Monthly Archives: December 2011

Six Months Turns to Ten

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Space Station expeditions are planned for six months. Some may be a fewweeks shorter, some longer. Malfunctions in your spacecraft can impactthe mission duration either way by two months or more.

Here's how the rocket looked before the pieces were put together.

There is more to your mission than just the time in orbit, however.Launching on the Russian Soyuz rocket, the only current means to get toand from Station, requires crews to be in Russia two months beforelaunch. And there is that last week of ESA training with our Europeancolleagues that is tacked onto the beginning of the trip.

Upon your return to the confines of earth’s gravity, there could be arehabilitation period of up to a week, living in crew quarters underthe watchful eye of the flight doctors. The length of door-to-door timeaway from home easily extends the mission to eight and a half months.Then, once you are home, the next month does not belong to you (or yourfamily). Your body is subjected to post-flight medical experiments; allare necessary to complete the before, during, and after science that isextracted from your soul. So it’s more like 10 months before you aretruly able to relax.

Still, thanks to radio, video, and Internet, our ability to stayconnected with our families and mission control while in space isunparalleled. We may no longer be on the planet, but we have notvanished from Earth. Compared to the historic exploration experience, wehave it good.

Expectations are important. Expedition 6 in 2002 was going to be oneof the shortest missions to date, somewhere between 1½ and 2½ months.Because of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, which happenedwhile we were on orbit, our mission was extended to nearly 6 months. Asmy commander told me before launch, “When going to space station, it iswise to be mentally prepared to be gone for a year.”  It turns out hewas half right.

Please Don’t Squeeze the Astronaut

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Taking human anatomy into account, the toilet facilities on spacestation have an architecture that expertly aligns the purpose to theenvironment (such trifles as a toilet seat are not needed when you areweightless). The Soyuz spacecraft is a different matter. The toilet onSoyuz is simple, and will get the job done with minimum mess. Butrelaxing it is not. In the cramped quarters your crewmates politely keeptheir backs turned, with plugged noses. Fortunately, we only live inthe Soyuz for two days before we rendezvous and dock with the spacestation. After that we can live, and relieve ourselves, in semi-privatestyle.

The Olympian measure of endurance for a Soyuz crewmember is to holdyour bowel for the two-day passage. This is a competition with no placefor silver or bronze. Shortly after the hatch opening and the firsthandshake/hug with our friends already on the station, the newlyarriving crew makes a hasty retreat to the toilet. Exercising properspace etiquette, it is best not to give the newly arrived too strong ahug.

To help ease our difficulty, we are offered a pre-launch enema.Administered by our flight surgeons, this allows us to launch with aclear mind and a clean colon.

Godspeed to Earth

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I took this picture of the Soyuz 27s launch last June.As you get closer to launch you shed earthly possessions, and your worldly stuff becomes meaningless. In my dorm room I give away my things, the tangible items needed on Earth that are of no use to me anymore.  I shed the onerous chores of e-mail, phone calls, and mandatory web-based sensitivity training.  I no longer worry about filling out my time card.  None of this matters anymore.  I am at the point where the only material things of concern are my spacesuit and rocket.  A part of my heart, carefully barricaded into a small corner, is reserved for my family.  As needed, I will allow such thoughts to fill me with strength.

From my perspective, I will soon be sitting in my rocket watching everyone on Earth move off into the frontier.  Thus I say to you all, “Godspeed.”

The Pieces Come Together

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Our ride awaits.

Four days ago our rocket was in pieces, scattered across the floor ofthe assembly building.  Like anxious parents checking on their sleepingchildren, we took one last peek inside our Soyuz spacecraft. Everything was tucked in where it should be.

Three days ago the pieces started to come together, like giant blocks from a Lego set.

Two days ago all the pieces were assembled into the final form of our rocket.

One day ago our rocket rolled out on a train car from the assemblybuilding to the launch pad.  This is the same pad that Yuri Gagarinlaunched from in 1961.  This launch pad made history, and still does. Within half an hour, our rocket went from laying down to standing up.

Today, the day before launch, last-minute touches are being made toour rocket in preparation for launch, and we crew members are doing thesame.  There are technical briefs, a conference with the uppermanagement (back home we say “Big Cheese,” here they say “Big Pinecone”;in any language it’s the same), a press interview, and one last chanceto be with our families. We share a movie.  By tradition, we watch theclassic Russian film “White Sun Of the Desert.”We share a meal. No one speaks of this as a last supper, but it is. Onelast hug, a good laugh, a good cry, and my family departs.

