On Sunday, June 16, 10 children will celebrate Father’s Day on Earth while their fathers orbit overhead as members of the Expedition 36 crew aboard the International Space Station. Each of the men currently aboard the station has one or more children at home, making Father’s Day a bittersweet experience.
Astronaut Chris Cassidy left the bounds of Earth on March 28 for a six-month journey in space leaving behind a wife and three children at home. This is not the first mission to take Cassidy away from his family. In 2009, he was a crew member of STS-127, and, like so many other fathers, he has also served military deployments: twice in Afghanistan and twice in the Mediterranean.
Dealing with time apart is different for every father. Astronaut and father Gene Cernan left something special for his daughter, Tracy, in space in 1972. During Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon, Cernan carved his daughter’s initials into the lunar surface before returning to Earth. And as Cernan said, they will be there “forever, however long forever is.”
Another way to deal with separation is to communicate as often as possible. Cassidy and the rest of the crew have numerous ways to stay connected with their family and friends. They have email, which is updated by Mission Control daily as well as use of a special phone, an Internet Protocol phone – so they can call family and friends whenever they have free time and communications satellite coverage. They also have the opportunity for weekly video conferences, usually planned for the weekends when work aboard the space station is light.
“The communication is really good,” said Cassidy. “In fact I sometimes feel like I am more in touch with my family on the space station then when I was traveling back and forth to all the different training locations in the previous couple of years leading up to the flight.”
During the week, the majority of the crew members’ time is focused on a wide array of scientific research in the various laboratories. On any given day, a crew member may work on medical observations, conduct experiments studying different physical and materials sciences, support biology experiments that involve plant growth, or observe how small creatures, such as spiders, behave in space.
More than 200 experiments are planned for Cassidy’s mission alone. He will serve as the eyes, ears and hands in-orbit for more than 400 researchers on the ground who use the data from these experiments to help improve life on Earth: The Earth his children and the children of the other fathers on Expedition 36 live on and will grow up on. It is possible that some of these children will follow in their fathers’ footsteps as did Sergey Volkov, Roman Romanenko, and Richard Garriot. Volkov was the first, second-generation cosmonaut following his father’s Soyuz mission and two stays on MIR in the mid-80s and early 90s. Volkov launched on his first spaceflight in April 2008. Just over a year later, Romanenko traveled into space following his father, Yuri. Also in 2008, NASA astronaut Owen Garriott watched as his son, Richard, became the first American to go into space following a parent.
Sunday will be a special day for the men of Expedition 36 as they celebrate Father’s Day aboard the International Space Station and think about their children back on Earth.