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Greg Chamitoff's Journal
Message 4

Dear Friends,

ISS017-E-021977: Greg Chamitoff with camera

Astronaut Greg Chamitoff, Expedition 18 flight engineer, uses a still camera at a window in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA.

Incredible! I just noticed we were approaching London around midnight GMT. I decided to turn off all the lights and set myself up for some hopeful night shots. What an amazing, spectacular, incredible, mind blowing view! I so wish I could have captured it, but as sensitive as I set things up, it wasn’t enough. I also needed to switch to manual focus and didn’t have time to make the adjustments fast enough. So for a moment I just stared at the incredible display of life below me. From there we flew across the rest of Europe in a few minutes and I was just overwhelmed with the beauty of our civilization as it was, splattered across the dark landscape. There were hundreds of brightly lit city centers connected by thinner and dimmer tentacles of light. It looks so much like a neural network, and it somehow seems much more lively than the views during the day when the supposed inhabited regions of the Earth blend in so well with the barren landscape. By contrast, at night, the lights of civilization are very distinct from the surroundings. Within minutes we were over Saudi Arabia and I thought about how incredibly different these places were from each other in terms of language, culture, government, religion, interests, and issues. To me it all passed so fast that it’s hard to believe there is any difference whatsoever. It’s all part of the same place, and it is actually all so incredibly close together by planetary-scale standards. As we passed city after city with beautiful patterns of lights, I couldn’t help think that it is truly hard to believe that there are so many people living on Earth, and that of 6 billion people there are only 3 of us who are currently living off the planet. How strange and unbelievable is that? It immediately threw me back into that surreal feeling just after launch of feeling like this is all a dream.

Today was a day off, and we seemed to spend much of it chasing icebergs. We had numerous orbits today with perfect lighting conditions as we passed Cape Horn and got far enough south from there to see the shorelines of Antarctica. The thrill was in the discovery of unusual patterns of ice that we’ve never seen or heard of before. Perhaps the NASA Earth observation folks will be able to explain it to me later. But there are fields of what seem like thousands of blocks of ice breaking apart and floating away from the mainland. Ahead of these, further to sea, there is a vast region of wispy curved and elongated ice sheets and bridges. It’s simply beautiful and looks like a work of art. In addition to these we found an ice island which seems to be as large as perhaps a quarter of New Zealand. I’m vaguely remembering that part of the ice-shelf broke off perhaps a year ago, and we’re wondering if that’s what we’re seeing. Again we’ll have to wait for the experts to tell us, but it has the most incredibly jagged, frozen, and desolate landscape.

ISS017-E-015752: Hurricane Ike

This picture of Hurricane Ike from Sept. 10, 2008, was downlinked by the crew of the International Space Station, flying 220 statute miles above Earth. Image Credit: NASA.

While we’re enjoying our day off, we’ve been acutely aware of events unfolding in Texas, especially Houston, as Hurricane Ike blasts through there today. This hurricane is so huge that it has been difficult to photograph from here. It’s interesting, but my first sense of serious isolation up here gradually crept up on me beginning around Thursday. The first thing to go was the uplink of news broadcasts, newspapers, and radio broadcasts. Usually we get a steady stream of a limited number of these sources of daily information about what’s going on down there. Once Mission Control in Houston decided that they needed to shift operations to a backup Control Center, the flow of information to us stopped. The Control Center gave us some updates themselves over the radio, but our awareness of news was limited to a few words a few times per day about the storm status. Then I noticed that all of our e-mail syncs on the schedule were cancelled for the future. As they transitioned to the backup Control Center, they could no longer support uplink and downlink of e-mail. We were essentially cut off, except for the comm link with Mission Control. Of course, we’re completely spoiled up here with such modern capabilities, and defaulting to comm with only Mission Control (via TDRSS satellites) is still way better than in “the olden days of spaceflight.” Nevertheless, it made me realize how dependent we were on the continuous flow of information, audio and video, to enable us to do our work and feel “connected” to everyone and everything on the ground. I could suddenly imagine what it would be like to lose comm for an extended period of time due to some system failure. This is certainly possible. We’ve had several minor comm problems during this mission already where we lost our normal space-to-ground link and had to use backup options.

