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IMAGE: ISS Science Officer Peggy Whitson
ISS Science Officer Peggy Whitson operates Canadarm2 from inside the Destiny Laboratory during STS-112.

Expedition Five
Letters Home #12

By Astronaut Peggy Whitson:

Dear Friends,

Lots of things have happened since I have last written, so I will try to fill you in. Before the launch of the shuttle (STS-112/assembly Flight 9A), there was a hurricane in the Gulf, Lili, that we were watching from here. From our vantage point, the eye of the hurricane really did look like an eye, with a well-defined shape and edges. Lili's skirt was formed by the surrounding clouds, which appeared to be sucked into a swirling dance around the eye. Instead of needing to worry about the orbiter in Florida though, we were worrying about Mission Control. Mission Control Center in Houston (known as MCC-H as opposed to MCC-Moscow in Russia) made the decision the day before predicted land-fall of Lili that they would have to abandon MCC-H. This contingency was planned for, even though I doubt if any of the planners really expected that they would ever have to execute this plan. The backup MCC was co-located at MCC-Moscow. A small team of NASA folks work in the MCC in Moscow full-time and serve not only as liaisons between the Russian Control Center and the Control Center in Houston, but also train folks on corresponding systems in the Russian segment. I am very familiar with this group in Russia, since I worked with them on the development of dual language procedures and crew interfaces before I was selected for this mission. This team became our backup MCC.

Before MCC-H shut down, they commanded from the ground as many non-essential systems off as possible, in order to prevent potential power-downs if we did not have sufficient power (the command and control computers here onboard would recognize if the station is low on power and would perform automatic "load sheds" to reduce the overall power consumption if they saw us approaching a limit). Normally the ground very closely monitors our power levels in order to minimize the potential for load sheds, but with the MCC shut down this would not be possible. In addition, the ground re-enabled a lot of the caution and warning (C&W) that they typically have suppressed (i.e., typically we can see that data, but we don't receive any C&W tones and the ground handles the necessary steps). This was required, since the only data that the ground was able to receive was while we were traveling over Russian ground sites…about 10 min out of every 1.5-hour orbit. Thus, their data was much more limited than the normal telemetry that they are typically able to receive. So limited in fact that they requested that I read down on each orbit any advisories that we might have received as well as monitoring the state of charge on the batteries to ensure that we did not go beyond the predicted limits. And since this was our only communication avenue, the three of us had to ask our questions and answer any questions the ground might have all within the available 10 min. I found out how short 10 min can be and how frustrating it must have been to try and accomplish complicated tasks on the Mir station, since this was their only form of communication. Also, no e-mail and soft phone access either. Although the backup team in Russia did a great job, I was really relieved to have our normal communications back. After just a couple of days I was able to understand why people would feel isolated with this extremely limited comm! It's great for me to have a Control Center that is able to help me work through problems as they arise, with as little impact to my overall work as possible.

Before the shuttle arrived, I was scrambling, trying to get an answer to a critical question….What is the appropriate bell-ringing etiquette for an arriving Shuttle? The station has a bell that was brought here during Expedition 1. It is used to announce the arrivals and departures of vehicles and commanders to our ship, Alpha. I had rung the bell per instructions by Dan Bursch as the Expedition 4 crew and the Endeavour departed as our term of residence here began. But I could not remember what was considered appropriate for arriving vehicles. The tradition is based on naval traditions (something I don't know too much about) that have been adapted for use here. In case you are interested, we ring twice for arriving/departing commanders and twice for arriving/departing vehicles. So for this shuttle, we rang twice, paused and twice more. For the next shuttle, however, we will do 3 sets of 2 rings, since there will be 2 commanders on board, one pair will be for the shuttle commander and one pair for the arriving station commander. So armed with the appropriate etiquette sent to me from the ground team (bell-ringing etiquette for the naval-knowledge impaired), as soon as Valery and I confirmed the station went into free drift upon capture with the shuttle docking mechanism, I rang the bell and called "Atlantis arriving." I was so proud of myself for getting it right. Later I found out from Jeff Ashby, the commander of the shuttle, that they didn't hear the bell or my comm on the orbiter! So much for trying to establish a tradition! But we did get part of the tradition right…they did hear the bell and the call as they departed.

The bell ringing announced the arrival of our guests. And even though I had to share my space with them (an adjustment on my part), we got a lot of work out of these guests while they were here! The day of docking was hugs and a flurry of activity to move the EVA suits/parts over from the shuttle, transfer some of the key items necessary for the first EVA and review the robotics operations with Sandy. All these steps were critical, since the next day required quite a bit of choreography to remove the truss from the payload bay of the orbiter and install it onto S0, the central piece of truss which is located on top of the laboratory module, followed immediately by an EVA in which mating power connections was necessary for survival heaters to protect the newly installed hardware.

