Expedition Five Letters Home #3 - By Astronaut Peggy Whitson

Status Report From: Johnson Space Center
Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2002

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


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