Last letter from Space: Don Pettit back on Earth

Last letter from Space: Don Pettit back on Earth

Posted: Jul 02, 2012 01:06 am EDT

(Tina Sjogren) You've seen the stream, mixed with dispatches from Everest and other cool places: Don's letters from Space.

We hoped he'd stay up there forever, delivering stories like only he can. Sadly though, today Don Pettit came home.

From his last letter, posted on Friday:

"On Earth, the frontiers opened slowly. The technology of sailing was known and advanced for over a thousand years before the Earth was circumnavigated. Such bold acts require the technology, the will, and the audacity to explore. Sometimes you have one, but not the others."

A smooth descent

Don has been in Space three times: going up twice in a shuttle and once in a Soyuz. He came down twice in a Soyuz and once in a shuttle.

The first Soyuz descent was an unintended result of a shuttle accident and Don was delivered on the Kazakh tundra overdue and in a ball of fire.

This time the descent was, well, nominal.

The launch

Don took off from the same pad that Yuri Gagarin launched from in 1961. By tradition, the crew first watched the classic Russian film "White sun of the desert." Then came Don's lift-off poem:

"We are perched on a large bottle of gasoline,
a personified Molotov."

Personally, he hated the word 'nominal'. In an entry headlined What's a Soyuz launch like? he wrote:

"As a newly arrived astronaut candidate in 1996, I was sitting in my first Space Shuttle mission debrief, listening to a crew report to the astronaut office on their just-completed flight. This is a special rite of passage for freshman astronauts, who learn from their more experienced elders. I was anxiously waiting to hear how the launch went. I wanted to know what it was really like. I was all ears when the commander began, 'The launch was nominal'. And that was it."

So how was it? Extremely crammed, Don wrote:.

"Once strapped in, my heels are nearly in contact with my butt. I am tied down at eight points to a form-fitting couch, making it difficult to move anything other than my arms. I can also swivel my head and wiggle my toes." (Ed note: this is actually useful to keep all your internal organs in place Don wrote.)

As for the lift-off:

"At engine ignition, Soyuz is slow to come out of the blocks—it just sits there for eight seconds or so. I could feel something was happening. There was vibration and a muffled, rattling noise. Something very powerful was stirring below, perhaps a sleeping dragon waking up in a bad mood."

"After a few seconds that seemed more like minutes, I could feel the acceleration as we lifted off. It started off low and slowly built up. The vibrations and noise actually decreased as we climbed away from the ground. The three of us, crammed in with our heels against our butts, were focused on the computer displays."

Adding to the excitement, was a Russian rocket fail. The crew was aware, Don wrote:

"Rockets have stages; their engines and tanks are cast off when it’s time for the next stage to take over. During staging, there is a brief period between one set of engines shutting down and the next set igniting. Like an awkward pause in a conversation, you anxiously wait for something to happen."

"During that pause the acceleration or “G-forces” drop to zero, so the pressure of your spine against the seat disappears, only to be slammed back when the next stage lights. For our Soyuz, we were closely monitoring the third stage."

"Two launches before, on a cargo version of Soyuz called Progress, the third stage shut down shortly after staging, causing the cargo to be dumped somewhere in Siberia. We had abort options for the manned version, and were spooled up to react immediately if needed."

As for the glorious arrival at ISS, Don describes that too - how to smile for the cameras after docking in stained underwear, splitting headache, and desperately needing "to go."

The Explorer’s Dilemma

Once in Space, Don delivered amazing short stories. On December 13, about leaving Earth, a feeling well known to this community:

"My spirit is freed by the very nakedness of the universe.  But then another spark, always present but often ignored, pulls at the fabric of my being, reminding me of civilized life, at home with my family.  Such is the Explorer’s Dilemma.  Being thus plagued, my spirit is never at peace with where I am. This energy, if properly channeled, can be the source of great strength."

