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21 October 2001


It seems to me that no matter where you are, there is occasionally an hour in the day that is just completely different from the normal, routine hour. Maybe it's an hour with the kids, maybe an hour in the garden, maybe an hour reading a great book. I have those special hours in space sometimes, too. Actually, every hour in space is special and a privilege, and that is never too far from my awareness, even in the difficult times. But some are even better, and I had to write this one down…

Living in space. This is truly being an astronaut. This is what I've wanted to do since I was 13 or younger. This is a dream come true, even more than my first flight, which was almost like going home. At least, it was like going to a place I felt like I had been to before and in which I felt at home. The only things missing are family and friends. But the privilege of being here and living this special dream was reinforced this evening.

At the end of a fairly routine Sunday - one without much scheduled by the ground but with tons of "domestic chores" to do - I was tired, but decided to look out the window as we crossed the northern tier of the US at sunset. Since I had told my daughters to watch for us, I decided to see if I could spot the places where they are now. We have a pair of nice binoculars with rudimentary image stabilization, so I was surveying all I could see out the southern facing starboard window of the Docking Compartment "Pirs". I'll just run through the series of semi-spectacular sights I was fortunate enough to see this evening in less than an hour:

We came across the coast near Vancouver, B.C., an area that is always beautiful to see, with interesting coastal shapes and channels. As we continued across the continent to the Northern Rockies, even in the fading light one could see how rough and dramatic the landscape below us was. I could see very bright western faces and totally black eastern slopes, with the low sun angle accentuating the peaks and valleys so that the contours were exaggerated in the evening light. As I scanned the mountains, I picked up what looked like a nail tracing an arrow-straight line rapidly across dark ice, leaving a bright-white, spreading trail in its wake. A high-flying jet, still lit by the sun, was headed west over Montana as the earth below was already dark. The aircraft was clearly visible in the binoculars as a bright point pulling the line rapidly across the sky.

Glancing around without the binoculars, I saw with some satisfaction that the western sky was again the comfortable spider-web of contrails we normally see over the US and Europe, so much better than the empty sky of the week of September 11. Since the station was still brightly lit and the earth below getting pretty dark, I assumed that we were fairly visible to those so inclined to look up. Looking back at them, the Earth was too dark in contrast to the sun reflecting off the window, so I moved up to the limb of the Earth to watch the always-varied effect of the sunset on the view of the atmosphere at the distant horizon. I could see cloud layers edge-on, rather than the usual view from above, as well as the shapes of towering thunderstorms far to the south. The colors of the clouds began gradually changing as the sun quickly settled to the western edge of the Earth, and the colors glowed every shade of orange and red imaginable, varying with their proximity to the sun. The edge of the atmosphere at the horizon is normally a fuzzy, light blue when the sun is high in the sky, but as it sinks, distinct lines appear of varying widths and "blueness", darkest closest to the Earth, then lighter, then darker quickly at the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Shades of blue I've never seen from Earth were visible in each band, especially at high magnification. The colors spread, then quickly collapsed toward the sun as it plunged through the atmosphere behind us, rapidly becoming a red fireball, then a red-hot point on the horizon as refraction held it suspended in view longer than it was really there. The solar arrays of the station turned from gold to copper to a deep red, with a final mysterious glow even when the sun was gone, as if they held residual light of their own, just before we hit total darkness. And even before the sun had set, I began to see stars shining though the atmosphere to join the ones clearly visible above us. One of the interesting exercises is to try to determine if a star on the horizon is actually above or below the true horizon and if it is above or below the edge of the atmosphere, because they can be seen long before they rise into the unobstructed view we have from orbit. Seeing them below the cloud layers is definitely interesting at times, however. I wonder if it will be disorienting for EVA.

As we left the sun behind and the glare faded, the magnificent cities on the East Coast of the US magically appeared in the blackness below, outlining the Atlantic seaboard as clearly as if drawn on a map with a pen filled with glowing orange ink. From my perch over the North Atlantic - Boston, New York, Atlantic City, Norfolk, Charleston, Jacksonville - all could be seen lighting up for the evening as we sped out over the ocean and headed southeast. And hanging in the sunset above them were, I think, both Mercury and Venus.

