Letters from Space
UH researcher Ed Lu's notes about life on the International Space Station
Ed Lu was a postdoctoral researcher with UH’s Institute for Astronomy when he was tapped by NASA for space flight. He was science officer on International Space Station Expedition 7, April 25-Oct. 27, 2003, with Commander Yuri Malenchenko
Following are excerpts from his e-mails home.
We launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Russian spaceship called a Soyuz TMA—latest in a series based on the design of the spacecraft that the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, flew into space over 40 years ago. At the launch pad, I flash the shaka sign.
The Soyuz is your basic no frills reliable ship. It was designed to fly humans to and from an orbiting space station, which takes two days. The space station looks like a huge mechanical insect with appendages and solar array wings sticking out. With a thud, we dock.
International space station.
Learning to fly
We fly around inside the station. I thought I was pretty good after two shuttle flights, but I have a lot to learn. I move along handrails, leaving a cloud of debris.
When flying across the module, you continue in a straight line until you grab onto something or hit the far wall. If you don’t push through your center of mass, you end up doing flips or rolls across the room. Eventually, you don’t think about the mechanics of flying any more than you do about the mechanics of walking.
Dining at Cafe ISS
I actually like the food. The only utensil we use is a spoon. Food that has some sort of sauce or moisture to it naturally sticks to the spoon. This is the same effect that allows drops of water to stick to windows.
Russian drink packets are clear plastic with a one-way valve, where you add water, and a built-in straw. If you aren’t careful, they leak. The same property of liquids that lets them stick to your spoon also makes liquids stick to your face. I know this from experience. But you don’t have to worry about food spilling out of the can if it turns upside down.
We have dehydrated foods, such as tvorog (a sweet Russian cottage cheese with nuts—my favorite breakfast item). I chose some Chinese foods (like sticky rice with sweet bean paste), beef jerky from Hawai'i and dried calamari.
Supplies from home
The Progress freighter brings supplies, spare parts, water, food and goodies from home. Before opening any hatch, you have to equalize the air pressure. We open a valve to let air flow. We could immediately smell apples.
Inside the cramped quarters of the international space station.
Last night we celebrated by making space bruschetta. I put the tomato in a plastic bag and hold my hand inside the bag with the knife. I manage to keep most of the tomato inside the bag. We add some garlic paste and olive oil, mix well and serve it on tortillas. Delicious!
We continue to unbolt and pull out the equipment inside Progress. After that we’ll load the garbage we’ve collected over the last month and a half. When Progress is full, we’ll close the hatch and send it on its way. It will vaporize like a shooting star as it reenters the atmosphere.
Orbiting every 90 minutes
The section of Earth you can see at any one time is about 2,000 miles across, almost enough to see the entire United States at once. It isn’t seeing the Earth like a big blue marble, it’s more like having your face up against a big blue beach ball.
One of my favorite orbit tracks starts over the equator southwest of Hawai'i. The large runway at Honolulu International Airport is easy to pick out against the blue of the water.
We head northeast. San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose have a grayish color. In the bay near Fremont (where my parents live) are huge maroon ponds; this color is from bacteria growing in the ponds where they evaporate water to collect salt.
We continue northeast over the Rocky Mountains. Thunderhead clouds look like flattened cauliflower heads. Southern Canada is covered with a myriad of small lakes. You can see airplane contrails, white condensation trails, converging on Chicago. We pass over the St. Lawrence River, Newfoundland and out over the Atlantic.
As we head southeast, we see the red deserts of the western Sahara. As we round the southern tip of Africa, we see the lights of Cape Town. The southern Indian Ocean is a great place to watch thunderstorms. Lightning flashes illuminate the clouds from within and ripple through the storm systems.
As we near Australia, we see the aurora, glowing green curtains that move upward from the top of the atmosphere. The orbit crosses over the Great Barrier Reef and various South Pacific islands ringed by coral reefs. The most striking thing is the bright almost iridescent aquamarine green color of the water.
Weighing in on gravity
The trick to being in orbit is going fast enough (18,000 mph) to go all the way around the Earth in the time it takes gravity to turn your direction around.
A common misconception is that we are weightless because we are beyond Earth’s gravity. In fact, we are in orbit because we are being pulled downward by gravity. We are weightless because the entire ship is being pulled in exactly the same way. It is the same feeling that you get in a roller coaster going over the top—light in your seat for a moment because the seat is falling out from under you.
As far as your muscles and bones are concerned, life is effortless. Muscle loss occurs if muscles aren’t being used. Astronauts also lose bone density during long space flights.
We rotate through four main pieces of exercise equipment. The treadmill is loosely suspended inside a pit in the floor. A big gyroscope inside stabilizes it to isolate vibrations so they don’t shake the station. We wear a harness connected to the treadmill with bungee straps. Two bicycles face the largest windows. The equipment I use most goes by the acronym RED (resistive exercise device). Resistance is provided by a stacked series of disks with rubber spokes inside two canisters connected to the spiral pulley that unwinds as you pull a cord out.
Astronaut Ed Lu flashes the shaka sign.
We live on Greenwich mean time. We can’t live by the daylight cycle since we get 16 sunrises/sunsets a day!
The toilet is operated by air pressure. A fan does the work that gravity does on the ground. Next up is breakfast, followed by our daily 8 a.m. planning conference with the control centers in Houston, Moscow and Huntsville. There is a host of experiments, from medical investigations with us as the subjects to experiments on magnetized fluids and ultraviolet observations of lightning storms.
We have general housekeeping activities—like cleaning filters, inspecting emergency equipment, sampling our water supply for contaminants, vacuuming out the air ducts, etc. After sweating on the treadmill or bike, it is time to clean up. We use no-rinse soap and shampoo and a towel.
We break for lunch around 1 p.m., then get back to work. In the afternoon we have another exercise session, then another short conference.
Following dinner, we have a few hours of free time. I work on science experiments of my own, send and read e-mails and take photographs out the window. There is also a small electronic piano I like to tinker on. The other night was amateur barber night.
I have a sleeping compartment, about the size of a phone booth, in the Laboratory Module, and Yuri has one in the Service Module. I have no trouble falling asleep.
The view is close to what you might see on a very dark mountaintop on a very clear night. Only better. The Milky Way is incredibly distinct. Mars has been a great sight recently. We aren’t significantly closer than you are on the ground, but without the atmosphere to look through, it is clearer and brighter.
I’ve been taking photographs of sites visited by the explorers Lewis and Clark. This year is the 200th anniversary of the start of the Lewis and Clark expedition. These guys surveyed thousands of miles of territory on foot, horseback and canoe over three years. Now that was real exploration!
Hopefully, what we are doing here will someday help us explore deep space as we revisit the moon, explore asteroids and one day settle on Mars. The advent of ocean-going ships in the 1400s was a huge boon to science, not because we did scientific experiments on the ships, but because the ships took us to places never dreamed of and opened new settlements and trade routes.
I think we will reap additional benefits of the space station when we use it to help learn how to send people to the far reaches of the Solar System.