20 Years in Space

This week we celebrate 20 years of continuous human presence in space. Since November 2000, the International Space Station has been home to astronauts from around the world — by 239 people from 19 different countries, including Canada.

The Station program had a slow start in the 1990s – there were many technical, political and budgetary obstacles to be overcome. But today the Station is a vibrant, bustling R&D lab, innovation platform, and enabler of deep space exploration.

Alain Labelle, the science and health reporter at Radio-Canada in Montreal, published an article this week to mark the 20th anniversary of Station habitation. In preparing his article, Alain asked me and other Canadian astronauts to answer several questions about the significance of the ISS as well as our personal experiences of long duration flight. I was happy to do so. It brought back many wonderful memories.

Here are my answers to Alain’s questions. To view his wonderful photo-essay (en français), go to the INFO website of Radio-Canada.

What was the first impression you had when you entered the ISS?
Following docking of our Soyuz vehicle to the ISS, Roman, Frank and I opened the hatches between the two spacecraft and floated into the Station. The beaming faces and outstretched arms of the three resident crewmembers were welcoming and reassuring. We had last seen Gennady, Mike and Koichi on Earth months ago. It was surreal to reunite with our close friends in such an otherworldly setting.

The Station somewhat resembled the ground-based mockups we had trained in, but it also featured many distinct sights, sounds and smells that were unfamiliar. This was my wonderful new home for the next half year and the fulfillment of a childhood dream!

Floating through the hatch into my new home for the next six months

Did you manage to sleep well from the first night?
Upon closing my eyes at bedtime during my first night in space, I was startled to see flashes of light – like exploding stars – every few minutes in the darkness of my sleep station. I didn’t know what was happening. My flight-experienced crewmates explained the next morning that this was nothing to be alarmed about. These flashes were caused by the effect of cosmic radiation on the retina of my eyes. Bizarre! I learned to ignore the optical fireworks for the rest of the nights.

Asleep aboard the International Space Station

What were you doing in your spare time?
Although the Space Station has a well-stocked library, I chose not to read any books or view any DVDs. Instead, I floated near a window whenever I had free time and gazed out on our beautiful home planet. Viewed from above, deserts have a hundred textures and shades of colour. A thunderstorm is a powerful phenomenon to behold.

The mesmerizing view of Earth from space is the flight experience that I now miss the most.

The St. Lawrence River, Gaspé Peninsula and Manicouagan Impact Crater

Did you experience a particularly stressful situation during your stay?
While it was not stressful per se, the reentry to Earth at the end of my expedition was a wild and crazy trip. The sequence of events – reentry burn, vehicle separation, parachute opening – was fast-paced, and the motion dynamics of our Soyuz vehicle as it fell toward Earth was like an E-ticket ride at Disney World. We landed safely, but what a rollicking affair!

How often did you communicate with your loved ones?
There is a private IP phone aboard the Station allowing us to call any phone number on the ground whenever we have satellite coverage. After an intense day of work, it’s heartening for astronauts to chat on the phone in the evening with family members and friends. We benefitted mentally from this daily connection with life on Earth.

Your highlights in orbit?
The grappling and berthing of HTV – a large Japanese cargo vehicle – was a highlight. Since this was to be the first robotic capture from the ISS of a free-flying spacecraft, my crewmates and I had some apprehension. But everything unfolded well – we grappled and berthed the vehicle without difficulty. The robotic techniques that we demonstrated on our expedition have been adopted as standard operating procedure for the commercial cargo ships that are now regularly captured by Canadarms2 and docked to the Station.

HTV hovers 10 m. below the Station waiting to be grappled by Canada’s robotic arm

Did you encounter any difficulty adapting in orbit?
Even the alien environment of space – vacuum, extreme temperatures, weightlessness – cannot impede the ability of humans to adapt and explore. Following arrival at the Station, I quickly learned how to fly gracefully about the cabin like Superman and to work productively. After a few days in space, it felt as though I had been born there.

What is your most vivid memory of this experience?
My most vivid memories are the moments spent working together with fellow astronauts. These crewmates were the best and brightest from their various home countries. They consistently performed at a high level and inspired me to be my best.

At the end of each workday, my crewmates and I got together to review our progress and to discuss anything and everything – exploration, culture, politics. While lingering over dinner, we liked to think that we solved the problems of the world. Ha!

The Expedition 20 crew gathered for dinner each evening

What is the biggest challenge for an astronaut on a long trip to orbit?
Spaceflight is still a risky undertaking. There are many space hazards that threaten our health or wellbeing. For instance, I worry about the growing danger of orbital debris. A hypervelocity collision between a debris object and the ISS could be fatal for the onboard crew. Other worrisome hazards include the long-term effects on our bodies of ionizing radiation and weightlessness.

What was a typical day like in the ISS?
Ha! There is no such thing as a typical day in space. Every day was unique and busy. My crewmates and I conducted multidisciplinary research on many days. On other days, we performed spacewalks, robotic operations, maintenance and repair work. Routine activities that were scheduled every day included exercise workouts, daily conferences with Mission Control and meals.

I would typically wake at 6 am, begin the day’s work at 8 am and finish up at 7 pm. The evenings were spent relaxing with crewmates, looking out the window, and communicating with family and friends on the ground.

What is most difficult for an astronaut in orbit for a long time?

The travel associated with preflight training and the mission itself meant that I was away from home for long periods. Not being able to fully participate in affairs of the family and household was difficult. I was grateful for neighbours and friends who stepped in when I was absent and my family needed help.

What do you think the continued human presence in Earth orbit has taught us over the years?

Despite its prodigious research output, the Space Station’s enduring legacy will be the international partnership. The five partner agencies have demonstrated that social, cultural, economic and political barriers can be overcome in order to pursue a shared vision. In today’s complex world, cooperative human spaceflight can be a unifying force between nations that are experiencing diplomatic discord.

(Note: Go to this link to read Alain Labelle’s Radio-Canada tribute to 20 years of continuous human presence on the International Space Station.)

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