Columbus Control Centre keeping an eye on Luca

Columbus Control Centre keeps an eye on the Columbus space laboratory and ESA astronauts in space at all times. An impressive array of computer screens and information are constantly monitored. On the wall are the mission patches they have overseen.

Columbus Control Centre. Credits: ESA

Columbus Control Centre. Credits: ESA

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Hatch is closed

Luca, Karen and Fyodor have left the International Space Station for their Soyuz spacecraft. They will now perform leak tests to make sure everything is airtight.

Separation is set for 00:26

Bye bye Space Station. Credits: Nasa

Closing the hatch. Bye bye Space Station. Credits: Nasa

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Helicopters are standing by…

In Kazakhstan the weather is good for tonight’s landing. The helicopters that will arrive first at Luca, Karen and Fyodor’s landing site are ready to roll…

Credits: ESA-D. Detain

Credits: ESA-D. Detain

Credits: ESA-D. Detain

Credits: ESA-D. Detain

Credits: ESA-D. Detain

Credits: ESA-D. Detain

Credits: ESA-D. Detain

Credits: ESA-D. Detain

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Wind, sand and stars – (with apologies once again to De Saint-Exupery)

Mesospheric Noctilucent Clouds capture the first rays of a new day’s sun

Mesospheric Noctilucent Clouds capture the first rays of a new day’s sun

That is my planet.

I gaze lovingly at the surface with its boundless and beautiful colours. How many times have I explored its borders as the dawn immortalises its curves, glowing in an indescribable light-blue that is perfectly outlined by the light of iridescent mesospheric clouds: the colour of infinite patience.

Shrouded in silence I look out: I feel our planet’s heart beat as I watch the vital water run along infinite veins across the land, nourished and protected by the clouds that cover Earth’s surface like the cloak of a vestal virgin. Its breathing is calm and eternal like the tides but large as ocean waves. It holds the power of winds that sweep sand from a hundred deserts to the tops of a thousand mountains in one breath.

In a few hours, all this will be a memory. My spaceship is quiet and dark in waiting, but soon it will turn into a dramatic theatre when we return to Earth. Everything that has a beginning must come to an end: this fragility makes each experience unique and even more valuable.

I try to fill my eyes, my mind and my heart with the colours, nuances and sensations so that my memories will be witness to the experience. Underneath me on Earth, lands merge: country boundaries are non-existent when you look down from up here in the Cupola. I observe the lands of men.

I always feel the irresistible attraction of the sky and stars when I look up on Earth. I encourage my mind to lose itself in the infinite and the unknown. It is in our nature, our Ulysses gene. Nonetheless, Ulysses returns to Ithaca after many travels: his island always in his dreams. If I had been born in the interstellar darkness, if I had spent my entire life traveling far from our world, I would look back at our bright-blue waters and diverse continents with the same admiration. Every sunrise and every sunset would instil the same sense of awe. I would dream of sinking my feet in the warm sands, to feel the cold embrace of snow and the caress of the salty sea-breeze that blows towards land. I would wonder how it feels to bathe in its waters, to bask in the warmth of the Sun.

But I am lucky: I was born there.

That is my planet. That is my home.

Credits: ESA/NASA

Credits: ESA/NASA

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Mission accomplished with more than 100 000 000 km flown

Mission control at Columbus Control Centre is ready for Luca’s return. Watch live from Sunday 20:30 CET and follow the landing via Twitter @esaoperations:

We knew the day would come, Luca’s last day in orbit. Everything is go for the return of the three astronauts that stayed 166 days in orbit since the end of May. We have spent 166 days working around the clock in the Columbus Control Centre supporting Luca’s mission, he experienced more than 2600 nights and days and has flown more than 100 million kilometres. In addition Luca spent more than 100 hours working on ESA scientific experiments.

Last days in space for Luca. Credits: ESA/NASA

Last days in space for Luca. Credits: ESA/NASA

The mission was a great success and it goes without saying that this is because of the great teams on ground and our great Luke Skywalker. We had a couple of difficulties during the mission but this is considered normal and all teams and astronauts are trained and prepared to deal with these situations.

A return is almost like the day of the launch, a lot of activities happen prior to the Soyuz spacecraft leaving. The astronauts have prepared their luggage and have loaded the space vehicle with cargo. The Soyuz can only carry a small amount of cargo as the only a small capsule returns to Earth and it will hold three astronauts as well. Luca will have less baggage than you are allowed to carry on a normal airplane flight, not even 2 kilograms of personal items that he has carefully hand-picked himself.

