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Greg Chamitoff's Journal
10.03.08
Message 5

Dear Friends,

ISS018-E-006428: Astronaut Greg Chamitoff in Kibo lab

Astronaut Greg Chamitoff, Expedition 18 flight engineer, wears a communication system headset while looking through a window in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA.

It's very late on a Saturday night, and I was just hanging out by one of the large Japanese windows to watch the sunrise before going to bed. All is peaceful and quiet on the Station and seemingly on Earth. There's a continuous humming sound onboard, which is only really noticeable at a time like this. It's reassuring somehow. It feels like the hum of an engine running and I always have to fight the sensation that this background noise is something that keeps us speeding along through space. Actually, it is just the sound of fans that are continuously circulating the air. We're so accustomed to the idea that an engine must be running to keep a vehicle going, that the explanation for the sound is practically a subconscious response. I found out how deeply I'm connected to this sound when the other night I woke up because it stopped. I would have never thought it possible to wake me up by turning “off” a noise. That was yesterday and it was a very difficult day for us. On the very last “operational” day of Expedition 17 we found ourselves on a Space Station in “survival mode.”

I guess it was Murphy's Law's way of making sure we got to “see it all” during our mission. Two days ago we lost the liquid separator pump for our toilet. At first, it didn't seem to be a similar problem to what had happened before I arrived over 4 months ago. My colleagues configured the Soyuz vehicle facilities to support us in the meantime, but there's a maximum of a two-day capacity there. That same night one of the relay channels failed on the Russian segment, which resulted in a cascade of failures that I believe explains why some faulty smoke detector signals went off, thus shutting down all the air circulation, oxygen generation, CO2 scrubbing, and impurity removal. This is an automatic response to prevent a fire from spreading. At the same time, some aspect of the original failure caused a loss of other systems that resulted in the transition to survival mode. We're actually still waiting to hear details about what happened. Fortunately, it isn't that big of a deal to be in survival mode. We can operate onboard for quite some time in this mode, and it doesn't necessarily imply a potential evacuation. However, that depends on what the problem is. We heard a lot of sirens and alarms for many hours. Houston and Moscow were extremely busy all day recovering. The whole situation started in the very early morning but everything was back to normal by the end of the day, including the bathroom facilities (after putting in a new separator). All in a day's work for the Control Centers.

We celebrated the end of Expedition 17 that night by hosting a party for the whole Houston team. This was in the planning for a while and it was great to be able to thank and congratulate the team on all their great work for the past 6 months. It's been a very successful mission and has gone very smoothly. The installation of the new Japanese module, and the subsequent work to get the laboratory completely out-fitted and operational for science, was a huge accomplishment for the team (and for Japan). Being part of this team and this crew has been an amazing and rewarding experience. I'm going to miss my crewmates and the ground team that I've gotten to know so well, once we hand-over to the Expedition 18 team.

It's a few days later now and three “new guys” should be docking with us on the Station in 9 hours. This weekend has been a whirlwind of activity trying to prepare the Station and ourselves for the 10 days ahead. The Station is about as clean as it's going to get. It's been chaos recently because we've been relocating racks from one module to another for a few weeks. Each of these moves involved relocating a ton of temporarily stowed or configured things like laptops, handrails, hoses, wires, and a hundred other devices and tools and notes that were there (usually) for a reason. The goal was to prepare the Station for the arrival of some new racks with the Space Shuttle in about a month. Water recycling equipment, new crew quarters, a galley and a hygiene station are among the new racks that are coming up. With the new equipment, the Station will be able to support a long duration crew of 6 beginning in the Spring of 2009. In the meantime we have a few new large gaps of open space, which means there's suddenly an opportunity to do some “advanced acrobatics.” Our celebration of the last night (with just the three of us) was to take some video of us enjoying this new empty space as we performed daring stunts of acrobatic flying, while trying not to break anything (including our heads). If you've ever seen that footage of the SkyLab astronauts trying to run in a circle around the inner circumference of their module, then you get the idea. We only had two sides open, so it was more like jumping between two trampolines that faced each other, but it was a lot of fun.

The next 10 days will undoubtedly be extremely busy, fun, and exhausting. We'll basically skip next weekend and rest again after my current roommates depart. I asked them today if they are ready to go home, and the answer was a resounding “YES.” They are very excited that their mission was very successful and is coming to its conclusion. They both have kids at home and are really looking forward to being with their families. But they are also holding their breath to some extent. First we need a successful docking of the “new guys.” Once they're onboard, I think that Sergei and Oleg will have confidence that they will, in fact, be leaving soon. It will be the same for me when the Space Shuttle launches in about a month's time. Until it actually gets off the ground, arrives here, and performs a successful docking, you just never know.

I've had mixed feelings about the change that is about to happen onboard. Despite the fact that our view out the window is so grand, our entire “living” universe is limited to the inside volume of the Station. Things have gone really well here for 135 days, and the friendship I have with Sergei and Oleg is the bond of a lifetime. Things are comfortable as they are; I know where everything is; and by now I have a good sense of how to get things done a certain way. It feels late in “my mission” to start again with a new crew and a new team. But that's just the way it works. In one way I think I'm very lucky about the timing of this. Historically, the 3rd quarter of previous expeditions of all kinds has tended to be the most difficult to endure. For me, this time is rich with major events and activity, not to mention the energy and enthusiasm that the new guys will have when they get here. By the time I might start feeling weary, the Space Shuttle mission will be upon us. So as I go to bed tonight, I'm really looking forward to an exciting day tomorrow. We'll be two very happy crews – for us, the pleasure of welcoming our friends and colleagues onboard (the first other people we will have seen in 4 months), and for them the excitement of blasting into space, docking with an incredible Space Station, only to be greeted at the door by their friends. One of the most amazing things about being here is that by the time you arrive, the people you are sharing the experience with are close friends. After all the training we've all been through over the years, and including our space flight participant Richard Garriott, the six of us all know each other well, and it will be a great reunion.

From space,
Greg