Since I had been lucky enough to see the Aurora Borealis a couple of weeks ago, I decided to switch to the port side of the spacecraft for a moment to see if it was still there, since we were pretty far north. No Aurora, but I caught Orion's bright outline as it began to climb out of the airglow, and as I followed the belt-line to Sirius, I noticed a very bright object nearby. Putting the binoculars on it, I saw a very odd shaped star. Since my eyes at my age seem to require frequent refocusing of the instrument, I tried to get the oblong shape to become round and it just wouldn't match the other stars. I finally realized I was seeing Saturn for the first time from space, and that without the distortion of the atmosphere it was possible to see the rings with just the binoculars! What a sight! I was so happy, but it became even more interesting a little later.

Returning to the starboard side as we crossed the equator, I began to see huge cities on the northeast coast of South America, with gigantic thunderstorms forming dramatic backdrops over the Amazon basin, single lightning flashes traveling what must have been hundreds of kilometers across the cloud tops, illuminating huge areas of the Earth. The cities, I learned from the atlas later, were Fortaleza, Natal, and Recife, appearing as spread out and as large in area as any that can be seen in the US, indicative of the huge population moving into them from the Amazon rain forests, I suppose. There were very large and very bright forest fires outlining large areas of the blackness west of the cities, again, probably indicative of large-scale land clearing in one of the great rain forests of the Earth. Further south, Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro were visible, with the very bright lights of Ipanema and Copacabana trailing thinly south from Corcovado.

I soon found the Southern Cross in the sky and then focused the binoculars on the quarter moon, marveling at the detail visible at this magnification with the low sun angle across the craters and mountains. Impressed by the beauty of the lunar landscape with no atmospheric distortion, I turned my attention to what appeared to be Jupiter, with only one faint moon visible tonight. I've seen as many as four, easily. As I was trying to pick out more Jovian moons, I caught what I thought was a moving light zipping through the star field above it, very fast, and very dim. Couldn't be a meteor (They appear below us.) A satellite! Totally unexpected, though certainly possible. We were nearing orbital midnight, so it must have been fairly high altitude to have any illumination at all. I was able to follow it for about 30 seconds before it became too dim. It was impossible to determine its exact inclination (or direction of travel) while looking through the narrow field of view of the optics, but it appeared to be crossing our orbit at a fairly high angle.

While thinking to myself how lucky I was to have seen that - the only other time I saw another manmade object in space while in orbit was when we saw the Mir go zipping by Discovery (STS-51) in September, 1993 - I returned to searching for moons when almost immediately I saw another, slightly brighter and faster, object enter the field of view! This time I was able to follow it for over two minutes, even though it became pretty dim, also. I could use the offset vision technique pilots use for catching dim points of light by stabilizing the binoculars everytime I lost it and having it reappear in my off center (peripheral) vision. This way I followed it until it entered the airglow at the horizon. Quite interesting, and much faster than the apparent motion of the Station or Shuttle when viewed from Earth.

Quite happy, I turned back toward Jupiter, and was met by yet another unusual sight! I saw what appeared to be an enormous red dust storm on the horizon, with a base of green and blue. At first I thought I was getting some kind of unusual glare on the window panes from a sunrise, though it seemed too early, and it didn't really look like a sunrise. I went back to the port window to see if it was there, also, and sure enough there was something there, but it was even more dramatic. Curtains of red and green lights hung in the sky, reaching higher than our orbit and shimmering and glowing in a magical way I've never seen before. It looked as if we were about to fly right through it! I raced to the Service Module and grabbed a camera, hurriedly trying to change to the settings for a low-light photo. I took a few at various speeds, though probably not quite slow enough; maybe when the experts adjust the brightness and contrast of the digital photos the Aurora Australis can be seen. It had a totally different character than the Northern lights, and was quite dramatic, especially since it was so unexpected. Absolutely beautiful! I never expected the Southern Lights… After all of that, the routine gorgeous sunrise a few minutes later was almost anti-climatic.

IMAGE:  Aurora Australis
Aurora Australis, slightly brightened by computer.

Well, that was one short turn around God's block tonight. This is a lesson for all of us: It's amazing what you can see when you just plain stop your hectic pace for an hour and open your eyes wide to watch the world go by. There are a lot of surprises and a lot of beautiful sights in this creation. Let them come to you.

In awe of it all, and lucky to be here,

In Space

Frank Culbertson
IMAGE: Astronaut Frank Culbertson Astronaut Frank Culbertson
Related Links
Frank Culbertson's Bio
Expedition Three Crew
Expedition Three Imagery
Culbertson's Letter About Sept. 11 Terrorists attacks
Living in Space
Earth Science
Johnson Space Center Earth Observation

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 06/24/2003
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