and the First Day in Space
Dispatch #5 (Tuesday, December 21)
After more launch dates
than we could remember, the weather finally gave us a break. With
a countdown whose perfection was only matched by the weather,
we sat on the launch pad in the final few minutes amazed that
all was so smooth. We tightened our straps, focused on the displays
and computers, and with six seconds to go the main engines came
alive. A great cloud of steam loomed into our view in the forward
windows with red and pink hues. At T-0, the solid rockets lit
off and with a jolt we were clear of the tower and on our way
First stage flight, with
both the solid rocket boosters and the shuttle's main engines,
is a very rough ride. Since we launched into the night, the light
from the solids' exhaust produced a near daylight effect out our
windows. On this, my third ride into space, the amount of vibration
seemed less than the previous flights. I don't know whether this
is because I was less surprised by the power, or if this combination
of vehicle and payload really was smoother. This is my first trip
on Space Ship Discovery.
At two minutes the solid
rockets depart, everyone on board breathes a sigh of relief and
we start to accelerate on up to orbit. The ride on the main engines
is smooth, more like an electric train than the bucking bronco
of the solids. Discovery performed flawlessly, without even a
burp to put us on edge. Nearing the main engine cutoff, the acceleration
is three times gravity, meaning I had the effect of a 600-pound
gorilla standing on my chest. Breathing at this acceleration takes
At main engine cutoff
comes the magic of weightlessness. The transition is instant,
one moment you have the force of the engines pushing you into
your seat, and suddenly as if gravity were turned off, you float.
For Scott Kelly this was his first experience, and his glee at
making it to space and from the first moments of floating was
infective. For me it is remarkable that I remember so well how
to live in weightlessness. Mike Foale was in heaven, back in his
element, after 134 days in space on the Mir space station.
So far we haven't had
much time to enjoy the fantastic view of planet Earth as we are
working hard for our rendezvous with the Hubble Space Telescope.
Today we prepared the four space suits on board for the upcoming
space walks. It seemed like we had four extra crew members on
board with these large white fellows floating around, with their
helmets and backpacks.
Preparing for a space
walk is similar to preparing for a mountain climb. You have all
kinds of equipment preparation and big backpacks to fill. In our
case our large backpacks are filled with all the components to
make our suits self-contained space ships. They contain batteries
for power, a lithium hydroxide cartridge to take the carbon dioxide
out of our air, oxygen bottles for breathing air, a UHF communication
system, a cooling water system, and even a small canteen for drinking
water. In fact we even reduced the cabin pressure to the equivalent
of a 10,000-foot mountain today, to help prevent decompression
sickness when we do our space walks.
We are rapidly catching
up to the Hubble Space Telescope, using the
shuttle's orbital engines and primary jets to adjust our orbit.
Curt Brown and Scott Kelly perform these critical tasks to get
us in position to grab the Hubble. While the space walkers were
preparing the suits, Jean-Francois was preparing the space shuttle's
robotic arm for the grapple task. This long thin carbon fiber
arm will reach out and grab the Hubble Space Telescope tomorrow,
when Curt and Scott fly us to within reach of the telescope.
Tonight we set up our
camp, sleeping bags spaced all around the space shuttle's spartan
interior, and go to sleep dreaming of a rendezvous with Hubble
as smooth as our launch.