What Makes a Mission Name?

Whatspace station crews call our “mission” is a bit more complicated thanwhat you might think. Under normal operations, there are six crew membersliving on board station. We send up a three-person crew in the Russian Soyuzspacecraft four times a year, and the launches and landings are generally timedfor spring and fall, to avoid severe weather in Kazakhstan.* This results inSoyuz crew overlaps of either four months or two months, with each three-personcrew staying for about six months.

There are a number of advantages in this scheme, particularly during handover,when the newly arriving crew (we’re expecting one tonight) learns from the seasoned crew all the onerous nuances impossible to knowexcept by being onboard.

Crews on space station are called “Expeditions,” a fitting name for acollection of explorers living on the frontier. Since there are two possiblethree-crew overlaps for each expedition, there are two possible expeditionnumbers that span a set of nine individuals. In addition, each crew of threearrives in a Soyuz with a designated engineering number, plus a space stationmission number and a crew-chosen call sign. Thus, for my mission, I amExpedition 30 for four months, Expedition 31 for two months, and a crew memberfor Soyuz TMA-03M and Soyuz 29s, with call sign Antares.

This all gets multiplied by two, since we automatically function as backupcrews for the mission that flies six months before us. So I am also backup crewfor Expedition 28/29, on Soyuz TMA-02M and Soyuz 27s, with call sign Eridianus.

Then there are the management teams on the ground. These are people who workrelentlessly through weekends and holidays to support the lucky crew members onspace station. These management teams are called “Increments,” andthey have numbers that usually correspond to the expedition numbers. Sometimes,though, these can get shifted to adjacent mission numbers. Of course, thenomenclature for increments, like expeditions, also gets multiplied by two,since every prime crew participates as backup crew for an earlier increment.When talking to crewmembers, people will speak in expeditions; when talking toNASA planners, they will speak in increments. Like the blind men feeling theelephant, we tend to describe our work from our immediate perspective. It isunderstandable that these subtleties can lead to confusion.

That’s why, when someone asks me what mission I am flying, the answer mightlead to a conversation something like this: “I am backup crew forExpedition 28/29, also known as Increment 28/29, in Soyuz TMA-02M, or Soyuz27s, called Eridianus, but am prime crew for Expedition 30/31 in Increment30/31 for Soyuz TMA-03M, or Soyuz 29s, called Antares.” This kind ofanswer baffles even my fellow astronauts. I have decided that my missionidentity is simply going to be dictated by the one with the largest three-crewoverlap. Hence, I call myself Expedition 30. If you want the details, beprepared to settle in for a long conversation.

*There are exceptions. Expedition 29 (also known as Expedition 30, Increment29, Increment 30, Soyuz TMA-22, or Soyuz 28s, with call sign Astraeus) slippedtwo months and launched in a November snowstorm so severe that from the viewingstation only 1½ kilometers away, neither the rocket nor the launch pad werevisible. At engine ignition, the TV cameras discovered they were pointed in thewrong direction, and quickly panned to the rocket, which appeared like a giant,slowly moving road flare-which was visible for perhaps 15 seconds before becomingcompletely obscured.

Don’s blog also appears at airspacemag.com.

Space Is My Mistress

Aurora over Earth

Seeing as how April is National Poetry Month….

Space is My Mistress

Space is my Mistress,
and she beckons myreturn.
Since our departure I think of you
and yearn to fly across the heavens arm in arm.
I marvel at your figure,
defined by theedges of continents.
You gaze at me with turquoise eyes,
perhaps mistaken for ocean atolls.
Youtease me to fall into your bosom,
sculptured by tectonicrifts,
only to move away as if playing some tantalizinggame.
Time and time we turn together,
through day, and night, and day,
repeatingencounters every 90 minutes with a freshness,
as if we havenever seen our faces before.
We stroll outside together,
enveloped by naked cosmos,
filled withdesire to be one.
So close,
you sense myevery breath,
which masks your stare through visor haze.
We dance on the swirls of cloud tops,
whileskirting the islands of blue.
You know my heart beats fastfor you.
Oh, Space is my mistress,
andwhen our orbits coincide,
we will once again make streaks ofaurora across the sky.

Don’s blog also appears at airspacemag.com.

