Cloud forming  outside the atmosphere after disintegration

Gas cloud forming outside the atmosphere after disintegration

Some may remember the ending of a famous song from many years ago that repeated insistently that every picture tells a story. I am always impressed and excited looking at photos of nature, science and aviation and the distinct story that some images tell. I realised recently though that my interpretation of every photograph was incorrect.

I have never been a good photographer: I do not have Karen’s artistic eye that captures details of extraordinary beauty with the same quiet confidence with which she sews beautiful patterns from improvised materials. Nor do I have Fyodor’s technical knowledge whose fingers, now on their fourth space flight, handle the complex professional cameras with confidence, changing parameters almost without looking. I prefer to create memories – linked to the emotion of seeing something – rather than to attempt to improve an image through a lens. Until now I had not realised that the most interesting story is behind the camera: the most intriguing story is the lesser-known one, the cameraman’s. I want to tell you the story behind two of my recent photos: the Aurora Borealis with the major cities, and the missile trail just a few minutes before a suborbital flight .

City lights and northern lights


City lights and Auroras

Mike arrived on the station just four days ago, and he already has a personal routine that creates a feeling of comfort, it allows him to counteract the stress of life onboard that is completely different from any experience he has lived so far, despite his long career in the Air Force. It is Saturday, it is still early, but Mike has already been up for a few hours and he is almost done with his daily exercise routine. When I enter Node3 I see him smiling, and I answer with my own smile: we are in orbit, and every day is the best day we could ever imagine!

I realise that the module is rather dark and I take advantage of a break in Mike’s exercise routine to fly to Cupola. The windows are closed but it is night outside and it would not make any difference if they were open. I see from a computer monitor that we are going to cross the coast of North America and that our route follows the border between the United States and Canada. The terminator is nearby and I decide to manually open the windows: just like Pavel, I will never get used to the indescribable beauty of an orbital sunrise, and even though I have already seen hundreds of them, I decide to stay in the Cupola, observing the constellation of human lights in the dark that remind me of the presence of humankind on the planet beneath me .

Turning my body towards the north, the pale blue-green glow of the Aurora Borealis stops me in my tracks, literally, and I decided that it is worth sharing this show with a friend. I call Mike, who has finished training on ARED and is getting ready for a session on our treadmill, T2. I ask him to come to the Cupola and switch off the lights in Node3 behind him. I turn on a modified flashlight with a red lens to not disrupt our night vision and guide Mike towards the north-facing window. His eyes take a moment to adjust to the sudden darkness. Then I glimpse his smiling face as he greets this fantastic view, a feeling of astonishment I can identify with very well as I will never be immune to it.

There are always cameras stored in the Cupola and I take one with a 50mm lens with which I have had the most success taking pictures at night. In the semi-darkness , aided only by the dim light coming through the seven windows, I clumsily try to programme the camera to capture at least a small piece of the ethereal show. Just one picture is enough. The rest of the spectacle will remain in my memory for as long as I have one .

An unexpected surprise

A missile launch seen from space

A missile launch seen from space

One of the several tasks of an astronaut on the International Space Station is known by the acronym CEO or Crew Earth Observation. A team of researchers on ground studies the orbits of the Station and selects objectives to photograph, indicating the time of their passage, the coordinates, the type of photo you need to provide and as much information as possible to find the target. These range from easily identifiable cities to impact craters that are absolutely indistinguishable from the background – all at roughly 400km distance from us. This task is voluntary, but the challenge of finding the targets is a pleasure. Finding a particularly difficult target gives me a satisfaction that must be similar to a passionate collector purchasing a missing piece to a collection. My crew has a daily routine and Expedition 36 has far exceeded all previous photo targets snapped and sent to Earth.

I am in Cupola again and I am setting-up a camera on a window overlooking the north. The Station is operating under working hours so all the lights are on. My next Crew Earth Observation target is the Aurora Borealis. To avoid reflections from the Station’s lights I build a tent to obscure the area around the camera. I have already entered all required parameters in the camera, including the estimated time of the aurora. With a little luck I should be able to photograph the sequence even without being physically present behind the camera: at that moment I will be engaged in another activity.

Sunset is fast approaching. The gold and orange light that reflects off the solar panels attract my attention and I cannot look away until my eyes focus on an image that is foreign to nature: smoke emerges straight and clear on the horizon, accentuated by the last rays of the Sun. Nature does not like straight lines, and this inconsistency has guided my vision. I am looking at a launch of something, I do not know what and I do not know where, but it is definitely a launch. I do not know what my chances are of seeing the launch of a suborbital object when I did not know the launch details beforehand but instinctively I would say they are very slim: an extraordinary case of being in the right place at the right time!

Karen and Mike are above me in Node3, and I dare to look away for a moment to call them. They both float into the Cupola and we share the little space to observe the object as it follows its path through the upper layers of the atmosphere. Its trail is now at the mercy of the stratospheric winds which distort the shape, transforming it into a series of segments that twist, starting from the ground till it reaches the blackness of the stellar vacuum. I take one of the cameras and hope that the automatic settings will be enough to take good pictures, despite the light from the sunset starting to fade. I stop shooting only when the Sun is completely gone, but I do not stop looking. The object disintegrates before our eyes, and hundreds, probably thousands of kilometres away, we see a cloud of transparent white gas expand growing ghost-like, in all directions until it flattens when it meets the atmosphere. We wonder what we just witnessed, but even Houston ground control fails to explain.

In the evening, we discover that it was the test launch of a Russian intercontinental missile launched from Kazakhstan. All three of us are surprised by the incredible coincidence that allowed us to observe such a rare event. We are not sure what to think. For my part, I am pleased to add another valuable piece to the only true collection I have, the only one that is worth anything: my memories.