Last Friday was a special day on my mission. Don and I docked the SpaceX’s cargoship Dragon to the Space Station. Dragon brings new equipment for the crew. On the 31st of May it will return to Earth with supplies from the others and myself. The Dragon mission is the operational highlight of my mission. But it is also a milestone for international spaceflight. This is the first time that a commercial spacecraft has flown to the ISS and docked with the Station. You could say a new era of spaceflight has begun. Soon private companies will take people to and from space. Continue reading
I went on a diet again in the name of science. My previous diets for SOLO and Pro K experiments compared astronaut bone loss with osteoporosis on Earth. This diet for the ENERGY experiment looks at the energy expenditure of astronauts during a long spaceflight. ENERGY is a complicated experiment. Just as with all physiology experiments, measurements are conducted before, during and after flight. This is the only way to record the differences between Earth and microgravity.
It has been busy again these last few days. Until the next crew arrives there are only three of us here. We have a normal workload so we are very busy. Working with just the three of us does have some positive side-effects. I have more room to move and I can plan my exercise and free time more easily. Communication with Earth is less hectic as well. The continuous talking can be irritating and tiresome as I have to always listen if they are talking to me. When six of us are up here we create a traffic jam to Huntsville or Houston. Less communication traffic makes it easier to sneak questions or reports in when I want to. Continue reading
Don and I trained intensively for the arrival of the SpaceX’s commercial space ferry Dragon. This will be the first time that Dragon docks with the Space Station. This is a new and exciting occasion for SpaceX, NASA and the crew. We practice grabbing the ferry: Don flies the ISS robot arm while I send commands to Dragon to keep it from moving (free drift). At other times we practice the second part of the procedure: docking. I move Dragon to the ISS with the robotic arm and Don operates the docking mechanism. We practiced many of these so-called ‘ grapples’, the moment when the robot arm grasps the cargo ship. To complete our training we practiced emergency scenarios such as grabbing the ferry incorrectly or we pretend the robotic arm control system malfunctions and we need to quickly get to the back-up panel in the laboratory. Nine times out of ten something goes wrong during training. In reality everything almost always goes well. Continue reading
In the last few months I was part of the Expedition 30 crew. We took over 250.000 pictures together documenting life on the Space Station, the Earth and visiting cargo ships. A large proportion of these pictures were converted to night-time time lapse videos of Earth and the universe. A typical video contains hundreds of pictures. Put a nice soundtrack to the video and the result is amazing. I saw a time lapse video that we made and I thought: I want to go there, I want to go to space! The images and the music made me think this funny thought. The videos look surrealistic with green and red northern lights and Earth moving rapidly. It looks even more beautiful than real life.
Yesterday Dan, Anton and Anatoli left. We worked all night. I drew blood from Don and myself and collected saliva samples to be sent back on the the Soyuz to the scientists on Earth. Around six o’clock in the morning Western European time we said our goodbyes. At ten to seven we closed the hatch to their Soyuz. At exactly 10:18:30 they detached from the ISS to travel back to Earth. I heard the latches release and felt a small shock when springs pushed the Soyuz away. A little later I saw the Soyuz descend on its way to to a safe landing in the Kazakh Steppe, a little before two o’clock in the afternoon.
The next three weeks I will be on board with colleagues Don Pettit and Oleg Kononenko. It will be different. Quieter in our free time as we will have more room and not float into each other so quickly but busier during the day as maintenance work and experiments continue as usual. In addition a cargo ship will arrive. Unpacking ATV, Progress
and Dragon takes a lot of time, in addition we need to search for equipment to fill the cargo ships once they are unpacked.
Last Friday and Saturday we ate together. We celebrated Don’s birthday with live guitar music. Dan can play very well. Wednesday was the official handover ceremony. Dan passed command to Oleg. I felt as if Expedition 31 had really begun when the Soyuz hatch closed this morning. A farewell to the crew is not an emotional affair. Of course we will miss the company and good times on board. Just as we will miss Dan’s expertise and knowledge, he is a fantastic commander.
But we will see each other again in a few months back on Earth.
Back to Earth
Of course I do think about it: the next person to crawl into a Soyuz will be me. I will sit in the left seat, the first to climb in and the last to crawl out. We will follow the same procedures as the men who just left. We will undock and the flight home will be short. One moment we will be floating high above Earth and in less four hours we will be on ground. I remember from last time that it feels like a wild amusement park ride. We will feel four times heavier and once the parachute opens we will be shaken about so much that we will see twenty screens instead of two. It is the most spectacular part of my mission, more so than the launch. The last shock will be the rockets under the Soyuz providing extra braking power. Even they cannot avoid the capsule hitting Earth with the force of a small car crash. It sometimes falls over and can even roll a few times. Altogether it is not the most enjoyable part
of the mission. Especially if you imagine that our bodies have not been exposed to gravity for half a year. I will be weak and tired and sick. But I will be smiling, as it is all part of the job.
It is a little strange thinking that I will be going home. I still have over two months up here. I have many tasks to do. I am looking forward to docking the Dragon cargo ship as well as welcoming the new crew in three weeks time and conducting many more scientific experiments. As you can see, life in space is not much different from life on Earth. You stop to think of the future… until reality calls you back.
I am really pleased that so many people read my blog. And that many questions are asked in the comments. Unfortunately I do not have the time to answer all the questions, my schedule on the ISS is just too busy. Every now and again I will try to answer some questions. Here are the first five answers. Thank you to all who sent in questions!
I have constant back pain. Does floating in space alleviate back pain?(Willy Huizing) Continue reading
We have an extra module on the ISS: the European cargo ship ATV Edoardo Amaldi
. We were worried for a moment. Soon after docking on the 29th of March ATV was not receiving electricity from the ISS. Luckily the problem was fixed before the batteries ran down and now both systems work. Once again proof that it is handy to have back-ups for everything in space travel. In the mean time we hurried to unload all the cargo. Imagine if the electricity problem could not have been fixed… ATV would have had an unplanned departure after only a few days. We worked all through Saturday to unpack. I was in charge as I am the ‘loadmaster’. I found a nice package for me from home amongst the cargo. Photos, a flag from my village, a drawing by Sterre and some other things. This is great for morale of course.
Even though I feel at home now up here it still feels like camping. Imagine staying on the same camping ground for months on end. Your tent is a mess and you clean up every now and again. That is similar to life up here. My sleeping cabin is full of paper and things I used recently. I put them aside so that the free-floating paper and pens do not wake me up at night. Once a week I clean up my sleeping cabin. The toilet is the thing that reminds me of camping the most. A small pot is all we have. But we get used to it. Recently the toilet was broken. We had to remove the full urine tanks by hand. Normally drinking water is automatically filled from recycled urine (but also from sweat and condensation from breathing). We had to fill the recycling system by hand as well. Fortunately we are real plumbers now. The toilet has been repaired… Read on…
The six of us use a lot of gear on the ISS. Food and drinks, but also spare parts for repairs, fuel for the ISS and scientific experiments. All these things arrive by different supply ships. The European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) was launched from Kourou in French Guiana on the 23rd
of March. Tonight it will arrive here and we will receive more supplies. Colleagues on Earth always put in something tasty for the crew such as fresh fruit. As most of our food has a shelf life of two years, you can imagine that fresh fruit is a real luxury here in space…