Tomorrow we walk to our rocket and climb the stairway that leads intospace. The sky is not the limit, at least not anymore. What anadventure—and I have not even left the planet yet.

Our Soyuz arrived at the launch pad on Monday.

Baikonur Graffiti

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One of the dormitory doors at Baikonur

At the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, we scribble on our dormitory roomdoors shortly before leaving for the launch complex—with an indeliblemarker, no less. Doing this as a kid would have resulted in a fiercescolding. I know I have had such a talking to, and in turn have talkedto my sons.

Writing on the wall has been happening since humans lived in caves,and is ingrained into the very fabric of our being. So writing on ourdormitory door just comes naturally. Should I trace the outline of myhand? Should I draw a mastodon? Maybe a rocket.

Perhaps some future anthropologist, excavating ruins from thisforgotten civilization, will happen across these scratches and remarkhow primitive these times were—humans sacrificed to the space gods byblasting them off in rockets.

The one on the left is my room.

Me and My Spacesuit

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Our spacesuits being dried out and leak-checked.Our Soyuz spacesuit is named after the Russian word for falcon: сокол(sokol). It serves only one purpose, to keep us alive in the event of acockpit depressurization. We venture into a place that is devoid ofnearly all matter–a vacuum. This vacuum is as vast as space itself, andin a flash will remove our life-sustaining vapors with no moreperturbation than an 18-wheeler smashing a jackrabbit on Route 66. Andthe effect on your body would be about the same.

I have a symbiotic relationship with my spacesuit. I take care of it,and it takes care of me in return. Almost like a living exoskeleton, itcan take on its own cantankerous personality, and will bite, pinch, andtorque my flesh, leaving red pockmarks, bruises, pulled muscles, achingbacks, screaming knees, and occasionally a bleeding scratch or a blackfingernail (that slowly sloughs off like flesh in a sci-fi movie). Liketaming a wild animal, I’m aware of its nature, and I put up with anoccasional bite for the sheer pleasure of its company.

By design a space suit is hermetically sealed, so it creates amicroclimate that rapidly reaches 100% humidity at body temperatures. Wedo have cooling—a rather slow flow of air at tepid temperatures thatsweeps out some of the steamy vapor. If you just sit there, this coolingis adequate. We do have periods, particularly during emergencies, wherewe become quite active. During our training for fires (simulated withstage smoke), cockpit depressurization (simulated by inflating oursuits), and ocean landings (we practice the real thing in the BlackSea), the cooling system is deactivated and temperatures rise. Duringsome of these exercises, core body temperatures have reached over 39° C(102° F), requiring intervention from the array of flight surgeons whomonitor the exercise. During such exercises I have produced over 2kilograms (4½ pounds) of sweat, which ends up inside my sealedspacesuit. The suit thus becomes a mobile, living sauna. No wonder crewspractice the Russian tradition of sauna for off-duty relaxation—it’straining for the real thing.

My spacesuit is a marvel of fabric, polymers, and metal, custom-fitto my particular anatomy. It becomes a spacecraft in itself, shrunkendown to conform to the shape of my body. It is imperative to understandnot only where all the various levers, knobs, and closures are located,but also the engineering behind their operation. Every spacesuit has aregulator that senses the inside pressure so that it doesn’t drop below alevel required to maintain consciousness. NASA spacesuits use aregulator based on the difference in pressure between inside the suitand outside. Russian suits use a regulator based on absolute pressure.To a first order, this design is transparent to the user; the spacesuitssimply inflate when the ambient pressure drops. However, there arenuances that the user should keep in mind. Knowing the strengths andweaknesses of your pressure regulator will help you survive on a badday.

When dealing with technology in this wilderness, especially when it’srequired to keep one’s pink flesh safe, bad days can happen. Beware ofclaims for unsinkable ships. There were times when the U.S. and Russianspace agencies both dispensed with spacesuits. They were deemed anunnecessary expense. The engineering guaranteed that cockpitdepressurization could not happen. After both the U.S. and Russianprograms lost full crews, due in part to spacecraft depressurization,the spacesuits were brought back. Another lesson learned, pried from thebodies of those who explore.

When it comes time to doff my suit, I strip it off with a mix ofreverence (thank you for being there) and loathing (I can’t wait to getout of this thing). Like a moist, slimy worm emerging from a chrysalis, Ished this exoskeleton with great anticipation. Hot, sweat-soaked longunderwear steams in the cool air, and gives me needed relief fromevaporative cooling. This sensation is difficult to describe in words.