Blood and Treasure

Gold, silk, andspices were tangible treasures from past exploration. The Conquistadors wereparticularly good at extracting gold from the local inhabitants. Sir FrancisDrake, before he acquired the title of “Sir,” brought back enough treasure fromhis circumnavigation of the globe to provide more than half the income for theBritish crown for an entire year. The frontiers of space likewise offertreasures won from exploration, treasures that will enrich our lives andenhance our standard of living. These treasures are golden but not gold. Theycontain secrets about the biochemistry of life, and will allow us to increaseour understanding of how life functions. No more silver and gold; from SpaceStation we have blood, spit, and urine, treasures that contain secrets morevaluable than a chest filled with pillaged Aztec gold. With MELFI

On SpaceStation, we are human guinea pigs for a wide variety of medical experiments.The weightlessness of space offers a biochemical challenge to our bodies, whichdevelop a host of fascinating maladies such as bone decalcification, cataracts,retina swelling, eye focus shifts, smooth muscle atrophy, fluid imbalance,gross weight loss, cardiovascular degeneration, and more. In spite of thesemaladies, humans can thrive in space, proving that as a species, we are a hardylot and can explore places where we were never meant to go. 

Themicrogravity of Space Station allows for yet one more experimental variable,offering an amazing and unique environment in which to study human physiology.Mother Earth throughout time has tormented creatures with every possiblevariation of environmental parameters. She has tweaked temperatures from hot tocold, pressures from high to low, chemical compositions from reducing to oxidizingand acid to base, and more. She has thrown stones at us from space and spewedout molten rock and ash from within. The layers of rocks are littered withfossils of hapless creatures that could not make the grade, or, through nofault of their own, were simply caught in the wrong epoch of geologic time. Thehistory of life on Earth is the story of species extinction, a fascinatingthought for those of us that are still here and can contemplate such aconstruct. 

With all thischange, with all this process, throughout all the evolution, the one factorthat has been constant for billions of years is the magnitude of Earth’sgravity. Now we can venture off the planet and for the first time in thehistory of life, vary the influence of gravity by a factor of one million. Thefact that we can survive in space is in itself an amazing discovery. We trulyare off in a new frontier, one that life has never seen on Earth, and it is onthis frontier that physiological secrets can be pried from the people who gothere. 

As the crew of SpaceStation, we routinely puncture veins, drool on cotton swabs, and urinate inbags. These samples are processed in centrifuges, sprinkled with preservatives,placed in tubes, and stored in MELFI, better known as “the freezer.” Kept at -98° C, these samples are stored for monthsbefore return passage to Earth can be arranged. To ensure safe passage of thesetreasures through the ride back to Earth, NASA has developed a special cold boxthat keeps them frozen for several days, ensuring unthawed recovery by groundcrews, happy life science researchers, and crew members relieved to know thattheir bloodletting was not in vain. 

The cold boxesthemselves are an engineering marvel. They are nearly equal in thermalconductivity to a vacuum dewar (Thermos bottle) with only a fraction of themass. They are made from truly space-aged materials; aerogel and Mylar. Aerogelis the most gossamer solid material known. Appearing more like solid smoke,aerogel has a density only 10 times greater than that of air (steel has adensity 7,000 times greater than air) making it one of the best thermalinsulators known, bested only by vacuum. Aerogel is brittle, readily crumbinginto dust. To prevent this eventuality, it is placed inside a skin of Mylar(plastic) film. The air is then sucked out, making this structure as rigid as avacuum-packed bag of coffee (which feels brick-hard until the package isopened). These Mylar-packed aerogel structures can be made into odd shapes,enabling cold boxes to fit in unused pie-shaped spacecraft volumes. 

When newtechnology is developed, other unintended uses often surface. Such was the casefor the cold box. Developed for space, it ended up in Antarctica, not forkeeping things cold but for keeping them warm. In 2006-2007, I had the goodfortune to live in a tent about 200 miles from the South Pole during ascientific expedition to Antarctica as part of a meteorite gathering teamcalled ANSMET (Antarctic Search for Meteorites). The conditions found inAntarctica preserve and concentrate meteorites, a discovery not realized untilthe early 1970’s. They accumulate on the surface of the blue glacier ice, andbecause they appear as strongly contrasting black specks from a distance, theycan be recognized from afar and gathered like cosmic Easter eggs. For the last30 years, annual expeditions working during the short Antarctic summers havegathered over 20,000 meteorites. During our six-week stay, we advanced thisnumber by 850. 

Living in atent under primitive conditions, the ambient temperature danced around -20° C throughout the continuous daylight ofthe Antarctic summer day. Including wind chill, the effective temperature was-40° C. At such temperature levels, it does not matter what scale is used.In our tents, the floor temperature stayed at -20° C and the chimney varied from -20° C to +20° C, depending on whether the stove waslit. Any water-based substance became a frozen lump. Most electronic devicesrefuse to operate under these conditions; from batteries that do not makesparks (lithium-ion batteries do not like to be charged if less than 0° C), LCD displays that give only blankstares, or hard drives that do not turn at the right speed. 

