Oct 6, 2010

International Space Station: Home Away From Home?

Traveling 17,500 mph, 190-195 nautical miles above the earth, orbiting the earth 16 times a day is the International Space Station (ISS). This is home away from home for 6 people at a time, in 6 month durations, with only three people manning the ship briefly during crew changes. Currently we have two Americans and one Russian cosmonaut up there with two cosmonauts and one astronaut (Scott Kelly) heading up soon, scheduled to launch Oct. 7 and dock Oct 9. But with NASA, dates are only suggestions, not written in stone. They'll be launching from the Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Russia. I know, right? "Cosmodrome." Sounds adventurous, fun. I wish we had a Cosmodrome. US Astronaut Commander Doug Wheelock, an old family friend, is now ISS commander and, allegedly, will call me soon to discuss it. This is the fourth in a series of posts on the ISS.
When Doug first told me about his upcoming first trip to the ISS in '07, I was surprised by how little I knew about the ISS and now with his second trip catching my attention, I am finding out how little the general public knows about the ISS.
The ISS is like a gravity-deprived Motel 6/Science Lab cruising through space. The astronauts float around performing maintenance and doing science experiments that will help the rest of us someday get into space. Their sleeping quarters are compared to a phone booth, sleeping bags secured to the walls to prevent mobility. Doug explains, "In the absence of gravity, every cubic inch of space is usable -- floors, wall, the ceiling. The phone booth perception becomes 50% larger once you take away gravity." He laughs as he relates how the kids he talks to at schools around the country give him a blank look when he mentions a phone booth. Phone booths have become extinct.
NASA is just now getting full use of the ISS, although it's been years in the making. "It has taken us longer than we thought," Wheelock said in an interview on the NASA Channel, "to get up into full utilization. We are just now entering that phase where we have laboratories up and running, over 130 experiments that we're operating on board and so we're really getting a bang for our buck in science. It's been a long phase of assembly."
Reflecting on the emergence of the ISS, in a Voice of America interview, Wheelock explains, "As we came out of the Apollo program, we wondered: What next? The shuttle program was only a dream at that point and now we find outselves in the twilight of the shuttle era and we're looking at the ISS to be a platform for research and developing new materials to take us deeper and farther into space."
Astronaut Scott Kelly explains, "We fly in space to see if we can fly in space longer and if we want to venture away from our planet, we need to know how to do that. The medical research and material science are equally important." According to Wheelock, "Over the next couple of years as we see a return on the science we're doing on the ISS and we understand how to better optimize projecting ourselves out into the solar system -- to Mars -- It is very, very exciting, just the unknown -- how NASA will respond to that. I know it's going to be spectacular!"
The shuttle program is ending soon. In an interview with the Weather Channel, Doug responded, "NASA has never seemed to disappoint.... We're sad to see the shuttle go, it's been a workhorse for the ISS, but there are bigger and better things to come in the future for our kids and grandkids." I am reminded of the many times I've heard him say that he feels certain one of the kids in our schools today will be the first to land on Mars. And I hope he can call me soon so I can ask him the questions my local school kids have given me.
The astronauts living on the ISS are monitoring the lab and getting the science data back to the scientists on the ground, data that will make life better on earth, as well as in space. "Experiments in medicine, in fluid mechanics, different ways to refine materials and build new materials." The astronauts are, in fact, experiments themselves, monitoring the effects of long-term micro-gravity on the human body. I will discuss the science experiments in another post, they are very interesting.
In addition to the science experiments and the general maintenance and chores on the ISS, also of great interest is the international factor. Canada, Europe, Japan, Russia and more working and living together. I find that aspect very interesting. We'll delve into that in a future post also. Doug and I grew up in the Cold War (Ronald Reagan Rocks!!) (errrr, Rocked) and I wonder how Doug's pre-formed -- surely negative -- views on Russia were overcome as he developed intense friendships with the cosmonauts.
An interviewer recently asked Doug, "What modern conveniences do you miss the most?" Overwhelmingly, without missing a beat, Doug says, "Running water!" I could hear it in his voice - his longing: "water running over my head."
Doug's Bio
Beautiful Pictures from space on Doug's Twitter
My first ISS post.
My second ISS post: Change of Command
My third ISS post. To Infinity & Beyond: A Young Boy's Dream?
My fourth ISS post. ISS: Home Away From Home
My fifth ISS post. One Big Science Lab
My 2nd fifth ISS post. No Vacancy
My sixth ISS post. In Which Doug has a Screw Loose, I mean a Loose Screw
My seventh ISS post. Personal note from Doug about working with the Russians
My eighth ISS post. Doug talks about the emergency on the ISS
My ninth ISS post. Everyday Life on the ISS
My tenth ISS post. Heading Home

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