Godspeed to Earth

The Pieces Come Together
Dec 22, 2011 12:15:37 PM

A view from below the Soyuz. Image Credit: Don Pettit

Four days ago our rocket was in pieces, scattered across the floor of the assembly building. Like anxious parents checking on their sleeping children, we took one last peek inside our Soyuz spacecraft. Everything was tucked in where it should be.

Three days ago the pieces started to come together, like giant blocks from a Lego set.

Two days ago all the pieces were assembled into the final form of our rocket.

One day ago our rocket rolled out on a train car from the assembly building to the launch pad. This is the same pad that Yuri Gagarin launched from in 1961. This launch pad made history, and still does. Within half an hour, our rocket went from laying down to standing up.

Today, the day before launch, last-minute touches are being made to our rocket in preparation for launch, and we crew members are doing the same. There are technical briefs, a conference with the upper management (back home we say “Big Cheese,” here they say “Big Pinecone”; in any language it’s the same), a press interview, and one last chance to be with our families. We share a movie. By tradition, we watch the classic Russian film “White Sun Of the Desert.” We share a meal. No one speaks of this as a last supper, but it is. One last hug, a good laugh, a good cry, and my family departs.

Tomorrow we walk to our rocket and climb the stairway that leads into space. The sky is not the limit, at least not anymore. What an adventure—and I have not even left the planet yet.

A Soyuz rocket assmebled at Baikonur. Image Credit: Don Pettit

Godspeed to Earth
Dec 22, 2011 12:20:23 PM

As you get closer to launch you shed earthly possessions, and your worldly stuff becomes meaningless. In my dorm room I give away my things, the tangible items needed on Earth that are of no use to me anymore. I shed the onerous chores of e-mail, phone calls, and mandatory web-based sensitivity training. I no longer worry about filling out my time card. None of this matters anymore. I am at the point where the only material things of concern are my spacesuit and rocket. A part of my heart, carefully barricaded into a small corner, is reserved for my family. As needed, I will allow such thoughts to fill me with strength.

From my perspective, I will soon be sitting in my rocket watching everyone on Earth move off into the frontier. Thus I say to you all, “Godspeed.”

Please Don’t Squeeze the Astronaut
Dec 22, 2011 02:20:21 PM

An example of the facilities available to human explorers in orbit. Credit: Don Pettit

Taking human anatomy into account, the toilet facilities on space station have an architecture that expertly aligns the purpose to the environment (such trifles as a toilet seat are not needed when you are weightless). The Soyuz spacecraft is a different matter. The toilet on Soyuz is simple, and will get the job done with minimum mess. But relaxing it is not. In the cramped quarters your crewmates politely keep their backs turned, with plugged noses. Fortunately, we only live in the Soyuz for two days before we rendezvous and dock with the space station. After that we can live, and relieve ourselves, in semi-private style.

The Olympian measure of endurance for a Soyuz crewmember is to hold your bowel for the two-day passage. This is a competition with no place for silver or bronze. Shortly after the hatch opening and the first handshake/hug with our friends already on the station, the newly arriving crew makes a hasty retreat to the toilet. Exercising proper space etiquette, it is best not to give the newly arrived too strong a hug.

To help ease our difficulty, we are offered a pre-launch enema. Administered by our flight surgeons, this allows us to launch with a clear mind and a clean colon.