December 20, 2011
Four days ago our rocket was in pieces, scattered across the floor of the assembly building. Like anxious parents checking on their sleeping children, we took one last peek inside our Soyuz spacecraft. Everything was tucked in where it should be.
Three days ago the pieces started to come together, like giant blocks from a Lego set.
Two days ago all the pieces were assembled into the final form of our rocket.
One day ago our rocket rolled out on a train car from the assembly building to the launch pad. This is the same pad that Yuri Gagarin launched from in 1961. This launch pad made history, and still does. Within half an hour, our rocket went from laying down to standing up.
Today, the day before launch, last-minute touches are being made to our rocket in preparation for launch, and we crew members are doing the same. There are technical briefs, a conference with the upper management (back home we say “Big Cheese,” here they say “Big Pinecone”; in any language it’s the same), a press interview, and one last chance to be with our families. We share a movie. By tradition, we watch the classic Russian film “White Sun Of the Desert.” We share a meal. No one speaks of this as a last supper, but it is. One last hug, a good laugh, a good cry, and my family departs.
Tomorrow we walk to our rocket and climb the stairway that leads into space. The sky is not the limit, at least not anymore. What an adventure—and I have not even left the planet yet.
Our Soyuz spacesuit is named after the Russian word for falcon: сокол (sokol). It serves only one purpose, to keep us alive in the event of a cockpit depressurization. We venture into a place that is devoid of nearly all matter–a vacuum. This vacuum is as vast as space itself, and in a flash will remove our life-sustaining vapors with no more perturbation than an 18-wheeler smashing a jackrabbit on Route 66. And the effect on your body would be about the same.
I have a symbiotic relationship with my spacesuit. I take care of it, and it takes care of me in return. Almost like a living exoskeleton, it can take on its own cantankerous personality, and will bite, pinch, and torque my flesh, leaving red pockmarks, bruises, pulled muscles, aching backs, screaming knees, and occasionally a bleeding scratch or a black fingernail (that slowly sloughs off like flesh in a sci-fi movie). Like taming a wild animal, I’m aware of its nature, and I put up with an occasional bite for the sheer pleasure of its company.
By design a space suit is hermetically sealed, so it creates a microclimate that rapidly reaches 100% humidity at body temperatures. We do have cooling—a rather slow flow of air at tepid temperatures that sweeps out some of the steamy vapor. If you just sit there, this cooling is adequate. We do have periods, particularly during emergencies, where we become quite active. During our training for fires (simulated with stage smoke), cockpit depressurization (simulated by inflating our suits), and ocean landings (we practice the real thing in the Black Sea), the cooling system is deactivated and temperatures rise. During some of these exercises, core body temperatures have reached over 39° C (102° F), requiring intervention from the array of flight surgeons who monitor the exercise. During such exercises I have produced over 2 kilograms (4½ pounds) of sweat, which ends up inside my sealed spacesuit. The suit thus becomes a mobile, living sauna. No wonder crews practice the Russian tradition of sauna for off-duty relaxation—it’s training for the real thing.
My spacesuit is a marvel of fabric, polymers, and metal, custom-fit to my particular anatomy. It becomes a spacecraft in itself, shrunken down to conform to the shape of my body. It is imperative to understand not only where all the various levers, knobs, and closures are located, but also the engineering behind their operation. Every spacesuit has a regulator that senses the inside pressure so that it doesn’t drop below a level required to maintain consciousness. NASA spacesuits use a regulator based on the difference in pressure between inside the suit and outside. Russian suits use a regulator based on absolute pressure. To a first order, this design is transparent to the user; the spacesuits simply inflate when the ambient pressure drops. However, there are nuances that the user should keep in mind. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your pressure regulator will help you survive on a bad day.
When dealing with technology in this wilderness, especially when it’s required to keep one’s pink flesh safe, bad days can happen. Beware of claims for unsinkable ships. There were times when the U.S. and Russian space agencies both dispensed with spacesuits. They were deemed an unnecessary expense. The engineering guaranteed that cockpit depressurization could not happen. After both the U.S. and Russian programs lost full crews, due in part to spacecraft depressurization, the spacesuits were brought back. Another lesson learned, pried from the bodies of those who explore.
When it comes time to doff my suit, I strip it off with a mix of reverence (thank you for being there) and loathing (I can’t wait to get out of this thing). Like a moist, slimy worm emerging from a chrysalis, I shed this exoskeleton with great anticipation. Hot, sweat-soaked long underwear steams in the cool air, and gives me needed relief from evaporative cooling. This sensation is difficult to describe in words.
But our work is not done; we have to take care of our spacesuits. I hook mine up to a ventilator, which inflates it like a large blowup doll—or, more fitting, a blowup astronaut. It’s like we have visiting guests, perhaps company for dinner. It takes about 2½ hours to dry a suit. I do not want the inside of the suit to become a biological experiment.