Luca’s return will begin with the undocking of the Soyuz spacecraft at 23:26 GMT on Sunday and 45 minutes later the spacecraft will be already several kilometres away from the International Space Station. Then everything will happen pretty fast.

Soyuz 35S Landing Groundtrack

Soyuz 35S Landing Groundtrack

The so-called deorbit burn will occur at 1:55 GMT on Monday morning. This will slow the spacecraft down in order to reenter the atmosphere. The separation of the capsules will occur at 2:23 GMT at an altitude of about 140 km above earth. From now on the capsule will fall down to Earth like a big rock and will enter the atmosphere three minutes later at an altitude of about 100 km. Another six minutes later at an altitude of 32 km the astronauts will experience the maximum g-load during their return. At 2:35 GMT and an altitude of 10 kilometres the astronauts will release parachutes to prepare for landing.

The approximate landing site in Kazakhstan. Credits: Googlemaps

The approximate landing site in Kazakhstan. Credits: Googlemaps

The landing the occurs at 2:49 GMT in the deserts of Kazakhstan where a crew will be waiting in helicopters.

After landing Luca and his crewmates will be lifted from their small capsule and they will breathe their first breath of fresh air from planet Earth in over five months.

We will closely follow each of these activities in the Columbus Control Centre and sign-off with the last words : “Mission accomplished!”.

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Guide to the International Space Station for the occasional visitor – part 2

Pressurised Mating Adaptor (PMA1)

Unity with PMA1 in the background.  Credits: NASA

Unity with PMA1 in the background.
Credits: NASA

From the FGB, moving toward the bow, we pass through a corridor that looks rather strange. The corridor is an asymmetrical truncated cone. Starting from the round hatch, it transforms into a square that is Node-1. This transitional area is called PMA1, and in addition to connecting the two main segments, it is also a convenient place to store things: its walls are covered with the typical white bags we call CTBs that contain equipment on the Station. When you float through the PMA1 it feels as though you are going down because of its asymmetrical shape .

Node-1 (Unity)

Mealtime in Unity Credits: NASA

Mealtime in Unity
Credits: NASA

This is the oldest module of the American segment and you can tell by the state of the of the walls that have suffered from dozens of inexperienced astronauts eating meals here. Node-1 is still the main meeting point for the crew, and the only passage from one segment to another . The table here is the missing half of the Russian table mentioned in my previous post. The table was disassembled several expeditions ago and reassembled here with wit and some space do-it-yourself. The four walls around the table are used as stowage. The deck , in particular, contains the Station’s toolbox , so it is normal to see an astronaut selecting tools for a job or storing them here when finished. The walls are made of a white, plastic material except for the structures on the four sides of the hatches which are pink to distinguish them from the blue-coloured Destiny Lab and the grey Node-2. Node-1’s second bay has four access hatches to the modules but only three are related to other areas. The fourth, at the very top, is used for storage and currently it holds categorised food containers.

Permanent Multipurpose Module (Leonardo)

The interior of Leonardo. Credits: NASA

The interior of Leonardo.
Credits: NASA

Crossing the Unity hatch at the nadir you access the Permanent Multipurpose Module, or PMM. Also called Leonardo, the name of this module has an interesting history. Built by the Italian Space Agency, the module began life in space as one of three logistic modules carried by the Space Shuttle to resupply the Station. The Italian Space Agency then converted MPLM to a permanent storage module. Here the feeling of going down is very strong, and we all play at ‘falling’ into the PMM and then bouncing back by pushing off from the bottom. The walls of Leonardo are stowed with CTBs, spare parts and food. One of the racks is allocated to the astronauts, we use it as a personal locker: our clothes, personal hygiene material and other belongings are here.

Airlock (Quest)

Quest airlock.  Credits: NASA

Quest airlock.
Credits: NASA

If you move to the right from Node-1 , looking in the flight direction, you enter the Airlock. I have described this module many times, because during my first spacewalk I spent lots of time preparing the spacesuits which are installed in the two walls of the Equipment Lock. The two suits are waiting patiently for the next astronaut to bring them to life. A smaller cylinder – the Crew Lock – is used as storage for spacewalk material when not used for a spacewalk itself. Our reserve suits, the SAFER and tethers are attached to its walls . The rest of the material is behind the four walls of the Equipment Lock: batteries for the suit , CO2 filters, drinking-water containers and maintenance tools. The Airlock will always have a special aura for me: it is particularly quiet and cosy because it is smaller than the other modules and I always love working here .

