Status Report

Expedition Five Letters Home #3 – By Astronaut Peggy Whitson

By SpaceRef Editor
August 15, 2002
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Hey Guys,

One of the
things the psych support guys do for us is send up photos from friends
and family. These photos are automatically posted as background
“wallpaper” on the computers that I’m logged into. I have
to say thanks for the great inputs! One in particular caught Valery’s
eye. It was a photo of my dad with some of the sows. His surprise
was genuine and he said, “These are not pigs, they are elephants!”
He couldn’t believe how large they were and he had many questions
about raising hogs and cattle.

I have never
experienced any feelings of isolation, probably as a result of things
like these photos, e-mail and especially the phone. The phone isn’t
exactly like the one you have. In order for me to use the phone,
it is necessary that we have KU-band communications available, which
is dependent on our station attitude and our orbit. Another perplexing
constraint is the weather in Houston! If there is a risk of lightning
strike, the router there is shut down, and it doesn’t matter that
we have KU available! What this amounts to in our current attitude
and with afternoon thunderstorms in Houston is availability about
20% of the time. Even with all these limitations, it is so great
to get a stay in touch with the lives of my family and friends “simply”
by making a phone call from space!

The station
is traveling at about 17,500 m/hour and orbits the Earth every 90
min. But it is difficult to actually imagine this speed, even for
me while I’m here experiencing it. One of the things that demonstrate
some of this speed is trying to take photos of specific places on
the Earth. I usually try to prepare all the cameras a few minutes
in advance so that I will be ready when we are passing over the
target area. I was trying to shoot some photos of Iowa, and opened
the window up 4-5 min in advance, initially I saw only the familiar
blues of the ocean and white of the clouds painting a not-so-random
design on the water of the Pacific. However, a minute or so later,
we were passing over the Canadian Rockies, with all the jagged edges
forming a dramatic relief. A couple of minutes later, and we are
over the state of Iowa. Trying to find familiar landmarks (other
than the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers) has been a lot more
challenging than I had imagined. And I have to find them fast!

Even though
there is no atmosphere to speak of at this altitude, our structure
is large enough that we do experience some of the effects of “drag.”
As we gradually slow down, our altitude decays and eventually, we
need to perform what is called a re-boost. While we have a Progress
cargo ship on board, we use its engine and fuel to propel the station
to a higher altitude. Typically, our station attitude is controlled
by the US segment using control moment gyros (so that we minimize
the amount of fuel expended), but it is necessary to pass attitude
control to the Russian segment for this event. This week the Russian
ground Control Center performed a re-boost maneuver that raised
our altitude by about 7 km. The burn itself was only a few minutes
in duration, but we used 933 kg of fuel! I was in the laboratory
module (the leading end of the vehicle, and Progress is at the aft
end), and the timer on my watch went off to remind me that we had
a burn coming up. On the Shuttle, the large maneuvering burns were
very obvious, pushing my crewmates and me against a wall if we were
not hanging on. At the time of the burn on the station, I was unsure
that it had occurred at all. However, as I monitored the burn on
the computer, I noticed a gradual force on my body, pushing me aft.
For fun, I steadied a pencil in the air and let go. As I watched
the pencil float to the aft, I loosened my toehold on structure
and curled up into a ball. Since the station was accelerating around
me, I floated in a straight line aft. Very interesting enough
so that I had to repeat the experiment a couple of times!

One of the
more challenging things I do here is public affairs events. I, of
course, want 1) to minimize how much I look/sound like an idiot,
2) to portray some of what it feels like to be here, and 3) to help
people understand the value of exploring space. This is important,
and I want to communicate clearly to all the people listening! Piece
of cake, right?

After a couple
of weeks trouble-shooting, we were able to get the experiment chamber
inside the glovebox up to the appropriate temperature (845 degrees
C) and we melted the first sample and re-solidified it. Now that
the kinks are worked out, we can start running more of the samples.
Our biggest limitation now is KU access so that the ground can monitor
and do some of the commanding after I set up and initiate the experiments.
Huntsville, AL, is the focal point for these payload operations.
In essence, the folks there serve as our third mission control and
they focus all their efforts on the payloads.

A day doesn’t
go by without me thinking of all the people on the ground in Houston,
Huntsville and Moscow that are helping us get the job done up here.
Not only do these folks organize our work, it’s a great safety net
knowing that I can always call the ground for help, advice, or suggestions.
All these people are counting on me, hence, I strive mightily to
not screw upÖor at least minimize the damage when I do!

Thanks for
waving when I fly byÖ


SpaceRef staff editor.