But our work is not done; we have to take care of our spacesuits. Ihook mine up to a ventilator, which inflates it like a large blowupdoll—or, more fitting, a blowup astronaut. It’s like we have visitingguests, perhaps company for dinner. It takes about 2½ hours to dry asuit. I do not want the inside of the suit to become a biologicalexperiment.

Thus I dote over my spacesuit with the same care a knight might takein preparing his battle armor. While still on Earth, I have an array ofsuit technicians, modern day squires, to help in the process. Thesepeople are experts, there to teach you the proper way to care for yourspacesuit, for there will come a day when you are on your own and haveto operate without any help. If you want to increase your chances tosurvive, it is imperative to absorb their pearls and become one withyour suit.

I hate my spacesuit; I love my spacesuit. Such contradictory thoughts remind me that I am very much alive.

Suit technicians and inflated spacesuits. I'm the one without the mask.

What Makes an Explorer?

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Islands of blue (actually clouds), as seen by an explorer on the orbital frontier.

There is a type of social deviant who doesn’t fit in, and whonaturally seeks the freedom of the wilderness. The American frontier wassettled by that kind of spirit. Ironically, the wilderness of spacerequires a high degree of social conformity before you are allowed toenter, so today’s pre-selection of candidate explorers effectivelyrequires a different personality type from those who historicallyventured into the frontier.

Exploration by individuals or small groups dates from the Stone Age,and is principally responsible for humanity’s infestation of the entireglobe. It is undirected and seemingly random, and social progress isachieved more by accident than by design. This is exploration in itspurest form—exploration to satisfy human curiosity, in a constant searchfor new places to live and resources to use. To partake in this kind ofexploration is simple: You just go.

Another type of exploration is more organized, and is done bycountries and governments. Historically such explorations were made forexploitation: the taking of natural resources, the control of keygeographic regions, and eventually, colonization. Exploration was awealth-creating enterprise that, if consistently pursued over decades,returned orders of magnitude on the initial investment. This kind ofexploration is no longer possible on Earth.

Society-sponsored exploration has therefore shifted from exploitationto knowledge acquisition. We explore today for science, for newknowledge that will tickle our imaginations and enrich our minds. Thisexploration is well planned and conducted by professional explorersselected in part for their ability to conform. At the same time,exploration has shifted from a wealth-generating activity to awealth-consuming activity.

One aspect of this gentler age of exploration is the difficulty inmaintaining a consistent level of effort over a period long enough tomake progress. Meaningful exploration on today’s frontier requires aboutten years, sometimes more, of consistently directed effort beforesignificant scientific returns are seen. The shift from wealthgeneration (exploitation) to wealth consumption (knowledge) creates aconstant battle for justification of the investment.

As space technology advances, we will reach the point where westarted in the Stone Age: Exploration with no more justification thanindividual curiosity. Such an eventuality will open the Petri dish ofEarth and allow this infestation called humanity to contaminate oursolar system.

The Road to Space

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The road to space is a long and arduous path, a meandering trip thatin many ways is more demanding than the Space Station mission itself.Training to fly into space is also the next best thing to actuallyflying into space. And flying into space is what my job is all about.

When I tell folks that I have been training for this Expedition 30/31mission for two years, they often remark about the hardship,particularly the degree of international travel, which always equates totime away from your family.

The International Space Station, which I like to simply call spacestation, was built by over a dozen different countries.  Astronauts intraining are the tip of the iceberg in the spaceflight business, andthus are in high demand to be seen in the international partnercountries.  So during this two-year (or sometimes two-and-a-half-year)period, crews in training accumulate a lot of frequent flyer miles asthey travel around the world to these various training camps forastronauts.

In this training period, you effectively put out an effort equivalentto achieving a graduate degree in engineering.  Except in this case,your dissertation defense is conducted in space.  And a mistake costsyou more than minus ten points.

I have had the good fortune to travel to Montreal, Canada (often inbitter-cold wintertime), Tsukuba, Japan (usually in muggy-hotsummertime), Cologne, Germany (I missed Oktoberfest by one rainy week),Star City, Russia (all the seasons, from smoky-hot to biting-cold), andBaikonur, Kazakhstan (either hotter than Star City or colder than StarCity, with little in between).  These are places that are steeped inproud, rich culture, with long histories that make anything back homeseem young in comparison.  For a simple country boy from a smalllogging-farming town in Oregon, the opportunity to live in these placesfor an accumulated time of weeks and months over a period of two yearsis an education in itself.

And of course there is Houston, Texas, my home with my family, infully urbanized civilization.  Houston is the center from which mystrength flows.