Node-3 (Tranquility)

Inside Tranquility Credits: NASA

Inside Tranquility
Credits: NASA

Directly in front of the Airlock is Node-3 . Without doubt this module has the highest number of astronauts pass by each day, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps this module is the less noble one but certainly one of the most useful and very essential as it holds the toilet. It is identical to the Russian toilet, the liquid recycling system is fully integrated and astronauts intervention is minimal. The cabin dimensions are more comfortable than the toilet at the other end of the Station , and Fyodor likes to joke that our toilet is the “first class” toilet.

The second reason why this module is particularly busy is that two of our sports equipment are installed here. The first one – T2, or better known as our treadmill – is on the right wall as you enter from Node-1. We run on the wall that looks towards our flight direction meaning that our body is parallel to Earth. I wrote about T2 in a previous blog. The second sports equipment is called the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device – ARED – and it works on the principle of vacuum pumps : two sealed and calibrated pistons allow us to exercise weight lifting. The detail I want to point out here is that the three elements of Node-3 described so far lie on three different levels: if an astronaut in Node-1 looks inside Tranquility, they could see an astronaut running parallel to the deck, another using the toilet in normal orientation (i.e. with their head towards the zenith) and another astronaut training on ARED head down. Because each of us trains on ARED at least 90 minutes a day, and at least two people, if not three , train daily on T2, it is very likely that someone, at any given time is training .


Cupola and the robotics workstation. Credits: NASA

Cupola and the robotics workstation.
Credits: NASA

The third reason why there is always someone in Node-3 is because of Cupola which is installed on the nadir port. As you cross Node-3 while doing a 180-degree somersault you will enter Cupola. Often our feet remain hooked to the hatch so Earth flows towards us, our view looking in the direction of flight, with North on the right and South on the left. This window on the world has fascinated and charmed all astronauts and cosmonauts who have had the privilege of looking at our planet from up here. Its seven windows allow a view of 360 degrees of the horizon and offers a spectacle of unparalleled beauty that nourishes the soul and fills the eyes without ever being indulging.

I could go on trying in vain to find the right words, but this is not the right moment. So we move back, through Node-3 and through Node-1 to continue past the hatch in the flight direction.

Destiny Laboratory (Lab)

Robonaut working in the Destiny Lab Credits: NASA

Robonaut working in the Destiny lab.
Credits: NASA

Entering the American laboratory the size of the module is surprising, it is at least twice as large as the modules described so far. The two cone-shaped areas to the front and rear are blue, but the rest of the walls are white (or rather, what we can see of them!). The Lab is the core of the US segment , not only because it contains most of the systems that support life on the Station but also for the scientific racks distributed along the surfaces: we carry out many experiments here. As you enter, on the right, you will find many lenses and cameras that are always available for us to take pictures of our activities. To the left is a workplace used for the Daily Planning Conferences where the logbook can be found (in fact it is a completely unofficial note book), along with pens, markers and pencils, all attached with Velcro. Immediately after that, on both sides, are control joysticks for Canadarm2. The Lab is the support location for the robotic operations when the one in Cupola is not used. Only the robotic work station to the left is operational, the one to the right is connected to the training system called ROBOT, a Canadarm2 simulator.

Further on, we will see the drinking water dispenser overhead, then, to the left, CEVIS, our space exercise bike . It takes little time to adapt to cycling in orbit but it is always strange to think that CEVIS has no saddle or handlebar: they are useless at 0g. The other four bays on the right-hand side are occupied by science racks including the easily recognisable Microgravity Science Glovebox with its large glass window now running the InSpace3 experiment.

Node-2 (Harmony)

Crew quarters in Harmony. Credits NASA

Crew quarters in Harmony. Credits NASA

Identical in shape to Node-3 (they are both built in Italy) , Node-2 contains four sleeping berths where astronauts (and a cosmonaut!) rest. To ensure a bit of space, the berths are placed away from the walls. Slightly smaller than a phone booth (for those old enough to remember them) these ‘phone boxes’ are a luxury in orbit because they allow a little privacy. Inside each, bound to the interior wall, we have our light-green sleeping bags and two computers (one for the onboard network and one to connect to the internet). On the walls, each astronaut arranges photos of their family and personal belongings the best they can – all this helps to create a welcoming and comfortable environment.

