December 23, 2011
Being absent for the holidays is collateral damage for an explorer, whatever the location. In Antarctica, the short Antarctic summer is when most exploration happens, and this falls over the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year holidays. Maybe you can get home by Valentine’s Day; it is best to arrive bearing flowers, chocolate, and a smile. Family life can be tough on Antarctic explorers.
Similarly, the timing of spaceflights depends on orbital mechanics as well as seasonal meteorological conditions at the launch and landing sites. Like sailors in the past shipping out with the tides, space explorers have no control over these factors and must warp their plans to fit the conditions of the Universe.
I have had the good fortune to be on two missions to space station and one to Antarctica. My collateral damage toll includes being on orbit for two Thanksgivings, Christmas, New Years, birthdays, anniversaries, a science fair, school plays, recitals, and Valentine’s Day (I was not there with flowers, chocolate, and a smile). While in Antarctica, I missed everything from November to February, but did make it home for Valentine’s Day (with flowers, chocolate, and a smile). Now, with this mission, my damage toll is rising. With our new internet capability on space station, I can at least send flowers. The essentials to bring with you into the wilderness of today are not flint, steel, and powder, but your credit card number and network login.
Meaningful exploration typically requires months away from home. Ultimately, it is the explorer who misses out on the significant family events. One should never forget that your family life goes on, with or without you.
Editor’s note: Don and his Soyuz crewmates docked with the International Space Station today, and got a chance to talk briefly with their families in Moscow.
And finally, a poem to mark the season:
High Tech Christmas
I’m dreaming of Christmas all snowy and white
while my ears are whispering Silent Night
An object flew by up high in the air
my eyes focused in on things that weren’t there
I thought for a moment I was out of my mind
it was really an encounter of the third kind
With sonic speed I could picture my doom
a few moments later I shook from the boom
It screamed to a halt, right over my head
and hovering there was a strange looking sled
It gave off an aurora from spontaneous emission
was obviously powered by nuclear fission
From behind it was pushed by a rocket reindeer
with ion exhaust drowning all you can hear
Was epoxy-graphite, titanium construction
a sled so to speak of high-tech instruction
Preconceived thoughts made me shimmer with glee
to be showed with gifts in a gluttonous spree
I expected at least some sort of computer
from such an advanced space age commuter
Instead boomed a voice that was both short and tall
“Peace on Earth my friend, Merry Christmas to all”
Then without so much as a silicon chip
the sled ventured off on the rest of its trip
I thought for a moment I was going to cry
that all Christmas goodies had passed me on by
But then I remembered those words in my ears
the best Christmas gift I have had in years
— Don Pettit, 1985