Tag Archives: exploration

What Makes a Mission Name?

Posted on by .

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

Posted on by .

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

Posted on by .

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. 

Perpetual Twilight

Posted on by .


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.

Grand Views of the Grand Canyon

Posted on by .

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.

Gone for the Season

Posted on by .

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.

What Makes an Explorer?

Posted on by .

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.