The second bay is a working area, and the walls are fitted with two blue, metal benches for tools, equipment and experiments. This is where Karen and Mike are working on the CFE experiment. The docking port at the nadir is now empty but has hosted HTV-4 and Cygnus -D over the course of my mission. This is also where Dragon docks. The upper door is empty, while the front is used for stowage. Behind that door is PMA2 , the Space Shuttle docking port: every time I think about PMA2 I see myself installing the insulating cover on the outside during my first spacewalk… but that is another story .

Japanese Experiment Module (Kibo)

Expedition 37 crew members pose for a photo in Kibo. Credits: NASA

Expedition 37 crew members pose for a photo in Kibo.
Credits: NASA

A small, Japanese-style curtain welcomes us when we turn to the left to enter Kibo . If the Destiny Lab is large, Kibo is huge , as the inscription at the entrance confirms: “Welcome to Kibo – please enjoy and relax in this brand new , spacious and the most quietest room in the ISS ” (sic). Always immaculate , spacious and well lit, Kibo is a favourite place for filming videos. Here, too, the walls offer stowage and experiment areas but four features make Kibo even more extraordinary : first, the last bay on the left has a robotic station (with integrated joystick and screens) to control the Japanese robotic arm on the Exposed Facility outside (the so-called veranda). Second is an integrated sealed chamber to move experiments to outside the Station and vice-versa . The third feature are the two windows just above the sealed chamber that look to the right of the Station. To discover the fourth feature we have to cross the entire module to the wall at the very end. Here the module widens and you will find another pressurised module when you look up.

Experiment Logistics Module- Pressurized Section (JLP)

A view of JLP from the outside. Credits: NASA

A view of JLP from the outside.
Credits: NASA

The JLP is a (relatively) small pressurised logistics module on top of Kibo. It is much loved by astronauts to film scenes where we fly upward to demonstrate microgravity. The words “Welcome to the highest place of Japan over Mt Fuji” are written at the entrance which always puts a smile on our faces. The module is the same size as an HTV and is full of materials stowed like in an HTV spacecraft.

Columbus Laboratory

Fisheye view of Columbus Laboratory. Credits: NASA

Fisheye view of Columbus Laboratory.
Credits: NASA

Crossing Kibo in the opposite direction to return to Node-2 and moving across, we find ourselves in the Columbus laboratory , the European contribution to the International Space Station. When you get inside, you immediately realise the scientific nature of this module: all the bays to the right are occupied by experiment racks as well as the first bay above us and three to our left. The deck is dedicated to onboard systems and is covered by metal panels. Besides containing systems including two monitors, the cone in front of us is used for stowage. In addition to being used for European experiments, Columbus is also the most used module for physiology studies and checks are performed on weight changes, blood samples are taken and all types of ultrasounds are performed (spinal , cardiac and optical) .

Since our journey on the Station began we have crossed many tens of metres and visited a volume of about 840 cubic meters – equivalent to that of a large transport aircraft. This extraordinary ship , built and operated by five space agencies (the best example of international cooperation in the world) travels at an altitude of 400km and 28 000km per hour. A student asked me “What is the thing that most impressed you the Space Station?”. Now you can understand my answer. And you, what would you have answered?

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Super Luca: the proof

This entry was written yesterday by Volare mission director Roland Luettgens:

Today we had our weekly crew conference with Luca and we had quite a list of topics to talk about.

The crew conference is a weekly coordination between astronauts and the Control Centres. We talk about many topics including details about activities to come. Luca is preparing to relocate the Soyuz spacecraft on Friday so we had a lot to talk about.

As usual, first we performed a voice check between Luca and us to ensure we can hear each other and the audio quality is good. After this check, we turn on the camera inside the Columbus module so that Luca can see us.

We usually get a bright smile from Luca when we turn on the camera and get ready for the conference.

This time we got really confused, because instead of seeing the usual Luke Skywalker we saw a Super Luca. He really does exist!

Super Luca. Credits: ESA

Super Luca. Credits: ESA

To start the conference Luca wished us a Happy Halloween, after the conference, like the real Superman, SuperLuca flew away to continue his daily tasks.

On Friday the Soyuz will be relocated, the same Soyuz that carried Luca and his crewmates to the International Space Station, will be flown around the Station by Luca and his colleagues from its current location at the bottom of the orbital outpost to the end of the complex. It will dock at the location where ATV-4 was docked until Monday.

The crew will get up early and prepare the Soyuz spacecraft for departure. Luca, Fyodor and Karen will be inside the Soyuz and undock from the Station at 8:34 GMT. They will manoeuvre the spacecraft around 40 meters away from the Station and fly towards its tail, where they will redock at 8:58 GMT.

