Monthly Archives: January 2012

The World Through a Looking Glass

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Looking through the cupola windows on Space Station, it’s only naturalto reflect upon who we are and where we fit into the world below. Likesomething out of Alice in Wonderland, this orbital lookingglass can be both a window through which to observe the jeweled sphereof Earth and a mirror that (sometimes, depending on your viewing angle)shows you a translucent reflection of yourself superimposed on theplanet.

From orbit, the more you know about our planet, the more you can see.You see all the geological features described in textbooks. You seefault zones, moraines, basins, ranges, impact craters, dikes, sills,braided channels, the strike and dip of layered rocks, folding,meanders, oxbow lakes, slumps, slides, mud flows, deltas, alluvial fans,glaciers, karst topography, cirques, tectonic plates, rifts zones,cinder cones, crater lakes, fossil sea shores, lava flows, volcanicplumes, fissures, eruptions, dry lakes, inverted topography, lattericsoils, and many more.

You see clouds of every description and combination: nimbus, cumulus,stratus, nimbo-cumulus, nimbo-stratus, cirrus, thunderheads, andtyphoons, sometimes with clockwise rotation, sometimes withcounter-clockwise. You notice patterns: clouds over cold oceans lookdifferent than clouds over warm oceans. Sometimes the continents are allcloud-covered, so you have no recognizable landmass to help you gaugewhere you are. If you see a crisscross of jet contrails glistening inthe sun above the clouds, you know you are over the United States.

Lightning storms flash like gigantic fireflies looking for mates halfa continent away. You see patterns on the ocean surface, swirls andvortices on large scales, wave diffraction patterns around capes,solitary waves forming long lines out in the middle of nowhere, andrivers that look like they are spilling milk chocolate into turquoiseoceans.

You see light-scattering phenomena of all kinds—at sunrise, atsunset, across the terminator, 16 times a day. You see crepuscular rays,forward reddened lobes, off-axis blue lobes, and corona halos. Withbinoculars you can count six distinct layers in the atmosphere, with theouter one seemingly fading into fuzzy blackness.

The aurora is nothing short of occipital ecstasy. It is alwaysmoving, always changing, and like snowflakes, no two displays are thesame. The glowing red and green forms meander like celestial amoebascrawling across some great petri dish. One time our orbit took usthrough the center of an auroral display. It was as if we were in aglowing fog of red and green. Had we been shrunk down and inserted intothe tube of a neon sign? It looked like it was just on the other side ofthe windowpane. I wanted to reach out and touch, but of course Icouldn’t. Afterwards, I had to clean nose prints off of the window.

You catch an occasional meteor while looking down at Earth.You see stars and planets in oblique views, next to Earth’s limb. Andthey do not twinkle. Perchance you might spot a ragged shadow from atotal solar eclipse projected onto Earth. Amazing, it looks just like itdoes in the textbooks! You have a godlike view of the finer details ofshadowy projections onto spherical bodies. You see space junk orbitingnearby. Sometimes it flickers due to an irregularity, catching light asit rotates. An overboard water dump produces a virtual blizzard in thesurrounding vacuum. Like strangers passing in the night, you see othersatellites flash brilliantly for a few seconds, then fade into oblivion.

Jungles are the darkest land features you can observe in fullsunlight. They are so dark that you need to open your camera lens toobtain a proper exposure. If there are clouds partly shrouding yourview, you can be fooled into thinking you are over the ocean. Only whenyou notice rivers with braided channels and meandering loops ofchocolate brown do you realize that it is jungle and not water.Farmland, rich with vibrant crops, is different. Farmland is bright,much brighter than the jungles. Here nature is giving us a clue as tothe efficiency of light capture by plants.

The impact of humanity on Earth is humbling from orbit. Our greatestcities appear to the bare eye as minor gray smudges on the edges ofcontinents—they could be the fingerprints of Atlas, from the last timehe handled the globe. They are hardly distinguishable from volcanic ashflow or other geologic features. If you didn’t know it was a city, itwould be difficult to conclude it was the result of human design. Underthe scrutiny of the telephoto lens, things appear different. Like antsmoving crumbs of dirt, we are slowly changing our world. You realizethat Earth will do just fine, with or without us. We are wedded to thisplanet, for better or for worse, until mass extinction do us part.

Cities at nightare different from their drab daytime counterparts. They present a mostspectacular display that rivals a Broadway marquee. And cities aroundthe world are different. Some show blue-green, while others showyellow-orange. Some have rectangular grids, while others look like afractal-snapshot from Mandelbrot space.

Patterns in the countryside are different in Europe, North America,and South America. In space, you can see political boundaries that showup only at night. As if a beacon for humanity, Las Vegas is truly thebrightest spot on Earth. Cities at night may very well be the mostbeautiful unintentional consequence of human activity.

This looking glass incites your mind to ponder the abstract. Throughthe window, you explore the world. In the mirror, you reflect upon yourplace within it and the reasons we explore. Is it fundamentally aboutfinding new places to live and new resources to use? Or is it aboutexpanding our knowledge of the universe? Either way, exploration seemsfundamental to our survival as a species. After all, if the dinosaurshad explored space and colonized other planets, they would still bealive today.

