Another piece of email from Space- Orbital!
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Fri, 5 Dec 97 15:16:00 -0800
Subject: Another piece of email from Space- Orbital!
Forwarded-by: Matthew Kleinosky <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: FYI: A day in the life of Dave...
Back of the envelope calculation, I've traveled roughly 17 million miles
since we left the crew quarters at Cape Kennedy, not including the van ride
to the pad. But who's counting. In fact, earth seems a bit dreamlike these
days. As we are connected only by crackling voices on the radio and the
photographs brought along and our memories.
Today I awoke from that dream where all my friends and I are playing water
volleyball in a big room. Without gravity. We watch each other try to get
to the ceiling. For some reason nobody quite makes it. I awake against
the ceiling of a densely packed storage area of the "Krystall" module of
Space Station MIR. It's the place where I have been temporarily sleeping
while spacewalk activities are underway in my usual "cabin", the Kvant
backup airlock. Pushed a space shuttle delivered water bag away from my
face. Fumbled in the blackness of the night side for that spot of velcro
holding my mini-maglite and Sony Discman. Faintly heard it still repeating
"Dark Side of the Moon". Floated out of the marginally tethered sleeping
bag and banged my head on the helmet of a ragged old spacesuit, long since
cannibalized for parts. Cranked open the micrometeoroid cover of the heavy
quartz window and god there's Earth.
Hit me like the first time I ever saw it from space. Ghosty outlines of
continents just illuminated by the half moon. At an unfelt 5 miles per
second, we blow out of the earth's shadow and into the harsh unattenuated
sunlight. Solar arrays alertly take notice and rotate precisely into
position to capture a bit of this fortuitous energy. We blaze over that
moving line on the earth which separates night from day. The dominant
features on the planet below are two tectonic plates. One holding the
Tibetan Plateau and the other, India. The plates are clearly smashing
together, incidently elevating the Great Himalayan Mountain Range. Eyes
now adjusting, looking real close, there, snow covered Mt. Everest and
Katmandu. It's a rare clear day over France, England, and Italy. Hazy,
even smoky, into China and southern Siberia. Some large smoke plumes, a
lot of forest clearing going on there. Just ahead, to the east, the
incredible blue Lake Baikal, perhaps the biggest lake in the world. Set
like a gem stone into the earth's crust. "Yep, it's all still here," I
think, as the heavy night of dreaming seamlessly transitions to the usual
Pulling myself through a tightly packed passageway in the Krystall module,
I stop to re-tether a loose food container. Look over at the module's main
control panel and note the familiar pattern of lights. All in order here.
Untangle my earphone wires stubbornly hanging me up. This time in one of
the power cables to a portable ventilator fan. It was necessary to set it
up a few days ago to clear carbon dioxide from this temporary sleeping area.
In space, without gravity driven convection, the atmosphere is dead still.
Without fans there is not enough mixing to deliver oxygen, clear CO2, or
even carry the metabolic heat away from our bodies. A clanky traversal,
thirty or so feet, takes me through a 3 dimensional attic swimming with
spare pumps, computers, radio gear, waste containers, 800 amp batteries,
oxygen candles, cables... The supplies that make this space station
temporarily free from earth's support. The warehouse of parts that, when
combined with amazing human resourcefulness, have allowed this space station
to operate continuously, in space, for over 11 years.
I scrape free into the central docking node. As usual, hands already too
full. A flashlight, re-hydratable soap, cd player, radiation monitor data
disk, a bag of trash, and the opposite wall coming up fast. The docking
node is the structural backbone of the station, firmly holding the six main
spacecraft modules in position. Can't help but take an eerie glance at the
sealed off Spektor Module hatch. Spektor's solar arrays, still tirelessly
search for the sun and send power for the rest of the station. Likely,
humans will never venture back into this airless laboratory. But, the
"spaghetti bowl" of functioning electrical cables, emanating from the
quickly re-engineered hatch plate, stand in testimony to the result of human
persistence and determination.
Morning rounds. First, I assemble our improvised water scavenging gear and
squeeze in behind panel 417, in the KVANT 2 module. Wedged in between the
"Elektron" unit and the urine reclamation system, and among a snare of
wiring harnesses and tubing, one notices the constant buzz of electricity.
The sound of the "Elektron" unit, electrolytically cracking water molecules
into pure breathing oxygen and waste hydrogen. The electricity is delivered
from batteries charged by our solar arrays. The water for Elektron is
really evaporatively purified urine, produced by the adjacent urine
reclamation system. The toilet of course, would then be directly across
the aisle. Pretty efficient, huh?