The flight will not be that long, but the activities required to prepare and perform redock checks will last almost the whole day.

We know now that this is going to be a successful, as we have Super Luca on board!

[youtube LTflOstC1Ec]

Roland Luettgens

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Mission-X: jump for the Moon

Mike and Luca Credits: NASA

Mike and Luca
Credits: NASA

Luca will be leaving the Station on 10 November and will pass over Mission-X duties to  NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins.  Next year’s Mission-X: Train Like an Astronaut challenge is set to take off with the largest community of future space explorers ever. Don’t miss your chance.

More information here on how to take part:

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Guide to the International Space Station for the occasional visitor

Last week I spoke to students from three universities in Italy, Germany and Israel. I liked their questions a lot because they allowed me to be playful in my answers, I tried to get them to leave with more questions that their young minds can investigate further.

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One deceptively simple question came from a girl who asked me: “What impresses you most about the Space Station?”. She was not referring to my mission, nor to my view of Earth that over the past 150 or so days has reshaped my mind’s geography but she asked about the Station itself. I had never asked myself this question because an orbiting space station is such an extraordinary concept that I find the idea alone impressive. But this was not the right time for me to beat about the bush and, in a few short moments that felt like a long time, I pictured the Space Station and asked myself the same question. What sprang to mind were the moments after opening the hatch of the Soyuz TMA-09M as I entered human’s frontier in the cosmos for the first time. Among the thousands of thoughts that crowded my mind nearly six months ago, one thought in particular stood out and I replied: “Its dimensions …”. Today I would like to welcome you on board the station, and take you through its modules, starting from its tail end…

Automated Transfer Vehicle 4 (ATV-4)

View of ATV 4 Credits: ESA/NASA

View of ATV 4
Credits: ESA/NASA

Quiet and dark, Albert Einstein is a awaiting to depart. To light the spacecraft, you send a command through a computer that controls the on-board systems – in this case with the Russian ones. The four fluorescent lamps, identical to those on the American, European and Japanese segments, give out a very dim light when first turned on before they start gaining power and emit enough light to move freely. We are inside a closed cylinder with a curved surface. Outside the pressurised volume in which we find ourselves lie the spacecraft’s systems along with the pressurised liquids and gas. Beyond those you will find ATV Albert Einstein’s engines. On either side are two valve systems that let water, air and oxygen into the Station. Two racks bays on each wall surround us, above (overhead), under (deck), left (port) and right (starboard), eight in total. The racks are container shelves on which we have placed an enormous amount of waste, practically equal, in volume and weight, to the supplies ATV-4 brought us four months ago. In front of us a cone-shape narrows into the docking system, which  ingeniously doubles as the access hatch to the Russian segment. When we leave the module, we close the hatch for the last time: tomorrow ATV-4 will undock from the Station but we will see Albert one more time from above when it disintegrates as it re-enters the atmosphere.

Service Module

Pavel Vinogradov in Zvezda

Pavel Vinogradov in Zvezda. Credit: NASA

Once through the narrow ATV hatch we find ourselves in a small compartment shaped like a sphere and filled with containers. We use this area as a closet, but is mainly a corridor to access the Zvezda’s operating compartment (Zvezda means star in Russian). This is the central module of the Russian segment where Russian cosmonauts spend most part of their days in orbit.

Immediately to our left is a small compartment: the bathroom. A suction fan that creates an air flow to direct waste away. Solid waste goes to an airtight container, liquid waste goes through a separate tube similar to a vacuum cleaner for recycling separately. The space is really cramped, but the system works well and does not generate unpleasant odours, the space is simple but functional. Moving towards the bow of the Space Station, still inside the Service Module, we find two crew quarters left and right where Fyodor and Sergey sleep. The size of the crew quarters are no bigger than a phone booth. They are similar to those in Node2 where the rest of the crew sleeps, but they have a feature that makes them particularly luxurious: a window to the outside!

The lining of the walls, an opaque cream colour carpet, allows you to fix  anything  directly onto them thanks to the ubiquitous Velcro. There are only very few panels on the station that are not covered by Velcro.

