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.

The Pieces Come Together

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.

Me and My Spacesuit

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.

A One-Way Ticket

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.