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IMAGE: ISS Science Officer Peggy Whitson
ISS Science Officer Peggy Whitson gets a haircut from Commander Valery Korzun.

Expedition Five
Letters Home #13

By Astronaut Peggy Whitson:

Dear Friends,

Although the 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.

The international 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!

It appears that philosophical ramblings and shuttle launch slips are intertwined! Hope that you didn't mind following my meandering thoughts.


Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 03/28/2003
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