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Greg Chamitoff's Journal
Message 3

Dear Friends,

ISS017-E-014091: Greg Chamitoff

Thanks to the weightlessness of space, astronaut Greg Chamitoff, Expedition 17 flight engineer, isn't toting the excessive weight load he appears to be in this electronic still photo. While cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, Expedition 17 commander, looks on, Chamitoff works in the Kibo laboratory to move an experiment rack during a relocation task he and the two Russian crew members were sharing. Image Credit: NASA.

I just got a new and strange feeling tonight. I was flying back and forth through my home up here, putting things away, reorganizing things, and feeling good about places I cleaned up, and new places I’ve designated for various things. As I just flew back in here (the U.S. Lab) from the Russian segment, I sort of swung from hand-hold to hand-hold, glided into my ”stirrups” next to my computer, and the feeling that suddenly hit me was, “I’m at home.” Not, of course, my real home with my family, but it was a strange sense of fully owning this space and being completely comfortable here. We’ve been doing a lot of work to move equipment, supplies, and trash around for the past few weeks. The Progress (Russian cargo vehicle) and ATV (European Automated Transfer Vehicle – cargo ship) are both departing next week. So we needed to off-load any remaining supplies and put everything there that we need to trash. We’ve also begun the process of moving some of the racks in the U.S. segment into the JEM (Japanese Experiment Module) and Columbus (the European Research Module). This resulted in total chaos in the Lab, with stuff everywhere, and many things that I’ve never touched before had to be moved, trashed, stowed, or reorganized. So maybe as a result of putting my hands on just about everything and moving it around, or maybe just because I’ve been here for 88 days now, this place has really become, let’s say, a second home to me. As I type this letter, I’ve got music blasting in the background (at 11:30 p.m., but there’s NO ONE it could bother!), and we’re flying over Patagonia – one of the most spectacular places on Earth, I’ve decided.

Life is good in space. The days are long and a lot of work. Sometimes the work feels productive scientifically or technically, and sometimes it is just manual labor. Today was one of the latter kinds of days, and I find it sort of therapeutic. It’s an interesting mix up here between things that require special skills (like flying the robotic arms) and things that are basic nuts and bolts. It’s fun to get back to basic nuts and bolts once in a while. Today I completely took apart the exercise bike and put it all back together – the purpose being to grease a few joints to assure longevity of the whole contraption. I admit that it didn’t feel as productive as doing a science experiment, but for some reason I really enjoyed doing it. Anyway, one of my goals was to fly in space long enough to feel like I really have lived here and didn’t just come for a visit. For some reason, today was the day that made me feel this way.

ISS017-E-014158: Moffett Federal Air Field and neighboring areas

This is an 800mm oblique view which covers an area including Moffett Federal Air Field, NASA's Ames Research Center, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara, Calif. Image Credit: NASA.

There’s something else that happened recently, in fact yesterday, that was really cool. By some strange coincidence, in one day, I saw most of the places I’ve ever lived. Not only did I see them, but I captured some extremely clear pictures. Clear enough that I could see where I and much of my family live and lived. In one pass across North America, I saw the San Francisco Bay Area, Lake Tahoe, Montreal, and Boston. After exploring these pictures on the computer later, I could zoom in and see the building that I lived in on campus at MIT for many years (Tang Hall). In San Jose it is possible to make out several of the areas where we lived. In Redwood City you can see my aunt’s condo complex. In Montreal the areas of my cousin’s house. My childhood neighborhood in Laval is also in plain sight. What an amazing flight across North America it was – in less than 10 minutes I watched most of the places where I’ve spent my whole life fly by. Houston and Sydney were missing from this particular pass, but I’ve certainly seen them at other times. To know that I’ll be able to look up at the night sky and think, ”I lived there too,” that will truly be awesome.

Something else happened recently that will always be a special memory for me. I took a peek out the side-facing JEM windows one evening, without camera in hand, and was so mesmerized that I ended up gazing upon the Earth for an entire 90-minute orbit. Believe it or not, that is the first time I have done that. A hundred times I thought, ”I should go grab the camera,” but I decided to just try to capture this one orbit with my own eyes and burn it into my brain.