Sunday dinner with the whole crew Credit: ESA

Sunday dinner with the whole crew
Credit: ESA

Continuing our journey forward a folding table can be seen where generations of space explorers have dined together. The table includes an element to warm up meals. On the right there is the water dispenser that delivers water hot and at room temperature. On the left there is another water dispenser for long-duration stays . Next to the table, towards the Station’s bow, you will find the system to regenerate our atmosphere. This large apparatus is constantly in motion with the sound of the a clock pendulum in motion. Moving on  the space narrows on both sides and we find our cameras and lenses, sorted by focal length from wide-angle to 600mm zoom. The deck in this area contains a number of windows  with excellent optical properties. To watch the planet go past underneath us is an endless source of entertainment. Two computers with access to the onboard analogue system are located on the sides of the central panel. There are three computers: one to access the Russian systems, one for the American systems  and  one for the onboard network. The ATV control panel,  through which I followed the spacecraft’s docking and I will monitor its undocking, is installed on the right side. Usually TORU, the manual command system for Progress,  is here as well.

We go through another hatch to get into another round compartment , larger and more comfortable than the previous one. This compartment is different from the first one because it is  a node with three docking points to which three modules are docked.

Mini Research Module 2

MRM2. Credit: NASA

MRM2. Credit: NASA

As we float towards the zenith, we enter the Mini Research Module 2. With its elongated bell shape, this module is used as a docking port for logistics modules and for the of Soyuz A line (used for Expeditions with uneven numbers for example now the Expedition 37/38 Soyuz is here). The walls are covered with the same cream-colour carpet but they are newer here and the colour is more vivid. This module has two hatches on the outside, one positioned towards the direction of flight, the other in the opposite direction . Each door has an integrated window. At the zenith we find the Soyuz spacecraft, dark and silent, apart from the never-ending sound of the fans. If we settle  into the Soyuz’ descent module we are at the highest point of the Station: there is no human presence above us.

Docking Compartment 1

Russian cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin (left) and Alexander Misurkin in the Docking Compartment. Credit: NASA

Russian cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin (left) and Alexander Misurkin in the Docking Compartment. Credit: NASA

Going in the opposite direction, towards the nadir, we enter the Docking Compartment1. This compartment, identical to the MRM2, is used as a docking port for the Russian Progress cargo vehicle and as an airlock for Russian spacewalks. The two Orlan spacesuits always stowed here and Oleg and Sergey the activation procedures for the two suits some time ago. At the lowest point we can see the Progress shuttle that docked to the Station a few months ago and since emptied. The spacecraft is gradually being filled with waste until it departs.

Logistic Module – Zarya – FGB

Archive picture of DC1. Credits: NASA

Archive picture of DC1. Credits: NASA

Zarya which means dawn in Russian is the oldest Station module, launched in 1998. Although it holds various systems used during autonomous flight, it is now used for storage. The walls are panels that can be easily opened to access the equipment in storage. Crossing towards the front of the Station, the deck is completely covered by cargo , secured by elastic cords and Velcro. The cargo covers about a third of the walls. If I stretched out straight, the material would come up to my knees. At the front, the module is completely empty: here Fyodor, Oleg and Sergey wash in the morning and after exercise, and three of the walls are covered by their personal items. The best way to quickly cross this module is to use the bars on the walls: they almost look like horizontal boxes. Sometimes coming from the Service Module I have fun crossing FGB with my feet forward , forcing my brain to think vertically:  the feeling is similar to descending into a well.

At the very front we go through another hatch and find ourselves in another rounded compartment, as large as the one on the other end  but with two docking points .

Mini Research Module 1

Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin in MRM1 Credit: NASA

Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin in MRM1
Credit: NASA

Descending towards the nadir we enter the Mini Research Module 1. It is bigger than Mini Research Module 2 and the Docking Compartment 1. The interior has a square cross-section, and just like the FGB the walls are covered with panels that can be opened to access the equipment stored behind them. The lowest part of the module holds the docking port for the Soyuz line B for Expeditions that start with an even number such as 36/37. My Soyuz is docked there at a 45 degree angle compared to the direction of flight. But not for long in preparation for the arrival of TMA-11M, my crew will undock from Mini Research Module 1, fly around the International Space Station to reposition the vehicle behind the Service Module, and then dock in manual mode. This manoeuvre is rarely done but I am trained for it together with Fyodor and we are pleased to be able to perform it.


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A day on the International Space Station

A day on the International Space Station

Luca's sleeping quarters Credits: ESA/NASA

Luca’s sleeping quarters
Credits: ESA/NASA

The first of two alarms sounds at 5:50 GMT, like every morning, Mondays to Fridays. It shakes me from dreams that I never remember. Still sleepy I stretch my arms, which were folded through the night, and automatically I poke them through the two slots on either side of the sleeping bag  to allow the arms out. In space, every move starts a chain reaction so my sleeping bag is tied with four thin cords to the wall of the crew quarters or else it would float away. My head often gently touches the ‘ceiling’ causing my body to bounce slowly in the opposite direction until the my foot touches the floor briefly.