Thus I dote over my spacesuit with the same care a knight might take in preparing his battle armor. While still on Earth, I have an array of suit technicians, modern day squires, to help in the process. These people are experts, there to teach you the proper way to care for your spacesuit, for there will come a day when you are on your own and have to operate without any help. If you want to increase your chances to survive, it is imperative to absorb their pearls and become one with your suit.
I hate my spacesuit; I love my spacesuit. Such contradictory thoughts remind me that I am very much alive.
December 13, 2011
The road to space is a long and arduous path, a meandering trip that in many ways is more demanding than the Space Station mission itself. Training to fly into space is also the next best thing to actually flying into space. And flying into space is what my job is all about.
When I tell folks that I have been training for this Expedition 30/31 mission for two years, they often remark about the hardship, particularly the degree of international travel, which always equates to time away from your family.
The International Space Station, which I like to simply call space station, was built by over a dozen different countries. Astronauts in training are the tip of the iceberg in the spaceflight business, and thus are in high demand to be seen in the international partner countries. So during this two-year (or sometimes two-and-a-half-year) period, crews in training accumulate a lot of frequent flyer miles as they travel around the world to these various training camps for astronauts.
In this training period, you effectively put out an effort equivalent to achieving a graduate degree in engineering. Except in this case, your dissertation defense is conducted in space. And a mistake costs you more than minus ten points.
I have had the good fortune to travel to Montreal, Canada (often in bitter-cold wintertime), Tsukuba, Japan (usually in muggy-hot summertime), Cologne, Germany (I missed Oktoberfest by one rainy week), Star City, Russia (all the seasons, from smoky-hot to biting-cold), and Baikonur, Kazakhstan (either hotter than Star City or colder than Star City, with little in between). These are places that are steeped in proud, rich culture, with long histories that make anything back home seem young in comparison. For a simple country boy from a small logging-farming town in Oregon, the opportunity to live in these places for an accumulated time of weeks and months over a period of two years is an education in itself.
And of course there is Houston, Texas, my home with my family, in fully urbanized civilization. Houston is the center from which my strength flows.
At these training camps, we work hard. I typically start at 7:00 am (9:00 am when in Europe) and go until 6:00 to 8:00 pm. After every two-hour block of time, the subject abruptly switches. One block may be about the reaction control thrusters that control spacecraft attitude, which involve these delightful mathematical constructs called quaternions, while the next might be about installing a skullcap on your crewmate for recording an electroencephalogram. Then we might learn how to use a surgical staple gun to repair a gaping scalp wound, followed by shoving a urinary catheter up the orifice of a rubber model (for some reason we do not practice this on our crewmates). Then we get a break for lunch and continue until evening.
International travel gives us no relief from the demands of our physical trainers. Experts in exercise physiology are assigned to follow a crew and hound us into a degree of athletic conditioning just shy of that for an Olympian. The purpose for this is more than just dangling a ribbon-clad piece of metal around your neck. We train to the bone literally to save our bones; we want to return from our mission and continue to live a normal life on this planet. I cannot think of a better motivation. There are a number of well known maladies that inflict havoc on human physiology when one ventures off into space for long periods of time. This is our modern equivalent to 18th-century seamen contracting scurvy on long ocean voyages. What was all a big mystery then is now 4th-grade level knowledge. Our current suite of space-born maladies are just as baffling to us now as scurvy was back then, and I venture to guess that in 200 years, a 4th grader will be able to tell you the reason why. For now, our most informed haven’t a clue. Such advances in human physiology are pried from the bodies and souls of those who explore.
Our current thoughts for maintaining health center around a blend of strenuous cardiovascular and weight lifting exercises (we call it resistance exercise since “weightlifting” in a weightless environment just does not compute). Again, in 200 years, this will probably be viewed with the same disdain that we currently hold for the practice of bloodletting in past centuries. So I sweat and grunt in the gym wherever I happen to be in training, under the virtual eye of my trainer, who constantly nags me to put another plate on the bar, and not one of those wimpy 10-pounders. He will be on my direct on-orbit e-mail list, so there is no relief on or off this planet.
My calling in this life is to be on the frontier. The effort required to get there — the studies, the mental work, the physical work — are not the difficult parts. I thrive on such activity, and it only makes me stronger. Whenever I leave the confines of civilization, a small but ever present spark in my heart grows into a flame, becoming a beacon that fills my soul with warmth. My spirit is freed by the very nakedness of the universe. But then another spark, always present but often ignored, pulls at the fabric of my being, reminding me of civilized life, at home with my family. Such is the Explorer’s Dilemma. Being thus plagued, my spirit is never at peace with where I am. This energy, if properly channeled, can be the source of great strength.
The venues of exploration come and go with time, but the human story remains the same.
If I were not assigned to this mission, I would be back in Houston, tasked as an astronaut to a technical engineering project supporting some aspect of space flight. Exciting of course; working on the human exploration of space is where I want to spend my life’s energy. However, in blunt astronaut vernacular, this work is called “flying a desk.” So when asked if I mind the long road to space, I think to myself, “During the past two years I could have been flying a desk or training to fly into space. Which would I prefer?” Then, after a small pause, I reply, “It’s a long road, but at the end I get to fly into space.”