The JEM windows have a spectacular view. They are port-facing (i.e., about 90 degrees left from our orbital track). Looking tangentially to the surface, rather than straight down, you see much more of the black sky and get a perspective view with more context than the nadir views. It’s not better for getting good pictures of the ground, but it is a much more dramatic view of the planet. When I opened the window cover this time I was greeted by the edge of a huge cloud bank. The border between clouds and no-clouds was perfectly straight, and continued this way for minutes (meaning 500 to 1000 miles). There was no land in sight and it didn’t seem to be following a coast. I have no idea what could cause this, but even as it started to break up, there was still an embedded straight line that continued. I started playing a game with myself to see if I could figure out where we are and what I’m seeing. You’d be surprised how difficult this can be. Of course, over the open ocean it’s impossible unless you happen to recognize an island chain. Hawaii is very striking and I was very excited to see it for the first time. But depending where you are and which direction you’re going, it can take a long time before you see something familiar.

ISS017-E-013856: Amazon River, Brazil

Amazon River, Brazil is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 17 crew member on the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA.

We were approaching a long straight mountainous coastline. I could see some snow on some peaks along the ridge. The quantity of snow seemed to decrease in the mountains that were further away. Roughly speaking, north is on our port-side as our 51.6-degree inclination orbit winds north and south as it continues east. So twice per orbit the JEM windows face due north, and in between the direction swings toward the east and the west. So ”less snow toward the portside” means we’re in the Southern Hemisphere. Then I saw a monstrous inland lake. Lake Titicaca is impossible to miss. At that moment we were crossing the tip of southern Chile. I could see what seemed to be the entire Andes chain of mountains and clear across the southern part of South America all at once.

Then the hazy blue vapor of the terminator started approaching. The roundness of the Earth seems to change as you see the pitch blackness replace the blue and white sphere that was there. The atmosphere seems to thin out and then vanish. Soon the line between light and dark is running straight away from the window. On the left I could see mountains and clouds. These clouds, however, have really long shadows. It’s cool to see cloud formations in the twilight because you can suddenly see a much more vivid 3D shape to them.

ISS017-E-012652: Solar panels

Earth's horizon and station solar array panels are featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 17 crew member on the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA.

Suddenly, on the right, I see a spidery orange glow surrounded by pitch blackness. It's a big city with a sprawling glow of light. For a moment I can see two worlds at the same time – blue sky with clouds on the left and pitch black with city lights on the right. Then the Earth below disappears into total blackness. The Japanese robotic arm, the frame of the airlock, and the entire port-side truss with massive solar panels is brightly lit. Sunset for us is several minutes later since we are so far above the surface (same thing as sunset in a valley versus mountain top). With the Space Station so brightly lit and no light reaching the Earth’s surface from the sun, we suddenly seem to be isolated and floating in this endless void (which we are). Then the brightness begins to dim and the solar arrays take on a spectacular flame colored orange. Gradually over about 30 seconds they fade and fade until they too completely disappear. Now the only thing I can see through the window is the reflection of lights from inside.

I had to leave the window for a few minutes to shut off all lights in the JEM, Columbus, and Node 2, dim all the computer screens and try to point them away from the windows. Now back at the window, I clearly see one bright star. A few seconds later I see 5 stars. There’s nothing below and there’s no way to know that the Earth is there. After another round of blocking internal light from fire-port stickers, displays, etc., I come back to the window and finally see a full sky. Suddenly it doesn’t seem like we’re alone in an endless void anymore. The black sky is completely filled with thousands of stars in every direction – many are distinct, but even more are part of a slightly lit patch, which is clearly comprised of hundreds of dimmer or more distant stars. It’s like a clear night sky while camping in the mountains, but you can somehow tell that you are seeing more of the dimmer stars, and every one of them is sharp, with none of the shimmering that you get when looking through the atmosphere.

Suddenly I realize that I can see the Earth again, too. The moon must be out. I checked later on the computer, and sure enough, the moon was up on the starboard side of the Station. So the moon illuminated the ground, and I could begin to make out the shape of clouds. Strangely, though, with the moonlight behind me (out of sight), it did not interfere at all with the visibility of the stars.

The brightest star is near the horizon and it hasn’t moved since sunset. It must be Polaris, which makes sense. Once I realized this I checked the horizon in the direction we’re going. Sure enough, I could actually see new stars rising quickly. A look toward the aft, and I could see the stars setting. I instantly got hit by a high speed planetarium effect, as if the whole sky was spinning around me (with Polaris straight up). The sky moves quickly for us, since we’re going around once in 90 minutes. So, whereas on the ground the motion of the stars is hard to detect visually, up here you can see the whole sky rotating quickly overhead. Of course, it is our revolution rate as we circle the globe that’s causing this effect, but at 360 degrees in 90 minutes. That’s 4 degrees a minute, which is very noticeable.