Flying the desk

We all know the explorer who always plans but never leaves. There is a Space equivalent:

"If I were not assigned to this mission, I would be back in Houston, tasked as an astronaut to a technical engineering project supporting some aspect of space flight," Don wrote. "However, in blunt astronaut vernacular, this work is called 'flying a desk'."

Lesson pried from the bodies of those who explore

On a hard expedition God is in the details and Don's blog is a treasure trove of useful tips.

Of course you need to know your basics (math, science, and engineering), Don says, but "a little Yankee (and Russkie!) ingenuity" helps too, and knowing how to fix your car.

You shouldn't skimp on your space suit. "Beware of claims for unsinkable ships," Don says:

"There were times when the U.S. and Russian space agencies both dispensed with spacesuits. They were deemed an unnecessary expense. The engineering guaranteed that cockpit depressurization could not happen. After both the U.S. and Russian programs lost full crews, due in part to spacecraft depressurization, the spacesuits were brought back. Another lesson learned, pried from the bodies of those who explore."

Bits and pieces

Studying Don's blog, we learn to stay in shape using vacuum as resistance (vacuum behind a piston does not “compress” like air does); that chopsticks make best utensils (like extension of fingers), but don't look down if you drop them and good luck finding them at all (at best stuck in an air filter). In space the problem is not how to move an object, but how to make it stay put. Toilet seats are not needed in free fall, and the bottom of our feet will turn smooth and pink - while the tops will harden.

Don's address in Space: Node 2, Deck 5, ISS, LEO 51.603. "The first three digits of your space zip code would be your orbital inclination and the last two a designator for your particular space station, with ISS being the third in this location (after the Salyut series and Mir). This zip code nomenclature should suffice, at least until there are more than 99 different space stations in orbit."

We learn that "Made in Italy for NASA, the closet module was formally christened Leonardo—obviously named after a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle." Inventory is checked with bar codes, but as the readers often don't work, "this is how the [closet] gets to be a mess."

Photography: shooting pics of Earth moving 8 km/s below is tricky. Other: It takes 90 minutes to circle the Earth, with about 60 minutes in daylight and 30 minutes in darkness.

We learn that Space smells like "sweet-smelling welding fumes" (ed note: a recent Space conference revealed that Mars will probably smell like a swimming pool).

Riding through northern lights is like floating inside a neon sign, "it was as if we were in a glowing fog of red and green." A few times each year, (near the winter and summer solstices) you'll see both day and night simply by swiveling your head from left to right.

Outside the window, stars and planets do not twinkle. You see space junk orbiting nearby, and "like strangers passing in the night, you see other satellites flash brilliantly for a few seconds, then fade into oblivion."

Observing our planet, Jungles will be the darkest land features. Farmland is much brighter. "Here nature is giving us a clue as to the efficiency of light capture by plants," Don noted.

Other observations: "The impact of humanity on Earth is humbling from orbit," he wrote, "You realize that Earth will do just fine, with or without us."

And: "The history of life on Earth is the story of species extinction, a fascinating thought for those of us that are still here and can contemplate such a construct."

At night cities show blue-green, while others show yellow-orange. Las Vegas is the brightest of them all.

Robots and discoveries

Perhaps the most interesting is Don's description of the kind of discoveries we can expect in Space. Knowledge will be the new gold of exploration he insists. Some of his notes about the Space lab:

"When things do not behave the way we think they should, and our preconceived notions are altered by observations, we get to see the unexpected and act upon it in unplanned ways."

"Sometimes these odd observations become the basis for studies totally different from those originally planned; sometimes those studies prove to be more valuable."

"Such shifts in thought and perspective, some seemingly minor, happen when you observe the commonplace in a new and unfamiliar setting."

So far, Don says, we've found that life is not dependent on gravity. That's our ticket. We still study the means of transportation (the wheel is useless and fire is tricky).

For a simple answer to who should explore space, humans or robots, here's how Don says it's done at ISS: "Robots and humans, working together hand-in-end-effector, each contributing what each does best. Only on Earth is there a perceived friction between robots and humans."