The next morning I think everyone was awake and moving around earlier than scheduled, because we all knew how time critical each step of the day would be. In the laboratory module where the robotics work stations are located, we were power cycling all the computers (to reduce the impacts of single event upsets caused by radiation hits on the hardware) and getting the data connections set up as well as setting up the pre-breath hoses and exercise equipment for the EVA crew members. (The time required to breath O2 before going into the lower pressure environment of the suit is reduced if it is accompanied with exercise.) Sandy was also talking with Jeff on the shuttle in order to orient his camera views the way we needed for optimal viewing while removing the truss from the payload bay of the orbiter. We had pre-positioned the arm for grapple (attachment to the truss), so we were ready to go as soon as we had good camera views and our displays ready. The EVA crew members and the crew members helping with the pre-breath process were all in the laboratory or flying back and forth to/from the airlock and talking on one comm loop, while Sandy talked on another loop with the ground concerning robotics ops and still another with Jeff for the camera views. I looked at Sandy just before I began to move the arm and said that although I expected a lot of challenges during the arm ops, I had WAY underestimated the amount! Once we had grappled the truss with the station arm, Jeff on board the orbiter released the payload retention latches and the truss was ours. The truss itself weighs almost 30,000 lbs, but of course in 0-g this mass is only an issue when it concerns inertia. In other words, we had to move VERY slowly in order to control the mass. Also, the truss filled the payload bay, so clearances were tight all around. In fact, after lifting the truss out of the bay by about 2 meters, we had to pivot it so that we would not hit the tail of the shuttle or the antennae on the laboratory module, as we moved it out initially aft in the shuttle payload bay and then to the starboard side.

Next were the maneuvers to the pre-install position. Sandy commented that it was difficult to imagine that we were doing something besides a video game. In an effort to reinforce the reality, we took a short break midway through the procedure to go to the shuttle and look out the window there since there are no windows on station available to see this view. It was an incredible sight with the station arm arced over the forward end of the shuttle and with a HUGE piece of truss hanging on the end!

In order to line up this new piece of truss with the one already installed on the laboratory, we used a system called the space vision system (SVS) in addition to the camera views. This system determines the distance between strategically placed black dots on the previously installed structure relative to the piece of structure that is being installed. Jeff, in the shuttle, was setting up this system and then shipping the data to us for use. At 30 cm from the final install position, we planned to stop for final alignment. After rechecking the SVS targeted vs. visual references from our cameras (lining up handrails and checking for any apparent visual misalignments), we started the final and very slow process of moving into the capture claw and then into the fine alignment guides. These alignment guides are conical structures that fit over pins as the two pieces are mated together. The conical structure provides a wide to narrow alignment that allows the pieces to come together very precisely. Some of the pre-flight analyses indicated that we might not be able to get into all the fine alignment guides at the same time. The ground team had devised a plan for what maneuvers would be necessary depending on which ready-to-latch (RTL) signals we received. During this final phase, Jeff calls us to tell us that we have 1 min to sunrise, and after that the SVS data will be no good. No pressure here! We were able to get 2 of the 3 RTL signals almost simo, but the arm was not stalling, so I continued in for the 3rd. This signal for this 3rd and last RTL was flashing on and off, and the ground gave us a go to continue. Sandy and I would have been floating, if we weren't already, because we were able to get all three ready-to-latch signals!

Next we had to drive the motorized bolts connecting the truss pieces together, commanded from a computer in the laboratory. Although it was the first time this system was used, it worked flawlessly. I know there were a lot of folks on the ground that breathed a big sigh of relief…but probably not as big a sigh as Dave and Piers who were in their suits preparing to go out the hatch for the EVA. If we had been unable to drive these bolts, the EVA crew members would have had to install contingency bolts manually.

Next Sandy and I switched roles and she drove the arm for the EVA crew members while I monitored the procedures, the camera views and tried to handle the comm. She had been training with Dave and Piers on the ground (in a virtual reality laboratory and in the large swimming pool for EVA training) and was ready to support the details of their installation/setup tasks.

Because power connections by the EVA crew were necessary, the ground also had to power down the upstream power distribution systems, half at a time. Part way through the EVA support, the arm went into an unknown state, which turned out to not be recoverable that day. This happened while I was configuring some video routing, in which I misread a line in the procedure. I was convinced and mortified that I had put the arm into this configuration. The EVA tasks that were remaining were very difficult without the arm, but Dave and Piers really put forth a heroic effort to finish the tasks up. The next day the ground informed us that the power-downs had caused a "loss of comm" that put the arm in this configuration, so I didn't have to feel quite so guilty.

The days that followed were less stressful than the first: full of transfer, 2 more EVAs with robotics support and dinners usually together as one big group. It was fun "dining" with the shuttle crew, since they brought a new variety of food! The station food is planned on an 8-day cycle, so after several months, nothing seems particularly interesting. Although the shuttle food was the same type of stuff, re-hydrated or irradiated, it was still different than what we had selected in our 8-day cycle so it was a little more interesting. They also carried up a precious gift from my husband…a pecan pie! Valery and I discussed when we should eat the pie, and we decided that we should eat the pie the evening that 9A departed. I don't think Valery wanted to share it with any more folks than he had to…he loves pies, too. It was the main course and the dessert that evening!

I bet you didn't know that we have a form of gambling on board the station. Carl Walz coined the phrase the "red light lottery" and I think it very appropriate. The person that turns the dial for the air/water separator to activate the suction for the toilet and gets instead a red light indicating the urine tank is full is the "winner." And since the "winner" showed up with their own "full tank of urine," they have the additional honor of lifting the panel from the floor, removing the full urine tank, recording the date of removal, stowing the full tank in the Progress for disposal, searching for an empty urine tank (in the same place with all the full ones), recording the serial number and date, reattaching the hose, removing the warning indicator, all before the opportunity to use the toilet! During the early phases of the mission, I counted myself pretty lucky (in the sense that I "won" very few red lights), but time tends to even these things out…


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