Only in microgravity could one consider access to this location. Body
inverted behind the panel, plying in among the systems with my gear. Here
I carefully pump out the grapefruit size wobbling globes of water. They
grow larger by the hour, as condensate accumulates on the ice cold pipes
supplying coolant to the power hungry "Elektron" unit. A clumsy move sends
water scattering in all directions. This chore generally serves as a
morning shower. The "condensation" problem will be "designed out" of our
next station. Next, I visit the 4 central air circulation intake filters
and clear them of lost objects and debris of every kind. Will get to the
other filters later.
Now, my favorite patient. The microgravity 3-Dimensional tissue cultures.
Chamber 2, containing human immune system cells, has been running a tad
cool. Chamber 4, growing human nerve tissue, is consuming glucose faster
than planned and running on the acidic side. Microscopy of the kidney
tissue is on today's schedule. It is important to observe every detail of
the behavior of these cultures, as these are key preliminary studies for
our tissue engineering program planned for the next space station. Today,
after conferring with colleagues on earth, we will likely change the culture
media in chamber 4.
On to the protein crystal growth experiment. It is levitated and held in
position by a set of electromagnets precisely controlled by a computer. In
this way the ultra-sensitive growing crystals are isolated from the small
vibrations existing even in the spacecraft. Particularly when Anatoly is
on the treadmill. In space, a "crystal" may be essentially a runny jello
which would collapse under it's own weight in gravity. Or, it can be a
solid material whose atoms will not sufficiently organize in the presence
of gravity, to even form a crystal. Here, absence of convection helps us
crystallize these medically important proteins and allow analysis of their
structure and function.
The scientists on earth are evaluating the data from last week, downloaded
from the micro-accelerometers on the levitated platform. We are already
far beyond what can be achieved on earth, but their theory says we can do
better. They say we just need to tweak the gains and cut-off frequencies
in the digital feedback control system a bit. There is still time to change
their design of the next version, for use on The International Space
Station. Darn, that's what has been nagging at me. Later today I'm
scheduled to review, on optical disc, their latest plan for next week's
crystal growth studies. This time, using laser interferometry, we will
study the crystal growth patterns on a size scale of one wavelength of laser
light. Better get to the rest of the air filters. Maybe I can find that
disc that I lost yesterday.
A quick look at the radiation detector data. High. Much higher than we
have been seeing. Air pressure and air composition data looks good. Pasha
posts the communication pass times and updates the orbital trajectory
navigation programs. He checks the spacecraft electrical system current
draw vs. solar array energy production and then we meet for coffee at the
galley. Later Pasha is scheduled to change a coolant pump as preventative
maintenance for the spacecraft's thermal control system.
Tolya, while I was still playing 0-gravity volleyball with my friends, was
overhauling the spacesuits after yesterday's spacewalk. This guy is always
up early. Yesterday he changed a vacuum regenerable CO2 absorption
cartridge, in the "VOZDUCH" air purification system, before breakfast. He
scans the ship's master caution and warning panels. Reviews the system
status displays. Then, satisfied with our gyroscopic attitude control system
and conventional thruster engine status, Tolya does a double flip, that
would raise Anna Corbit's eyebrows, over the dinner table and joins us, with
a big smile. I poke the recycled water delivery needle through the septum
of the bag of rinseless soap and fill it with warm water. Tolya rehydrates
a bag of white stuff with nuts that I haven't figured out the identity of
yet. We quickly trade information and check in with earth. They tell us
there's been a solar flare. Nothing to worry about but better if we sleep
in the better radiation protected areas. So much for my move back to the
Inevitably, morning rounds generate a to-do list of maintenance that must
be worked into our daily plan. Yesterday it was the air/fluid separators
which provide bubble free water to the ion exchange purification columns.
This is essential for recycling atmospheric condensate back into drinking
water. The day before, a solar array wasn't tracking the sun properly.
After Monday's spacewalk, the primary airlock failed its leak check upon
repressurization. The backup airlock, my bedroom, had to be used. It's
too full of stuff now for me to move back into--even if the radiation level
During yesterday's spacewalk, the newly installed solar array failed to
completely unfurl with the automatic computer sequence. Always something.
Just like I remember my house on earth. With each problem comes a new
lesson, though. Each "failure" is really another glance into that crystal
ball foretelling the "would have been" future of our joint space station,
had we not this clairvoyant opportunity. But the lab goes on running. We
protect the lab. First, basic life support, second, the lab, then the
creature comforts like hot water, or extra lighting, or movies, music...