Now that my hands are free I remove my eye mask that keeps light away and open the zip that holds me in my sleeping bag . Inside the crew quarters everything is dark except for the dim green and blue led lights from two computers and their connection to the Space Station network. Everything is silent until I remove my ear plugs and the familiar hum of the fan that circulates air returns.

My  first automatic action is to activate the computer to read the daily crew conference that Houston sends at night. This report contains the latest information on the day’s operations, any schedule changes, questions, and answers to questions we raised the day before. It also contains fundamental information in case of emergency and I send it to the printer to have it available later.  I also print a list of people with whom I will talk today in Houston and Huntsville (USA), Munich (Germany), Tsukuba (Japan) and the ‘Tsup’ in Moscow (Russia) . Although we can always use call signs, it is more friendly to call people by their name from time to time. Many of the people I talk to on Earth are instructors , colleagues and friends .

I put on a pair of sport shorts and a cotton shirt. Opening my sleeping quarter’s door I find myself oriented sideways. Habituated from experience I pull myself out and push myself towards the Destiny Lab in a single movement.  The Destiny module is still dark even though I know that Mike has been awake for a while. I fetch the first page of the daily summary as I pass the printer and place it above the others near the computer,  that interfaces with Station systems that we would use in an emergency .

Even in Node1 the lights are still off, but Node 3 is lit up  and Mike has already started his weightlifting routine on ARED. I greet him in Italian, smiling and, as always,  he replies in Italian. This has become our routine even though he has only been here for three weeks. Mike has lived in Italy and is fluent in Italian. The toilet is right next to the ARED exercise machine, but the noise of the extractor fan, combined with the music that Mike listens to while training  is enough to hide any embarrassing noises that might occur. Leaving the ‘bathroom’ I move to another wall in Node3 where the tools of my morning routine are attached with Velcro: a razor, razor blades, deodorant, a mirror, soap and water. For obvious reasons, there are no hairbrushes or combs…

It’s time to prepare breakfast: oatmeal with cinnamon and raisins and coffee, both rehydrated with water. While I eat I read the yesterday’s news in an electronic version of an Italian newspaper. I had was aware of some of the news  already by internet, but I like to read the commentary of prominent journalists.

Harnessed and ready for the BP-Reg experiment (for blood pressure) Credits: ESA/NASA

Harnessed and ready for the BP-Reg experiment (for blood pressure)
Credits: ESA/NASA

There is still an hour to go before the official start of the day, which starts with the first of two Daily Planning Conferences. I decide to start preparing the first of the daily tasks, an experiment called BP Reg. Normally I would follow Mike and exercise in the morning, but this experiment provides very accurate measurements of blood pressure, so I am not allowed to do any sports in the hours that precede. I move to the Columbus laboratory and use one of the computers to read the experiment procedure. I start collecting the materials and assemble the tools that I will use in the coming hours.

Right on schedule, Fyodor begins the Daily Planning Conference with Houston, Huntsville, Munich, Tsukuba and Moscow: “Good morning from Expedition 36. We are ready for the DPC.” In turn, the control centres update us on the day that is about to begin. In the meantime we turn on the cameras and we welcome them onboard.

I continue to prepare the experiment in the Columbus lab by initializing a computer and connecting the last components. Under Huntsville’s supervision who follow my actions from camera 2 in Columbus, I wear two bands over my thighs that inflate and reduce the blood flow to the lower part of my body. Three minutes  later the bands instantly deflate and my cardiovascular system reacts sharply to compensate for the unexpected increase in blood flow . Two pressure sensors on my left hand  record any changes  to compare the data with measurements made on ground. The experiment reproduces the pressure variation felt when standing up suddenly after being seated. The idea is to measure the effect of microgravity on a human being’s cardiovascular system.

The experiment continues. As I speak with the PayCom on channel 2, I hear Mike speaking on channel 3 who is busy with another experiment called CFE in Node2. Karen is busy with Spheres and is working in Kibo: from time to time I hear her comments on channel 2 as well.

After about two hours of the experiment comes to an end , but I will have to wait for my return to Earth to have the results. The study will continue well beyond my mission. I finish in time to return the equipment to their compartments around the Station . It is already time for lunch and I am hungry, but I cannot eat too much because the first hours of the afternoon will be dedicated to exercise and, even in orbit  the same rule applies:  better not to do conduct brisk activity after a ‘heavy’ meal.  I settle for two small tortillas, wrapped around some tuna fish, salmon and some vegetables .