Our launch site: The Baikonur Cosmodrome

At these training camps, we work hard.  I typically start at 7:00 am(9:00 am when in Europe) and go until 6:00 to 8:00 pm.  After everytwo-hour block of time, the subject abruptly switches.  One block may beabout the reaction control thrusters that control spacecraft attitude,which involve these delightful mathematical constructs calledquaternions, while the next might be about installing a skullcap on yourcrewmate for recording an electroencephalogram.  Then we might learnhow to use a surgical staple gun to repair a gaping scalp wound,followed by shoving a urinary catheter up the orifice of a rubber model(for some reason we do not practice this on our crewmates).  Then we geta break for lunch and continue until evening.

International travel gives us no relief from the demands of ourphysical trainers.  Experts in exercise physiology are assigned tofollow a crew and hound us into a degree of athletic conditioning justshy of that for an Olympian.  The purpose for this is more than justdangling a ribbon-clad piece of metal around your neck.  We train to thebone literally to save our bones; we want to return from our missionand continue to live a normal life on this planet.  I cannot think of abetter motivation.  There are a number of well known maladies thatinflict havoc on human physiology when one ventures off into space forlong periods of time.  This is our modern equivalent to 18th-century seamen contracting scurvy on long ocean voyages.  What was all a big mystery then is now 4th-gradelevel knowledge.  Our current suite of space-born maladies are just asbaffling to us now as scurvy was back then, and I venture to guess thatin 200 years, a 4th grader will be able to tell you thereason why.  For now, our most informed haven’t a clue.  Such advancesin human physiology are pried from the bodies and souls of those whoexplore.

Our current thoughts for maintaining health center around a blend ofstrenuous cardiovascular and weight lifting exercises (we call it resistance exercisesince “weightlifting” in a weightless environment just does notcompute).  Again, in 200 years, this will probably be viewed with thesame disdain that we currently hold for the practice of bloodletting inpast centuries.  So I sweat and grunt in the gym wherever I happen to bein training, under the virtual eye of my trainer, who constantly nagsme to put another plate on the bar, and not one of those wimpy10-pounders.  He will be on my direct on-orbit e-mail list, so there isno relief on or off this planet.

My calling in this life is to be on the frontier.  The effortrequired to get there — the studies, the mental work, the physical work —are not the difficult parts.  I thrive on such activity, and it onlymakes me stronger.  Whenever I leave the confines of civilization, asmall but ever present spark in my heart grows into a flame, becoming abeacon that fills my soul with warmth.  My spirit is freed by the verynakedness of the universe.  But then another spark, always present butoften ignored, pulls at the fabric of my being, reminding me ofcivilized life, at home with my family.  Such is the Explorer’sDilemma.  Being thus plagued, my spirit is never at peace with where Iam.  This energy, if properly channeled, can be the source of greatstrength.

The venues of exploration come and go with time, but the human story remains the same.

If I were not assigned to this mission, I would be back in Houston,tasked as an astronaut to a technical engineering project supportingsome aspect of space flight.  Exciting of course; working on the humanexploration of space is where I want to spend my life’s energy. However, in blunt astronaut vernacular, this work is called “flying adesk.”  So when asked if I mind the long road to space, I think tomyself, “During the past two years I could have been flying a desk ortraining to fly into space. Which would I prefer?” Then, after a smallpause, I reply, “It’s a long road, but at the end I get to fly intospace.”

A One-Way Ticket

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Doorway to space: Our Soyuz sits in an assembly stand, where we can go inside and check things out.Unlike my previous trips, this time I arrived in Russia on a one-wayticket. My bridge has been burned. And now I’m in Kazakhstan, awaitingour December 21 launch.

Scuttling your ship is a historically proven method (think Cortés) toclose the door to the known and force yourself to face the unknown. Nowthere is no way home, at least by the usual route. Only up; into thefrontier. Blasted into space or blasted into bits, in either case youare no longer on this planet. Are there Dark-matter Dragons and Sirensof Space, patiently waiting for another hapless crew to venture by? Wekeep our wits, we reason, we act, and we will prevail.

I am thankful for all the pearls so tirelessly drilled into my brainby a whole array of instructors. Unlike on Earth, a naked human cannotsurvive long in space. We were never meant to be there. However, with alittle techno-help, we can make machines that supply us with all thenecessities of life. We can make vehicles capable of taking us there andbringing us back.

The basics of food, clothing and shelter take on new meaning. If youwant to survive in space, you must understand how these machines workand how to keep them operating, and that requires a strong understandingof math, science, and engineering. A little Yankee (and Russkie!)ingenuity helps. Students must master these hard subjects if they wantto follow in my footsteps.