Time to go to work.
We do pretty good most of the time. We have a busy life up here. It
definitely has its moments. Microgravity can be a very difficult, even
frustrating, place to work. It can also be incredible fun. A dream come
true. The work days are long but there really isn't anywhere else much to
go. Little things mean a lot up here. A few casual words on the radio, a
token sent on the infrequent resupply ships, e-mail. We love the candy sent
by the good folks at Moscow's famous "Kracnie Octobrie - Red October" candy
factory - hint, hint. Sometimes, I just like to float back, cloud of
macadamia nuts surrounding me, hovering bag of rehydrated grapefruit juice,
and watch a video movie. Particularly scary ones about space.
Remember the look you got from your dad the first time you got to drive
alone, or your airplane instructor at your first solo flight? That was
Tolya (our commander) when he and Pasha shut the hatch to go outside for
their spacewalk Monday. We all know I don't drive this thing so good, but
the time had arrived to hand over the keys. The rolling of their eyes gave
me the distinct feeling that they really didn't even want to be there to
watch. Well, we got through it. I felt like the kid in "home alone" as I
assumed Tolya's usual posture at the central command post, the cockpit.
Or, was it Kirk's position? Dream and reality run so close here.
Tolya is a master spacewalker and yesterday was his 14th EVA. Pasha on his
2nd. With their 6 pound per square inch pure oxygen pressurized gloved
hands they transported and installed a massive 50 foot solar array. We all
work out, every day, so we will be able to even move the fingers of these
pressurized gloves during a 6 to 8 hour spacewalk. The hands wear out first.
What a sight (and sound), two suited cosmonauts crawling around outside.
Occasionally suprising me by looking in a window (brought to mind an image
from one of those scary space movies). Moving hand over hand as they place
each next critical tether. I study each move as next month it is my turn
to go outside with Tolya. The position of their little "one person"
spacecraft can be tracked by the clanking sounds through the ship's aluminum
alloy hull. From their mobile jungle of cables, tethers, and metal boxes,
sprang - well, almost sprang - a gorgeous new gallium arsenide solar panel.
It kinda sprang halfway and stopped.
My job was issuing the computer commands to the new array's deployment
mechanism, and something didn't work. Now we were "off nominal" and "out
of the checklist," going fast, in Russian, and short of time left on the
spacesuit carbon dioxide scrubbers. In coordination with the Russian
mission control center, Pasha, and Tolya; we improvised manual sequence
procedures to command the solar array deployment - "Retract two steps -
disable motion quick, it's jammed - try to re-extend by one step - what are
the motor power indications, is there a center-section deployed indication,
we need to re-initialize the sequencer..." as fast as my fingers could
press buttons. Finally, I have an answer for that repeating question, "What
has been your toughest moment so far in the mission."
Then, as the sudden blackness of the earth's shadow envelopes the "walkers",
helmet lamps blink on, and Tolya shouts, "On dviegaet (it's moving)." The
team continued to work the array all the way out--to the fully deployed
position using this new manual sequencing mode, developed on the spot. It
was a real thrill to be part of the team. Pash and Tolya hadn't even doffed
their liquid cooling garments when we did a high five that sent us all into
backwards cartwheels. We had more power. And power, along with atmosphere
and water are what is really important up here. The rest comes and goes.
That's life in space and it sure has its moments.
The Space Shuttle Atlantis' hatch shut, it's docking hooks released, and
it's translational thruster jets fired. I could clearly see Jim's
(Wetherbee) and Mike's (Bloomfield) faces peering through the Shuttle's
overhead window. We waived. Mike's other hand moved, and another minus Z
axis translational pulse increased our rate of separation. Another volley
of bright orange rocket engines flashed against the dimly moonlit earth,
and a feeling long not felt came forward. Now I remember the place I last
felt it. 10 years old, as my parents station wagon pulled away from my
first summer camp in southern Indiana. Standing next to a trunk of what
might be needed. The things we have to do to re-capture some of those
youthful feelings. That satisfying thrill that something new is going to
happen, and we don't know what it is yet.
By a rough calculation, about 34 million more miles to go, plus or minus a
few. But who's counting. For now it's life on this spaceship and it feels
good. When the time comes it will sure be great to see all of you again on
the Great Planet Earth, and then, that dream will come true too.
© 1997 Peter Langston