I can't believe I've been up here for 3 weeks already. It's been overwhelming in so many ways.
The past three weeks have been a blur of new sensations, out-of-this-world experiences, and hard work.
The launch was amazing - very smooth - it could have been a ride at an amusement park. For those of us on the middeck (without windows), it was just a little shaking and rumbling, surprisingly benign. Of course, the G's picked up, dropped off as we pass through the maximum dynamic pressure phase (for those who know what I'm talking about), and then ramped back up again to 3 G's. Having recently spent some time in the Russian centrifuge to practice emergency Soyuz descents, which can hit 8 G's for up to around 40 seconds, 3 G's is easy. The fact that it is sustained for a few minutes makes it a little uncomfortable, but it was little more than confirmation that we're getting somewhere.
It was a great ride up. I couldn't believe that a lifetime of wishing for this was suddenly happening all in that moment. It was an unforgettable 8 1/2 minutes.
Adapting to zero-G has been a lot of fun. We had many hours of busy work to do immediately 'post insertion,' as we call it. Of course, as soon as I possibly could I went up to the flight deck to see the view, and wow, it was incredible. The first sensation of looking out the window was very disorienting. Everything seemed to be floating - me, the shuttle, and the Earth, and all in different orientations.
That next day was very busy getting the shuttle ready for the work we were going to do on the station - preparing equipment and supplies for transfer, checking out the EVA suits, maneuvering the shuttle, and learning how to do everything in zero-G. The best part of the initial flight was approaching the space station. When we first caught sight of it, the view was straight out of a science fiction movie, it was awesome. Usually the shuttle flies sort-of upside down and backwards - this is best for thermal radiation, communication, and micrometeoroid protection. So normally, looking up out of the overhead windows is looking straight down at the Earth, and the front windows point in the direction you just came from. For approaching the station, though, we were in a 'normal' airplane-type attitude - so wings level, Earth below, facing forward. The view from the cockpit of the shuttle was just staggering. You could see more than 180 degrees from the left to right side of the cockpit, and the sense of flying over the Earth in a spaceship was just incredible. It was at this moment that I realized what is so special about the view from up here, and it is not what I anticipated.
In an airplane, during the day, the sky is, of course, still blue, no matter how high you go. If you fly higher you see further, so that is not unexpected. But the first thing that hit me with this view was that it was daylight, we were flying over the sunlit side of the Earth, yet most of what we saw out the window was the pitch blackness of empty space. It didn't matter that I've seen it this way on "Star Trek" or any other science fiction movie a thousand times. Seeing so much blackness, while seeing the Earth so brightly lit, was a contrast that surprised me more than expected. Although we are not so far away from the Earth in this orbit, different from being in an aircraft, the sensation was of two objects, our ship and the Earth, both floating in a dark void. And then there was another feeling. It wasn't that the Earth looked small, in fact it looks huge - the biggest thing you've ever seen - but from here you can see its shape, its size, and you get a gut feeling of being able to measure it with your own eyes. It's not the view, but this feeling that goes with it, of being able to measure it, that really washed over me as we began our approach to the station.
The first sight of the station was so cool. If you've ever flown at night, you know how you can easily spot other aircraft. There are all the lights on the ground, and then if you scan the above horizon you see the lights of other aircraft. They are so easy to pick out because somehow you have a viewpoint that enables you to see other aircraft at your altitude (or above). With the Earth below and darkness above, the space station first appeared as a bright dot - clearly, or seemingly, the only other spaceship above the planet. It didn't take long before it started taking shape, and then it grew more and more beautiful as its details came into focus. Having seen all the various parts of the station in training in various countries, it was still an unbelievable image to see this massive structure cruising along at 17,500 miles per hour high above the Earth. It's as large as two football fields side-by-side, and seeing all the pieces together forming one coherent spaceship was very impressive.
The space station is a huge and very impressive facility that we humans have somehow managed to build. There's no doubt that building this space station is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Despite working on it for 15 years, and knowing what every part of it looks like in great detail, I felt like I was seeing it for the very first time. It was the real thing - not a mock-up, not a simulation, not a picture, but another spaceship, a huge one, flying in formation with us in space. How cool is that? Wow! Incredible. It felt like we were in a movie. What could be more cool than this? Well, opening the hatches and being greeted, not by space aliens, but by some of your best friends.
Just before docking, Garrett called on the radio and said, "You guys have no idea how happy we are to see you." Arriving at my new home for the next 6 months, I felt exactly the same. How wonderful it was to meet our friends and colleagues who we have trained and traveled with for years, in this amazing place. Every one of the 10 of us, who spent the next 10 days on the station together, have been astronauts or cosmonauts for about 10 years (a few 8, a few others 12). Eight of us were still rookies prior to this mission. The first time I met Sergei, our commander on the station, we did a water survival course together in the Black Sea - that was 7 years ago. Mike Fossum, Garrett Reisman, and Ken Ham were all in my class - the 17th group selected in 1998. We've done everything from wilderness survival to T-38 training to field geology trips together. Karen Nyberg and I supported the Expedition 6 crew on the space station together - that was 3 years of traveling to/from Russia during their training, working in Mission Control as CapCom during their mission, and supporting their families, especially when the Columbia accident occurred and they were the crew who was still onboard the station. Sergei, Oleg, and I have been training together for the better part of a year, but all three of us have been training specifically for a long-duration space station mission for much longer - many years. Anyway, one of the really neat things about this whole adventure is that by the time you're doing it, everyone you're doing it with is a long-time friend. This even holds true for the folks on the
ground. Every voice I've heard on the radio so far has been someone that I know.
The next 10 days were just a blur of activity. My role was divided mainly between robotics and EVA preparation. The mission was otherwise non-stop robotics using 3 different robotic arms. As you know, it all went incredibly well - exactly as planned. The simulations on the ground are so perfect, that it was difficult to keep in mind that something huge was actually moving out there. We just went through the procedures and a myriad of checks and double-checks as we always did in training. Grappling, moving and connecting large space modules were amazingly straight forward given the incredible tools we have and the army of experts on the ground who built them and know what they're doing.
The robotics was a lot of fun, and opening the Kibo (JEM - Japanese Experiment Module) and flying in there for the first time was really something. At first it did not have any panels or racks installed, and so we had most of the cylindrical volume open. It was, and still is, by far, the largest and most open volume within the station. For a few wild and crazy minutes we had 10 people flying around in all directions. Then back to work, and the next several days involved installing system and science racks, hooking everything up to cooling, power, data, air-flow, etc.
At the far end of the JEM, there are two very large, port-facing windows, which are awesome. Most other windows on the station point down, which is great for Earth observations and photography, but you can't get a big picture perspective from that view. The JEM windows face the horizon, and the views are incredible. No doubt I'll be spending much of my free time gazing out of those windows, looking over the Earth, and just wondering what it all means.