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Greg Chamitoff's Journal
Message 6

Dear Friends,

iss017e019007 -- Astronaut Greg Chamitoff

NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff, Expedition 17 flight engineer, floats in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA.

I suddenly find myself on the last night before which I’ll no longer be considered part of the crew on the Space Station. This is a very strange feeling indeed. As we fly around preparing every part of the Space Station for the arrival of Shuttle Endeavour tomorrow, I keep thinking about how I’ve really made this place my home for a long time. Every corner is familiar, every computer and panel and switch and cable is familiar, if I didn’t actually put it there myself. I have favorite places to work on different things, certain routes and handholds I use to fly around, and my stuff is scattered around the Station as well. I’m reminded of a comic routine in which the comedian talked about “all of our stuff,” and how we spend our lives collecting and moving our stuff around. A place becomes home when it’s filled with your stuff. It’s also funny how you adopt things and they become yours. I came here with very little stuff, but gradually, even here, I’ve accumulated all sorts of things that “feel” like they are mine. For example, there is one still camera that I consider “mine,” and one computer on which I do most of my work. Everything from towels to office supplies, special food containers to tool sets, has become part of “my stuff.” I now have the same painful process to go through as I did on the way here – sort out which part of my stuff I’m going to take with me, and which I’m going to leave behind! Actually, as with returning from a vacation or a business trip, it’s a lot easier to pack for the trip home. But I still have to put away and give up all the things that aren’t actually mine, and this is what really makes me feel like my mission is truly coming to an end.

In fact, the next task on my list is to clean out my sleep station and prepare it for Sandy Magnus, who will be replacing me onboard. When I arrived, Garrett had prepared my “room” for me, and it was great to be able to move into my own place as soon as I got here. I feel like we are cleaning house for the arrival of house guests. The difference being that I have to move out of my bedroom, and then move out entirely when the guests leave. On the plus side of vacating my sleep station, I’m planning to sleep in the Japanese module (JEM) next to one of the large windows. The past several weeks have been so busy that I’ve barely had any time to look out the window. So I’m hoping that I can spend a little quality time late at night on my last few nights to burn the image and sensation of flying high over the Earth into my brain.

The transition from 3 to 10 people onboard is going to be traumatic, I’m sure. But we had some practice recently with the arrival of the Expedition 18 crew on the Soyuz. After 4 ½ months alone with my two Russian colleagues, we suddenly had 6 people onboard for a 10-day period and then my two long-time crewmates left. I was slightly anxious about this change. It’s amazing how you get comfortable with a situation, and in a limited environment such as this, there’s reason to worry about how things might change. Of course, change is also an energizing force, and, in fact, I’ve had perhaps the best days of my mission in the last month or so. Having six people on the Station was great fun! We were hosting private astronaut (“spaceflight participant”) Richard Garriott, whose father flew in the Apollo days. Richard and I have a few hobbies in common – juggling and magic, and since we discovered this more than a year ago, we were able to plan a few things ahead of time. After a few hours of practice late one night, we believe that we’re the first ones to successfully juggle and pass 6 balls in zero-g. We also inaugurated the first off-world chapter of the Society of American Magicians, and in so doing we had a great time putting together some zero-gravity magic. Of course, it is easy to make things float in zero-g, so we had to do things a little differently up here. Besides having things transform and move around in unexplainable ways, we also made our new commander, Mike Fincke, appear from nowhere in an empty rack bay. This late night project was quite a blast for us, as you can imagine.

This transition to now being part of Expedition 18 has given me new energy and enthusiasm that might have started to fade just a little before the Soyuz arrived. Part of that, I’m sure, has to do with sharing the experience here with a good friend (our new commander Mike). In some ways I’ve felt like I’m starting over again, and the three of us, Mike, Yuri Lonchakov, and I, are doing our best to kick off Expedition 18 with a bang. Although we had a party on the ground for the Expedition 17 flight control team, and said our farewells, I haven’t felt at all like my mission is over. That is, until now, as I begin move all my stuff out of my sleep station.