What makes an explorer

In a post on December 14 Don very poignantly described what makes an explorer:

"There is a type of social deviate who doesn’t fit in, and who naturally seeks the freedom of the wilderness. The American frontier was settled by that kind of spirit."

Don mentioned several types of exploration (by nations, corporations and professionals) but this one hit home best at ExplorersWeb:

"Exploration by individuals or small groups dates from the Stone Age, and is principally responsible for humanity’s infestation of the entire globe. It is undirected and seemingly random, and social progress is achieved more by accident than by design. This is exploration in its purest form—exploration to satisfy human curiosity, in a constant search for new places to live and resources to use. To partake in this kind of exploration is simple: You just go."

Don thinks that one day this kind of exploration might regain center stage:

"As space technology advances, we will reach the point where we started in the Stone Age: Exploration with no more justification than individual curiosity," Don wrote. "Such an eventuality will open the Petri dish of Earth and allow this infestation called humanity to contaminate our solar system."

The smell of home

Familiar to mountaineers coming down to the tree line after months on a high altitude glacier; polar skiers after an eternity on sterile ice, and SP station crew hanging in the green house during winter "because it's humid and there are smells," in a poem written after his Soyuz landing in 2003, Don wrote: "And finally, our just reward, the sweet smell of freshly tilled earth and of crushed spring grass."

When Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry February 1, 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard, Don Pettit was one of the three crewmembers aboard the International Space Station. Further shuttle flights were cancelled, and Don - scheduled to return to Earth the following month - realized his ride home had been scrubbed.

After logging over 161 days in space, including over 13 EVA (spacewalk) hours, the Expedition-6 crew finally returned to Earth on a Soyuz TMA-1; nearly crashing on the Kazakhstan tundra. Puzzled, ground control watched empty skies while miles away from targeted landing site - three men donned in survival gear sat in a tent by a capsule scorched black from a slightly uncontrolled descent. They were located 5 hours later and Don could go home, at last.

In 2008 it was time again. Space shuttle Endeavour - with Don once again on it - lifted off Friday, November 14 at 7:55 p.m. EST on its STS-126 mission to the International Space Station.

Endeavour arrived at the station Nov. 16. She carried about 32,000 pounds, delivering equipment that will help allow the station to double its crew size to six. The gear included two sleep bunks; a new galley, a water recycler and an exercise device based on resistance training (think rubber bands).

Astronauts performed four spacewalks cleaning and fixing the starboard Solar Alpha Rotary Joint.

In December 2011 Don launched to ISS for a third time, on a Soyuz and his longest mission yet. Pettit returned to Earth July 1st, 2012, following 6 months in Space.


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"If the dinosaurs had explored Space, they would be alive today"

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Don Pettit in the cupola of the Space Station.
Image by Don Pettit courtesy NASA, SOURCE
Don back home.
Image by AP courtesy NASA
Resupply capsule (ATV) arriving with goodies from Europe.
Image by Don Pettit courtesy NASA, SOURCE
Another resupply capsule - Dragon from private SpaceX - sent back with a signed poster from the crew at ISS.
Image by Don Pettit courtesy NASA, SOURCE
In the past people have unsuccessfully pointed green lasers, xenon strobes, and halogen spotlights at ISS in an attempt to "flash it" ("Ironically, when earthlings can see us, we cannot see them," Don explained, "the glare from the full sun effectively turns our windows into mirrors"). The attempts were unsuccessful until this year when an astronomy club managed to produce the blue laser seen in this image. "Early Sunday morning March 4, at 01:27 our time, the San Antonio Astronomical Associat..
Image by Don Pettit courtesy NASA, SOURCE
January 13, Grand Canyon from Space.
Image by Don Pettit courtesy NASA, SOURCE
The same Canyon, in different light. "So often, in the search for truth in nature, human perception masks how things really are."
Image by Don Pettit courtesy NASA, SOURCE
Don's meteor hunting (ANSMET) Antarctica sled with an aerogel hotbox stolen from the space station attached to the back.
Image by Don Pettit courtesy NASA, SOURCE
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