ISS017-E-011603: Polar Mesospheric Clouds

ISS017-E-011603 (22 July 2008) --- Layers of Earth's atmosphere, brightly colored as the sun rises over central Asia, and Polar Mesospheric Clouds (also known as noctilucent clouds) are featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 17 crew member on the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA.

Now I see an orange glow ahead on the horizon. It’s a city on the coast of some continent. I’m still playing ”name that place” and guessing it must be northern Africa or Europe. We’re over land now and I see city lights in all directions. Wow, this looks like a scene from a movie - incredibly full sky of stars above and a full display of lights below on the planet. It reminds me of a particular opening scene from one of the Star Wars movies. I see a few flashes outside the Station (on the Station). What could it be? It seems like the flash you'd see looking out the window of an airplane from its own beacon. But we have no beacon. The only possibility is a flash from lightning on the ground. I’m looking for some lightning and suddenly I see a shooting star below. Wow, that’s the first one that I've seen from space. Very cool! It streaked across the sky from north to south below us. The next flash was not easy to explain – it was blinding for a split second. The Japanese robotic arm is parked about 15 feet away from me right out the window. It lit up so brightly for a split second that it startled me. What the heck was that? It was too bright to have anything to do with distant lightning on the ground. I have no idea. My only thought, and it seems like a long shot, is that I saw a tiny micro-meteroid (dust particle) hit the ISS. What else could it be? The only other option I can think of is a cosmic ray hitting my retina. I've been waiting to see the expected flashes from this, but so far haven’t seen one. Maybe this was it?

Now I do see lightning on the ground. It's jumping from cloud to cloud over the entire surface that’s in view. Presently the solar arrays start to glow. As they take on their orange flame color again, the stars are fading fast. Within seconds I can only see Polaris. Now the Station is in full sunlight and I can’t even keep my eyes open it’s so bright. After finally adapting to the brightness, the sky and Earth are once again gone. I see only the truss, solar/radiator arrays, robotic arm, and nothing else. The horizon starts to glow with a bluish haze that begins to outline the horizon from north to south. It still seems that there is an endless chasm of nothingness below. The glow is spreading to the north and getting thicker. I can see the surface ahead, but still nothing at all below. It’s totally black.

ISS017-E-013025: Algeria

The Tifernine Dune Field in Algeria is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 17 crew member on the International Space Station. The Tifernine Dune Field is located at the southernmost tip of the Grand Erg Oriental, a "dune sea" that occupies a large portion of the Sahara Desert in eastern Algeria. Image Credit: NASA.

Again, I’m wondering where we are? I want to figure it out for myself. The terminator line, which fills maybe 10% of the view straight away from the window, is moving behind us. We're over land, and it seems to be a vast desert with ridge lines of barren mountains. I see snow on a few ridges, but otherwise it looks like dry desert. Minutes go by and we’re still flying over this desert – it’s huge. Now there are some mountains, and then a vast area of mountains and valleys. In the valleys I see clouds, and it seems to be like morning fog. I’ve never seen clouds like this before. Now I’m really sorry I don’t have the camera here. There are endless branching networks of mountains and valleys in all directions, and the clouds are appearing only in the branches of the valleys. The clouds look like giant snowflakes. It’s really amazing. There are patches of snowflakes everywhere, as the clouds are fully and perfectly outlining the shapes of all the detailed recesses of the valleys. I need to get a picture of this some time. I'm afraid this might have been my only chance to see it. I’ve never seen any pictures of anything like this before either – just incredible.

I’m still wondering where we are, but I figure it must be Russia or China. Now I’m starting to see the coastline approach. I see one isolated volcano-shaped mountain with snow. There’s another. OK, now we're over the first one and I see a string of volcanos nicely spaced heading north. We must be around the Kamchatka peninsula. Now we’re heading out to sea, and there are a few small islands with nothing else coming for a long time. I think we're headed back down towards Chile all the way across the Pacific from north to south. OK, time to check the computer. Yep, that's right - Hawaii coming up soon on the right side, but I won't be able to see that unless I fly down to the Russian segment where Sergei and Oleg are sleeping. That was my first time all the way around with my head out the window the entire time. What a spectacular show!

From space,