I decide to start my exercise with ARED: today’s exercise consists of three sets of weight-lifting exercises involving all major muscle groups.

Lifting weights on the ARED Credits: ESA/NASA

Lifting weights on the ARED
Credits: ESA/NASA

As soon as I lift the bar on my shoulders, I feel my back muscles work and my legs stiffen with tension. It has been five months I have been in space and my body has fully adapted to microgravity: my muscles feel abused even during this light warming-up as they spend around 22 hours a day in a relaxed state. ARED is located directly above Cupola: a window to the world fills my view while I struggle with my weightlifting , and I forget the aches and pains as I get lost in the details that pass ‘above’ me ( ARED is upside-down compared to the normal orientation of the Station). I see the coast of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, with snow that blends into clouds and the South Americans fjords that look like fingers. I see the intense blue of high-altitude lakes, the ancient volcanoes that spread black lava scarring their surroundings for hundreds of kilometres. Within  a few seconds we overlook the more temperate areas of Argentina, the Pampas soon turn into the plantations of Brazil, which in turn become rainforest once we reach the Amazon delta. Earth is a kaleidoscopic, never-ending carousel of lands followed by oceans, a string of contrasts and colours that always change. With this spectacle you easily forget you are tired.

On the treadmill (T2) Credits ESA/NASA

On the treadmill (T2)
Credits ESA/NASA

After an hour and a half of ARED I prepare for T2, our treadmill. I wear a harness connected by two elastic bands to the platform: I can control the amount of body weight that my muscles will endure during my training  by changing the length of these bands. The last week I have been setting the bands between 95 and 100% of my weight  because I want to readjust  to gravity for my return to Earth. I pay the price for my choice in the amount I sweat. The next 30 minutes my body will feel more dense than I am used to. It is like running with someone pressing down hard with their hands on your shoulders, constantly pushing you to the ground.

The next job of the day is in the Russian part of the International Space Station, in the Automated Transfer Vehicle. In a few days we will close the hatch for the last time and ATV Albert Einstein will leave us to disintegrate as it enters Earth’s atmosphere. The last act its voyage is to free the Station of waste that accumulated over the past five months. ATV takes both solid and liquid  waste, organic and inorganic. My job today is to organise this waste by applying a careful choreography opposite to the procedures Chris, Karen and I ran months ago when we unloaded the ship’s precious cargo.

ATV 4 when it had just arrived

ATV 4 when it had just arrived

When I enter, Albert Einstein is dimly lit and quiet, it seems as though it is half dozing ,waiting for me. I like to work alone in ATV, I enjoy the large space that I can move freely in as I rearrange the various containers. Mike joins me shortly after I start and we complete the work assigned to us for today. We have just enough time to get back as Fyodor’s familiar voice begins the second Daily Planning Conference: the evening conference. As I listen to the control centres I prepare dinner: walnuts, grilled chicken breast, vegetables and fruit. Once the conference has finished, I take advantage of a Ku-band satellite connection to make some calls. Like every night I call my parents. I have spoken to them more often in the last five months than in the three years spent training around the world before my mission. We do not have much time before the connection drops but it does not matter how long we talk for – nor is it very important what we talk about – the communication link allows me to create a serene image in my mind of my father and my mother listening to me from Earth.

Sunday dinner with the whole crew

Sunday dinner with the whole crew

Dinner is eaten quickly because tonight we are just three at the dinner table– all six of us only have dinner together a couple of times a week because it inevitably turns into a late night! We split up for the little free time we have left. It is only 20:00 but fatigue will catch up with me  and I still have e-mails to answer, social media to see to and photographs to catalogue, send and publish. Time is passing fast as I listen to some music. I divide my attention between two computers to try to do everything at once.

I dedicate the last moment of the evening to my wife before switching off the light and climb into my sleeping bag. The five -hour time difference between my wife and I separate us more than the thousands of kilometres of emptiness: she is in the middle of her daily activities while I am getting ready to sleep. Kathy, with her typically female infinite patience, puts everything aside when I phone – the problems of everyday life that every mother and every wife encounters. She grants me a few minutes of serenity, a moment that seems to stop time, a little gem of priceless calm, a break from the world, made of the stuff that dreams are made of – but this memory, at least , will stay with me upon awakening.

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