Status Report

Expedition Five Letters Home #1 – By Astronaut Peggy Whitson

By SpaceRef Editor
August 15, 2002
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Dear Friends,

I would much
rather write to each of you individually, but so many of you have
had questions and I wanted to take some time to describe a little
of what it’s been like up here. First off, I want to make a disclaimer
that I don’t know that I can manage to put together the words to
truly describe what it is like to be in 0-g…but I now understand
why after having been here, that almost every astronaut wants to
come back—“to be in microgravity.”

It really takes
some time for your mind to let go of the idea that you don’t have
to hold onto something—that I can let go of a pencil and it doesn’t
fall. However, I learned early that things have a way of disappearing!
I have already lost more pencils/pens than you might think possible.
Interestingly, you can “lose” something and it will be
floating right next to you. The best approach to finding lost items,
told to me by Dan Bursch, is usually to change your position slightly
and look from a different viewpoint. I don’t know what it is about
how the brain is processing this info that makes moving your body
position easier to see something that was right in front of you.

With STS-111
(shuttle mission that brought me to ISS) we pretty much “hit
the ground at a full run.” Carl and Dan were great at getting
me a lot of info in a very short time. And I attribute the success
of 111 to those guys and their preparations and work/assistance
during EVA (space walk) preps and SSRMS (robotic arm) ops and transfer
ops. I think even I underestimated how much having an experienced
person up here could help out and increase the efficiency.

It was during
one of the tasks for STS-111 that I noticed another interesting
phenomena. Taco (shuttle commander for STS-111) used the Shuttle
arm to lift the MPLM (logistic module) from out of the payload bay
of the orbiter to the nadir (bottom) side of the station. Carl Walz
and I commanded the bolting mechanisms to tighten the 16 bolts that
held the two pieces together. After this we were preparing the vestibule.
This is the space between the station and the MPLM. The vestibule
itself is only about a foot deep and the diameter of the hatch is
about 1.3 m, square. The node has 6 of these ports (three are currently
not closed to allow access from the US laboratory in one direction,
the airlock in another direction and the Russian segment in a third
direction). Each is sort of “indented” from the node structure.
After equalizing the pressure in the vestibule with our cabin pressure
(it was at a vacuum before this), I was working to remove the bolt
controller assemblies (these are large devices that if not removed
from the hatch we would not be able to get large items into/out
of the MPLM). I was working and Carl was advising me on best strategies
and the procedures. I looked at him and he appeared to me to be
“up,” as though I was at the bottom of a well. Don’t know
why it didn’t look as though I was looking at him thru a tunnel
or down. I asked him if my brain would ever stop trying to make
a direction up/down or other. He said that he thought his brain
was still trying to put directions on everything, no matter what
attitude your body was in. Once we had the MPLM docked to the node
and folks were traveling in an additional direction (let’s call
it down, in addition to forward/aft and starboard), it was a common
experience to see someone come out of one module and have to look
around to figure out which way to go. Again, I think this confusion
has to do with how the brain reorients in each module to an up/down,
and this direction is based on your body attitude (which can vary
dramatically) relative to structure, and until it does, each new
view seems entirely foreign…i.e., your brain was expecting to
see a ceiling and instead saw a starboard wall, so you don’t initially
recognize it. I think this is the confusion that I know I experienced
and I saw on the face of several of my colleagues as well.

Since the STS-111
crew has left, the place seems a lot bigger! I get the Lab/airlock/node
pretty much to myself. Valery and Sergey come to visit occasionally
for RED (reactive exercise device) workouts. I think Valery was
inspired by Carl and Dan’s dedication to the RED (we saw them working
out on it everyday) and he “ordered” Sergey to work out
on it as well.

For me, it
seems the RED does more for actually working out my legs. I have
been doing a lot of squats and dead lifts for legs and back, with
some arm stuff thrown in. I can work out enough to make my legs
sore…the good sore that lets you know you’ve had a good workout.
The bike seems to be good for CV (cardio vascular)….but I’m convinced
all the treadmill is doing is attempting to increase my tolerance
to pain. We have to use a harness with bungees to connect us to
the treadmill while we are running and to pull us down to simulate
the effects of being back on earth. I’m only working at 2/3 my body
weight…good thing I’m here for several months to build up to my
body weight!

It was an interesting
experience for me the first time I put on shoes (we are usually
sock-footed) to exercise after only 6 days of being in microgravity.
The tactile sensations on the bottoms of my feet were very sensitive
and shoes felt very confining.

Even since
111 left, I haven’t found as much time to look at the Earth as I
should. I covered one of my two windows in the US segment (node
deck) with Expedition 6 clothing and housekeeping/hygiene pantries
(so that it is now possible to fly thru the FGB more easily…i.e.,
the FGB is only half-full of Expedition 5/6 food). Normally, I would
say that there is WAY too much food…but after seeing Sergey eat,
I think we will be the first crew to finish our food! We are currently
finishing up the dregs of Exp 3 and 4. I’m thinking that eating
out of a bag (just add water) or a can is going to get old fast…

This last week
I started adding in some crew Earth observation tasks. The Earth
observation payload has given me an excuse to look at the Earth
more. We did have one pass where I recognized the Missouri River
and then a few min later flew over the Great Lakes. I’ll have to
find a pass that goes more directly over Iowa, so that I can take
photos. Dad will want a photo of the farm…even if it’s hard to
make out from 240 miles above!

We have been
cranking up the systems this week, with a lot of reloading of the
various computers. Each new expedition has a new updated software
version for our operations network (I can’t believe I’m the computer
guru on this mission…), plus additional changes in hardware to
configure for the scientific experiments. Some of our experiments
are controlled by the ground. The plant experiment where we are
growing soybeans is being controlled by them. The soybeans are grown
in a completely enclosed environment, I won’t even get to look at
them until they are ready for “harvest.” Big science project
for the week was the biotech experiment where we were growing liver
cells in various mediums and then later fixing and freezing the
samples. Next week I will get to load some samples in our furnace
for some thermal materials experiments. I’m looking forward to checking
out the Microgravity Sciences Glovebox, which is a rack-sized facility,
so that we can get some science going on in that too…

My pastime
is seeing how fast I can fly thru the station. I get to do this
a lot since intercom only works from the Russian segment to the
US and not in reverse (they say the intercom volume is so low that
they can’t hear me when I call…and it’s loud enough at times that
I believe this). In any case, I can get some considerable speed
up traveling between the two segments…but control is what I need
to practice. Considerable style points are lost if stopping after
a high speed run involves having my feet flip over my head!

Hope you find
my description of the details of day-to-day life on station interesting.

Take care,

SpaceRef staff editor.