Preparation for the Shuttle arrival has been a huge undertaking, and it has completely dominated everything else for the past several weeks. Most of our work has been preparing things that need to go down. Once the Shuttle fleet retires we won’t have such a huge capability for down-mass, and it will be interesting to see how we have to change the way we’re doing business. Some of the down-mass is scientific samples, but a lot of it is hardware that needs to be refurbished, or is no longer needed here, but is too valuable to burn up on a descending Progress or ATV. Despite the workload of Shuttle prep activities, I’ve been very fortunate to be able to do some of the “personal science projects” that I hoped to do. For about a year I’ve been working in the background with a group of faculty and students at MIT who, in collaboration with the DOD, have an experiment up here called SPHERES. It is basically an engineering experiment with flying robots, not unlike what most people know from “Star Wars” as the training droid that Luke Skywalker used as he first learned to use his light saber. Our robots are free-flying self-contained little spacecraft of their own. They use compressed gas and a number of thrusters to control their position and orientation. The idea is to develop the algorithms that will be needed in the future for the control of autonomous robots or satellites that can perform various tasks inside or outside a spacecraft. The possibilities range from formation flying space-based antenna arrays to inspection and repair “droids.” The exciting part for me was that I had done some work before on autonomous aircraft that seemed to apply perfectly to this experiment. So with an incredible amount of help from other people, especially the group at MIT, we managed to finally test fly some of my algorithms onboard. We were trying to give the spheres the ability to re-plan and re-optimize their trajectories in real-time, while avoiding fixed and moving obstacles. One of the other spheres was the moving obstacle, and at times it was programmed to purposely get in the way. Anyway, to make a long story short, it was very exciting for me and the MIT team on the ground, to watch these flight tests happen right before our eyes. The spheres looked alive as they reconsidered new situations and attempted different ways to get around each other. It was a personal victory for me to be a true co-investigator in one of the experiments onboard (as opposed to being either the lab tech or the guinea pig), and it was a wonderful way for me to end my mission. I’m extremely grateful to the folks who worked so hard to make these final experiments possible.

iss017e018151 -- Expedition 17 crew members

Cosmonauts Sergei Volkov (right), Expedition 17 commander; Oleg Kononenko (left) and NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff, both flight engineers, participate in a press conference in the Columbus laboratory of the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA.

Just in case this is my final letter from space, I want to say that the greatest part of this adventure has come from the opportunity to share it with my family, friends, mentors, and colleagues, who are so important to me. As much as I’ve spent most of the last six months with just a few other guys in a box floating in space (granted a huge, beautiful, and amazing box), I never felt alone. Working with the Control Centers around the world everyday and having regular outreach events with excited school kids have really allowed me to fully enjoy this experience and to continually appreciate it too. Thank you for coming along for the ride.

The Shuttle guys will be knocking on the hatch in a few hours, so I need to go put on a clean shirt.

Warm Regards from the International Space Station,

P.S. 6 days later…………

My temporary “home” since STS-126 arrived has been in the JEM. Aside from the fact that I can’t close the door to this module, it’s a terrific “apartment” for one person. There has been some occasional traffic through here to do a few activities, especially robotics-related and for stowing/retrieving items that need to be transferred. But other than that, I’ve been able to have the place to myself. With several computers adjacent to the Japanese robotics workstation, the two huge porthole windows, and a nice corner by the window next to the airlock where I could hang my sleeping bag out of the way, it’s been great! I love being able to gaze out the window at night while in my sleeping bag, and then close the window when I feel like it. I’ve seen several shooting stars - one a real sizzler, and lots of great lighting storms during some of the night passes. I wanted to have some time by the window before I left, and this is giving me the opportunity.

I was just about to go to bed after a long night of sorting through photos, packing some of my things, and a lot of last-minute tasks to prepare for my departure. No matter where I am and no matter who I’m with, it seems that my habit is to be the last one to bed. Even with 10 people up here, the Station has been very peaceful and quiet in the late evening. Fergy (Shuttle commander) is keeping a strict bedtime for his crew, and that is a good 4 hours before I’m ready to call it a night. So despite some time pressure and what seems to be a sprint to when they’re going to kick me off the Station, I’ve had some quiet time alone at night, and that’s been good.

As I stared out the window just now, and was just about to close it, a feeling came over me that was not unfamiliar, but for the first time I was able to express this feeling to myself and put it into words. When I gazed out the window I saw some ice formations and immediately recognized the Antarctic waters south of Cape Horn. We’re flying the Space Station backwards right now, meaning the Russian segment is in the front (velocity vector direction). This is supposed to protect the Shuttle somewhat from micrometeroid impacts. This results in giving me a rare southern view from the Japanese windows. Usually, there is only one window with a view in this direction, and it’s in the Russian service module Kayuta sleep compartment on the starboard side. Since this is someone’s bedroom, we rarely get to look this way. It’s a nice change, actually.

But the panoramic and majestic view from the JEM windows is really something, and more than anywhere else on the Station you get a commanding view over the Earth. The power of this perspective is partly because it is an oblique view, but what I think really makes it special is not the Earth itself, but the amount of black sky you can see all around it. From these windows, the Earth is so obviously floating in an endless void, and the feeling that washes over you is the sense of scale of the universe. The feeling I got was one of recognition that “we are living on a such a tiny island in a vast ocean.” Looking down on the entire planet, I felt like I was just off-shore from a small paradise island in a boat that was just big enough to feel safe as long as I had the shore in view. And the sense that this is such a small step toward exploring and traveling and living in so many other far away and amazing places, that we can hardly imagine what’s out there. It’s so incredibly real from here - that the Earth is a beautiful ball floating in a vast universe that’s just waiting for us. If we could just all work together toward a common purpose then it would be so easy to build a bigger boat, one that can safely go much farther, and then we can finally leave the shoreline behind and set our sights on things so far beyond the limits that exist only down there.

Ad Astra,