The Antarctichot box in its former life was an engineering test article used to make thermalmeasurements for the design of the spaceflight units. Having served thatpurpose, I found it in a dank NASA cabinet, itself in cold storage andseemingly of no further use. Brought out from retirement, this high-tech spacecooler found itself strapped to a Nansen sledge, pounding through the Antarcticinterior over snow structures known as sastrugi. In a sea of cold, it offered asmall oasis of warmth. We also kept our Tabasco sauce and sourdough starter inthe hot box, demonstrating the value of having small comforts when living onthe frontier. 

Thus we beholdthe new treasure garnered from the frontier of space. Not gold or spices, butknowledge. Knowledge always has value, even if we don’t immediately know orrecognize it. The real treasure of new exploration is the larger knowledge baseand the expanded imagination we develop from it. In time, all knowledge showsitself to be useful in some way. The fact that today it is difficult topinpoint the value of space exploration shows that it is truly venturing into terra incognita, unknown territory. 

Don’s blog also appears atairspacemag.com. 

Mar del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire, was what Magellan named the tip of South America in 1520. He saw the fires set by local inhabitants who did not want the Portuguese explorer to set foot on their land.

A new page in the history of this distant part of our globe is now being written. Oil has been discovered off the eastern shore of Tierra del Fuego, and Argentina is building offshore platforms to access it. Brightly lit, they appear from orbit as constellations—not in the starry sky, but on the surface of the sea. Collectively, they are one of the most brightly-lit areas I have seen anywhere on Earth (except for Las Vegas, which still holds the title). From my orbital perspective, this is no longer Tierra del Fuego but Mar del Fuego.

In these pictures taken from Space Station, the dim lights from Tierra del Fuego, visible in the background, do not hold a candle to the bright lights of the offshore oil platforms.

Don’s blog also appears at airspacemag.com.

Leonardo’s Closet

On space station, we have a closet module. Its prosaic name is PMM, an acronym that has metamorphosed beyond the original assemblage of words to become a noun on its own, pronounced pee-em-em (only at NASA can we create new words without vowels). In a former life, it was an MPLM (another vowel-less word), a special transport container that flew up and down to space station in the back of the Space Shuttle. Made in Italy for NASA, the PMM was formally christened Leonardo—obviously named after a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

On my STS-126 Shuttle flight, I had the pleasure of moving Leonardo from the Shuttle payload bay and berthing it to the nadir hatchway on the station’s Node 2, using the Canadian robotic arm. Operating the Canada arm is a bit like working with a fancy backhoe, and requires its own skills. Once the module was berthed, we opened the hatch and unloaded many tons of much-needed equipment and supplies over the next 12 days.

For its return voyage, we loaded it up with garbage and trash. Included in the trash were bags of urine left over from human physiological experiments. These weren’t ordinary bags of urine; these were eight-month-old bags of urine. I did not need to read the label—my nose could identify the contents. We brought garbage-laden Leonardo home, but due to bad weather at the Cape, we landed at Edwards in California. It took another week before the Shuttle was transported home, and another week after that before Leonardo was removed from the payload bay and placed in its holding fixture. That was followed by the Christmas holiday. By the time folks got around to opening Leonardo, it had been sitting for well over a month, and some of the bags had leaked all over the inside of the module. I happened to be at the Cape the day after the technicians opened the hatch. It was not a pretty sight. I felt partly responsible, since I had been the one who did the orbital packing. I offered, but the technicians would not let me help clean up the mess.

Inside the PMM

In orbit, the Leonardo module is for me a special place. It is cool, quiet, soothing—a good place to reflect and recharge. But like most closets on Earth, the PMM is a total mess. The crew is so busy maintaining and utilizing space station that no one has time to properly arrange things, despite our good intentions. A typical clutter-creating scenario might go like this: Say you are in the middle of working on the station’s control system. Swapping out motherboards is a delicate task, akin to doing computer brain surgery. If you bend a pin while inserting a card, you can fry the whole works, and there are precious few spare parts. In the midst of this intensity your stomach starts rumbling, with the associated low blood sugar shakes. Your watch shows that you have been at this for hours without a break. So you fly over to Node 1 and dive into the module where the primary stocks are located, only to find that the pantry is down to vegetables and tofudibeast. You need meat and potatoes to keep going, so you float over to the PMM and pull out a new “meats in pouches” package. At the galley, you cut open a meat pouch, only to have a big bloop of gravy squirt out and make a mess. Reaching for the wipes, you discover that the last one had been dispensed to clean up the previous gravy squirt. Flying to PMA 1 (the connecting tunnel between the U.S. and Russian segments), where the hygiene supplies are kept, you find that the staging bag for dry wipes is empty. Once again you dive into the PMM, searching for the mother lode of dry wipes. You refill the PMA 1 staging bag, and clean up your mess.

