What Makes a Mission Name?

Toe Koozies
Posted on May 04, 2012 03:14:27 PM

Don Pettit in a pair of small ankle socks. Credit: Don Pettit

It was time to get new socks. Mine had been worn for a week, and had reached their pull date. Groping in the bag of socks, I pulled out a pair of women’s (small) ankle socks by mistake. Not wanting to fold them up and put them back, I decided to just try them on – maybe they would stretch. They covered my toes, but only reached just past the ball of my foot. I quickly concluded, "This will not work."

But that was based on my experience on Earth. It occurred to me that up here, you use your feet differently. In zero-g, you hook your feet under "handrails," thus shifting the load from the bottom to the top of the foot, just behind the toe knuckle. After about two months in orbit your feet molt, and like some reptilian creature the callused skin on the bottom of your foot sheds, leaving soft pink flesh in its place. In the weightless environment, calluses apparently have no use, at least on the bottoms of your feet. However, the tops of your feet become red-rubbed raw and gnarly. And the bottom calluses shed faster than the top calluses can grow. Perpetually raw and hypersensitive, your foot tops can use a bit of padding to ease the pain.

Serendipitously, I discovered that these short socks provide the necessary protection for toes and toe tops while leaving your heels out where they can breathe. They are the zero-gravity equivalent to flip-flops. The more that I wore them, the more I liked them. I have dubbed this new space fashion "toe koozies" – they are perfect for lounging around in a Node or the Cupola.

My Address in Space
Posted on May 15, 2012 12:07:18 PM

If my family and friends were to write me a letter, what address would they use? When I type my name on one of my stories, what address should I give?

Don Pettit on the ISS. Credit: NASA

It occurred to me that Space Station is a place as deserving of an address as other frontier stations like McMurdo Base or the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Base in Antarctica. These places have formal addresses, complete with zip codes. Even Navy ships have addresses. With the future development of commercial spaceships, I could realistically contemplate someone sending me a letter. So what address would they use? Do they need a zip code? Do you affix an “airmail stamp” or do we create a new category of “rocket mail” stamps? If Space Station were to have an address, instead of writing letters to Santa Claus asking for stuff, kids could write letters to astronauts asking questions about science and engineering.

My sleep station, a coffin-sized box, is located in the fifth deck space of Node 2. From an Earth-based perspective, I pop out of my sleep station as if I were coming out of the floor. I am thus situated on the International Space Station (ISS) in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with an orbital inclination of 51.6 degrees (the angle of our orbit plane to the equator) and an average altitude of 400 kilometers. It occurred to me that my address should be: Node 2, Deck 5, ISS, LEO 51.603. The first three digits of your space zip code would be your orbital inclination and the last two a designator for your particular space station, with ISS being the third in this location (after the Salyut series and Mir). This zip code nomenclature should suffice, at least until there are more than 99 different space stations in orbit.

What Makes a Mission Name?
Posted on May 16, 2012 06:30:15 PM

What space station crews call our "mission" is a bit more complicated than what you might think. Under normal operations, there are six crew members living on board station. We send up a three-person crew in the Russian Soyuz spacecraft four times a year, and the launches and landings are generally timed for spring and fall, to avoid severe weather in Kazakhstan.* This results in Soyuz crew overlaps of either four months or two months, with each three-person crew staying for about six months.

There are a number of advantages in this scheme, particularly during handover, when the newly arriving crew (we’re expecting one tonight) learns from the seasoned crew all the onerous nuances impossible to know except by being onboard.

Soyuz TMA-03M. Credit: Russian Federal Space Agency

Crews on space station are called "Expeditions," a fitting name for a collection of explorers living on the frontier. Since there are two possible three-crew overlaps for each expedition, there are two possible expedition numbers that span a set of nine individuals. In addition, each crew of three arrives in a Soyuz with a designated engineering number, plus a space station mission number and a crew-chosen call sign. Thus, for my mission, I am Expedition 30 for four months, Expedition 31 for two months, and a crew member for Soyuz TMA-03M and Soyuz 29s, with call sign Antares.

This all gets multiplied by two, since we automatically function as backup crews for the mission that flies six months before us. So I am also backup crew for Expedition 28/29, on Soyuz TMA-02M and Soyuz 27s, with call sign Eridianus.

Then there are the management teams on the ground. These are people who work relentlessly through weekends and holidays to support the lucky crew members on space station. These management teams are called "Increments," and they have numbers that usually correspond to the expedition numbers. Sometimes, though, these can get shifted to adjacent mission numbers. Of course, the nomenclature for increments, like expeditions, also gets multiplied by two, since every prime crew participates as backup crew for an earlier increment. When talking to crewmembers, people will speak in expeditions; when talking to NASA planners, they will speak in increments. Like the blind men feeling the elephant, we tend to describe our work from our immediate perspective. It is understandable that these subtleties can lead to confusion.

That’s why, when someone asks me what mission I am flying, the answer might lead to a conversation something like this: "I am backup crew for Expedition 28/29, also known as Increment 28/29, in Soyuz TMA-02M, or Soyuz 27s, called Eridianus, but am prime crew for Expedition 30/31 in Increment 30/31 for Soyuz TMA-03M, or Soyuz 29s, called Antares." This kind of answer baffles even my fellow astronauts. I have decided that my mission identity is simply going to be dictated by the one with the largest three-crew overlap. Hence, I call myself Expedition 30. If you want the details, be prepared to settle in for a long conversation.

*There are exceptions. Expedition 29 (also known as Expedition 30, Increment 29, Increment 30, Soyuz TMA-22, or Soyuz 28s, with call sign Astraeus) slipped two months and launched in a November snowstorm so severe that from the viewing station only 1½ kilometers away, neither the rocket nor the launch pad were visible. At engine ignition, the TV cameras discovered they were pointed in the wrong direction, and quickly panned to the rocket, which appeared like a giant, slowly moving road flare-which was visible for perhaps 15 seconds before becoming completely obscured.