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Expedition Experiences Unite Astronauts
One year, one month and almost two weeks of experience in space shared the stage on Oct. 10 when astronauts Michael Lopez-Alegria and Sunita Williams talked to employees at NASA's Kennedy Space Center about the two missions to the International Space Station that recently concluded.

Both astronauts set duration records with their flights, and with a host of spacewalks.

Michael Lopez-Alegria and Sunita Williams make a presentation to Kennedy Space Center's Michael Wetmore. Image right: Astronauts Michael Lopez-Alegria and Sunita Williams told Kennedy Space Center employees about their missions to the International Space Station during which both astronauts set records. The two also presented Michael Wetmore of Kennedy with a memento of the visit. Photo: NASA/Jack Pfaller

"There's a lot of records up here, a lot of time on space station," Michael Wetmore said when he introduced the crew at the Training Auditorium.

But for as much time as they spent in orbit, they didn't give a sense of being eager to get back to Earth.

"It's really a wonderful sensation to just float around," said Lopez-Alegria, whose stay aboard the orbiting laboratory lasted 215 days.

Explaining that the inside of the station is about as large as the inside of a jumbo airliner, Williams said there was plenty of room for working, day-to-day living and getting a little time away from others.

"It didn't feel cramped at all," she said. "There's different places to move around."

But that comfortable feeling did not come without some adjustment, and several aspects of life in microgravity were never easy to get used to.

"You don't really lie down," Lopez-Alegria said of going to sleep. "You don't have that sensation of relaxing. I was able to fall asleep pretty easily, but I had a hard time staying asleep."

Williams agreed, saying she felt quite tired when she got back to Earth.

"I slept probably 16 to 20 hours the first night I was back," she said.

Astronauts Michael Lopez-Alegria and Sunita Williams prepare for a spacewalk. Image left: Michael Lopez-Alegria and Sunita Williams both made several spacewalks during their stays at the International Space Station. Lopez-Alegria's five excursions raised his total to a world-record 10, while Williams set a female mark for EVA time during four spacewalks. Photo: NASA

Lopez-Alegria and Williams shared time on the station during Expeditions 14 and 15, but their paths to the space station and back were along different roads.

Lopez-Alegria flew onboard a Russian Soyuz to the station and rode one of the small capsules through a 3 1/2-hour plunge back to Earth. The return included landing the Soyuz on the Russian steppes, a trip that concludes with a jarring smack.

"The landing is a little firm," Lopez-Alegria chuckled.

Williams, on the other hand, rode in the middeck of a space shuttle each way. After taking space shuttle Discovery into orbit on mission STS-116 for her first liftoff, she said the experience was unlike any other.

"I think all we were doing was whooping and hollering on the middeck," she said.

During the course of her four-month adventure, Williams said she quickly learned how to move around and picked up strong clues when she should cut her famously long hair. When her black locks started floating up near one of the fans, she asked for a haircut.

Michael Lopez-Alegria gets a haircut aboard the International Space Station. Image right: Hair still grows in space, so crews of the International Space Station often break out the clippers for a trim. The clippers are attached to a vacuum that sucks up stray hair. Photo: NASA

The pace is considerably more relaxed on the station than during a shuttle mission because the crew is staying in orbit for months at a time instead of a two-week stretch.

"You can almost forget sometimes that you have to go to work," Williams said.

Neither found themselves lacking in orbital tasks.

Lopez-Alegria added five more spacewalks to his resume during his increment and set a record with a total of 10 over his astronaut career. His spacewalking time extends almost three days in all.

One of his spacewalks included taking off a thermal blanket on the outside of the station and tossing it overboard at orbital speed.

"My fastball is recorded at 17,500 mph," he joked.

Williams set a spacewalk record of her own by completing four excursions totaling more than 29 hours during her flight, the most for any woman in the world.

There were also plenty of experiments for the crews to tend, including growing soybeans in a small centrifuge, and examining how the brain reacts to radiation.

The station crews did their share of maintenance during the flight, as well. That meant raising machines as large as refrigerators off the walls, which is quite a bit easier to do in space than on Earth.

"The one thing about zero-g is that the access is really good," Lopez-Alegria said.

For Lopez-Alegria, the trip to Kennedy was his first in about three years. He was assigned to the center early in his career as one of the astronaut support personnel.

"It's easy to lose sight of how cool this really is," he said. "You're doing something that is really a historic effort."

Steven Siceloff
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center