Letters Home #13
Astronaut Peggy Whitson:
timing for the Soyuz arrival and docking was based on lighting and
comm. coverage, it seemed to be choreographed for aesthetic purposes.
I was using our new camera at the end of the S1 truss to film the
docking. I was trying to find a tiny speck of light (we were in
eclipse) in the general direction of the approach. I saw a brighter
than normal "star" and zoomed the camera for maximal magnification.
Initially, I wasn't sure that this was the Soyuz, and hunted around
a bit more before I was able to tell that the "star" was
in fact the Soyuz approaching the station. As the Soyuz capsule
began to fill my video monitor, the sun began to peek around the
edge of the planet, making that incredible royal blue curvilinear
entrance. Alpha and the new Soyuz capsule were soon bathed in brilliant
white light from the sun. While the Earth below was still dark,
the Soyuz made contact and became our new rescue vehicle. Valery
and Sergey had a close-up view of the docking from the service module
(SM). From the nadir windows in the SM it is possible to see the
docking compartment, which extends below from the forward end of
this module. In other words, the new Soyuz docked about 2 meters
before their eyes.
Each 6 months,
a new Soyuz capsule, which serves as the emergency return vehicle
for the station, replaces the one that is on orbit. The taxi crew
takes the old vehicle at the end of its lifetime to return to Earth.
This taxi crew consisted of two Russian cosmonauts and one Belgian
astronaut from the European Space Agency. Luckily I had met all
of them prior to their arrival on board the station, and I was comfortable
in the knowledge that working with them would be easy.
The only major
hiccup we had during their visit was the file server locking up
and not allowing the ground access to our server on board. Since
we were flying in an XPOP attitude, the ground had limited access
to our server and had been unable to uplink our plan, daily summary
and other messages overnight. I felt pressure to get the server
up by the time we had our first KU pass so that operations would
be back to normal as quickly as possible. In the meantime, so that
I wouldn't get bored, the printer in the service module (one of
two on board) and the RF (radio frequency) computer that we use
for procedure viewing (makes it easier to move the computer to the
hardware/worksite if there is not a hard-line connection to the
server) were acting up. The computers were really locked-up for
a time. The ground team was sympathetic and trying to give me as
much help as they could, and at one point the capcom asked if she
should call in one of the flight controller specialists for the
operations network. Four hours later, and minus some of the hair
I pulled out, the ground was able to send up and retrieve files
from our server. The printer in the service module was declared
dead later that day and now I get to experience the anxiety of having
only a single printer to make it until 11A (STS-113) arrives. I
didn't realize how much comfort I took in the "redundant"
state, until it was gone!
After the Soyuz
undocked, we were able to watch as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere,
about 2 orbits later. The ground control team had provided instructions
of where to look in order to see the spacecraft, and since it was
during the eclipse, I shut off all the lights in the lab to watch
from the window there. The thing I noticed first was what appeared
to be a milky white contrail in the darkness. It brightened and
the Soyuz became visible as it began to glow from the heat of re-entry.
The Soyuz consists of three parts, the engine section, the "living
compartment," which is not any larger than a subcompact car volume,
and the cramped descent module, sandwiched in between them. I was
surprised to actually see "razdalenea" (separation) of these three
modules. The three glowing pieces separated, and the engine compartment
and the living compartment trailed behind the descent module and
began a fiery disintegration, looking much like a bright orange
Fourth of July sparkler. The central portion, the descent module
has a heat shield to protect the vehicle from the high temperatures
(on the order of 3000 degrees F) generated during reentry We were
able to see the descent module for a few minutes after separation,
before it seemed to be swallowed up in the cloudy darkness below.
About 4 hours after separation from the station, the taxi crew had
landed in the cold desert of Kazakstan.
As my time
aboard the station nears conclusion, I have lots of mixed feelings
about leaving. While I, of course, want to see all of my family
and friends, it is hard to let go of the idea of living here. The
launch slip of 11A delays the visit of our friends onboard the shuttle,
but reinforced the fact for me that it will not be hard to stay
awhile longer. I sent an email to the ground, first this morning,
with my ideas/opinions of what we should do in the intervening time
before the arrival of the shuttle! These feelings of excitement
surprised me a bit, since I thought I was ready to go.
Most days are
busy, a combination of the routine things like rebooting laptops,
reading daily summaries and messages from the ground, maintaining
inventory management, and exercise, with a good measure of the "fun"
stuff like payloads, robotics ops, EVA prep and an occasional R&R
(no that's NOT rest and relaxation…it's remove and replace
a hardware component). Overall, my time here has been eventful,
but for me, not particularly stressful. I enjoy the challenge of
learning new things, and being efficient as possible in my work.
And I also get a lot of satisfaction out of knowing that I'm helping
the scientists on the ground with their data collections and research.
I think having sat in the investigator seat on the ground makes
it easier for me to understand their perspectives, worries and concerns,
and to try to address them.
And, of course,
this 'routine' happens in the novel environment of space. Being
here, living here, is something that I will probably spend the rest
of my life striving to find just the right words to try and encompass
and convey just a fraction of what makes our endeavors in space
so special and essential.
nature of the station is really a noble one, corny as that may sound.
In many ways, it would be much easier (although more expensive)
if we pursued the construction of a station independently of others.
I would like to think that even if our cooperation has a basis,
in part, on financial practicalities, that the side effects of generating
a common goal for a lot of different countries and learning about
different cultures at a level that requires literally the nuts and
bolts of common understanding, more than makes up for any less than
noble motivations. When I get frustrated with the different approaches
of different cultures and how difficult it can be to get folks to
agree on an approach, I am reminded of JFK's statement that we don't
do these things because they are easy… There is no way that
I can imagine, especially after seeing our planet from this vantage
point, that bringing our cultures closer together and proliferating
understanding in our differences as well as our similarities, can
be a bad endeavor.
To be a participant
in all of this is unbelievable, even to me as I float here and write
this, knowing that you can see a speck of light speeding by in the
early morning sky or at dusk, and knowing that I am in that bit
of light. A speed of 17,500 mph, which logically I understand is
required to maintain our orbit at this altitude, but intuitively
has less meaning, even as I watch the world pass by below. It is
difficult enough to comprehend the reality of this experience while
I float here, and my fear is that I will not be able to hold onto
the threads of this reality when I return. But I guess it will be,
by far, the best dream I have ever had!
that philosophical ramblings and shuttle launch slips are intertwined!
Hope that you didn't mind following my meandering thoughts.