cooperation our international space program has become. I agree, and hope that we use this example of cooperation to overcome the challenges facing the inhabitants of our beautiful planet.
As the reception ended, it was time to say goodbye to the crewmates with whom I trained for two and a half years, then lived and worked with for nearly six months onboard the International Space Station. It was a bittersweet moment. This goodbye meant the official end to our mission. 
Andrey, Sasha and I and our families have become very close. We share a special bond forged from a unique experience – one which can’t help but to bring people closer together in common appreciation of the privilege we had to live and work in space, and the common appreciation of our wonderful planet Earth.

A Tale of Two Homecomings – Part I

Crossposted on FragileOasis.org

I just arrived back in Star City Russia after two and a half weeks home in Houston. 
At the end of the trip from Kazakhstan to Houston I was greeted by a wonderful welcome home from friends and neighbors in Nassau Bay, Texas. As we crossed into the city of Nassau Bay, a police car, police motorcycle and fire truck greeted us for a slow speed escort to my home, complete with lights and sirens. 
There was a great turnout, and the Garan house was decorated with welcome home banners and one hundred sixty four American flags – one for each day I spent in space on the mission.
The heart-warming welcome was really wonderful after so much time away. It was great to be home! 
Return to Star City
As I write this, I have flown back to Moscow, battled the Moscow traffic, and I’m now sitting in the cottage in Star City where I lived for about fifty percent of the time over the two and a half years of training for my mission to the International Space Station. 
The NASA cottages in Star City during training
Tomorrow I will start the debrief process with the instructors and administration here in Star City. On Friday Sasha, Andrey and I will participate in the Star City Welcome Home ceremonies that signify the successful completion of our mission. 
I am really looking forward to seeing all my friends, and the wonderful people here in Star City, and thanking them for all their support during our mission.

Plunging Over Niagara Falls In A Burning Barrel. And More.

Cross posted from fragileoasis.org

About two weeks before my return to Earth, I had a videoconference from the International Space Station with astronaut Scott Kelly who told me about his experience plunging over Niagara Falls in a burning barrel six months before. He was actually describing what his own ride home from the ISS on a Soyuz spacecraft was like. Now that I’ve taken the same trip, I can tell you that it was as advertised, and more.
Travel Day
I spent undocking day completing a biological study and stowing it onboard the Soyuz for return to Earth, packing cargo, taking some last minute pictures of our beautiful planet from the space station Cupola, and Tweeting pictures I took on my last full day in space. Following a brief goodbye to Mike Fossum, Satoshi Furukawa and Sergei Volkov, who remain onboard the space station, Sasha, Andrey and I hurried into our Soyuz spacecraft, closed the hatch and started preparing for undocking. 
Once the hatch was closed, I put on special garments worn under my spacesuit to help counteract the negative effects of the g-forces we would encounter upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Sasha and Andrey also dressed in their spacesuits, and then we all strapped into the same seats we occupied when we launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 5, 2011. Andrey was on the left, Sasha in the middle, and I sat on the right. 
As the hooks securing our spacecraft released, springs pushed us slowly away from the space station. As we backed away, I took in my last views of the amazing orbital complex that we called home for five and a half months. I strained for a last glimpse of the outboard edge of the space station’s massive solar arrays through the window next to my seat.
We made a lap and a half around the Earth before the spacecraft fishtailed to point backwards, just as the moon was setting west of South America. Then, moments before passing the southern tip of the continent, I watched an orbital sunrise one last time. We then fired the main engines for about four and a half minutes, enough to slow us down for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. 
The next big event during our return to Earth was the separation of our Soyuz spacecraft into three separate parts: the orbital compartment, the propulsion compartment and the descent capsule, the only part that would survive the transition through the atmosphere. Separation occurred with a small explosion followed by debris flying everywhere out my window!
G-forces Build
G-forces started to build soon after separation. I could see the atmosphere change to pink outside my window. North Africa and Saudi Arabia flew by as we approached Earth at a steep angle, at just under 5 miles per second. Fountains of sparks flashed as the g-forces built to 4.5 times normal gravity. Then flames, as the window burned black and opaque. This is all entirely normal!
The drogue parachute opened, sending the capsule – and the three of us – into a wild gyration as though we were on the end of a towel being vigorously waved in every direction. After about thirty seconds, things settled down. Then, the main chute opened and the wild gyrations started all over again. “It’s like a wild American amusement park ride,” shouted Andrey in Russian. I simply shouted “Yoo Hoo!”
Seat Cocking
To help absorb the shock of landing, explosive charges fired and instantly pushed our seats forward so that our faces were very close to the instrument panel. Window covers were jettisoned, removing the burnt opaque layer on the exterior of our windows, allowing light to flood into the cockpit, and providing an unobstructed view of the Kazakh steppes rushing up to meet us.
We could hear the rescue helicopters calling our altitude, and instructing us to prepare for landing. I raised my right arm so that I could see the window in my wrist mirror, and watched as the ground rose up. 
I heard the “soft” landing rockets fire 6/10 of a second before impact. The actual impact with the ground was significantly harder than I anticipated. I remember thinking, “Wow that was hard, I’m glad that’s over.”  Little did I know we had a few landings to go!
On Earth
I knew that after landing we might have the sensation of tumbling because of changes to our vestibular system (balance) following a long mission in space. Debris being tossed around INSIDE the capsule was a solid sign we were really tumbling. The capsule finally came to rest on its side, with me on the bottom. The view from my window was dirt and grass. Earth.
Shortly after landing, Russian ground personnel opened the hatch, extracting Sasha from the capsule. I was next, followed by Andrey. The three of us were carried to reclining chairs, where we were able to speak to our families via satellite phone while the medical tent was being set up.  It was wonderful to speak with my family in Houston while we were all on the same planet, and it was really great to feel the cool breeze and warm sun on my face for the first time in 164 days. 
After moving to the medical tent, I changed from my spacesuit into a more comfortable flight suit, while being checked out by Dr. Steve Gilmore and our NASA medical personnel.  After we were all checked out, Sasha, Andrey and I left the landing site in three separate helicopters for a ninety-minute ride to Karaganda airport. I took a nap.
Tradition and Farewell

We were welcomed at the airport by officials and young people, who presented each of us with flowers, chocolates, hand painted dolls and traditional Kazakh robes, which we wore during the press conference that followed. Then, after nearly three years of training together and sharing a mission during this milestone fiftieth year of human spaceflight, Sasha, Andrey and I said farewell, and then continued on our respective journeys home. 
My journey home to Houston began when I boarded a NASA aircraft. The first stop was for refueling in Prestwick, Scotland. I was glued to the window on final approach as the lush green countryside passed below us. It was great to get out and walk around in the fresh Scottish air before continuing to Bangor, Maine in the United States. 
As we approached the airport in Maine, we were treated to a stunning sunset. I sat there contemplating the difference between this sunset and the countless orbital sunsets I watched during my stay on the ISS. Besides the realization that I would see only one sunset each day, instead of sixteen, I really noticed the differences in the colors and the thickness in the bands of sunset.  As we waited for the aircraft to be refueled, I had the chance to speak with some Marine Corps V-22 pilots also waiting for fuel, and to let family know I was back in the U.S.
I slept for almost the entire last leg of our flight, awakened by the sound of the flaps being lowered in preparation for landing at Ellington Field in Houston.  The landing was smooth and uneventful. My wife and three sons boarded the plane. I was truly home.