Yesterday was supposed to be arrival and docking day for the Russian Progress cargo vehicle, but this was delayed because of Hurricane Ike. Of course, the Russians could have performed this docking regardless (as they did for years on Mir). It is a totally autonomous rendezvous and docking; however, the crew and ground monitor the approach, and the crew has the ability to take over and fly it in manually if necessary. Sergei let me fly the simulator just a few days ago – that was fun! Essentially what you have is a signal coming from the Progress vehicle to the Station that includes system control data as well as a video image of the Station and the docking target as seen from the Progress. The crew can fly the vehicle with XYZ, yaw/pitch/roll commands using two joysticks, and those commands are sent to the vehicle from the Station. But nominally it will fly in and dock all by itself. The docking is now delayed until Wednesday, probably just because they get better data and video coverage on the ground if we use U.S. assets as well as Russian assets during these dockings.

There are some much anticipated items on this cargo vehicle, which just launched successfully from Baikonur a few days ago. For one thing, there is chocolate! I’ve decided that, without all my other vices handy, chocolate is the key ingredient to a successful long duration mission.

Let me end with some words about flying. One of our good friends in Australia has been wondering about how it really feels in zero-g. He and his wife have been avid scuba divers. My friend points out that it’s not like floating in water, but is actually a continuous state of falling – so does it feel like that?

For my whole life I’ve had dreams in which I was flying. From talking to friends as a kid, I remember hearing that others had similar dreams. In my dreams I wasn’t in an airplane and it wasn’t like Superman either. It was usually low over the ground, and I didn’t seem to have much control. I would sort of lean forward and push off. I would be flying, but it was difficult to get going with any speed, altitude, or control. If you’ve ever stood on the bottom of a swimming pool and tried to move forward by leaning way forward and pushing off the bottom (while perhaps carrying something that isn’t quite heavy enough to keep you down), my dreams of flying always sort of seemed like that. I could almost sort of, kinda, barely fly. What I was dreaming about was living in zero-g, I just never knew it. Quite often here I find myself with my feet against a floor (or ceiling or wall, it doesn’t matter), and I want to go forward. But there’s no way, with your feet (down), perpendicular to the direction you want to go, to sort of push your center of mass in the right direction. Even when you get yourself leaning far in the right direction, the push-off leaves you floating just out of reach from the next thing to push against. So when you try to operate ”vertically,” you end up doing this ”bottom of the pool” walk, as if you needed more weight to hold you on the bottom so that you could get some traction. This is a very funny feeling when it happens. Even though it doesn’t work, we are still often doing things such that we use our feet to hold us in place, while using our hands to do some task. So as soon as you want to move somewhere else, you’re in this situation of not being able to push in the right direction with your feet. Sometimes you do this weird moonwalk or swimming pool walk, unless you can transition via a handhold to motion in the right direction. If you can imagine there being a big lever on the wall that has two positions ”gravity on” and ”gravity off,” it feels as if someone simply flipped the switch. In fact, it feels this way during the launch as well. Without any out-the-window references, it seems the same in the “Vomit Comet” (NASA zero-g aircraft that flies parabolas to get 20-30 second intervals of zero-g). There is no sense of falling or moving whatsoever. From here, even looking out the window at the Earth below doesn’t change anything. The Earth is turning or we’re moving, it makes no difference visually. At this point it seems so normal for me not to feel gravity, that it seems like 1-g is just one of many options – and not necessarily the rule. It feels great and it’s a lot of fun to move around so freely in 3D.

It’s amazing how quickly your brain gets used to the idea of reorienting itself suddenly. After about 2 days I completely stopped getting any vestibular effects or stomach awareness. It’s like your brain decides to completely ignore all sensory inputs for a second while you’re flipping around or turning. Once you get into a new orientation, your brain sort of snaps onto the new gyro setting. In each module up here, I sort of have 4 world views – that is, which way to look and which way to go, depending on which direction I’m currently using as ”down.” It’s very difficult to transform between them. For example, if I stash some new clothes near my washing area while the Earth is down, and then I flip upside down, which is what I do in this location to wash, I’ll be looking around for my clothes. It’s almost a game you can play with yourself – to place things in one orientation and try to find them in another. It’s also a great way to lose tools and everything else up here. In any case, while switching from one frame to the other, I notice that my brain sort of ignores the transition and locks on to the new situation once I’m there.

Anyway, zero-g is a blast, and if you do any scuba diving, it is very much like flying along the edge of a coral wall, with the exception that you feel exactly the same in any orientation and there is very little drag force without the water. So flying around, floating in the middle of nowhere, bouncing off the walls, or doing just about anything an acrobat might do is everyday fun. I’m really going to miss this feeling very much. Gravity is going to be a drag! I hope that I’ll continue to dream about flying, and maybe now that I’m so accustomed to it, in my dreams I’ll fly like a pro!

From space,
Greg