The Eye of Issyk Kul

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Kyrgyzstan is wedged in the mountainous wrinkles between Kazakhstan andChina, created long ago when the land mass we now call India, propelled by platetectonics, slammed into the Asian plate. Living there are a proud people with arich history, surrounded by natural, high-altitude beauty.

Issyk Kul

Out of numerous Kyrgyz lakes, one in particular stands out—Lake Issyk Kul.When seen from orbit, Issyk Kul appears to be a giant eye, looking at us lookingdown at it. The snow-covered mountains become aged eyebrows. The lake itself,having a fairly high salt concentration, does not typically freeze over, thusreflecting wintertime light in such a way as to form a “pupil” that seems totrack us as we orbit overhead.

Whisker Cleaning Time

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I have never beenable to shave with a safety razor without slicing my face, so I use a rotaryelectric razor instead. In weightlessness they work just as well, and thewhiskers are captured inside the shaving head. But how does one clean out the whiskersin weightlessness? On Earth, you simply open the head and shake them out. Doingthat up here would be a disaster. So once a week, when vacuuming theaccumulation of lint, dust, and detritus against the air inlet filters, Ivacuum my razor. I hold the vacuum cleaner hose between my legs, and use bothhands to carefully open the shaving head in front of the suction. A cloud ofwhiskers jumps out, appearing like a miniature asteroid field, then quicklydisappears into a black hole, with no chance of escape.

The Sweet Smell of Molecules

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A vacuum is a condition that is nearly devoid of molecules, and space is a molecular desert that makes the Empty Quarter of the Saudi Arabian peninsula seem like an oasis in comparison. But the space vacuum still has some molecules—residue from galactic processes, solar wind or atomic detritus spalled off from our atmosphere. And molecules, typically floating in the surrounding air, can be sensed via smell.

To talk about the smell of space makes no sense at all. Even if we had space-adapted noses, there is no air to transport the trace molecules. However, space does have a definite smell, and we can smell it in a roundabout way.

I have had the pleasure of operating our space station airlock for many crewmates while they went on spacewalks. Each time, when I repressurized the airlock, opened the hatch, and greeted my tired returning friends, a peculiar essence drifting about the newly repressurized chamber tickled my olfactory senses. I noticed that the smell was coming from the spacesuit fabric, the tools, and any other equipment that had been brought inside. It was more pronounced on fabrics than on metal or plastic surfaces. It most definitely did not come from the air lines that pressurized the chamber.

That’s me with John Herrington in the Quest Airlock during the STS-113 Endeavour mission to the International Space Station in 2002.

At first I couldn’t quite place the smell. The best description I can come up with is that it’s rather pleasantly metallic. It brought me back to my college summers, when I used an arc welding torch to repair heavy equipment for a small logging outfit. It reminded me of sweet-smelling welding fumes. To me this is the smell of space.

Reptiles have smell sensors located not within their nasal passage, but on the roof of their mouth. They smell by waving their moist tongue in the air, then pressing it against the roof of their mouth, thus indirectly transferring molecules from the air to the olfactory sensors. It occurred to me that I was smelling the essence of space through an indirect transfer, in a manner not unlike that of our lizard friends.

Perpetual Twilight

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Twice a year, near the winter and summer solstices, the orbit ofspace station nearly parallels the terminator—the fuzzy line separatingday from night on the surface below. For a period of about a week, welive in what seems like perpetual twilight, being in neither fulldaylight nor full night. Our orbit follows the terminator, so that spacestation is constantly sunlit. From this vantage I can see both day andnight simply by swiveling my head from left to right. But the night isnot really dark, and the day is lit by low-angle rays from the Sun.

Geographic relief casts long shadows, and imparts stark contrast tofeatures that are typically overlooked. Small ripples in sand dunes makehigh contrast striations across the bright desert landscape that looklike Nature’s way of drawing with pen and ink. Geographic relief playstricks on you. First you see the Grand Canyon as this deep scar.Blink your eyes and it is now a rippling bump. Thunderstorms castshadows that look like they come from some new type of ray beam weapon.Airliners, their path defined by contrails, leave glimmering lines likesnail trails in the morning dew. The gardens of Earth appear to havequite an infestation of snails.

The Moon sets in a counterintuitive way. From this vantage it movesnearly parallel to the horizon. Once I saw it slowly set, only toreappear in a few minutes. The Moon was visible for nearly the wholeorbit.

The night side is equally fascinating. The atmosphere on edge glowswith a vibrant electric blue. Did van Gogh paint this scene? I can seeat least five, maybe six distinct layers of blue—perhaps a visualdisplay of the classic atmospheric strata. Just past the terminator,rays of sunlight can be seen projected above the darkened limb of theEarth.

The most striking aspect of our atmosphere is not the palette ofelectric blue colors but the thinness of it all. Our atmosphere is adiaphanous veil; thin, fragile, transparent, and the only thing thatprotects us from the harsh vacuum of space. Too much atmosphere, and theplanet is choked and suffocated. Too little, and it is exposed to theharshness of cosmic space. My vantage on the station gives me a deepappreciation of this fact.