All of these packages have a nine-digit bar code. We are required to log these in our inventory management system, but often the bar code reader does not work. For this case of 20 dry wipe packages and a meats-in-pouches package, you have to write down 189 alpha-numeric characters (without a mistake). These numbers must later be typed up in a crew note or called down to mission control. So you think, “I will do all this inventory paperwork later.”

That’s how the PMM gets to be a mess.

When spare moments present themselves, I will go into the PMM and straighten up the clutter. Floating among the bags undulating on their anchor chords, I have the sensation of scuba diving in a kelp bed thicket. Then I catch up on the inventory paperwork. With luck, I’m able to scribble down all those nine-digit bar code numbers correctly.

Don’s blog also appears at airspacemag.com.

Jelly on Both Sides

Whenyour slice of bread falls on the floor, everyone anxiously looks to see if itlanded jelly side up or jelly side down. Simple probability gives a 50-50chance either way, but it seems more correlated to the difficulty of cleaningthat particular section of flooring.

Onspace station the probabilities are still the same, but the results aredifferent. I fumbled my bread after spreading a generous layer of my favoriteconcoction, peanut butter and honey. It sped toward the overhead panel and hitit before I could intervene. Fortunately, it landed jelly side out (it’s interesting how many figuresof speech have gravity-oriented references), so the 50-50 odds were in my favorthis time.

Unfortunately, it ricocheted and sped off in a different direction.I noticed that the angle of incidence equaled the angle of reflection. Myearth-honed intuition anticipated a different motion, so I was not able to keepup with the errant slice. Like a real-life version of the game “asteroids,” itwent on to hit a second panel. Jelly side was out again, so the 50-50 statistics were still in my favor. One moretime my hand was lagging the trajectory. Like failing to flip heads three timesin a row, the third collision was jelly side in, which immediately halted all motion. And just like on Earth,the outcome seemed related to the difficulty of cleaning the landing zone.After having hit two easy-to-clean aluminum panels, it landed on a white fabriccovering on a patch of Velcro pile.

Thefatalist in me accepts the inevitable Zero-G result of landing jelly side“down,” so I decided to make sure the probability would always be 100%.Realizing that the bread is merely a vehicle for conveying peanut butter andhoney, I decided to spread it on both sides. In weightlessness, it’s easy tobalance your slice on its edge so that it can be parked on the galley tablewithout any fuss. And the result is pure tastebud heaven. I do it this waybecause I am in space, and I can.

Don’s blog also appears at airspacemag.com

The Expanding Universe of Trash

It is not surprising that the humble garbage can, essential for Earth-borne civilization, is likewise essential for space station. Unlike the kitchen wastebasket, an omnivore that will eat just about any trashy thing, on space station our wastebaskets are picky eaters.  We sort our trash into a number of different categories different from the standard earthly recycle bins of paper, plastic, and glass.  The main categories are: dry trash (paper towels, food packaging, empty drink bags, paper items, etc.), wet trash (pouches and wrappers with food residue), spent batteries, life support systems expendables (fluid sample bags, toilet hoses, connectors, etc.), experimental expendables (used medical supplies, containers filled with leftover nasty things, etc.), and toilet waste (sealed buckets of you know what).  Some of our trash items have bar codes and serial numbers and require bookkeeping paperwork at the time of disposal.  Like happens at home, sometimes an item is tossed that is later discovered essential so we go orbital dumpster diving for its recovery.  Like passing through a miniature asteroid belt, in weightlessness such an operation can create a cloud of floating debris that is challenging to put back into its container.


One characteristic of an orbital trashcan is that it is always full.  When I change out a trash bag, within a short time it is once again full.  Like a gas expanding into a vacuum, items placed inside expand into the available volume thus giving the appearance of a full bag.  Unlike an ideal gas expanding into a vacuum, here the change in entropy is not zero.  Placing new items into such a bag is really an act of compression.  The trash is squeezed and compressed until the placing of one more item requires greater strength than your arms can supply.  At that point the bag is sealed with duct tape.  The final disposal is via Progress, the spent Russian cargo vehicle (and now we also can use ATV and HTV, the European and Japanese cargo vehicles).  The ultimate disposal of our garbage is thus via deorbital cremation.

The Eye of Issyk Kul

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

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.