Thanks to the weightlessness of space, astronaut Greg Chamitoff, Expedition 17 flight engineer, isn't toting the excessive weight load he appears to be in this electronic still photo. While cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, Expedition 17 commander, looks on, Chamitoff works in the Kibo laboratory to move an experiment rack during a relocation task he and the two Russian crew members were sharing. Image Credit: NASA.I just got a new and strange feeling tonight. I was flying back and forth through my home up here, putting things away, reorganizing things, and feeling good about places I cleaned up, and new places I’ve designated for various things. As I just flew back in here (the U.S. Lab) from the Russian segment, I sort of swung from hand-hold to hand-hold, glided into my ”stirrups” next to my computer, and the feeling that suddenly hit me was, “I’m at home.” Not, of course, my real home with my family, but it was a strange sense of fully owning this space and being completely comfortable here. We’ve been doing a lot of work to move equipment, supplies, and trash around for the past few weeks. The Progress (Russian cargo vehicle) and ATV (European Automated Transfer Vehicle – cargo ship) are both departing next week. So we needed to off-load any remaining supplies and put everything there that we need to trash. We’ve also begun the process of moving some of the racks in the U.S. segment into the JEM (Japanese Experiment Module) and Columbus (the European Research Module). This resulted in total chaos in the Lab, with stuff everywhere, and many things that I’ve never touched before had to be moved, trashed, stowed, or reorganized. So maybe as a result of putting my hands on just about everything and moving it around, or maybe just because I’ve been here for 88 days now, this place has really become, let’s say, a second home to me. As I type this letter, I’ve got music blasting in the background (at 11:30 p.m., but there’s NO ONE it could bother!), and we’re flying over Patagonia – one of the most spectacular places on Earth, I’ve decided.
This is an 800mm oblique view which covers an area including Moffett Federal Air Field, NASA's Ames Research Center, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara, Calif. Image Credit: NASA.There’s something else that happened recently, in fact yesterday, that was really cool. By some strange coincidence, in one day, I saw most of the places I’ve ever lived. Not only did I see them, but I captured some extremely clear pictures. Clear enough that I could see where I and much of my family live and lived. In one pass across North America, I saw the San Francisco Bay Area, Lake Tahoe, Montreal, and Boston. After exploring these pictures on the computer later, I could zoom in and see the building that I lived in on campus at MIT for many years (Tang Hall). In San Jose it is possible to make out several of the areas where we lived. In Redwood City you can see my aunt’s condo complex. In Montreal the areas of my cousin’s house. My childhood neighborhood in Laval is also in plain sight. What an amazing flight across North America it was – in less than 10 minutes I watched most of the places where I’ve spent my whole life fly by. Houston and Sydney were missing from this particular pass, but I’ve certainly seen them at other times. To know that I’ll be able to look up at the night sky and think, ”I lived there too,” that will truly be awesome.
Amazon River, Brazil is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 17 crew member on the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA.We were approaching a long straight mountainous coastline. I could see some snow on some peaks along the ridge. The quantity of snow seemed to decrease in the mountains that were further away. Roughly speaking, north is on our port-side as our 51.6-degree inclination orbit winds north and south as it continues east. So twice per orbit the JEM windows face due north, and in between the direction swings toward the east and the west. So ”less snow toward the portside” means we’re in the Southern Hemisphere. Then I saw a monstrous inland lake. Lake Titicaca is impossible to miss. At that moment we were crossing the tip of southern Chile. I could see what seemed to be the entire Andes chain of mountains and clear across the southern part of South America all at once.
Earth's horizon and station solar array panels are featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 17 crew member on the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA.Suddenly, on the right, I see a spidery orange glow surrounded by pitch blackness. It's a big city with a sprawling glow of light. For a moment I can see two worlds at the same time – blue sky with clouds on the left and pitch black with city lights on the right. Then the Earth below disappears into total blackness. The Japanese robotic arm, the frame of the airlock, and the entire port-side truss with massive solar panels is brightly lit. Sunset for us is several minutes later since we are so far above the surface (same thing as sunset in a valley versus mountain top). With the Space Station so brightly lit and no light reaching the Earth’s surface from the sun, we suddenly seem to be isolated and floating in this endless void (which we are). Then the brightness begins to dim and the solar arrays take on a spectacular flame colored orange. Gradually over about 30 seconds they fade and fade until they too completely disappear. Now the only thing I can see through the window is the reflection of lights from inside.
ISS017-E-011603 (22 July 2008) --- Layers of Earth's atmosphere, brightly colored as the sun rises over central Asia, and Polar Mesospheric Clouds (also known as noctilucent clouds) are featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 17 crew member on the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA.Now I see an orange glow ahead on the horizon. It’s a city on the coast of some continent. I’m still playing ”name that place” and guessing it must be northern Africa or Europe. We’re over land now and I see city lights in all directions. Wow, this looks like a scene from a movie - incredibly full sky of stars above and a full display of lights below on the planet. It reminds me of a particular opening scene from one of the Star Wars movies. I see a few flashes outside the Station (on the Station). What could it be? It seems like the flash you'd see looking out the window of an airplane from its own beacon. But we have no beacon. The only possibility is a flash from lightning on the ground. I’m looking for some lightning and suddenly I see a shooting star below. Wow, that’s the first one that I've seen from space. Very cool! It streaked across the sky from north to south below us. The next flash was not easy to explain – it was blinding for a split second. The Japanese robotic arm is parked about 15 feet away from me right out the window. It lit up so brightly for a split second that it startled me. What the heck was that? It was too bright to have anything to do with distant lightning on the ground. I have no idea. My only thought, and it seems like a long shot, is that I saw a tiny micro-meteroid (dust particle) hit the ISS. What else could it be? The only other option I can think of is a cosmic ray hitting my retina. I've been waiting to see the expected flashes from this, but so far haven’t seen one. Maybe this was it?
The Tifernine Dune Field in Algeria is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 17 crew member on the International Space Station. The Tifernine Dune Field is located at the southernmost tip of the Grand Erg Oriental, a "dune sea" that occupies a large portion of the Sahara Desert in eastern Algeria. Image Credit: NASA.Again, I’m wondering where we are? I want to figure it out for myself. The terminator line, which fills maybe 10% of the view straight away from the window, is moving behind us. We're over land, and it seems to be a vast desert with ridge lines of barren mountains. I see snow on a few ridges, but otherwise it looks like dry desert. Minutes go by and we’re still flying over this desert – it’s huge. Now there are some mountains, and then a vast area of mountains and valleys. In the valleys I see clouds, and it seems to be like morning fog. I’ve never seen clouds like this before. Now I’m really sorry I don’t have the camera here. There are endless branching networks of mountains and valleys in all directions, and the clouds are appearing only in the branches of the valleys. The clouds look like giant snowflakes. It’s really amazing. There are patches of snowflakes everywhere, as the clouds are fully and perfectly outlining the shapes of all the detailed recesses of the valleys. I need to get a picture of this some time. I'm afraid this might have been my only chance to see it. I’ve never seen any pictures of anything like this before either – just incredible.