Beginning & Ends, A Floating Planetarium and a Mystery in Space

I’m about to start my 7th week in space. Next week will be a busy one with the docking of the Space Shuttle Endeavour and the crew of STS-134 and then, a few days later, the undocking and return to Earth of the Soyuz crew of Dima, Paolo and Cady after almost 6-months in space. In this period of relative “calm before the storm” I wanted to reflect on a couple of amazing experiences I’ve had since my last blog post.

Earth at Night One of my favorite things to do here is to look at the Earth at night. It’s hard to describe how beautiful it is to watch the sun set and then the Earth come to life from space. In the period between sunset on the ground and orbital sunset it is very difficult to see anything on the ground since the space station is still bathed in bright sunlight but the Earth is dark. But when the sun sets behind the Earth from our orbital vantage point, the Earth takes on a completely different character. Geographical features start to become visible and the lights of cities and towns begin to light up the Earth. One night last week, I turned off all the interior lights near the cupola, opened the shudders on all the cupola windows and just took in the sight. After my eyes adjusted to the darkness, the Milky Way, planets and countless stars became visible. I floated there for the entire night pass (about 45 minutes) and just watched the incredible night sky and the living Earth with rolling lightening storms below me. Because of our motion around the Earth, the stars and Milky Way seemed to rotate around us as if we were in a floating planetarium. Near the end of the pass, I was giving a special treat of seeing a “shooting star” below me. Since we are above meteors entering the atmosphere, we see them below us (or more specifically between us and the Earth).

Another interesting aspect of living on the ISS is feeling both more connected and less connected to life on the planet. Living here I definitely feel a sense of isolation from my life on Earth but at the same time some events on Earth, such as the flooding of the Mississippi River, I feel closer to because we fly over these areas and can see the effect with our own eyes. We also feel a responsibility to share this unique perspective of events on Earth.

We have also been provided technological means to stay connected. In addition to an IP phone which we can use to call friends and loved ones on Earth, I also have access to the internet through a remote desktop. Whenever we have the proper satellite communications coverage, I can remotely control a computer located in Houston which is connected to the internet. This allows me to send down messages and pictures via Twitter and provides me a method to share this experience almost in real-time. Through our communications technology I was able to speak to a team of people in Kenya as they where about to embark on the largest privately funded deployment of clean water systems in the world. It was an incredible experience to talk to a group that I’m involved with, outside of my work with NASA, who have, in a little over month, provided clean water to over 4 million Kenyans. It is wonderful to be able to be connected with projects and people that are making the world a better place while being able to fly over these areas and see them from this incredible vantage point. It really gives me the awareness that all of us are interconnected through our shared humanity (even those of us living off the planet).

The last experience I’ll share in this post is actually a mystery to me. On May 9th, I conducted my 1st Ham Radio pass from space. The event was with Mt. Carmel Academy in Houston TX. The plan was for me to make initial contact with a Ham operator in Belgium as we flew overhead, who would patch me over to the school. As we approached Belgium, I put on the ham radio headset and heard the voice of my close friend Nicole Stott giving what sounded like a presentation. It turns out that the crew of STS-133 was, at that moment, in Washington DC giving the STS-133 post flight presentation at NASA Headquarters. I was able to listen for about 5 minutes before I lost that signal. I was able to make contact with Mt. Carmel Academy and answer their great questions about life in space. I still do not know how I was able to hear the STS-133 presentation. If anyone has an idea about how that happened I’d love to hear it.

This is probably my last post as an ISS Expedition 27 crewmember. Expedition 27 will end with the undocking of the crew of the 25S Soyuz which will mark the beginning of Expedition 28. In my next post I hope to describe the successful completion of Expedition 27 and STS-134 and the beginning of Expedition 28, Please stay tuned.