Lost Chopstick

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I like to eat with chopsticks, and I bring a pair on every flight. Like some prehensile extension of my fingers, they allow me to pull food out of its gooey pouch without getting sticky fingers. In weightlessness I can manipulate a huge chunk of food — maybe an agglomeration of ravioli that would normally fall apart under the influence of gravity. Here the pieces stay loosely connected, like a miniature collection of asteroid debris. These can be eaten as is, or wrapped between a couple of tortillas.
There are Velcro dots fixed to my chopsticks so they can be parked on the galley table and not float away. At least so I thought. I parked my chopsticks in the middle of dinner so I could fly to the cupola windows and take a picture of the Earth. When I came back, one of the chopsticks was gone. It had just floated off. Apparently I did not firmly engage the hook to the pile. My first instinct was to look down. This works on Earth, but not up here. I made a broad sweep of the surrounding volume. A small floating object is difficult to find in the camouflaging background of spacecraft clutter. My chopstick had simply vanished. Two days later, one of my crewmates found it stuck to a ventilator inlet grill.
Astronaut Don Pettit having fun with food

Grand Views of the Grand Canyon

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The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is simply amazing when viewed from an orbital perspective. You instinctively recognize it, even though you have never seen it from this vantage point before.  Somehow, your brain can warp all those vacation memories from visiting the South Rim into something recognizable. 




But the amazement doesn’t stop there.  Sometimes your brain can play little tricks. Under some lighting conditions the Grand Canyon does not look like a canyon at all.  Instead, all you see are the arteries on a giant heart, as if someone were performing open heart surgery on Mother Earth.


Push on the corners of your eyes one more time, wait for the flashes to disappear, and now you see something entirely different.  Instead of looking out the window of a spacecraft, you are looking out the window of a deep-sea submersible at some mucky-bottom seascape.  You now see worms lying on top of the benthic sediment, happily doing whatever worms do on the bottom of the ocean.


So often, in the search for truth in nature, human perception masks how things really are.

Candid and the Camera

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For my Soyuz launch, I had worn a standard Shuttle diaper with two inserts for extra absorption. (I have found it advantageous to add a little extra in certain places—in weightlessness, urine will creep around under the guise of capillary action and find your long underwear.)

Still, we were in our spacesuits for over 12 hours, and that’s a long time. Even with the extra inserts, my diaper became completely overwhelmed. It leaked real bad; I could feel it happen, and was powerless to control the flood. When the time came to de-suit, I was more than ready to get out of that thing, but dreaded the impending mess. Fortunately, I was able to cover up my stained underwear with a pair of woolen bib overalls.

On docking day, we put on our Sokol suits again and strapped in about six hours before arriving at Space Station. By the time we docked I was tired, dehydrated, hungry, had to use the bathroom, and was still wearing my yellow-stained long underwear. My sinuses were a bit congested, with the standard red puffy, chipmunk face. Our Soyuz cabin pressure was at 830 mm, but station is maintained at 740 mm. When we equalized the two, I got a splitting sinus headache.

Let your smile be your umbrella!

When we opened the hatch we were immediately on camera, downlinked live to the world as we were greeted by the smiling faces of our space station crewmates. All I wanted to do was have a good “rest stop,” get something to drink, and hide in my sleep station (in that order). We were pulled into the Service Module, where we were once again on camera with Russian Mission Control and my family, all anxious to chat. They wanted to know what it was like. I felt like a red-faced, dehydrated, puffy sack of — (fill in the blank). That is what it was really like. I was able to force a smile.

Feeling better!


Gone for the Season

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Being absent for the holidays is collateral damage for an explorer, whateverthe location. In Antarctica, the short Antarctic summer is when most explorationhappens, and this falls over the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year holidays.Maybe you can get home by Valentine’s Day; it is best to arrive bearing flowers,chocolate, and a smile. Family life can be tough on Antarctic explorers.

Similarly, the timing of spaceflights depends on orbital mechanics as well asseasonal meteorological conditions at the launch and landing sites. Like sailorsin the past shipping out with the tides, space explorers have no control overthese factors and must warp their plans to fit the conditions of theUniverse.

I have had the good fortune to be on two missions to the space station andone to Antarctica.My collateral damage toll includes being on orbit for two Thanksgivings,Christmas, New Years, birthdays, anniversaries, a science fair, school plays,recitals, and Valentine’s Day (I was not there with flowers, chocolate, and asmile). While in Antarctica, I missed everything from November to February, butdid make it home for Valentine’s Day (with flowers, chocolate, and a smile).Now, with this mission, my damage toll is rising. With our new internetcapability on space station, I can at least send flowers. The essentials tobring with you into the wilderness of today are not flint, steel, and powder,but your credit card number and network login.

Meaningful exploration typically requires months away from home. Ultimately,it is the explorer who misses out on the significant family events. One shouldnever forget that your family life goes on, with or without you.